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Q&A: Doug O'Brien, Deputy Under Secretary for USDA Rural Development

January 2014 Newsletter

Matt S. Erskine

Doug O'Brien, J.D., LL.M., grew up on a diversified farm in Iowa and has dedicated his career to agriculture and rural policy. He was appointed Acting Under Secretary for USDA Rural Development on May 6, 2013. His team partners with rural communities on housing, community facilities, utilities, and other services that increase residents' economic opportunities and improve their quality of life. Rural Development also provides technical assistance and financial backing for businesses and cooperatives that create quality jobs in rural areas.

Prior to his appointment, O'Brien served as a Senior Advisor to Secretary Tom Vilsack, and Chief of Staff to Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan. Before joining the United States Department of Agriculture, O'Brien served as the Assistant Director at the Ohio Department of Agriculture. O'Brien has also served as Senior Advisor to Iowa Governor Chet Culver, Interim Co-Director for the National Agricultural Law Center in Fayetteville, Ark., and Senior Staff Attorney at the Drake Agricultural Law Center in Des Moines, Iowa. He is former counsel for the U.S. Senate Agriculture Committee.

Question: What is USDA Rural Development's role in supporting economic development of our nation's rural communities?

Rural Development (RD) has 400 offices throughout America to deliver more than three dozen programs that improve the quality of life and create economic opportunity. RD’s role is to help communities, businesses and families in rural America thrive. We do this by financing housing, infrastructure and small businesses with grants, direct loans and loan guarantees. In 2013, RD invested approximately $33 billion in rural communities and currently holds a portfolio of $193 billion.

Q: In recent years, rural communities have experienced strong job growth, particularly in the manufacturing and clean energy sectors. What are the underlying factors in this growth and how is your agency supporting it?

Manufacturing has always been a pillar of the rural economy, and the resurgence of manufacturing jobs has brought back good year-round employment opportunities in many rural places. Rural America features an excellent workforce, a relatively low cost structure, and the quality of life that many people want to enjoy, so it is a natural that new manufacturing jobs are going to rural places. Also, the renewable energy sector has seen significant growth in recent years because of technology improvements and increasing demand for sustainable American-made energy products from renewable sources. USDA has a number of programs that have helped spur this growth by supporting different parts of the supply chain – from the researchers, to the farmers, to the large biorefineries that use farm produced biomass to manufacture energy. RD has also been able to help more than 7,000 small businesses and farmers construct small renewable projects – wind turbines, geothermal, anaerobic digesters, solar – so they can create their own energy and improve their bottom lines.

Q: Under President Obama’s leadership, federal agencies are working together to better support bottom-up plans to spur economic and job growth. What multi-agency initiatives has USDA-Rural Development been involved in, and what are some of the successes you have had?

The Obama Administration has featured a number of successful partnerships that have resulted in improved program delivery. For example, in 2012, USDA partnered with the Economic Development Administration (EDA) and a number of other agencies on theRural Jobs and Innovation Accelerator. We aligned a number of RD grant programs to streamline the way rural regions sought support for regional economic strategies. We have also worked closely with many agencies in the White House Rural Council, chaired by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, to ensure that federal agencies that work in rural places are implementing programs most effectively. The White House Rural Council has not only seen success in promoting economic development programs, but also in improving the quality and quantity of health care, housing, and recreational opportunities.

Q: How is USDA supporting rural communities that are building multi-county coalitions that foster economic development on a regional scale?

Rural Development supports rural communities that are working together regionally to improve their economies. We have done this through a number of different initiatives, including the Stronger Economies Together effort. RD partnered with USDA Extension offices to help build capacity for people in economically depressed rural regions. Also, through the Sustainable Communities Partnership, we have contributed to the work of the Departments of Housing and Urban Development and Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency to support regional sustainable strategies. Additionally, the Great Regions initiative uses various RD programs to support locally-led, asset-based regional strategies. In many rural areas, we have partnered with EDA and other federal, State and private partners.

Q: What are the policy priorities for the next few years for your Agency?

Rural Development will continue to look for ways to support and finance projects that are part of a comprehensive regional strategy and help to build the capacity of rural communities. In impoverished places, we will work with local leaders to create “ladders of opportunity” for families. RD will also focus on helping firms realize the possibilities of the bio-economy, where biomass is turned into energy, plastics, resins, or any number of other products that can create significant value and new job opportunities. Finally, RD will continue to work with partners to support new and existing local and regional food systems. The burgeoning growth in demand for locally-raised foods has resulted in new opportunities for entrepreneurs in rural America and also creates an opportunity to provide healthier foods to rural and urban Americans alike.