The White House Rural Council: Support for Rural America from the Ground Up

Tom Vilsack
Oct 4, 2016 · 18 min read

In 1975, I graduated law school and moved with my wife Christie to her home state of Iowa. We chose Mount Pleasant, a town of about 8,000 people in the southeast part of the State, and it was during this early time in my career, as a private citizen, that I first saw how people in small towns and rural places work together to move their communities forward.

Mount Pleasant had a youth athletic facility that was in desperate need of repair, and time and time again, the City Council refused to pass a bond bill to pay for what was needed. So my neighbors and I took matters into our own hands, holding a radio pledge drive and raising over $200,000 in just a few days. We were still short of the funds we needed, so in true Iowa fashion, others stepped up.

Local businesses donated funds and supplies, while community members volunteered their time on nights and weekends to do the repairs themselves. Soon enough, Mount Pleasant had a beautiful new athletic facility for our children and our children’s children to enjoy. Through this experience, I came to understand that when communities come together around a common goal, the sky is the limit.

President Obama understands this too. The time he spent as an organizer on the South Side of Chicago taught him that more often than not, lasting change starts at the community level, and grows from the ground up. He has advanced a new approach to Federal engagement with local communities, moving away from an outdated, one-size-fits-all approach toward a more tailored model that is directed by the community’s vision, leverages local assets and responds to specific barriers. This approach has driven our work with rural communities. Over the course of this Administration, we’ve collaborated with rural leaders across the country to provide targeted Federal resources that advance their communities’ goals.

President Barack Obama, accompanied by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, holds a breakout session at the White House Rural Economic Forum at Northeast Iowa Community College in Peosta, Iowa, Aug. 16, 2011, as part of his three-day economic bus tour of the Midwest. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

To understand the impact we’ve made with this approach, it is important to understand the economic hole we were in at the depths of the Great Recession. Rural counties were shedding 200,000 jobs per year, rural unemployment stood at nearly 10 percent and poverty rates reached heights not seen in decades. Equally concerning as the economic trends were the structural changes; widespread job losses coupled with an increasing shift to a technology-focused economy spurred outward migration and left many rural communities ill-positioned to bounce back quickly.

With all of that in mind, in 2011, the President took a historic step toward making the Federal government a more effective partner to rural communities: He created the first ever White House Rural Council. The Council, whose members include nearly every member of the Cabinet and senior White House staff, has worked across entrenched lines in the Federal government to provide first-of-their-kind comprehensive resources targeted specifically for rural communities as well as serve as the front door of the White House for rural stakeholders to engage and partner with the Administration.

Specifically, the Council coordinates the Administration’s efforts in rural America by performing three core functions:

1. Streamlining and improving the effectiveness of Federal programs serving rural America.

2. Engaging stakeholders, including farmers, ranchers and local citizens, on issues and solutions in rural communities.

Promoting and coordinating private-sector partnerships.

Through the work of the White House Rural Council agencies and our community partners, we’ve been able to develop new programs, rooted in community partnerships and interagency collaboration, which have made a real difference for rural Americans. These programs have helped rural families find good-paying jobs, grow their businesses and regain a sense of economic security by focusing on sustainable economic solutions.

A good example of this new way of thinking? The Rural Jobs Accelerator. The Accelerator coordinated the resources of multiple agencies to provide technical and financial assistance to public and private rural partners working to expand businesses and create new jobs. And we’ve seen results. As of March of this year, this initiative has already created 1,318 regional partnerships, assisted 2,481 businesses, leveraged $114 million in private investments and created or saved approximately 4,899 jobs.

Another example is the Local Food, Local Places initiative, also coordinated by the Council, which recognizes the power of local food systems as an economic driver for rural communities, and scales it up. In a collaboration between the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA), the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) and others, Local Food Local Places provides technical support and a broad array of resources to 53 rural communities to help them build strong local food systems to grow their economies.

We’ve also been able to bring key private and philanthropic partners together to support rural America. In 2014, the Rural Opportunity Investment (ROI) Conference brought together over 600 industry and government stakeholders to discuss how the public and private sectors can work together to benefit rural and agricultural economies as well as the nation as a whole. As a result, USDA launched a public-private partnership with CoBank, which committed up to $10 billion of its balance sheet to lend and co-lend in support of infrastructure projects in rural America. Since then, the ROI conference has been held annually and $3 billion has been invested in power, water, communications, and community facility industries.

