COMMENTARY: On Friday, my time as state director at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Rural Development will end. Little did I know when took this job in 2009 that there were great challenges facing New Mexico’s rural communities, and more down the road.
During the last eight years we worked through a recession, post-recession, stimulus program, sequestration, government shut-down, an economic stagnation in New Mexico’s economy, and a rise in in our state’s poverty level and unemployment rate. USDA Rural Development helped stabilize rural communities as these events unfolded by investing more than $2 billion and thousands of man hours to help rural communities toward a sustainable future.
After the housing crisis in 2008, there was great concern that the American dream of homeownership would be out of reach for many Americans. Knowing this, we worked harder than ever to improve our home-lending programs and doubled the number of USDA home loans made to New Mexico families annually. We also saw a dramatic increase the number of home-repair loans and grants for low-income residents.
USDA played a big role in growing New Mexico businesses, whether it was through building energy efficiency into local businesses through our Rural Energy for America program or providing extra security to lender’s business loans. We supported innovative value-added agricultural projects around the state that expanded opportunities for all the unique products we produce in New Mexico, such as chile, salsa and wine. We pushed hard to help credit flow where it was needed most by funding nonprofit organizations serving hundreds of New Mexico businesses through our re-lending programs.
USDA Rural Development excels at financing infrastructure, and during the last eight years we made historic leaps in infrastructure development. We financed more than 200 water and wastewater projects that now bring cleaner water to tens of thousands of New Mexicans. Many community hospitals, community centers and libraries received grants and loans from USDA. We also made massive upgrades to rural energy services and expanded broadband services to tens of thousands of residents across the state.
None of this could have been accomplished by one federal agency alone. We were fortunate to work with tremendous community partners along the way. I traveled to 165 New Mexico communities and was inspired to witness our state’s citizens come together to tackle so many tough issues. USDA did our small part, but it was those community members who came up with the solutions, filled out the paperwork, and helped turn the shovels.
USDA Rural Development did more than just finance projects and move on. We focused intensely on creating long-term sustainability in our rural communities. Through our Stronger Economies Together (SET) program, we helped five regions covering more than one-third of the state’s land mass receive training and assistance to create long-term community and economic development plans. I hope these efforts help our rural communities survive and prosper well into the future.
USDA’s work truly makes a difference in the lives of the proud men and women who live, work and raise families in rural America. It has been an honor to work in the Obama Administration, at the USDA, and for rural New Mexicans. I know the good work of USDA Rural Development will continue well into the future.
Que les vaya bien, Nuevo México.
Terry Brunner is the outgoing state director for USDA Rural Development in New Mexico.