The new leader of USDA's rural development efforts wants to underscore the importance and diversity of farm country in her actions as undersecretary, offering priorities that mirror the Biden White House and Vilsack Department of Agriculture in the process.

Confirmed earlier this month as USDA’s Undersecretary for Rural Development, Xochitl Torres Small brings experience from Capitol Hill to the position, something she hopes to leverage now that she’s serving a broader constituency. The former member of Congress  – and House Ag Committee member – spoke with 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 remotely.

“Thankfully we haven’t had too many too many broadband issues here in New Mexico,” Xoch, as she prefers to be called, said. 

The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Question: With so many different programs that you've got in your portfolio for rural development, how is it going with trying to establish priorities and focus areas in your early days?

Xochitl Torres Small: You’re absolutely right, Rural Development does almost everything under the sun for rural communities, so there’s a lot to do. Starting out, it’s important for me to get a sense of all the work that’s done, and I'm really grateful for my experience as a rep for a rural district to know how crucial rural development is. So we can talk about all of the programs that they do, but sometimes it's easier – and I think it's better for rural communities – when you think of rural development as a whole. You can reach out to the field office or we're reaching out to communities to identify what their specific needs are, and figure out how to invest in them, to help bring a community's vision to life.

So when it comes to priorities for Rural Development I am just so deeply grateful to get to work under the leadership of President (Joe) Biden, Vice President (Kamala) Harris and Agriculture Secretary (Tom) Vilsack, to be a real ally for people in rural communities by investing in infrastructure and opportunities that help to build back better. A fundamental component of that is supporting rural communities on the frontlines of climate change by building disaster resiliency, whether it be forest fires or droughts or floods, while also making climate-smart investments like increasing access to renewable energy and fuel infrastructure, and then creating new income opportunities in those markets.

Also, it's about increasing equity, and Rural Development has a key part there because so many communities across rural America have been left behind. And so, fighting for that as we take on systemic injustices to build brighter futures for everyone.

Q: During COVID, we’ve seen a lot of hospitals be overwhelmed with a patient load and often underwhelmed with resources. RD has a portfolio for community facilities including hospitals, so can you tell us how you’re starting to deploy more funds to help?

It's such a crucial question, and it's an example of where Rural Development has key resources to help invest. The most common one is the community facilities; as a representative, 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 turned. So that's certainly important in investing in future resiliency.

Rural Development is also standing up a program – has actually already done so – and is getting money out the door to increase and support hospitals as well as clinics, and to provide vaccinations and to increase and get out some of the support that's necessary for people with COVID, or people who are trying to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Q: You mentioned outreach into some of these rural areas, and I know that's been an important component so that they 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 acting and interim folks, but what can folks anticipate in terms of where you are with current staffing and where you hope to be maybe six, 12 months from now.

The first thing I want to do is just recognize the incredible civil servants who have been keeping Rural Development going as we struggle to make sure that we have the resources and the people in place that we need to do our enormous mission.

I'm the first undersecretary that Rural Development has seen for over four years, so that starts at the top in terms of being able to make sure that we're getting the investments in rural communities that we need.

You also mentioned the state directors, and that's so crucial to the mission. I've talked about how important the state or field offices are to connecting directly with leadership on the ground, with the people who need these resources. So we've been working hard to identify the right people to do that work.

Rural Development is a large 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've come on board – I actually attended the same orientation as them – and it's exciting to see the kind of people who will be leading in the states.

A good example is our new state director from Alabama, Nivory Gordon. He's worked in Rural Development for three decades, so he knows all of those resources that can help bring a community's vision to life, but he also has on-the-ground experience about how crucial it is to support the people who are supporting all of America. He is a cattle producer; he runs the operation with his wife and his kids. And so that's a good example of the type of fit that we're looking for, to lead Rural Development nationwide.

Q: Another area that is under the purview of Rural Development is rural broadband. Tell us how those funds are advancing and whether or not you have sufficient resources right now. And if not, how much more do you need that could possibly be provided under the Build Back Better plan?

It's a huge need as we look at what is the infrastructure that can help level the playing field so that no matter where in the country you are you can compete in the worldwide marketplace, broadband or good reliable internet is crucial. It's one of the key things that we've all realized in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

I'm so proud of Rural Development, the work that they've done to try to get money out of the door quickly in the midst of a pandemic, setting up an entirely new program and working to make those awards, and I’m excited to continue to work with Rural Development to speed up the process that we can get through a lot of the reports that are necessary – all of the environmental and historic – to get money out the door.

So when it comes to how we reach those underserved populations, folks who don't have internet at all, or folks who have internet that's meaningless because it takes so long you can't even do a video, finding the ways to get to them is a challenge. Rural Development has a unique set of skills to be able to get that done, whether it's preexisting relationships with the rural electric coops, whether it's understanding how to work with a hospital and a library to get internet closer to that last mile, and understanding that sometimes it's not always the maps that will have the best information but it's the people on the ground. So Rural Development is a crucial partner and part of it will be also coordinating with the other entities that are taking on this broadband challenge whether it's (the National Telecommunications and Information Administration) or (the Federal Communications Commission), making sure we're all working together, and there's strong coordination that's happening on that front as well.

Q: You mentioned those other entities, is the fact that there are so many different people involved in this conversation hurting things because there's no centralized effort, or is it helping things because there's a lot of different people involved?

