Rural Development was the overarching topic at the Partners for Rural America conference in Burlington, Vermont on 6-8 September. The event was attended by nine State Rural Development Councils (SRDCs) from across the country, of which GrowSmart Maine is one. The conference was an opportunity to discuss how organizations such as ours can support municipalities to make the most of state and federal investments – by developing vibrant local farm and food networks, thriving downtowns, broadband expansion, affordable housing, electrification and climate resilience. The discussions were informed by United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) State Directors Sarah Waring from Vermont and Rhiannon Hampson from Maine and their insights about the various federal programs available. SRDCs can play a critical role for both municipalities and the federal government in ensuring these investments make a difference in people’s lives.
The American Rescue Plan Act, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and the Inflation Reduction Act represent a once-in-a-generation investment in rural America, and a significant part of the funding is directed to the small rural towns that need it the most. At the same time, the capacity of rural municipalities to access and administer these funds is often constrained. They are often understaffed and/or managed by volunteers and operate on a shoestring budget. Federal funding applications are often complex, federal programs hard to navigate, and there is often a match required. In short, for more rural places to make use of federal government funds, strengthening their capacity to do so is critical. This is where SRDCs can play a pivotal role by bringing together state and civil society organizations to address capacity building in a coordinated way. In this context, GrowSmart Maine has advocated for the reauthorization of the National Rural Development Partnership (NRDP) and the SRDCs in the Farm Bill. This designation is vital to our ability to convene and engage with federal and state agencies as well as our many business, individual, and non-profit partners to be successful in supporting rural communities.
GrowSmart Maine contributed with our experiences from the collaboration with the American Farmland Trust on supporting municipalities in their local planning – with a focus on farmland protection and interlinkages with local food networks, affordable housing, and community resilience. Development priorities identified through inclusive and equitable community planning processes form the backbone and provide local ownership to ambitious and sometimes complex local community projects. While GrowSmart Maine and other organizations such as Maine Farmland Trust and the Regional Planning Organization have great online resources to assist towns in rural planning, outreach and “hands-on” technical support is critical to success, even if it is more time- and resource-demanding. Advocacy and support from organizations such as the American Farmland Trust, as well as continued robust funding of USDA:Rural Development programs is vital for rural communities across America to not just survive, but thrive.
Each stop in our day-long tour of northern Vermont highlighted the impact local development solutions, partnerships and public funding can have. We visited the small community of Montgomery which, through a community-driven process, initiated, secured funding and is developing the town’s first wastewater system; the City of St. Albans using Tax Increment Financing (TIFs) and bonds to crowd in private investments and incentivize growth to their city center (tip: “beauty” is an underutilized economic development tool); the Center for an Agricultural Economy that enables financially viable local farm and food networks as a “full spectrum” food hub; and Burlington Energy Department with their thoughtful approach to renewables and electrification (inc. an electric bucket truck!). A special shout-out to all the great work being done by our host the Vermont Council for Rural Development. We are already building on the discussions and contacts made in our own work for Maine’s rural communities.