Our Mission: Establish strong rural communities, social and economic justice, environmental stewardship, and genuine opportunity for all while engaging people in decisions that affect the quality of their lives and future of their communities.
Our Vision: Become the leading force engaging people and ideas in securing a better future for rural America.
Fighting the Good Fight for Policy Change
We gained a partner in the fight for limitations on federal farm program payments that subsidize mega farms to drive smaller operations out of business. Oxfam – one of the world’s largest international development organizations – wants big payments stopped because they are undermining Africa’s small farmers. Too often, family farmers around the world are pitted against each other. We’re helping them join forces.
Congress did not pass payment limitations, but we continue to build strength. Payment limitations gained the support of another major state commodity organization – the Iowa Corn Growers Association – thanks to the efforts of committed family farmers speaking out. And a Kellogg Foundation poll found voters in Iowa, Kansas, and Minnesota favored payment limits over other spending cuts by nearly three to one.
We fought to hold our key gains in the last farm bill – the Conservation Security Program, which rewards farmers and ranchers for good stewardship, and the Value Added Producers Grant Program, which helps family operations build new higher value markets. The Conservation Security Program survived an attack on its budget, but lost some funding. The Value Added Program emerged unscathed.
We helped fix some biases in the Conservation Security Program against farmers who rely on legume-based rotations for nitrogen. And we helped steer one-third of the Value Added Producer grants to projects specifically aimed at small and midsize farms or sustainable agriculture.
We joined with a coalition of conservation and rural development groups to work together in shaping the next farm bill to support family farms, conservation, and rural development. We hired a new organizer to build a National Rural Action Network – tens of thousands of people across the nation speaking out for rural America on critical issues before Congress.
In the Nebraska Legislature, we had our best year ever. With our friends and allies, we won $850,000 for grants to family farmers and ranchers for value added initiatives, $250,000 in grants to rural communities for entrepreneurial development, a doubling of funding for microenterprise development (businesses with five or fewer employees), and the nation’s first ever microenterprise investment tax credit.
Our Rural Enterprise Assistance Program (REAP) is one of the nation’s premier rural development programs. But we are not resting on our laurels.
REAP is aggressively growing its portfolio, surpassing $2.75 million in lending to rural microenterprise, businesses with five or fewer employees. It is now approaching 5,000 businesses served with training, technical assistance, or loans. This year we worked with over 500 businesses.
REAP serves all rural microentrepreneurs. It made strides in reaching out to women and Hispanics entrepreneurs – a growing part of rural America. We launched our new Hispanic Business Center to serve over 50 rural Hispanic entrepreneurs. And REAP’s Women’s Business Center received the “Excellence in Microenterprise Work with Women Entrepreneurs” award from the Association for Enterprise Opportunity (AEO).
REAP is a national model for small business-based rural development. It guides our efforts to build a program in the next farm bill to provide funding for other rural states to establish statewide small business development services.
Hometown Competitiveness Initiative
We are one of four core partners in an initiative led by the Nebraska Community Foundation and funded by the Kellogg Foundation to bring a four-pronged development process to rural communities. Hometown Competitiveness is based on the philosophy that rural communities can control their own destiny by investing their time, talent, and money in small business development, leadership development, youth engagement, and local philanthropy (charitable giving).
The Center’s REAP is a major element in the initiative, providing business training, technical assistance, and loans to existing and potential small businesses. We also arranged youth engagement and leadership development activities in six communities and are facilitating development activities in Knox County.
The Center will play the lead role in carrying the lessons learned to state and federal policymakers. Hometown Competitiveness can provide a model for federal and state programs to support local initiatives to revitalize rural communities across the nation.
New Farm Opportunities and Sustainable Agriculture
We continue to open doors of opportunity to a new generation of farmers. We made three loans of livestock to beginning farmers in partnership with Heifer Project. And we joined forces with the state of Nebraska, University of Nebraska, and Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society to launch the Farm Beginnings initiative to provide beginning farmer training.
It not enough to help farmers get started; we must also develop opportunities to prosper. Toward that end we assisted seven small cooperatives with 114 members. For them we prepared two feasibility studies and seven market analyses. The cooperatives’ activities include selling natural meats, honey, fresh produce, and products from ostrich and emu fat.
We assisted one dozen Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota family farmers in forming a new cooperative – Family Farmers and Ranchers Meats (FFARM) – to negotiate fair prices for volume delivery of family-farm raised natural hogs and cattle. The cooperative completed a feasibility study and was legally established during the year.
We worked with 39 farmers and three Natural Resource Districts to demonstrate innovative ways of building soil organic matter, thereby reducing atmospheric greenhouse gases. We believe this will ultimately provide farmers across the nation income-earning opportunities as the world struggles to manage climate change.
Doing Our Homework: Research and Analysis
We’ve become one of the nation’s leading sources of analysis on asset-based rural development. By asset-based development, we mean development that helps low and moderate-income people build assets – start businesses, own homes, and gain education.
We provided timely analysis to the national media, policymakers, and the public on proposed federal budget cuts affecting rural America, including a devastating critique of the “Strengthening America’s Communities Initiative.” The Bush Administration Initiative would have eliminated 18 community development programs and replaced them with one – which our analysis demonstrated would bypass most rural communities.
Together with Iowa State University, we analyzed the extent to which a series of USDA programs were serving small and midsize farms. We found much room for improvement. We presented our preliminary report in Washington briefings to 25 congressional and USDA staff and national media.
We published six editions of the Rural Action Brief distributed to 1,900 readers across the nation seeking in-depth analysis of critical rural issues. Our analysis is highly respected by reporters across the nation. It has appeared in over 1,000 news outlets from coast to coast and thereby brought the critical issues facing rural communities to all Americans.
Organizational Strengthening, Communication, and Administration
We are putting the voice of rural America before the nation. We passed a milestone in getting our stories played on as many as 1,300 radio stations across the nation. Our newsletter and website set high standards for timely information on rural issues. Our web blog allows our supporters to talk with us.
The Center runs a lean but effective administrative operation. We passed our annual audit with flying colors, demonstrating that grants and donations are properly spent and accounted. We’re a leader in adopting procedures and creating a culture that prevent self-serving actions by management, such as those that brought down some of the nation’s largest corporations. Our top salary remains little more than twice the lowest.
We cut the number of staff devoted to support services and administration by replacing two directors who left with one director of Administration and Organizational Development. That enables us to commit more of our resources to media outreach and financial development to build power for change. Even with the reduction, our administrative staff is unsurpassed in timeliness and effectiveness in keeping the books, paying the bills, and getting out large mailings when developments in Congress demand quick and massive action.
Our new internal staff Unity Council is building teamwork and skills within the staff. The Center has never been blessed with a more cohesive, effective, and motivated staff.
In all of these efforts, we are guided by a skilled Board of Directors with unparalleled dedication and passion for our work and mission. They keep us inspired and on track.