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USDA's Rural Development Chief Talks about Challenges Ahead

USDA agency charged with boosting rural communities from housing to high-speed Web access. Willie Vogt

Rural America is under siege as farm consolidation and changes in the business climate erode the potential for small towns. But there's a light at the end of the tunnel as USDA's Rural Development Agency tackles these challenges in new ways. Farm Progress caught up with Gil Gonzalez, under secretary for Rural Development during the NCBA Cattle Industry Convention in San Antonio, and he talked about the challenges and opportunities facing the agency.

"We're one of the few agencies that can build a rural community from the ground up," Gonzalez notes. The agency has responsibility for infrastructure programs for communities including water, electricity and housing, and Gonzalez takes the challenge seriously.

Gil Gonzalez, Under Secretary for Rural Development, USDA

Gonzalez notes that from 1996 through 2000 the average rural development annual budget was about $10 billion. In the past four years that has grown to $50 billion as the agency's role has grown to include a range of services such as value-added grants, renewable energy and high-speed Internet. "We have a goal to provide access to broadband for the country by 2007," Gonzalez says. "We're currently working with several groups to determine the best approaches for achieving that goal."

That's perhaps how the agency works best when it engages interested parties in a dialogue to develop programs and services for rural communities. Stakeholders do get input into those programs. And in the past four years, as President Bush has promoted the "ownership society" Rural Development has expanded its effort. "Working with other agencies we've been able to achieve 76% ownership rates in rural areas, which compares to about 69% as a national average," he notes.

Gonzalez sees a vision for rural America where services and opportunities allow people to live and work in these communities. And he sees the challenges ahead, but is already taking them on.

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