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USDA listening for rural development ideas

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By JOHN CRABTREE

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack recently asked his rural development directors to conduct roundtable discussions in each state focusing on strategies for growing the economy and putting Americans back to work. Tennessee's rural development roundtable is scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 14. For information contact me (johnc@cfra.org) or David Glasgow in USDA Rural Development's Tennessee office.

Entrepreneurship, small business and self-employment are economic building blocks that can provide immediate economic stimulus and plant the seeds of long-term revitalization across rural America. The 2008 farm bill created the new Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program to fund training, technical assistance and loans to rural small businesses. But the farm bill woefully underfunded it at $4 million for the entire country.

This year Congress responded to a White House request of $26 million for the Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program by providing up to $13 million for the first year and $9 million for the second. These investments should focus on rural entrepreneurs' greatest needs -- business planning, mentoring, financial packaging and other technical assistance and training -- not just lending.

USDA draft rules for the Rural Microentrepreneur program got that point wrong, focusing too much on lending. In our view, USDA should make building rural microenterprise capacity a priority in the program's first year, particularly in states that are currently underserved by rural organizations that focus on entrepreneurial development. We'll be sharing that and more at USDA's roundtables and hope you'll share your ideas as well.

Editor’s Note: The Center for Rural Affairs was established in 1973 as an unaffiliated nonprofit corporation under IRS code 501(c)3. The Center for Rural Affairs was formed by rural Nebraskans concerned about family farms and rural communities, and works to strengthen small businesses, family farms and ranches and rural communities. John Crabtree is the media director for the organization.

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