President Barack Obama delivers a statement on the drought after a cornfield tour at the McIntosh family farm in Missouri Valley, Iowa, Aug. 13, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Today, thanks to the hard work of rural communities in partnership with the White House Rural Council, rural America has made a remarkable comeback. For the first time since the start of the Great Recession, rural populations have stabilized and the rural unemployment rate has dropped below 6 percent. Recent Census Bureau data showed median household income in non-metro areas of the United States has increased by 3.4 percent. From 2012–2014, we saw rural child poverty fall by 3 percentage points. And, about 8 million fewer people are struggling to provide adequate food for themselves or their families compared to the height of the Recession.

As the first Chair of the White House Rural Council, I’m very proud of the groundbreaking strategies we’ve pioneered, breaking down silos and targeting federal resources to respond in ways that make sense to the communities themselves.

As I look back at this work, I want to share some stories that help to give a snapshot of our partnerships with rural communities to create economic opportunity, invest in environmental sustainability, and expand access to health care through technology and innovation.

Revitalizing downtown Corbin, KY: Over the last two years, six federal agencies have partnered to create the Local Foods, Local Places (LFLP) program to grow local food systems that connect farmers to local markets, bring fresh food to families and create walkable healthy communities. LFLP agencies deploy a team of experts in local food systems, economic development and land use planning to work directly with communities to develop specific local food projects and identify Federal resources to support implementation.

For the town of Corbin, Kentucky, LFLP is making a big difference. With few jobs prospects and a struggling downtown, Corbin native Andy Salmons thought that his hometown could do better. Andy stepped up to run the local Main Street organization, opening a coffee shop downtown and starting a local farm-to-table restaurant, the Wrigley Taproom and Eatery.

His next big idea was to open a farmer’s market on a vacant lot on Main Street. With help from LFLP, Andy, his fellow Corbin residents, businesses, farmers, and federal partners joined together to develop a plan and make it happen. Since it opened, the Corbin market has helped farm-based businesses, local artisans and musicians grow and thrive. Some vendors, like Dewdrop Pottery, started out selling at the market and have since graduated to storefronts of their own. Today, Andy estimates that Corbin’s vacancy rate on Main Street dropped from 40 percent to 5 percent in just 2 years. Businesses are thriving, and Corbin is becoming a place where young people want to stay.

Source: Rural Jobs Accelerator USDA Report, July 2016

In 2013, Joel and Jean Garland from Lillie, Louisiana developed plans to grow their value-added wood products business, Ouachita Biomass. Their expansion included using waste wood materials as a heating source to dry lumber and providing local poultry farmers with a cost effective heat source for housing their flocks. To help make their plans a reality, the Garlands participated in the Rural Jobs and Innovation Accelerator Challenge (RJIAC), an economic development effort of the Economic Development Administration (EDA), USDA, Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC), Delta Regional Authority (DRA), and nine other federal agencies. RJIAC is a first of its kind multi-agency grant initiative targeted for rural America that explicitly incorporates regional economic development and business cluster strategies.

With the help of a USDA loan guarantee, Ouachita Biomass is advancing toward full utilization of each log purchased. The business is also developing markets for waste materials that are discarded and retrieved from customers when delivering products so that trucks are not returning empty. By optimizing their operations, facilitating waste reduction for customers and introducing new products created from scrap, Ouachita Biomass is growing the economy while positioning the company as an environmentally friendly option that facilitates sustainable operations.

Through the Garlands efforts, with support from the RJIAC, Ouachita Biomass’s revenue increased over 80% in 9 months. The greater sales volume has required additional workers with full time employment rising from 14 at the time of the loan to 29.

Spectrum Aeromed has manufactured ambulance interiors that can convert aircraft into life-saving medevac units to enable air ambulance operators, wherever they are, to serve their people quickly.

When earthquakes, hurricanes and other natural disasters strike, rapid medical evacuations are often necessary. Fargo-based Spectrum Aeromed has manufactured ambulance interiors that can convert aircraft into life-saving medevac units to enable air ambulance operators, wherever they are, to serve their people quickly.

Spectrum began working with the International Trade Administration’s Rural Export Innovation Team (Export Team) of the U.S. Commercial Service to develop new opportunities to export their air ambulance interiors to foreign markets. The Export Team provided trade leads and market research in several countries including Morocco, Turkey, China and the UAE. The Export has directly supported Spectrum exports to 11 countries leading to $3.4 million in sales.