That depends on how we respond to it. I think we're responding to it with strong coordination, and we'll have to continue to do that. Because what it means is that we've got people with expertise in a lot of different ways. Rural Development has, for example, facilitated dialogues with NTIA, with tribal communities, with Native American sovereign governments to help reach in all of the different ways that we can. But it's going to take knowing each other's expertise and having those clear lines of communication to make sure the money gets out as quickly as possible into the places that need it the most.

Q: Do you think it would make sense to centralize this effort somewhere in the government?

I think that what we've got going now is a good starting place when it comes to strong coordination and leveraging specific expertise. So as we work together, we'll find better places to leverage our expertise and get that money out of the door. When it comes to redoing the entire system, that's hard to do when you're trying to get money out to communities as quickly as possible, and I just know how important it is that we're all clear, that we're working together on this front.

Q: Agriculture obviously is important in many rural areas, but so is natural resource extraction. As we look at addressing climate change and perhaps transferring from some of those historic job creators, where are we going to find the new ones, and how can Rural Development help create some of that stimulus that will provide new opportunities in rural areas as there's a transition to greener jobs?

That's such a good question and it really speaks to the diversity of rural America. In southern New Mexico, ag does support so many economies. My grandparents immigrated from Mexico because of the ag opportunities that were here. So that certainly is a big part of rural America. You also talked about natural resources; there's also tourism, there's also manufacturing, and the opportunities that are growing, I think are places where we can continue to invest.

One of the things that I think we can improve when it comes to Rural Development is placing strategic investments in communities. Now, there's not a soundbite answer for that because the idea is you look at what makes that community unique, and turn that into a marketplace. But one example where you find a pivotal investment is actually in Georgia, a few years back. Rural Development helped get a water treatment facility online, and that capacity that they needed was enough to attract Kia, a car manufacturing entity to the community and increase jobs. So it's finding what investments, what investors are looking into in an area or finding that a community has plans to expand a business that's already there, and then looking at what the infrastructure needs are to increase that.

I think also when it comes to making sure that people can choose to live in these great communities and do work across the world, that's where broadband comes in, making sure that they can participate in the worldwide economy with that connectivity, and then identifying what are those opportunities, whether it's biofuels, or whether in my home state, there was just an opening of a manufacturing (facility) that contributes to the wiring that's done in wind turbines. So finding those specific places, the specific investments, and then what's the infrastructure that's keeping that business from coming or expanding in that community.

Q: Equity and access have been a big part of not only the Biden administration but also the Vilsack USDA here in these first months. What role do you see Rural Development playing in advancing equity and access?

I think folks don't always realize how diverse rural communities are across the country. One of the things I appreciate about President Biden's effort is acknowledging that a key piece of equity is doing work in rural communities, making sure that rural communities themselves aren't left behind and the people who grew up in these areas have the same shot at our American dream. But we've also got an incredibly diverse rural America, whether it's Indian country, or whether it's Colonias along the border, whether it's the Black Belt, Appalachia, we've got so many different heritages.

A good example, coming from New Mexico is running water in Indian country. I mean, that is a specific example of systemic injustice. How do you keep your family safe and healthy if you have to haul your water on a weekly basis? Also in the Colonias, working to make sure that they have access to that basic infrastructure and that's where affordable housing comes in. Because if you bring in affordable housing, you're also bringing in all of the utilities that are crucial to keeping your family healthy and safe. Sometimes when you've got that infrastructure to your door, your mortgage is cheaper than your rent before because you don't have to pay for the propane and all that other stuff. So, this is what we mean when we say advancing together and building back better; addressing equity and inclusion is a fundamental part of that, and that's where Rural Development can really support those efforts.

Q: What did the pandemic teach us about housing availability and affordability in rural America?

What COVID-19 taught the rest of America is something that rural America already knew;  affordable housing is hard to find in small towns and communities. There's a lot of outdated homes, homes that no longer have access to the essentials – internet for sure but also running water and electricity. And it's really hard to get folks interested in building new homes in rural communities because there's not that same economy of scale. And that's where rural development can really help, whether it's the self-help, where the borrowers help build their own homes working with developers, or whether it's the multifamily opportunities, but finding those investments and helping bridge that gap that economies of scale, often creates.

Q: You've got the next few years to kind of make your mark on the agency. What are your thoughts on what you see as the big changes you'd like to make?

I am first so grateful for Rural Development and all the work they have been doing; I mean, the work is getting done. Money is getting to communities and real projects are happening on the ground, and I am excited to continue that through President Biden and Vice President Harris's mission of Building Back Better.

In Rural Development, that looks like identifying those strategic investments that can be made in communities. But also it's about reaching people who just have never been reached before, even when that means a bigger investment. So it's looking at specific communities and having that outreach and building that capacity and connection with leaders in these local towns and unincorporated areas, identifying what their specific needs are and being responsive to it so that Rural Development's investments can catalyze future opportunity.

The other goal I have is making sure that all of our country knows how crucial rural America is for our success. Whether it is the energy that we talked about, whether it is farming and food. Whether it is the tourism that people rely on for self-recreation, whether it's future innovation, Rural Development is providing for all of America, rural communities are providing for all of America, and that's why it's crucial that we make sure that everyone is Building Back Better.

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