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USDA Seeks to Be Less a Bank, More a Partner in Rural Development

March 7, 2022 by Dan McCue
Rural Tennessee. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON — Former Rep. Xochitl Torres Small, D-N.M., makes no effort to hide her enthusiasm for her current job, undersecretary for rural development with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Six months after her confirmation, the Democrat from Las Cruces, New Mexico, positively beams when talking about her work, whether making a presentation before the National Association of Counties, as she did last month, or in the more intimate setting of an interview, via Microsoft Teams, with The Well News.

“When rural America thrives, all of America thrives,” she said when asked about her obvious passion for her work.

“When we think about the future, the future of our country, it’s important that we’re thinking about rural America too,” she added.

The USDA Rural Development Office offers loans, grants, loan guarantees and technical assistance to support essential aspects of rural American communities including business, economic development, infrastructure, housing, first responder services and equipment and health care.

But Torres Small, who represented New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District from 2019 to 2021 and was a member of the House Agriculture Committee, there’s more to her office’s mission that that thumbnail description implies.

“What we strive for is a real partnership,” she said. “We want to be a full partner to people in rural communities.

“That means sometimes that you’re the lender, sometimes you’re the business partner, and sometimes you’re providing technical assistance and helping people and communities navigate the tough grant process that can sometimes be hard to get through,” she said.

The breadth of the operation Torres Small now oversees is impressive, consisting of some 466 local satellite offices in 47 states.

And in every one, she said, “Our role is to invest in the people who live in those communities by funding the infrastructure, housing, economic development, and technical assistance that support the good jobs and create the great places to live that we want to see across rural America.”

One phrase Torres Small uses often when she talks about the goals of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and the USDA is “capacity building,” which she has described as taking steps to help rural communities build their tax bases rather than providing them with a loan for something they need, like a new fire engine, though fulfilling both needs is important.

“It’s about helping rural communities dream bigger and realize greater opportunities,” she explained during her interview with The Well News.

“When I’m in a rural community and talking to a group of people, the thing I’ll often find is that none of them is a grant writer. So the first step, oftentimes, is identifying the individual who has the time and experience to apply for a grant or gather the financial information they need for a loan.

“Now, maybe you only have one great project, and maybe that project is getting a new fire truck, but that helps you get your foot in the door. And from there you can move on to greater opportunities,” she said. “Because for every community, every project is important and we can build to[wards] bigger things.

“For instance, I was just in Mason County, Washington, where they are really interested in expanding their economic base,” Torres Small continued. “As a result of their initial efforts, they had over three dozen inquiries from businesses about wanting to expand and invest in the area.

“But all but eight of those who made inquiries ended up pulling out when they got information about the community’s current wastewater capacity,” she said. “Now, that might seem surprising, but that’s a basic infrastructure concern and so the next step to realizing their vision is to address that.

“So that’s an example of finding those kinds of projects that will build on each other and achieve a larger end, and that’s exciting,” she said.

Torres Small emphasized that when it comes to meeting the development needs of rural communities her office is “listening to rural development staff on the ground.”

“They’re the ones who live in the communities they serve and know that every single project matters to that community.

“If it is a fire truck that they need, and if acquiring that fire truck helps support the creation of more emergency services capacity, that’s great,” she said. “The question then is how do we deepen that relationship as we have those experiences? How do you build on an initial success to the next thing … so that while we’re investing in specific projects, we’re also investing in the tax base and creating the revenue on a local level that can propel a community forward as well?”

If “capacity building” is one key phrase in rural development under the Biden administration, another might be “respective responsibility.”

“That’s such a great point,” Torres Small said. “Because it is a partnership and a partnership means that both the community and our office have their respective roles.

“Their role is to let us know how we can support them. It’s our job to listen and help them turn their vision into a reality,” she said.

“So whether it’s listening to that economic development person in Mason County who keeps getting inquiries about sewers, and our helping to make increased wastewater capacity a reality, or it’s recognizing that the big challenge in another community is workforce development and working with the local community college to provide that, it’s all about partnership and communications.

“It’s listening to the community, identifying their dreams and working to make it happen,” Torres Small said. “The same thing applies to good, reliable internet. No matter where you live in the country, you deserve access to that because it really is a modern day necessity.

“And we’re making that happen, especially with the passage of President Biden’s infrastructure package last fall. We’re investing historic amounts in the nation’s broadband infrastructure and we’re working with our rural community partners as well as other federal agencies to ensure these programs work.

“Again, communication is the key to all this. That’s how we can better serve and be real partners on the ground across rural America,” Torres Small said.

Dan can be reached at dan@thewellnews.com and at https://twitter.com/DanMcCue

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