The Export Team, part of the President’s “Made in Rural America” export and investment initiative, has helped rural American businesses enjoy greater access to resources and expertise to help them sell their products and services internationally. Because firms that export are more likely to weather economic downturns, expand their business and support well-paying jobs, U.S. government export assistance efforts contribute to the resilience of rural communities. Since 2015, the Export Team, comprised of 105 Commercial Service international trade specialists in nearly all 50 states, has helped rural firms expand international sales in more than 150 cases.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016 was an important day for 50 eager men and women in Appalachian Kentucky. That was the day they entered Big Sandy Community and Technical College in Prestonsburg, Kentucky as the inaugural class of TechHire Eastern Kentucky (TEKY)’s computer and coding interns. TEKY a public-private partnership is actively training a new generation of globally competitive IT professionals in rural eastern Kentucky. The 50 interns will participate in an intensive 33-week innovative and immersive curriculum to help them develop the skills needed to code without having to earn a traditional degree through a four-year college or technical school. Those who complete the course will be immediately eligible for full-time employment with the eastern Kentucky division of Interapt, a Louisville-based software development firm which develops mobile and wearable solutions in healthcare, manufacturing, and workforce engagement. Over the next 2 years, TEKY will train 200 tech workers for advanced IT careers and continue building Eastern Kentucky’s tech ecosystem.

In August, 2016 TEKY was one of 29 awards announced by the ARC, EDA and the Department of Labor (DOL) as part of the Obama administration’s Partnerships for Opportunity and Workforce and Economic Revitalization (POWER) Initiative. The POWER Initiative is a multi-agency effort aligning and targeting Federal economic and workforce development resources to communities and workers that have been affected by job losses in coal mining, coal power plant operations and coal-related supply chain industries due to the changing economics of America’s energy production. It is also part of President Obama’s POWER+ Plan, a broader set of investments in coal-impacted communities, workers and coal technology. The announcement included $38.8 million to support new economic activity in America’s coal impacted communities, including $26.7 million specifically through the Appalachian Regional Commission to support economic diversification in 142 Appalachian counties, the majority of which are rural. These investments will create or retain more than 3,400 jobs; leverage an additional $66.9 million from additional public and private partners and stimulate diverse economic growth and opportunity.

President Barack Obama looks at Edward Hopper paintings on display in the Oval Office, Feb. 7, 2014. The paintings are Cobb’s Barns, South Truro, top, and Burly Cobbís House, South Truro. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

Since 2011, Reedsburg has played host to an annual festival and Farm/Art D’Tour that attracts over 20,000 visitors to experience the local agricultural landscapes and the culture of the farming community. With funding support from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Our Town grant program, Wormfarm Institute (a Reedsburg-based arts nonprofit) brings together a diverse coalition of local farmers and community organizations to drive tourism and attract new business for local farmers through the Farm/Art D’Tour.

The Farm/Art D’Tour is a 50-mile self-guided tour intended to attract tourism, and in the first year saw 65% of their visitors traveling over 50 miles to experience arts installations, performances and artisan produce stands situated on local farms. Artists and farmers work together on arts installations that are exhibited during the annual festival and have been able to reap the benefits of a new influx of visitors, seeing revenue increases of as much as 300% during the D’Tour. Reedsburg’s annual festival has helped increase agricultural tourism for the region, as well as to build new local coalitions between the local farmers and residents.

Since 2011, NEA’s Our Town grant program has awarded more than $30 million to fund 389 cross-sectoral partnerships between the artists, residents, local government, private businesses, and community organizations. NEA’s funding has helped to pilot new innovative approaches to rural economic development by celebrating and amplifying existing cultural assets that make each rural community unique.

Microenterprise businesses have emerged as a major strategy that offers a pathway out of poverty for residents along the US-Mexico border, an area where unemployment is high and entrepreneurship offers a chance to control ones’ own destiny. One of the most difficult challenges in starting a business is lack of access to capital, forcing many business owners to scramble for resources. This increases their personal risk, makes them more vulnerable to predatory lending practices, and limits opportunities for growth.

