The new state director of rural development for the US Department of Agriculture is no stranger to the challenges and complications of farm and rural life.
Rudy Soto, 36, was appointed to the position about a month ago by President Joe Biden. The Nampa native ran an unsuccessful campaign two years ago as the Democratic candidate for the 1st Congressional District, but said the statewide campaign experience helped him build friendships and networks that will strengthen its leadership in rural development.
“Part of getting this job is due to the goodwill I’ve established with people in rural Idaho and from all walks of life,” Soto said recently in a phone interview from his office in Nampa.
Although Soto said he wouldn’t rule out running for elective office again in the future, “hopefully I’ll be in this job for seven years and I’ll be focused like a laser on that. But I’m open to all possibilities because I have a concern for all of Idaho. I wouldn’t close the door (on a future run for office).”
For now, Soto is orienting himself in his new job and brings with him a lifetime experience with Idaho’s rural landscape.
Soto is a member of the Shoshone-Bannock tribe, as well as the son of a Mexican immigrant who first crossed the border from the United States into Mexico illegally.
Soto said his father worked for Simplot for 20 years, tending to the wide variety of crops grown in southern Idaho — corn, hops, potatoes, onions and melons. As a child, Soto often accompanied his father to work, as did many young people of his generation who helped their parents with field work.
It was his mother, however, who urged him to get an education and pursue another career.
“So that taught me the value of hard work and the struggles and challenges of being in rural Idaho,” Soto said.
Being a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribe also exposed him to working and living in rural and reservation communities. Throughout his professional career, Soto has dealt with issues of child welfare, health care, rural housing, natural resources, and other issues related to tribes and rural communities.
After graduating from college and serving for nearly a decade in the Army National Guard, Soto went to work on the staff of Congresswoman Norma J. Torres, D-California, and Congresswoman Kurt Schrader, D-Oregon, who is one of the leaders on the crafting of the Farm Bill that has such a broad impact on the agriculture industry.
One of Soto’s main concerns as he begins his term is to help rural communities struggling to recover economically from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We ensure that rural residents have equitable access to programs and benefits,” Soto said. “Small towns are struggling to access the process.”
This will primarily focus on counties in Idaho that have the highest poverty rates.
Some of this assistance will take the form of guaranteed business and industry loan programs.
For example, Rural Development recently awarded a $1.5 million grant to the Palouse Ice Rink to help this group build a full-size ice rink and locker rooms.
A grant was also awarded to the Clearwater Economic Development Association to support rural micro-entrepreneurs so that they can train and receive technical assistance to start their own businesses.
Soto recognizes that broadband access is a major concern for rural communities and the agency has invested millions to help rural communities access high-speed internet through the ReConnect program. Program applications close Tuesday and can be viewed at usda.gov/reconnect.
Rural transportation systems are another priority for de Soto’s agency. Applications for improved rural transport systems close April 14 and can be viewed at bit.ly/3s0oeP4.
The agency provides health care assistance with assistance for the construction of health clinics and other community facilities.
Soto said his agency is fully committed to these projects, but the challenge comes from the federal government, which is currently working on an ongoing resolution until an agreement can be reached to keep government open.
“Sometimes that makes it difficult to administer these programs and provides security for anticipation, for planners,” he said.
Soto can be reached at the Rural Development Office at 9173 West Barnes, Suite A1, in Boise, by phone at (208) 366-9074 or online at rd.usda.gov.