“Broadband connectivity is probably at the top of our list” because “I hear about it nearly every community that I visit,” Anne Hazlette, assistant to the secretary of rural development at USDA, told attendees at the agency’s Agriculture Outlook Forum in Washington, DC, last week.
“I have been tot 21 states since I stepped into this role last June and that is certainly one that I hear about in nearly every community that I visit,” she said. “We often hear a description of broadband really being the electricity of the modern age, so as we tackle that in this context, we see it as foundational to so many issues in rural communities, whether we are talking about health care or access to advanced learning opportunities, markets for our rural businesses to be producing. Rural America connectivity is such a key piece of each of those dynamics.”
In addition, she said, it is key to ensuring that the quality of life in these communities supports generations to come and that there are enough people to work the land and produce the goods the rest of the country relies on.
Partnerships and innovation also are top priorities
Broadband connectivity is only one aspect of USDA’s efforts to modernize infrastructure, which in turn is only one leg of the three-legged stool on which the agency is basing its rural development efforts.
Hazlette said that the agency also is investing in partnerships and innovation to improve life in rural communities.
“We are really looking at how we can better work with our federal agency partners to make sure policies and regulations are well coordinated,” including those surrounding two loan programs and a grant program dedicated to rural development, she said. “I spend a lot of time looking at how we can make those programs more effective to deliver productivity to communities.”
USDA also is focused on forging relationships and new partnerships to advance economic development, she said.
One of these is a new Interagency Agricultural and Rural Prosperity taskforce, which the President initiated last year as a way to bring together 22 different federal agencies with resources devoted to rural development, Hazlette said.
She added that USDA Sec. Sonny Perdue chaired that effort and came up with set of recommendations focused on achieving e-connectivity for rural America, improving the quality of life in these communities, supporting the rural workforce, harnessing technological innovation and developing the rural economy.
These goals also serve as the foundation for USDA’s efforts around innovation and rural communities, Hazlette said.
“Innovation is something that, when we look at rural America and the changing pace of our economy and the means in these communities whether it is with respect to challenges or opportunities, we really have seen it be more forward focused” rather than something that develops alongside the community, she said.
“In this spirit, Sec. Perdue has charged us with creating a rural development innovation center. This is a new team that will use existing resources within the missionary that is really working alongside our three agency administrators as well as our state directors to find a way to lift up best practices, add some new data evaluation to our programs to see what is working most effectively and how we can really get the biggest social return on investment in these communities,” she added.
Ultimately, she said the agency is excited about supporting and bringing prosperity to rural communities going forward.