From investing in broadband, water, sewer, community facilities and housing, the person who oversees the rural development mission area at the U.S. Department of Agriculture has a wide range of responsibilities. But for the past four years, that position has not been filled because former secretary Sonny Perdue decided against it. Now, the new head of USDA’s rural development efforts wants to highlight the importance and diversity of agricultural countries and “make sure our whole country knows how crucial rural America is to our success.”
Confirmed earlier this month as USDA’s undersecretary for rural development, Xochitl Torres Small brings Capitol Hill experience to the post, something she hopes to leverage now that she serves a larger constituency. large. The former congresswoman — and member of the House Ag Committee — spoke to Agri-Pulse from her home in New Mexico with suitcases packed for an upcoming move to the nation’s capital after working her first few weeks on the job at distance.
The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: With so many different programs you have in your portfolio for rural development, how do you try to establish priorities and areas of intervention in your early stages?
A: You’re absolutely right, rural development does almost everything under the sun for rural communities, so there’s a lot to do. When starting out, it’s important for me to get a sense of all the work that’s being done, and I’m really grateful from my experience as a representative of a rural district to know how crucial rural development is. So we can talk about all the programs they offer, but sometimes it’s easier—and I think it’s better for rural communities—when you think about rural development as a whole. You can contact the local office or we reach out to communities to identify their specific needs and determine how to invest in them, to help bring a community’s vision to life.
So when it comes to priorities for rural development, I’m so grateful to get to work under the leadership of President (Joe) Biden, Vice President (Kamala) Harris and Secretary of Agriculture (Tom) Vilsack, to be a true ally for people in rural communities by investing in infrastructure and opportunities that help build back better. A fundamental part of this is supporting rural communities on the front lines of climate change by building resilience to disasters, be they wildfires, droughts or floods, while making smart investments in the face of climate change. climate, such as improving access to renewable energy and fuel infrastructure, and then creating new revenue opportunities in these markets.
Moreover, it is about increasing equity, and rural development plays a key role in this because many rural American communities have been left behind. And so, we fight for that as we tackle systemic injustices to build a better future for everyone.
Q: During COVID, we have seen many hospitals overwhelmed with patient loads and often overwhelmed with resources. I know RD has a portfolio for community facilities including hospitals, so can you tell us how you are starting to deploy more funds to help these rural hospitals?
This is a critical issue, and it is an example where rural development has key resources to help invest. The most common are community facilities; as a rep I worked in the midst of COVID with a rural community that was trying to keep their clinic open and trying to identify resources, and rural development was one of the first places we went turned. So it’s certainly important for investing in future resilience.
Rural development is also setting up a program – it has already – and getting money to increase and support hospitals as well as clinics, and to provide vaccinations and to increase and withdraw some of the support that is necessary for people with COVID, or people trying to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Q: You mentioned outreach in some of these rural areas, and I know that’s been a big part of letting them know these programs are options, but you haven’t exactly had a lot of staff in place, especially at the state level. I know you have temps and interims, but what can people anticipate in terms of where you are with current staff and where you hope to be in maybe six or 12 months.
The first thing I want to do is just recognize the incredible public servants who have kept rural development going as we struggle to ensure we have the resources and people in place that we need to accomplish our enormous mission.
I’m the first Under-Secretary that Rural Development has seen in over four years, so it starts at the top in terms of being able to make sure we get the investments we need in rural communities.
You also mentioned state directors, and that’s so crucial to the mission. I talked about the importance of state or field offices to connect directly with leaders on the ground, with the people who need those resources. So we worked hard to identify the right people to do this job.
Rural development is a broad portfolio, and finding people who have experience in all of those sectors is crucial, but I’m really excited about the first tranche of state directors who have come on board – I’ve actually followed the same direction as them – and it’s exciting to see the kind of people who will lead in the United States.
A good example is our new Alabama State Director, Nivory Gordon. He has worked in rural development for three decades, so he knows all those resources that can help bring a community’s vision to life, but he also has first-hand experience of the critical importance of supporting people who all support America. He is a cattle breeder; he runs the farm with his wife and children. And so that’s a good example of the kind of adjustment we’re looking for, to drive rural development nationally.
Q: Another program that falls under the purview of rural development is rural broadband. Tell us a bit more broadly about how this is progressing and whether or not you have enough resources right now.
This is a huge need as we look at what is the infrastructure that can help level the playing field so that no matter where you are in the country, you can compete in the global marketplace, broadband or good reliable internet is crucial. This is one of the key things we all realized amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
I’m so proud of rural development, the work they’ve done trying to get some quick money in the middle of a pandemic, putting together a whole new program and creating these awards , and I’m excited to continue to work with rural development to expedite the process that we can get through a lot of the reports that are needed – all of the environmental and historical reports – to get the money out.
So in terms of how we reach those underserved populations, people who don’t have internet at all or people who have internet, it doesn’t make sense because it takes so long you can’t even not make a video, finding ways to access them is a challenge. Rural development has a unique set of skills to do this, whether it’s pre-existing relationships with rural electric cooperatives, understanding how to work with a hospital and library to bring the internet closer to that last mile, and understand that sometimes it’s not always the maps that will have the best information but it’s the people on the ground. Rural development is therefore a crucial partner and will coordinate with the other entities that are taking up this broadband challenge, whether (the National Telecommunications and Information Administration) or (the Federal Communications Commission), in s ensuring that we all work together, and there is strong coordination.
Editor’s note: Spencer Chase contributed to this report. Wyant is president and founder of Agri-Pulse Communications Inc. For more information, visit www.Agri-Pulse.com.