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Home » Valentine's Day » USDA talks plans to improve internet, water access in rural Upstate New York

USDA talks plans to improve internet, water access in rural Upstate New York

Depopulation in rural areas of the United States is a looming concern. A staggering 24% of all U.S. counties are depopulating, and 91% of those counties are rural. Now more than ever, leaders at every level must grapple with rural exodus and examine the changes needed in order to revitalize these communities.

Xochitl Torres Small, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Under Secretary for Rural Development, recently sat down with’s Ted Baker to discuss the importance of on-the-ground initiatives in small town America, President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address, and the issues facing rural communities.

Small grew up in New Mexico. Her grandparents immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico to pick cotton in the Mesilla Valley, which is the same region Small would go on to represent in Congress from 2019 to 2021. As the U.S. representative for New Mexico’s 2nd congressional district, Small served on the House agriculture and armed services committees. She has been in her current role with the USDA since 2021.

“One of my favorite things about Rural Development is that we have people on the ground serving the communities they live in,” said Small. “To me, that really enforces the Biden-Harris administration’s commitment to rural communities and being true partners with them. It’s not ‘these are the programs we have,’ it’s ‘I’m from this community, and I know how we can work together to get things done.’”

When asked about her thoughts on President Biden’s State of the Union address, Small expressed excitement over Biden’s remarks on jobs and the economy.

“I see rural development as a fundamental part of that investment. Whether it’s supporting our farmers when it comes to renewable energy opportunities- as well as value-added opportunities, especially with dairies- that’s a crucial component. Or, whether it’s supporting a new business entrepreneur to get good, reliable internet so that they can have that business in the home they grew up in instead of having to leave and go to the city,” explained Small.

One of USDA Rural Development’s initiatives is to expand broadband internet to rural communities through their ReConnect Loan and Grant Program. The program provides funds for the costs of construction, improvement, and acquisition of resources needed to provide broadband service in eligible rural areas. Small said she’s grateful for the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal, which was signed in law in November 2021 and provides additional funding for ReConnect.

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Besides limited internet access, another hurdle rural communities face is limited access to clean water and inefficient use of water supply.

“We look both at how to make sure our water is clean and of good quality, but also that we have the quantity we need to do the work that so many people do across rural America,” said Small.

Another issue Small touched on is the federal Farm Bill, which is updated every five years and will go through the legislative process again in 2023.

“I’m interested in making sure that we have the infrastructure we need to continue to deliver on things like good, reliable internet, water, and beyond. That means making sure that, as we do these incredible programs, we have the staff that we need- 45% of Rural Development is eligible for retirement. They’re staying because they love the mission because they care about the work,” explained Small. “But how do we make sure we’re planning for those succession pieces? We’ve got people who are so tied to the mission, but they notice these little inefficiencies in the old technology that we have. So, how can we invest in some of those technological challenges?”

The USDA’s Rural Development mission area currently offers 47 programs. Small said that one of her goals is to ensure Rural Development is responding to farmers’ concerns in a flexible way that addresses the new, emerging needs of the industry.

“I know that all our futures are tied up in the future of rural America. What’s going to happen 20 years from now depends on what we invest in today,” said Small. “Good, reliable internet will be crucial to support the future entrepreneurs of rural America, and making sure that we have the high-quality water we need. The best resource in rural America is its people, and as long as we’re partnering with them, I think we’re in good shape.”

You can listen to the rest of Ted Baker’s interview with Xochitl Torres Small, the USDA’s Under Secretary for Rural Development, here.