By Terry Brunner
The recent economic recession hit New Mexico’s rural communities especially hard. Its impacts are reflected in New Mexico’s frequently reported grim social and economic statistics. The United States Department of Agriculture Rural Development Mission area, the only federal agency with a specifically rural mission, is working hard to help rural communities help recover of from the recession.
Last week, USDA Rural Development issued our annual report for fiscal year 2013. During the last five fiscal years, USDA Rural Development invested $1.2 billion in New Mexico. That report is available at: http://www.rurdev.usda.gov.
Rural New Mexico consistently faces tremendous challenges with infrastructure, economic development, health care, poverty and many other issues. The investments USDA Rural Development makes in these communities can be thought of as building blocks, that when assembled together, help create more sustainable rural communities.
That large investment figure alone doesn’t tell the amazing stories of families and communities that have worked hard in tandem with USDA Rural Development over the last five years to keep their communities alive and vibrant. For instance, during the last five years, USDA financed about 192 water and wastewater projects for rural communities. These projects improved drinking water quality for hundreds of thousands of New Mexicans and protected our precious groundwater with improved wastewater treatment. Consider the thousands of residents in Navajo Nation that for decades were hauling their water and will soon draw their first glass of water from the tap as a result of USDA’s investments in Navajo water projects.
Guadalupe Anchondo, a senior citizen in La Union, N.M., owns a home that is falling apart. The roof leaks, the plumbing is faulty and the interior walls are deteriorating. USDA provided vital home repair funding to Mrs. Anchondo and 258 New Mexico families over the last five years. USDA’s home repairs allow seniors to stay in their rural home rather than move because of a repair issue. During that same time period, USDA provided 417 direct home loans from USDA to rural families and helped guarantee 1,800 home loans made by lenders. These efforts ensure that the American Dream of homeownership is still alive and well for those choosing to live in rural New Mexico.
When rural small businesses are looking to save a dime or two, energy costs are a great target. Our annual report shows that 78 small rural businesses took part in USDA’s Rural Energy for America grant program from 2009-13 to make energy efficiency upgrades to their business. I’ve seen doctors’ offices install solar panels; ranchers convert from diesel to electric water pumps and lighting upgrades to an assembly plant. These improvements help businesses save on their bottom line. USDA also helped provide much needed access to capital to more than 50 small businesses around the state through our lending programs.
For economic growth to occur in our rural areas; dependable, modern infrastructure is a must. From the Truman Administration onward, USDA invested heavily in our rural electric coops to extend lines to rural farmhouses, ranches and small businesses. During the Obama Administration, USDA provided $214 million in loans for electric service to 25,000 New Mexico rural customers.
We also play a big role as the largest government funder of telecommunications service to New Mexico’s rural residents.
USDA’s investment of $190 million for broadband and telecommunications services during this Administration brought improved service to tens of thousands of rural New Mexicans in a state that historically has some of the slowest broadband speeds and worst broadband coverage in the nation.
These examples and many others when added up represent a $1.2 billion investment that served as a much needed lifeline to help pull our rural communities through these tough times. Undoubtedly, though, the work cannot stop there.
USDA Rural Development will continue to promote its mission to assist rural communities in creating prosperity so they are self-sustaining and economically thriving through investments that create ladders of opportunity, build regional resilience, and support the growth of emerging markets
This means a strong focus on domestic energy opportunities like bio-based products and renewable energy. It means continuing our historic role in promoting the value chain around agricultural products—especially those traditional New Mexico products that are a source of pride for our state.
It means partnering with rural communities to improve essential infrastructure improvements in water, sewer, telecommunications, electric service and housing. It means seeing past traditional boundaries to harness the strength of multiple rural communities to create stronger regional economies.
Rural New Mexico contributes greatly to the economic and social well-being of our state. It’s important that all of us -- government agencies, non-profits, the private sector, individuals and others continue to see rural New Mexico as a strong investment in our state’s future.
Terry Brunner is the state director for Rural Development. He may be reached at 505-761-4950 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org