Ag Secretary Vilsack outlines new rural council

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — A new federal effort aimed at helping rural areas needs input from private and nonprofit organizations, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Wednesday.

“I believe that it’s essential and necessary that this country focus more time and more attention on rural America and economic opportunity in rural America,’ Vilsack told about 180 people attending the Council on Foundations’ Rural Philanthropy Conference in Kansas City.

“We have a devil of a time convincing the private sector to invest in rural America, whether it’s debt or equity,” he said. “And in tough economic times it becomes even more difficult because commercial banks are so fearful of taking a risk that some regulator may criticize. USDA has been called upon to do more in this space, but frankly our resources are limited.”

Vilsack is chairman of the White House Rural Council, which was created last month and is responsible for providing recommendations to President Barack Obama on investment in rural areas and coordinating with a variety of rural interests.

The council could benefit from ideas and methods that foundations have found successful in rural America, Vilsack said.

“You need to be engaged in this process in the sense that you need to know what we know,” he said. “You need to be helping us. You need to be giving us advice. You can help us expand and leverage our resources to more regions.”

The Council on Foundations is an Arlington, Va.-based nonprofit organization made up of grant-making foundations. Vilsack spoke on the closing day of the conference, which began Monday and was aimed at helping foundations that do work primarily in rural areas.

Earlier Wednesday, Vilsack also announced that telecommunications companies in Kansas, Missouri and six other states have been selected to get about $192 million in loans to expand rural broadband projects.

“There’s a concerted effort obviously in making sure that broadband and 21st century infrastructure is available in rural communities,” Vilsack said at the conference. “Candidly we did billions of dollars through the Recovery Act in broadband. We did over 330 projects. We impacted 7 million people, roughly a quarter of a million businesses in rural areas.

“But it’s the tip of the iceberg” he said. “There are still a lot of uncharted areas around the country that still need broadband assistance and help.”

In Kansas, for example, the Federal Communications Commission recently estimated that 71 of the state’s 105 counties have lower rates of broadband availability than the national average.

Nancy Van Milligen, president and CEO of the Iowa-based Community Foundation of Greater Dubuque, said the foundation council also has been talking with Vilsack’s office about the Rural Philanthropy Growth Act, a national plan to grow philanthropy in rural areas.

“In many rural areas there aren’t the nonprofits and the others to give,” she said. “There’s not a way to give back to the community.”

She added that hopefully Vilsack’s message about engaging the private sector and nonprofits in how the USDA can better serve rural areas will spark change.

“I would love to believe that it’s a sea change for how things are going to be done,” she said.

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