USDA to add Kentucky to states receiving targeted efforts on poverty

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack met with the Herald-Leader editorial board in Lexington on Thursday.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack met with the Herald-Leader editorial board in Lexington on Thursday. Lexington Herald-Leader

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, along with Gov. Steve Beshear and U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somerset, will announce Friday that Kentucky is one of four new "StrikeForce" states, which will mean increased access to the USDA's programs targeting rural poverty.

Tennessee, West Virginia, and Louisiana also will become StrikeForce states.

That could entail more money for Rural Development projects, Farm Service Agency and Natural Resource Conservation Service programs, as well as expanded Food and Nutrition Service, such as summer feeding programs for 73 Kentucky counties.

"I think it's a new way of doing business, more effective way of targeting resources," Vilsack said. "There are 703 counties that have been persistently poor counties, with high poverty rates for extended periods of time. Of those, 537 are located in rural America. It is fairly obvious to me that there is a significant rural component to the poverty America is dealing with."

The effort will work in tandem with the federal "Promise Zones" designation announced last week by President Barack Obama for eight southeastern Kentucky counties, as well as an initiative conceived by Beshear and Rogers aimed at diversifying and revitalizing Eastern Kentucky's battered economy.

Hundreds of people have submitted ideas as part of that initiative, called SOAR, for Shaping Our Appalachian Region.

Rogers and Beshear are scheduled to release the initial report on the effort Friday.

The USDA's work focuses on getting more people in poor, rural places to better use existing programs by increasing participation, Vilsack said.

Since 2010, through StrikeForce initiatives, the USDA has delivered $9.7 billion in loan and grant resources through 80,300 "actions," such as home loans, business loans, funding for conservation projects and additional food assistance to schools in 16 states and tribal areas.

As with the Promise Zone, the StrikeForce designation means that Kentucky's applications for competitive grants or funding will get preferential "points" in scoring that will effectively move Kentucky's projects to the head of the line.

Vilsack did not put a dollar figure on potential assistance for Kentucky, which he said could come from a combination of new and existing funds.

The aid could be used to address needs for facilities, such as building schools, equipping hospitals or providing new library resources, he said, through more effective use of farm loans and conservation and housing programs.

"It's about focusing, leveraging and coordinating resources," Vilsack said. "The reality is that as more states and more areas of states learn how to participate in programs, the expectation is that participation will continue, so in a sense it is about more money coming in. And oftentimes, there are opportunities in some programs where not all the money is spent, it accumulates back in D.C., and folks are given a chance to go after it."

The Promise Zone designation will work in a similar way.

It does not include money designated for development in the eight southeastern Kentucky counties included in the zone.

Rather, it will give the area an edge in competing for federal funding for housing, education, economic development, public safety and other programs.

As in the StrikeForce program, the counties will get extra points in their applications for money that is awarded in competition with other places across the country.

"That is a significant advantage," Vilsack said Thursday in an interview at the Herald-Leader.

The Kentucky counties included in the zone are Harlan, Bell, Letcher, Perry, Leslie, Clay, Knox and much of Whitley.

The Kentucky zone is among the first five designated in the nation under what the Obama administration hopes will be one of its signature anti-poverty initiatives. The others in the first group are in Los Angeles, San Antonio, Philadelphia and the Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma.

Under the StrikeForce program, USDA staff, specifically the state directors of FSA, Natural Resources Conservation and Rural Development, will work with state, local, community and university officials to identify specific needs that can be addressed by USDA programs and help build program participation.

Vilsack said USDA wants to foster job and industry growth that can come out of agriculture, such as biomass processing for the chemical industry in addition to fuels.

Industrial hemp, which has been a particular interest to many Kentucky farmers and to state Agriculture Commissioner James Comer for those uses, could play a role.

Comer "is right," Vilsack said. "Industrial hemp is an opportunity."

Vilsack said he's spoken with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder on legalizing hemp without threatening law enforcement efforts against drugs.

"They are in the process of looking at that. I don't know where it is in the process, but I've sent them some material asking them to see if they can figure out a way to walk that line," Vilsack said. "Industrial hemp is a product that can be very much a part of a bio-based manufacturing opportunity. ... I think it's an opportunity that could create additional ways in which we can use our land effectively and efficiently, and clearly it is a product that is in demand because Canadians are selling a lot of it.

"If we can grow it, and it doesn't create a problem with criminal prosecutions, that would be a good thing. I am looking at ways in which we can diversify agriculture, using our natural resources more effectively to rebuild the rural economy."

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