Farming plays major role in Obama's community revitalization effort

By Bill Tomson

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WASHINGTON, June 6, 2016 - Farming, food processing and distribution are playing a major role in a community revitalization program designed to lift people out of poverty and reduce crime in special Promise Zones across the country, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said Monday.

"Rural and Tribal areas face unique challenges and we are ready to take on those challenges with creative solutions that strengthen communities," said Vilsack. "The Promise Zone initiative delivers proven results by encouraging collaboration between the federal government, community organizations, the private sector and state and local governments. Through these partnerships, we are supporting jobs and economic opportunities that enable rural areas to thrive."

Lets Talk Food

One of the nine new Promise Zones announced Monday is in southwest Florida. The area has developable land, an unemployment rate of over 30 percent, and plenty of potential for growth, Vilsack told reporters in a teleconference.

Creating an ecotourism industry in the area is one possibility that federal and local officials are looking at, but perhaps an even more lucrative option would be to help establish and promote locally grown food, Vilsack said.

Because of the area's new designation as a Promise Zone, it will have special access to a wide variety of federal programs, and USDA is prepared to help new farmers open markets for their crops with schools, farmers markets and restaurants.

“The local-regional food movement is a growing, multi-billion-dollar industry today,” Vilsack said. “It's one of the fastest growing aspects of food production and sales, and there is a tremendous opportunity here. With the young population and the low cost of living and the land that's available, that can really create a functioning economy that will in turn lead to more processing and marketing jobs.”

The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation of the Oglala Sioux Tribe in South Dakota is one of the 13 zones that were designated in 2014 and 2015 and work is underway there to turn it into a substantial agricultural producing region, Vilsack said.

“We think that there is a tremendous opportunity after we reviewed the land ownership for there to be both a livestock operation and a plant and crop operation that would create not just … jobs of producing the crops and livestock, but also the processing, marketing and the branding of all of that,” Vilsack said in a White House teleconference with reporters.

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The goal, Vilsack said, is to support the creation of new agricultural enterprises that are capable of feeding and employing local residents as well as shipping products across the country.

Another of the established Promise Zones is the Southeastern Kentucky Highlands, Vilsack said, and it also holds immense potential as a new hub for locally grown food.

“When you combine that with broadband expansion, I think what you're going to see is locally produced products from that area that will not only create jobs in production and processing, but also a brand that will allow that part of Kentucky to expand and branch out,” he said. “We've seen a significant investment already.”

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