Anne Hazlett, who oversees Rural Development at USDA, wants to get the word out that RD’s new Innovation Center will soon be open for business, with a new executive at the helm and a long list of challenges to face, including the opioid epidemic that’s been devastating rural communities.

In an interview Thursday with Agri-Pulse, Hazlett (pictured above) introduced Gina Sheets, who served as director of the Indiana Department of Agriculture under then Governor Mike Pence, as the new Chief Innovation Officer. Sheets says her team, which is still being organized, will be working to “streamline and modernize” the delivery of the 40 or so services Rural Development provides to rural communities.

The team will come mostly from RD, from the Washington office and from the state offices, providing expertise gathered “on the front lines.”

“They have such good experience being out in these communities,” Hazlett said. “I look for Gina to find a way to creatively tap the expertise of those folks… so that we can get their perspective on how we can innovate in those communities as well.”

One of the biggest challenges the Innovation Center will face will be in assisting rural communities is dealing with the nation’s opioid crisis, which is killing tens of thousands of Americans a year and has been especially harmful to rural America. Hazlett, through volunteer work, says she’s seen firsthand what the epidemic can do to small towns hard-hit by the epidemic.

“They don’t know where to turn, and they feel all alone,” Hazlett said. But she said RD’s Innovation Center will be able to help by partnering with the affected community as it responds, possibly pairing it with other communities facing the same problem and compiling and making available a list of best practices in fighting the scourge.

“No two rural communities are certainly the same,” she said. “Each are going to have different aspects that they bring to the table in conquering this challenge. But certainly, to be able to learn what has worked well and what hasn’t worked so well will be of great value to them as they move forward.”