Doug O’Brien, deputy under secretary for the United States Department of Agriculture hosted a round table discussion in the Harold Bierl Community Room. O’Brien opened up discussion about problems Iowans are seeing.
Doug O’Brien, deputy under secretary for the United States Department of Agriculture hosted a round table discussion in the Harold Bierl Community Room. O’Brien opened up discussion about problems Iowans are seeing.
Friday, September 28, 2012

The Under Secretary for Rural Development for the U.S. Department of Agriculture attended a round table discussion at the Harold Bierl Community Room in Carroll and touted economic-growth opportunities available to rural America.

Doug O’Brien, the under secretary, grew up on a farm in Dubuque County, Iowa. A conference in Wisconsin brought him to the Midwest.

He said he tries to do as much outreach as possible.

O’Brien had suggestions for opportunity for local communities.

He said he’s gathered several ideas from traveling back and forth between Washington, D.C., and Iowa.

“The opportunities in rural America are as good as we’ve seen in generations,” O’Brien said.

He said Iowa has a chance to attract entrepreneurs by building and creating an economy based on natural resources.

Beyond that, he said things are going on to help the economy grow such as renewable energy. He asked where the nearest ethanol factory was and what kind of opportunity that added for the community.

O’Brien said he’s seen people trying to attract city dwellers with rural amenities such as hunting and boating and that’s worked well.

He said he’s also seen growing interest in buying locally produced food. There’s a growing interest in where food comes from and how it’s made.

O’Brien said people are already willing to pay more money for that information, and the USDA wants to help entrepreneurs build on that idea.

The USDA has already supported entrepreneurs by helping 7 million people update broadband telecommunication to modern speeds.

“We’re just on the cusp of seeing what broadband can do for rural communities,” O’Brien said.

He said the goal is to support the efforts of communities to look at their economies in a regional way.

O’Brien also mentioned that people in eastern Iowa’s Dubuque County are doing some interesting things with renewable energy and low-income housing. He said it’s still in trial stages but there’s talk about taking the program to Jackson County.

Manning Mayor Harvey Dales asked about the future of natural-gas production for Iowans.

He said Manning already has rural water and electricity and said broadband is great, but Iowa still depends on its natural gas from far-away places.

Dales said that small gas lines are adding to the problem.

He said farmers rely on those lines to dry their crops and several other uses.

O’Brien said there’s a grant program called Community Facilities that may help cover that, but the grant for essential facilities  states that at least 51 percent of what’s used must be used by the community.

Dales said towns that need the assistance are small and the farming operations are large so that probably wouldn’t help his case.

O’Brien mentioned two more grants. One is the Rural Business Opportunity Grant, but the federal government allocates only $3 million for the whole country in that program. He said that makes it very competitive.

The other is the Rural Business Enterprise Grant, which is allocated between $25 million and $30 million.

That money goes to the states, then the states are able to allocate that money to fund strategic planning and revolving-loan funds.

O’Brien asked what the biggest threat to the area is. Most agreed that it is the possibility of losing the Tyson meatpacking plant in Denison. The plant could close as early as June 2013 and could put 300 to 400 people out of work. Those in attendance also discussed how hard it would be to refurbish an old kill facility.