Rural microenterprises and small businesses need both affordable capital and assistance with business planning and on-going guidance as they stabilize operations and seek to expand. In response to this need, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), USDA, and the Department of the Treasury created the Border Community Capital Initiative (Border Initiative). The Border Initiative provides direct investment and technical assistance to community development lending and investing institutions that benefit underserved and undercapitalized communities along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The Border Initiative has already helped over 40 entrepreneurs in these communities start new businesses. Take for example Ricardo Ortiz from Laredo Texas, a former Marine, whose training prepared him for many challenges and rewards in life, including entrepreneurship. He turned his experience as a truck driver into a business opportunity. With help from a loan of $10,000 for working capital through the USAA Heroes Fund and Border Initiative, he was able to start his own transportation business.

President Barack Obama waves from the bus to residents lining the street along the motorcade route between Decorah and Peosta, Iowa, during the rural economic bus tour Aug. 16, 2011. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

With Washington County’s child poverty rate exceeding 30%, and the lowest level of educational attainment in Maine, the team at Community Caring Collaborative (CCC) knew their community needed a different way of working with families.

Credit: Aspen

In 2015, CCC was selected to participate in the Rural Integration Models for Parents and Children to Thrive (Rural IMPACT) initiative that is supporting 10 communities’ efforts to address child poverty. Where most programs focus on either children or adults, this White House Rural Council initiative takes a broader “two-generation” approach with the target of creating generational change, weaving together educational programs for children and adults — particularly early learning for young children and occupational and workforce training for their parents.

Rural IMPACT, a collaboration led by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and supported by USDA, DOL, DRA and ARC and private and nonprofit partners to reduce child poverty, helped CCC accelerate implementation of a two-generation pilot they had designed called Family Futures Downeast (FFD). After the development of an Action Plan, and with technical assistance and guidance from the Rural IMPACT team, FFD enrolled its first two cohorts of parents into a 15-week “College Transitions” program. Parents take these remediation and preparatory classes at Washington County Community College and the University of Maine at Machias. Participants are participating in a comprehensive support system that includes transportation and childcare assistance and financial aid. This fall, parents began college classes and their children enrolled their children at the Head Start centers located on each campus and just across Washington Community College’s back yard.

Investing in Environmental Sustainability

The town of Bloomfield set a goal to reduce residential energy demand by 5 percent over the next two years and become a net-zero electric community by 2030. The Corporation for Community and National Service (CNCS) is supporting Bloomfield’s efforts through its Operation AmeriCorps program, which provides communities with funding and AmeriCorps volunteers to tackle pressing challenges. Fifty-six AmeriCorps Vista members have been on-the-ground helping residents identify ways to reduce energy usage, such as planting shade trees that can lower summer air conditioning costs by up to 35 percent. Additionally, two-thirds of homes will be weatherized, receive an energy audit, or other services to help reduce energy consumption.

In the first year of the three-year project, AmeriCorps members teamed up with more than 300 community volunteers and converted all lighting in the community’s elementary and middle school from fluorescent to LED, saving the school system approximately $25,000 a year in energy costs. AmeriCorps members are aslo working with USDA to obtain home renovation grants and loans for qualifying individuals.

For nearly the past decade, Harrisburg’s two flood pump stations have been overwhelmed with repeated flooding. After one flood, local business owner Gerrett Joiner had about 11 inches of water in his warehouse and was facing more than $80,000 worth of damage and lost revenue. He faced a hard choice other small business owners in Harrisburg were facing — whether the risk of another flood made staying in Harrisburg economically feasible.

To keep businesses in Harrisburg and reduce future flood risk, DRA invested $84,000 of funding through its States’ Economic Development Assistance Program (SEDAP) to upgrade the pumping facilities to ensure they remain operational during heavy rainfall. This relatively small investment not only improved Harrisburg’s resilience to flooding, but helped the town retain Joiner’s business and an estimated 25 jobs in the area that would have otherwise been lost to relocation. Over the past year, DRA has invested more than $9.5 million in SEDAP funding into 64 local and statewide infrastructure and workforce development projects as well as small business and entrepreneurship development. These investments will create and retain an estimated 3,500 jobs.

Expanding Access to Health Care

For years, Williamson struggled with a high obesity rate of 37 percent and a below-average life expectancy. Dr. Dino Beckett’s primary care practice was flooded with people who could not afford medical care and Vicki Hatfield was struggling to provide support to numerous sick patients through her Diabetes Education Center. With one grocery store in all of Mingo County and 12 percent of the population without access to a car, Bill Richardson of the Agriculture Extension at West Virginia University (WVU) was concerned about access to healthy food. Seeking to address these healthcare challenges, they banded together with other residents and launched the Sustainable Williamson initiative.

