Panels of economic experts, elected officials, community leaders and state agencies presented information in conjunction with Farm Service Agency (FSA) and Rural Development (RD) for a jointly hosted USDA Forum on Jobs & Economic Growth on January 21. The forum was held in Albany, a community with a 14 percent unemployment rate, well above the national rate.
Albany Mayor Sharon Konopa and City Manager Wes Hare highlighted the need for more living wage jobs in this once thriving timber town in the heart of the Willamette Valley. While the economy is depressed overall, Albany has used urban renewal funds to “Rethink, Reinvest and Revitalize” their community. Federal stimulus dollars have provided street improvements, an upgrade to the train depot, and expansion of the bus transit system. Other projects benefitting from ARRA (American Recovery & Reinvestment Act) will add new jobs to a local business expansion, and an innovative energy efficient wetlands wastewater treatment system that will lower sewer costs for area residents.
Oregon State University economist Mallory Rahe indicated that health and educational services are expanding, but the manufacturing sector will likely see few gains until the housing market shows some growth. Low oil prices are helping local businesses stay open, but layoffs and furloughs are common. Rural communities are faced with many challenges: distance, density and out-migration, a lack of broadband access, and fragmented production. And while rural America is often overlooked, the local foods movement can bring rural residents and the country back together.
Lynn Voigt, State Director for FSA, noted that Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan, whom we heard by video at the start of the forum, was very active in promoting the USDA “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” initiative that helps create economic opportunities by connecting consumers with local producers.
RD State Director Vicki Walker took the opportunity to alert the audience to the ARRA Broadband workshop (www.broadbandusa.gov) in Portland on January 25 and 26, that will help prospective applicants understand the intricacies of the Broadband Initiatives Program (BIP) and the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP). Ms. Walker also shared information about the Broadband Match program (http://match.broadbandusa.gov) that allows potential applicants to find community, business and individual partners for their broadband projects. “This kind of program emphasizes the Rural Development philosophy of leveraging dollars and opportunities to get the most bang for the buck,” said Walker.
The second half of the forum focused on green jobs/renewable energy, and how the agricultural industry contributes 10% to the total economic activity in Oregon. State agency representatives talked about the need for greater collaboration between USDA agencies, especially on market access with Oregon’s many specialty crops. A concern expressed throughout the forum was the need for more streamlined regulations and more technical assistance, especially with grant writing and training for start-up companies. University research was also needed for crop assistance. State Sen. Chris Edwards (D-Eugene), a sixth-generation Oregonian with roots in the agricultural and forest products industry would like to change federal forest policy, and appreciated Sen. Wyden’s approach for Eastern Oregon forests. He also wanted to reduce the barriers for marketing products to China, a country whose middle class currently holds the largest purchasing power in the world.
Forum participants echoed many of the same concerns, noting that America was in a liquidity crisis and that small business could benefit from more guaranteed loans. Collaboration and forming consortiums received a positive response, as did the desire to see more investment in revolving loan funds.
Several businesses commented on the successes they’ve had with Rural Development programs such as the Value Added Producer Grant.
Congressional offices were widely represented at the forum: Senators Wyden and Merkley, Representatives Wu , Schrader and DeFazio all had staffers attentively engaged in hearing the residents of Oregon provide constructive comments about what is working, and not working, in their communities. Several county commissioners and legislative leaders were also on hand to participate and listen.
Please join FSA and RD at the next Forum on Jobs & Economic Growth in Bend on January 28th, from 1 p.m. – 4 p.m. at Central Oregon Community College’s Hitchcock Auditorium. If you would like to make written comments, you may do so on this blog, or by posting to AskFSA@usda.gov and inserting “Oregon Jobs and Economic Growth Forum” in the subject line.
Submitted through the Oregon USDA Rural Development State Office with thanks to State Director Vicki Walker.
To learn more, go to the Rural Development and FSA Job Roundtables Schedule, and the News Release, “USDA to Host Roundtables on Jobs, Economic Growth”