Confirmed earlier this month as USDA’s Under Secretary for Rural Development, Xochitl Torres Small brings to the post her Capitol Hill experience, something she hopes to build on now that she serves a larger constituency. The former congressman – and member of the House Ag Committee – spoke to Agri-Pulse from her home in New Mexico with suitcases filled for an upcoming move to the nation’s capital after working her first weeks on the job at distance.
The following conversation has been edited slightly for clarity and brevity.
Q: With so many different programs that you have in your rural development portfolio, how do you try to prioritize and focus areas when you are starting out?
A: You’re absolutely right, Rural Development does almost everything under the sun for rural communities, so there is a lot to do. In the beginning it is important for me to get a feel for all the work that is being done, and I am really grateful for my experience as a representative of a rural district to know how crucial rural development is. So we can talk about all the programs they do, but sometimes it’s easier – and I think it’s better for rural communities – when you think of rural development as a whole. You can contact the field office or we reach out to communities to identify their specific needs and determine how to invest in them, to help bring a community’s vision to life.
So, on rural development priorities, I am deeply grateful to be able to work under the leadership of President (Joe) Biden, Vice President (Kamala) Harris and Secretary of Agriculture (Tom) Vilsack, d ‘be a true ally. for people in rural communities by investing in infrastructure and opportunities that help build back better. A fundamental part of this is supporting rural communities on the front lines of climate change by building resilience to disasters, be they forest fires, droughts or floods, while making smart investments in the face of climate change. climate such as increasing access to renewable energies and fuel infrastructure, then creating new income opportunities in these markets.
Furthermore, it is about increasing equity, and rural development plays a key role in this, as many communities across rural America have been left behind. And so, fighting for it as we tackle systemic injustices to build a better future for everyone.
Q: During COVID, we have seen many hospitals overwhelmed with a patient load and often overwhelmed with resources. I know RD has a portfolio for community facilities including hospitals, so can you tell us how you start to deploy more funds to help these rural hospitals?
This is such a crucial question, and it is an example where rural development has key resources to help invest. The most common are community facilities; as a rep I worked in the midst of COVID with a rural community that was trying to keep their clinic open and trying to identify resources, and rural development was one of the first places we went. turned. So it is certainly important for investing in future resilience.
Rural development is also setting up a program – it has already done so – and getting money to scale up and support hospitals as well as clinics, and to provide vaccines and to scale up and get some of the support needed by people. people with COVID, or people who are trying to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Q: You mentioned the outreach in some of these rural areas, and I know that has been a big part for them to know that these programs are options, but you don’t exactly have a lot of staff in place, in particularly at the state level. I know you have temp and temp but what can people expect to find out where you stand with the current staff and where you hope to be maybe six or 12 months from now.
The first thing I want to do is simply acknowledge the amazing public servants who have supported rural development as we struggle to ensure that we have the resources and people in place that we need to accomplish our enormous mission.
I’m the first undersecretary that Rural Development has seen in over four years, so it starts at the top to make sure we get the investments we need in rural communities.
You also mentioned the directors of state, and that’s so crucial to the mission. I talked about the importance of the state or the field offices to connect directly with the leaders on the ground, with the people who need these resources. So we worked hard to identify the right people to do this job.
Rural development is a huge portfolio, and finding people who have experience in all of these areas is crucial, but I’m really excited about the first installment of state directors who have joined us – I have in has followed the same direction as them – and it’s exciting to see the kind of people who will lead in the United States.
A good example is our new Alabama state manager, Nivory Gordon. He has worked in rural development for three decades, so he knows all of these resources that can help bring a community’s vision to life, but he also has experience on the ground as to the importance of supporting people who are all support America. He is a cattle breeder; he runs the operation with his wife and children. And so this is a good example of the kind of fit that we are looking for in leading rural development at the national level.
Q: Another rural development program is rural broadband. Tell us a little more broadly about how this is evolving and whether or not you have sufficient resources right now.
This is a huge need as we take a look at what infrastructure can help level the playing field so that no matter where you are in the country you can compete in the global market, broadband or any other market. good reliable internet is crucial. This is one of the key things we have all achieved amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
I’m so proud of rural development, of the work they’ve done to try to get the money out quickly in the midst of a pandemic, putting together an entirely new program and working to give these awards, and I’m delighted to continue working with rural development to speed up the process as we can get through a lot of reports that are needed – all environmental and historical reports – to get the money.
So when it comes to how to reach these underserved populations, the people who have no internet at all or the people who have the internet, it just doesn’t make sense because it takes so long that you can’t even not make a video, finding the means to access them is a challenge. Rural development has a unique set of skills to achieve this, from pre-existing relationships with rural power cooperatives, to understanding how to work with a hospital and library to bring the internet closer to the latter. kilometer, and understand that sometimes it is not always the maps that will have the best information but it is the people on the ground. Rural development is therefore a crucial partner and will coordinate with the other entities taking up this broadband challenge, whether it is (the National Telecommunications and Information Administration) or (the Federal Communications Commission), ensuring that we are all working together, and there is strong coordination.
Editor’s Note: Spencer Chase contributed to this report. Wyant is President and Founder of Agri-Pulse Communications Inc. For more information, visit www.Agri-Pulse.com.