Monday, January 18, 2010

American Farm Bureau Annual Meeting in Seattle

Farm Bureaus Lead Rural Development Efforts
Seattle--There was a time when railroads were the perfect rural development tool. Then the interstate system brought prosperity—or in some cases decline—to certain towns.

These days, “rural development” can refer to many different things, some of which were discussed by representatives of state Farm Bureaus at an informational session held during the American Farm Bureau Federation’s annual meeting. State Farm Bureaus have been involved in separate rural development efforts that work to expand broadband access in Kansas, promote local foods in Ohio and build vibrant communities in North Carolina.

“Farm Bureau has a responsibility to assume a position of leadership,” said North Carolina Farm Bureau President Larry Wooten, who moderated the session. In order to stay vibrant and healthy, rural communities depend on local farmers and ranchers, but the reverse is also true: farmers and ranchers depend on vibrant and healthy local communities, Wooten added.
The Kansas Farm Bureau is heavily involved in a project called Connect Kansas, a subsidiary of the national non-profit Connected Nation. Connect Kansas’ goal is to map and expand broadband coverage in rural Kansas.

The intent, said Harry Watts, KFB’s managing director of governmental relations, is to “create a national model in Kansas” to help other states expand broadband access as well. The program has several key components, including mapping the entire state’s broadband infrastructure.

Connect Kansas is also conducting a survey to find out how citizens are using the Internet, where they are getting online and what prevents them from connecting. The program is also targeting what Watts referred to as the “disenfranchised” – those who don’t use the Internet simply because they can’t afford a laptop. Broadband access has a huge impact on the viability of rural communities, Watts said, affecting everything from attracting businesses to leadership development to distance learning opportunities, and even things like health care.

The Ohio Farm Bureau Federation, through its involvement in the Ohio Food Policy Council, is working on several initiatives to help boost rural development by helping farmers develop new markets for their farm products.

Among these initiatives, said Adam Sharp, senior director of legislative and regulatory policy for Ohio Farm Bureau, are developing a mobile poultry processing unit in the state helping schools offer local foods in their cafeterias; and directing resources toward improving the Ohio MarketMaker program, which helps farmers connect to consumers and food businesses – and helps food businesses and consumers connect to farmers.

North Carolina Farm Bureau is involved in a wide array of rural development initiatives, said Debbie Hamrick, director of specialty crops for NCFB. They include Farm to Fork (a local foods initiative), the Farm Energy Efficiency Project, the “Strategic Plan to Protect North Carolina’s Agricultural Water Resources,” Dairy Advantage (a program designed to help stabilize and grow the state’s dairy industry), and Healthy Living for a Lifetime (which provides rural North Carolinians with free health screenings, job creation and information on leading a healthier lifestyle). She advised those interested in helping their rural communities to think outside the box. “Reach out to traditional and non-traditional partners,” she said.

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