By Matthew Chase

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

The economies, landscapes, governance structures and demographics of America’s regions remain incredibly complicated and dynamic, especially those with significant urban-rural connections. This reality was overwhelmingly apparent during a three-day peer scan sponsored by the NADO Research Foundation and the Federal Highway Administration of the greater Sacramento region in California last week.

As a first-time visitor to the region, I was struck by the region’s landscape. It is clearly a major metropolitan area as the Capital in the nation’s most populous state. Yet, it is surrounded by a stunning system of waterways, levees, orchards, rice fields and small towns. It is a blend of a modern, growing region but with small town charm and character.

More importantly, the Greater Sacramento region offers a powerful example of how and why federal policymakers need to make an immediate and dramatic step to rethink federal policies, programs and resources for regional community and economic development. This is especially true for the USDA Rural Development mission area. While Rural Development programs provide invaluable technical and lending resources for rural America, the mission area is far too dominated by program silos and a piecemeal, project-driven approach to rural development. This is something that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is striving to address through the administration’s Regional Innovation Initiative.

The narrative of the Sacramento region isn’t about lost opportunity or despair. Instead, it is about impressive regional leadership that is rooted deeply in sound public policy and a strong sense of place. It is a tale of using unbiased and layered data to improve decision making, align urban and rural assets and leverage the interconnectedness of a region. As it relates to the current national dialogue on regional innovation and competitiveness, it is a story about the critical role being played by the agriculture sector to drive a region’s export and local economies, as well as complement local land use and community development goals.

For the vast majority of our nation’s regions, local elected officials, private sector leaders and the public lack the data, context and tools necessary to develop truly sophisticated and informed long-term comprehensive strategies and visions. While areas served by the U.S. Economic Development Administration’s network of 383 Economic Development Districts do prepare and implement Comprehensive Economic Development Strategies (CEDS), this important yet under-resourced process often offers only a solid foundation for more in-depth and targeted regional and local plans.

Like its counterparts in our major metropolitan regions, the Sacramento Area Council of Governments (SACOG) is blessed with the institutional resources, professional planners and federal directive to plan and coordinate federal transportation investments as part of its designation as a Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO). SACOG is also responsible for regional planning for housing and air quality.

While the organization is highly respected nationally for its competencies in these areas, including its award-winning Regional Blueprint planning process, it deserves even more attention for its ground-breaking initiative, Rural-Urban Connections (known as RUCs). Working with a web of partners and collaborators, SACOG is paving the way for new models and thinking about rural-urban connectivity, protecting export agriculture as a primary regional economic engine while advancing regional and local food systems, and targeting precious public infrastructure and community development resources.

A blog post is too short to explain all of the moving parts and layers of SACOG’s Rural-Urban Connections initiative. Most noteworthy, it starts with a growing understanding by urban local elected officials and business leaders that agriculture is essential to the region’s economic future, especially as a driver of the area’s export economy and generator of new, tradable wealth. This is increasingly evident in the branding of regional and local food produce at local restaurants and shops in the urban core. Local urbanites ooze with a rare level of respect and awareness that the region is blessed with world-class land and resources for agriculture.

Second, it is clear that a strong and vibrant agriculture sector is central to the region’s commitment to sound, sustainable land use development. Local leaders understand that if farming and agriculture within the region remains profitable and competitive, it will reduce the transfer of productive and fertile land into sprawling housing and commercial developments. This is important not just for environmental and quality of place factors but also purely financial reasons. At a time when public entities are struggling to keep pace with infrastructure maintenance costs, there is a growing desire to limit expansion plans and target precious infrastructure resources to existing systems and assets.

Finally, the RUCs initiative features layers of factual, unbiased data that paints a powerful picture of the trends, interconnectedness and potential of the region. As a regional planning agency, SACOG’s data sets include the traditional information on transportation, infrastructure, natural resources and socio-economic information. However, the agency has worked with numerous partners, including UC Davis, individual farmers and nonprofits focused on agriculture, housing and water management, to plot and detail the uses of nearly every parcel of land within the region. They can look at general trends and conditions, or drill down to assist individual entrepreneurs and farmers in analyzing the numbers and costs associated with truck trips, fertilizer or water usage, or even returns from selling produce through CSAs, farmer’s markets or institutional arrangements with entities like hospitals and schools.

SACOG is blessed with two key commodities: incredible executive leadership and very talented and dedicated professional staff as well as the mission to think about the long-term viability and sustainability of its region. Unfortunately, the work of SACOG and its counterparts around the nation is being made too complicated and restricted by outdated and inflexible federal resources. This incredible model was pieced together through federal air quality and transportation resources dedicated primarily for metropolitan areas.

Under the current Farm Bill, it would be almost impossible for USDA Rural Development to play a major partnership role in this regional strategic planning and development initiative. Yes, the agency could provide resources for the implementation of specific projects, but not the overall design and support of the extensive data collection and analysis, partnership building and long-range visioning.

As the Obama administration and Congress work to develop the next Farm Bill, federal policy makers should spend some time in the Sacramento region. It would spotlight the often overlooked leadership role that agriculture is playing in our nation’s export economy. It highlights the importance of constantly pursuing research and development to stay ahead of global competitors, but also the challenges associated with maintaining sustainable rural communities in times of dramatic advances in technology and efficiencies. And, it provides a great viewpoint to study the urban-rural connections of our nation’s predominantly regional economies.

Rural America has much to offer the rest of the nation, let alone our trading partners around the world. But, in today’s rapidly evolving global marketplace, our rural regions must think more strategically, build upon regional assets and well defined competitive advantages, and most importantly, embrace strategic alliances with our urban counterparts. Now is the time to modernize the stable of USDA Rural Development programs to help position our rural regions for the future.

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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