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USDA Highlights 60th Anniversary of Housing Program in Alaska

Last week it was my privilege as State Director of USDA Rural Development to travel across Alaska with Under Secretary Dallas Tonsager.  His trip is a follow-up to one that was taken by Secretary Vilsack to Western Alaska in August, as part of the Rural Tour.  I was privileged to also participate in that trip.

This month marks the 60th anniversary of the start of USDA’s housing program and it was fitting that the Under Secretary observed the occasion by visiting two of our “Self Help” housing sites. Self help is a great program.  A group of prospective homeowners, working under the direction of a non-profit, build their own homes.  Usually about eight to ten homes are involved.  It takes a year, but at the end of the process, the homeowner’s work becomes their “sweat equity”.

In Wasilla the Under Secretary met Mary Beall, a mother of eight, who finished building her home about a year ago.  Shortly after she and three of her children moved in, she was involved in a serious auto accident.  Because she was physically unable to complete her landscaping, Pat Shiflea and his staff at Alaska Community Development Corporation stepped forward and did it for her, at no cost.  The Corporation oversaw her home construction effort.

In Palmer, we joined U.S. Senator Mark Begich in helping a group of prospective homeowners as they build their houses in a subdivision off Evergreen Avenue.  These efforts are reminiscent of an earlier time in our Nation’s history when neighbors helped neighbors raise barns or bring in crops.  It is refreshing to see that in this age, that spirit still lives.

Since Congress established our housing programs in 1949, three million rural Americans have benefited from housing loans, grants and guarantees totaling $124.6 billion. After visiting the Self-Help construction site, we met with Bill Eckhardt and senior members of their mortgage operations department (at Palmer branch) to present the “Top Mat-Su Lender” award.  In FY’2009, Alaska USA had an all-time high level of participation in the GRH program.  Alaska USA did $ 10.6 million in GRH loans in the Mat-Su!

Also during his trip, Under Secretary Tonsager got to see the regional hub community of Kotzebue, which is above the Arctic Circle and facing difficulties due to erosion, especially during the fall storm period.  He also flew to two extremely rural communities which have predominantly Native populations and he addressed the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention in Anchorage.  You can read his speech here.

We traveled a great deal, seeing renewable energy projects, water projects and rural homes in need of replacement. No matter what the challenge, USDA Rural Development is equal to the job.  As we enter our next 60 years of service to rural America, we’re just getting started and I was pleased to spend a great deal of last week getting to show our state to the Under Secretary.

Jim Nordlund, Alaska State Director

Georgia on My Mind

While it was a bye week for the Georgia Bulldogs football there was plenty crunching of heads as Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan held a roundtable discussion at the University of Georgia College of Agriculture and Environmental Science. Deputy Secretary Merrigan traveled to Georgia to discuss USDA’s ‘Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food‘ initiative.

The roundtable focused on ways to educate the next generation of farmers, ranchers and consumers, and let them participate in the national conversation about how to develop local and regional food systems to support small and mid-sized farms and reinvigorate rural communities. The Deputy Secretary was joined at the table by Dean Scott Angle, Terry Coleman (Georgia Deputy Commissioner of Agriculture), Hobby Stripling (Georgia State Executive Director, USDA Farm Service Agency), Shirley Sherrod (Georgia State Director, USDA Rural Development), Bryan Barrett (Georgia Area Resource Conservationist, NRCS), University students and faculty and local agriculture leaders.

The University of Georgia is already actively promoting the principles of the ‘Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food’ initiative through farm to school programs, their Center for Urban Agriculture, a Certificate Program in Organic Agriculture, service learning, and through the promotion of community gardens on campus. Beyond campus, the school is reaching out to farmers and ranchers across Georgia via the UGA sustainable agriculture website and a newsletter.

Deputy Secretary Merrigan emphasized the expertise that exists out in the countryside and made it clear that USDA wants to bring those ideas together because what works in one region may not work well in another and letting local communities determine what works for them makes the initiative stronger. Georgia recently received agricultural support through the Specialty Crop Block Grants and used part of the funding to invest in new crops. Georgia now boasts over 110 acres of olives under cultivation. The local leaders stated that they were witnessing the start of a new era of farmers, younger farmers that want to produce new foods and diverse crops.