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Stronger Economies Together: Helping Rural Counties Excel through Regional Approaches

Posted by Scott Elliott, National Institute of Food and Agriculture in USDA Results Initiatives Rural
Oct 03, 2016
Soil scientist Gary Bañuelos evaluating canola plants
Canola is the subject of a rural economic growth project in Western Oklahoma. USDA ARS image

Regional Rural Development Centers (RRDCs) play a unique role in USDA's service to rural America. They link the research and educational outreach capacity of the nation's public universities with communities, local decision makers, entrepreneurs, families, and farmers and ranchers to help address a wide range of development issues.  USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) provides core funding for RRDCs and integrated research, education, and extension activities.

By Rachel Welborn, project manager with the Southern Rural Development Center at Mississippi State University

How can rural communities compete in an ever-expanding global market?

Rural counties across the country are finding innovative ways to capitalize on their local strengths.  Through a guided process, more than 400 counties in 38 states are discovering new ways to work together to grow their economies.

Stronger Economies Together (SET) is a joint partnership of USDA Rural Development, NIFA, the four Regional Rural Development Centers (RRDCs) and the cooperative extension services operated by the nation’s land-grant universities.  With the strength of this partnership undergirding the effort, regions of three or more neighboring rural counties coordinate to identify their collective economic strengths, develop an action plan and build on those assets to find a competitive edge for economic growth.

How does this work?  In one example, a region in Oklahoma had recently experienced a military base closure.  What can you do with an empty airstrip? Their answer was to transform the region into one of the newest “hot spots” for unmanned aerial vehicle research and development. By taking an underused resource and redirecting it to fit a niche’ need, the region opened the doors to a rapidly expanding new industrial market.

Also in Oklahoma, the Drying Canola Project tested the feasibility of diversified agricultural opportunities in the region. The two-day process of drying canola in peanut trailers reduced moisture in harvested canola from 30 percent to 6 percent. This will add an estimated $78 per acre of harvested canola to the sale price, which translates to $7.2 million in additional income.

North Carolina’s Green Fields Initiative is another success through SET.  Recognizing the agriculture industry as a core of its economy, the Green Fields Initiative helped establish the Sandhills Farm School, a seven-month course that educates existing and new farmers on business strategies, agriculture production and marketing best practices. In addition, Sandhills Community College is developing a certification program that focuses on local food system development.

These are just three examples drawn from the 84 SET regions hard at work to preserve and expand their regional rural economies by linking arms with neighboring counties. To date, SET regions have leveraged more than $588 million in funding to support their insightful plans.

SET regions are selected through an application process. Selected regions are coached by specially trained teams that provide the region with a breadth of community development expertise.  Visit the SET web page to learn more.

NIFA invests in and advances agricultural research, education and extension and seeks to make transformative discoveries that solve societal challenges.

Category/Topic: USDA Results Initiatives Rural