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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.

Secretary Vilsack Arrives in Philippines for U.S. Trade Mission

On Saturday, I arrived in the Philippines for the first-ever USDA trade mission in Southeast Asia. The Philippines is a key market in the region for U.S. agricultural exports, with sales of over $1.77 billion in 2008, a record high, while U.S. agricultural imports from the Philippines reached $ 1.24 billion during the same period.

Yesterday I had the opportunity to visit the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) to learn more about the efforts of IRRI in addressing global food security through rice research. IRRI was established in 1960 and is the largest non-profit agricultural research center in Asia and is known as the home of the Green Revolution in Asia.

Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack, Philippines Secretary of Agriculture Yap and US Ambassador Kristie Kenney planting rice at the International Rice Research Institute

Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack, Philippines Secretary of Agriculture Yap and US Ambassador Kristie Kenney planting rice at the International Rice Research Institute

For over three decades, the U.S. Government (USG) has been a major supporter of IRRI through the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), the coordinating organization through which funds for international agricultural research are administered to the 15 CGIAR centers around the globe.The USG has long viewed IRRI as a cornerstone of CGIAR because of the enormous contribution of rice to global food security, especially in Asia. IRRI is also a beneficiary of USDA and USAID support.

Today I spoke at the Trade Investment Mission on behalf of the USDA. USDA Trade and Investment Missions (TIMs) target emerging markets and free trade agreement (FTA) countries to promote two-way trade and investment. The mission provides U.S. participants with focused one-on-one meetings with host country business representatives. The mission also helps to identify business opportunities and address trade barriers. More than 20 U.S. agribusiness companies will participated in today’s TIM.

Before embarking on two site visits in the afternoon, I met with Philippines President Gloria Arroyo and Secretary of Agriculture Arthur Yap. During our meeting I announced plans for $8.5 million in international assistance under USDA’s Food for Progress Program for the Philippines in the aftermath of recent typhoons that have caused severe flooding in the country.

In the afternoon, I visited the Universal Robina Corporation’s (URC) Flour Milling Plant. The URC facility is only one of two fully automated flour milling plants in the Philippines. The URC Flour Division is one of the top flour millers in the Philippines and approximately 95 percent of all wheat used in this facility is from the United States.

US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack with students at Sagad Elementary School

US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack with students at Sagad Elementary School

After my visit to the URC Flour Milling Plant, I traveled to Sagad Elementary School to deliver food to students who had been affected by the recent natural disasters in the region. I leave tomorrow for China where I will attend a meeting of the U.S.-China Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade (JCCT) to discuss agricultural trade.

Deputy Under Secretary Praises Entrepreneurship by National FFA Students

I just returned from Indianapolis and my first National FFA Convention.  Having missed the first 82 of them, I figured it was about time to see what these folks were up to.  I grew up in a part of northern New Jersey where there was no active FFA presence and where 4-H existed to help the wealthier suburban kids who actually got ponies for Christmas learn how to care for them.

I learned to appreciate FFA while working for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, where the partnership with the state FFA leadership is very strong.  I was blown away to learn that the largest FFA chapter in the State actually is at W.B. Saul High School in Philadelphia. I have been to the state FFA convention and often sent others to the national convention, but I’d never seen it with my own eyes.

Picture 46,000 high school and college age students, about the same number that you would find at a major land grant university, all wearing blue jackets, all polite, all committed to this nation and to agriculture.  It was an exciting, empowering experience.

My main reason for going was to speak to ag-entrepreneurship winners and their families.  About a hundred FFA members, their families and sponsors were there.  Each winner had found some unique way to start a small business or develop an operation.  I’m proud that USDA Rural Development is a sponsor of this competition.

What I told the group was that my favorite animal is a turtle.  If you walk into my office or into my home you will see likenesses of turtles everywhere.  It’s because I was told as a girl that, like the turtle, if you don’t stick your neck out every once in awhile, you’ll never get anyplace.

My primary message to these bright, young students was to find an issue that makes you passionate and go for it.  Become a leader, but be someone who can motivate those around you.  A leader without followers is just someone going for a walk.

Finally, I told them about an exciting new program which Congress put into the new Farm Bill and is enthusiastically supported by Secretary Vilsack and by those of us here at Rural Development:  It is the Microentrepreneurship Assistance Program.  What we’re going to do is select non-profit intermediaries and provide them with funds that they can loan to people who want to start a business.  It’s perfect for the members of the FFA.  The amount to be lent is no more than $50,000 per applicant.  All the details about the program were posted in the October 7th edition of the Federal Register.  If you want to find out more or comment on the program, that’s the place to go.

You know, walking around Indianapolis and seeing all of these great young Americans from Hawaii to Puerto Rico and Florida to Alaska, all together, all motivated, gives me a great feeling, not just about agriculture and its future, but in the future of America.  Trust me, it won’t be another 83 years before I attend my next FFA convention.

Cheryl L. Cook, Deputy Under Secretary

Agriculture Education Thriving in Midwest

John Brewer, associate administrator and general sales manager for the Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) of USDA recently paid a visit to the students of the Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences (CHAS) to see firsthand the value of agriculture education. The school was excited to have Mr. Brewer visit the school as one of the many special events for students, who were embarking on a month full of agricultural education events including the World Food Prize in Des Moines and the 82nd Annual National FFA Convention in Indianapolis.

The mission of CHAS is to provide opportunities for diverse students from across the city to study agriculture. The school works to develop technologically proficient graduates with marketable skills as well as college-level competencies who will have the power to change the image of agriculture in urban areas. The school has approximately 600 students from all over the city who possess special talents in science and math.

USDA officials and employees have visited the school several times over the years to address the students on the role of the organization, current issues related to agriculture, and job and internship opportunities.

Mr. Brewer toured the school and spoke to a class of approximately 25 students regarding the role of FAS. Students at the school can choose from five career pathways: food science; animal science; horticultural and landscape design; agriculture finance and economics; and agricultural mechanics and technology. Mr. Brewer talked about the importance of each of these to agriculture around the world.

A group of approximately 20 students stayed after school for a roundtable discussion with Mr. Brewer. These students represented a variety of grade levels and career paths, including FFA officers. The school boasts the largest National FFA Organization chapter in the Midwest and all students at the school are members.

During the roundtable, Mr. Brewer spoke about his role at FAS and the career path that led him to his current position. Many of the students posed questions regarding current issues related to agriculture such as H1N1 and food security. The quality of their education was evident as the students were extremely informed about current agriculture issues, asking thoughtful questions and offering insightful observations during this roundtable discussion.

It is the hope that additional representatives from USDA can continue to visit schools like the CHAS to spread the message about the importance of agricultural education and the opportunities the USDA provides for those seeking a career in agriculture.

Deputy Secretary Brings KYF2 Discussion to Iowa State

The ‘Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food’ College Tour continued this week with a visit to Iowa State University, where I had the opportunity to speak with students, faculty, and members of the community about USDA’s efforts to promote local and regional food systems. Read more »