Our rural economy is a story of hope and resilience

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Rhiannon Hampson is the Maine State Director for Rural Development for the USDA.

As an organic and dairy farmer, I know all too well the pressure Maine small business owners are under as we navigate recent uncertainties. When we are honest, we let people know that even absent global supply chain disruption and a deadly pandemic, we face unique challenges in rural Maine. Getting our goods to market over roads and bridges that are neglected, finding inspected processing for our livestock, attracting skilled workers when they cannot find affordable housing – these pressures keep us awake at night, but they are not often found in our social networks feeds. This is where we underline our hope; the tenacity of spirit and passion for our work that drives us forward is reflected in the stories we tell ourselves, and it is reflected now more than ever in our administration.

Recently, President Joe Biden used his first State of the Union address to talk about where our country has been and where we are going.

The president highlighted the challenges Americans have faced and how, slowly but surely, we are finding paths to success. As we manage rising prices at the grocery store and at the gas pump, it’s easy to feel discouraged, but by recognizing the tangible investments made in our communities over the past year, we see a brighter future ahead.

Here at home, we like to tell parable of the starfish. I can often be found saying, “It matters to that starfish,” which means that every investment of kindness, time, critical funding, everything matters to the people who benefit from it. By investing in water infrastructure, business opportunities, and America’s food supply chain, USDA Rural Development helps rural communities — and it matters.

This year, the Direct Loans and Grants Program for Rural Development Community Facilities provided more than $100,000 to the Old Town YMCA upgrade their fire extinguishing system. This allows them to continue to safely serve thousands of people in Penobscot County. In December, we awarded over $22 million in western Maine to prevent pollution of our waterways and critical habitats, supporting clean water and waste systems in Oxford and Franklin counties.

At Rural Development, we are proud to keep the to promise the Biden-Harris administration has done to the people of Maine: We will partner to provide clean, safe, and livable communities that support economic development.

Through the Food Supply Chain Guaranteed Loan Program and the Meat and Poultry Processing Expansion Program, we are responding to the President’s request call to create more resilient, diverse and secure supply chains. I know the biggest obstacle we face on my small farm is the lack of processing; we can grow more food for our neighbors’ tables if we have the inspected facilities to send it.

We can grow our economy from the bottom up by providing the support small businesses need to be sustainable. Russell Libby from Maine taught me about the multiplier effect; every dollar spent in local businesses flows through our economy, empowering each of us. The President’s commitment to buy American products can only be fulfilled if we have the goods to buy here. Maine RD is committed to supporting our manufacturers through Support program for rural microentrepreneurs, Rural Business Development Grantsand Grant to value-added producers programming. Last year alone, our Commercial Programs team invested nearly $85 million here in Maine, which includes supporting energy independence through Rural Energy Program for America.

This year, with a slate of new programs proposed by the Biden-Harris administration, rural development in Maine is poised to go even further in supporting sustainable communities. We bring Mainers into safe and affordable living spaces through our Single Family Housing Program, and ensuring that we honor our commitment to provide equitable access to federal resources, creating community spaces and employment opportunities that help us keep our young graduates here at home. The message may get lost in the noise and worry of what’s wrong, but each of these investments helps us do better, and that’s important to this starfish.

I believe in us here in Maine wholeheartedly. We are leading the way with the thoughtful stewardship of our natural resources and our pragmatic commitment not to deviate from our course. In the face of difficult times and discouraging news, it’s more important than ever to celebrate our successes and victories, and at Maine Rural Development, that’s exactly what we do.

About Keneth T. Graves

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