Rural America's role in the federal competitiveness and innovation agenda

By Matthew Chase

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

Sports fans in the DC area have become all too accustomed to defeatist attitudes with respect to local coverage of our professional sports franchises. Now we must all deal with similar doomsday reports about our nation's fiscal and economic future: “House GOP Study Caucus Offers $2.5 Trillion in Cuts.” “CBO Projects Historic Deficit Level of $1.48 Billion in FY2011.” “President Obama Plans Freeze on Discretionary Spending.” “National Unemployment Stays Above 9.0 Percent.” “China Emerges as World's Second Largest Economy.”

On Tuesday night, President Obama called the nation to action during his State of the Union address. The President is correct. The drive to sustain and advance America's ingenuity and innovation must be at the forefront of a bipartisan federal policy agenda. We all share in the outcome-Red and Blue states, Urban and Rural, and Republicans and Democrats. Essentially, we're talking about the need for a "One America" policy that recognizes we stand and fall together in today's fast-paced and shifting global marketplace.

Together we can feed the Bees

Hours before the President's address, I was honored to talk with USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack about the leadership role that rural America is, and should continue, to play in our nation's competitiveness agenda. While far too many pundits and think tanks have pounded the drum about rural America's reliance on commodity subsidies, health care entitlements and other transfer payments, the fact remains that small town and rural America has real assets and unlimited value for keeping the United States at the top of the world's economic pecking order.

As Secretary Vilsack noted, one of our nation's most innovative, internationally competitive and export driven sectors is agriculture. During recent decades, America's agricultural community-private companies, farmer cooperatives, research institutions, equipment manufacturers and others-has achieved impressive gains in efficiency, product innovation and commercialization of research into the marketplace. It is essential that we continue to maintain a highly competitive and robust domestic agricultural sector, including for international trade and domestic consumption.

However, as we have witnessed during the current economic downturn, intense global competition and technological advancements, combined with severe economic recessions, typically results in a "pattern of creative destruction" that runs counter to the public sector's desire for job growth. Rural America is all too familiar with this reality. For example, the number of farmers will most likely continue to decline and the percentage of farmers who rely on off-farm income to survive will continue to accelerate. The same can be said for manufacturing and natural resource industries across rural America where the drive for innovation, cost cutting and cheaper labor are necessary to compete with emerging markets.

The next Farm Bill offers a unique opportunity for federal policymakers to start testing and pursuing new federal policies for rural development. This means that longstanding programs and policies anchored within the USDA Rural Development mission area will need to be examined and evolved. As rural advocates, we can no longer afford to defend the dozens of stove piped programs within USDA Rural Development. Rather than making isolated, project specific investments, we need to be thinking more about advantaging regional assets, promoting value-added uses of commodities and positioning rural America to participate in the knowledge economy.

Earlier this month, NADO sponsored a regional innovation forum with 25 practitioners from across the nation. We learned that rural development organizations and their private, public and nonprofit sector partners are already pursuing new and creative strategies at the regional and statewide levels. Many of these new approaches cut across federal agency silos, including community development, economic development, housing, transportation and workforce development.

While Secretary Vilsack and his team at USDA are providing substantial intellectual horsepower to the national debate on regional innovation and economic competitiveness, their hands are too often tied when it comes to investing resources and seed capital for rural entrepreneurs, firms and communities. If we want our farmers, rural businesses and youth to compete globally, think about trading beyond local boundaries and create wealth and jobs regionally, we need more flexible, responsive and strategic programs within USDA Rural Development.

First, we should continue to invest in policies and resources for value-added initiatives. Rather than just serve as a source for commodity and resource extraction, we should be working to retain more value and processing of our crops and natural resources regionally. Second, USDA Rural Development should have additional resources and tools to help local officials, private sector leaders and nonprofit entities join together to develop and implement regional strategies that leverage regional assets and opportunities. Third, we need to strike a better balance between assisting with the basic physical and community infrastructure needs of rural America with the demands of today's knowledge economy.

In future Agri-Pulse blog posts, we'll highlight how regional initiatives like Kansas State University's Advanced Manufacturing Institute and the North Central Regional Planning Commission (Kansas), Mobilize Maine with the Eastern Maine Development Corporation and the Eastern Idaho Entrepreneurship Center are paving the way for new thinking about rural development. We should be taking the lessons learned from these highly successful initiatives and bringing them to scale across the rural landscape.

About the author: Matthew Chase has served as the Executive Director of the National Association of Development Organizations (NADO) and the NADO Research Foundation since October 2003. From March 1997 to August 2000, he served as the association's Director of Legislative Affairs until he was promoted to Deputy Executive Director. Prior to joining NADO, he was the Chief Operating Officer and Membership Services Director of the Professional Managers Association in Washington, DC. To visit NADO's web site, click HERE.

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