In 2012, Sustainable Williamson was selected to participate in the Livable Communities in Appalachia (LCIA) program, a collaboration of the EPA, USDA and ARC. Through LCIA, a team of small-town development experts worked with Sustainable Williamson to create an action plan tailored to the town’s goals.

Today, Sustainable Williamson has seen real success. Dr. Beckett’s clinic and Hatfield’s center moved to a shared space downtown where they could easily complement each other’s effort to assist patients. They received an $80,000 planning grant from HHS’s Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) to create a Federally Qualified Health Center called the Williamson Health and Wellness Center (WHWC), which later received an additional $650,000 of funding to support clinic operations. Lastly, they established a downtown farmer’s market and community garden that increased access to healthy foods for Williamson residents and supported new entrepreneurs starting businesses in the local food and health care sectors.

Rural health care providers are increasingly turning to telehealth and health information technology (health IT) to link small rural clinics and hospitals with specialty services that may not be available locally and to ensure that rural and urban hospital and clinics can share patient information through electronic health records. As a result, a rural hospital linked to a distant neurologist can help a stroke patient receive life-saving care, mental-health clinicians can be connected to at-risk students on Indian reservations, and those suffering from substance use issues can be connected with health professionals at regional medical centers. That’s the difference between life or death.

The White House Rural Council has supported a partnership between the HHS and USDA to link rural communities to funding assistance for rural health. The impact of this program has been immediate. Through a series of state workshops between 2012 and 2014, this initiative generated approximately $1 billion in rural health care financing across 13 states. These investments included grants and loans to help rural clinics and hospitals transition from paper to electronic health records, exchange health information with health care providers and patients and offer telehealth services.

HHS continues to work with the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to provide healthcare to veterans in rural communities with close to 680,000 veterans receiving telehealth visits through the VA. In addition, in 2016, HHS invested $17 million through its Federal Office of Rural Health Policy to establish telehealth networks, expand the evidence-base for telehealth and support school-based networks to link schools to a broad range of health care services.

Nearly 75 percent of Maine’s Veterans enrolled for VA care live in rural communities, many of whom prefer to seek care from community providers closer to home than VA medical centers and clinics. Health Information Exchanges (HIE) can be especially beneficial for Veterans who see one or more community providers in addition to their VA health care providers. An HIE is a secure, electronic way for multiple health care providers to share patients’ health information, which can improve the quality of care patients receive by preventing conflicting treatment recommendations and medications as well as reducing duplication of costly tests and procedures.

In 2015, the VA Maine Healthcare System (VA Maine) successfully connected to HealthInfoNet, Maine’s statewide Health Information Exchange. This connection gave providers at the Togus VA Medical Center and eight VA Community Based Outpatient Clinics in Maine the ability to view Veterans’ health information from more than 450 community health care facilities in Maine. 97 percent of veterans surveyed in the spring of 2016 supported the use of HIE with respondents reporting that HIE helped doctors stay on the same page and make more informed decisions. As a result of this state-wide collaboration, critical health information from non-VA community providers has been transmitted and viewed by authorized VA provider staff more than 43,000 times since 2015 resulting in improved care coordination and service to rural Veteran patients care for by both VA and non-VA health care providers.

The White House Rural Council has worked to increase opportunity in Rural America. It has coordinated new investments and forged sustainable partnerships to grow the economy, improve the quality of life and expand health care access. My time chairing the White House Rural Council has reinforced the lessons I learned in Mount Pleasant: Federal government works best when it partners with local leaders and supports a community’s vision.

Header photo: President Barack Obama speaking at the Northeast Iowa Community College, for a White House Rural Economic Forum on Tuesday, Aug. 16, 2011. The President’s visit focused on agriculture’s contribution to the national economy, and how to create more jobs in rural America.

USDA Results

A progressive year-long storytelling effort of the Obama Administration’s work on behalf of those living, working and raising families in rural America

Tom Vilsack

Written by

Secretary of Agriculture

USDA Results

A progressive year-long storytelling effort of the Obama Administration’s work on behalf of those living, working and raising families in rural America

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