It is difficult for most people to comprehend the distances and diversity we face here in California. For example: the distance from Smith River, in the Northwest corner of California, to Winterhaven, in the Southeast corner, is the same distance as it is from Chicago to Washington, D.C.
When USDA Rural Development was tasked by Agriculture Secretary Vilsack to continue the conversation that began at President Obama’s December Forum on Jobs and Economic Development we had California’s challenges on our mind. And we soon realized that we needed to engage all sectors of our economy and our rural communities in this conversation.
But Rural Development couldn’t do it alone, nor did we try. We reached out to our sister agencies at USDA, the Farm Service Agency and Natural Resources Conservation Service as well as the University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) and the California Association for Local Economic Development (CALED). Then we then enlisted help and support from our diverse partners throughout the state to lead individual county-wide forums. Despite a short timeframe – made even more difficult by record snowfall and rain throughout the state coupled with flooding and landslides, USDA was able to host 43 forums across California! Locations ranged from the Elk Valley Rancheria Community Center in Crescent City to the San Diego Gas and Electric Renewable Energy Resource Office in El Centro. We went to the Mount Whitney Hostel in Lone Pine, to the Veteran’s Hall in Hollister, and made stops everywhere in between.
Groups that provided leadership for their county forums included Tribal Governments, Resource Conservation and Development Councils, local Economic Development Corporations, California State Universities, the Valley Health Network, the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, Farm Bureaus, Self-Help Housing Groups, Agricultural Commissioners, Resource Conservation Districts, County Supervisors, Community Colleges and many others.
Through these amazing partnerships we were able to connect with almost 900 Californians from all reaches of our State. We heard from farmers, business owners, non-profit groups, housing organizations, economic development professionals, school officials, health care organizations, tourism councils, tribal nations, and ordinary citizens concerned about their communities.
At the conclusion of our county forums, input was analyzed during a statewide videoconference moderated by Rural Development State Director Dr. Glenda Humiston. This live roundtable networked 20 USDA offices throughout the state and gave local forum leaders an opportunity to share and discuss their individual findings with the USDA state leadership and several state partners.
Information from local forums, feedback from state leaders and content of recent reports related to these issues all show an amazing amount of consistency in their messages and, despite the diversity of the state’s many regions, several common themes emerged:
- Expand and Upgrade Infrastructure
- Improve Access to Capital and Financing
- Streamline Regulations and Permit Processes
- Develop a Better Definition of Rural That Fits California’s Needs and Realities
- Find Ways to Expand and Improve Service to Applicants
- Provide More Technical Assistance and Planning to Local Communities
- Assist and Enhance Traditional Job Training Institutions
- Improve Access and Utilization of Water, Land and Other Resources
- Enhance Programs and Opportunities in Specific Sectors:
o Enable Regional Food Systems and Improve Access to Healthy Food
o Support Value-added Business Growth and Tourism
o Expand Programs to Stimulate Green Jobs and Projects
o Increase Opportunities to Produce and Utilize Alternative Energy Sources
o Stabilize and Expand the Supply of Affordable Housing
- Improve Access and Affordability of Health Care
The results will be provided to Secretary Vilsack in a report later this month.
State leaders from USDA connected to partners across California through a live videoconference roundtable discussion on Thursday, January 28. Shown on the screen – Greg O’Sullivan from the Shasta County Economic Development Council shared the findings from the forum held in Anderson, CA earlier in the week.
USDA Rural Development State Director Dr. Glenda Humiston (center) joined Mike Dozier from the Office of Community and Economic Development at CSU Fresno at the local forum held in Fresno County on January 25. Thirty members of the community had a lively discussion sharing ideas and suggestions for creating jobs and economic development in California’s central valley.
Submitted by Dr. Glenda Humiston, California State Director
USDA Rural Development