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Rhiannon Hampson is the USDA Rural Development Maine State Director.
As an organic livestock and dairy farmer, I know all too well the strain that Maine small-business owners are under as we navigate the recent uncertainties. When we’re being honest, we let people know that even when there isn’t a global supply chain disruption and a deadly pandemic, we face unique challenges in rural Maine. Getting our goods to market over roads and bridges that are neglected, finding inspected processing for our livestock, attracting qualified workers when they cannot secure affordable housing — these pressures keep us up at night, but they don’t often make it into our social media feeds. It is there that we highlight our hope; the tenacity of spirit and passion for our work that keeps us going is featured in the stories we tell each other, and it is being reflected now more than ever in our administration.
Recently, President Joe Biden used his first State of the Union address to talk about where our country has been and where we are going.
The president highlighted challenges Americans have faced and how, slowly but surely, we are finding routes to success. As we manage rising prices at the grocery store and the gas pump, it is easy to feel discouraged, but in recognizing the tangible investments made in our communities in the past year, we find a brighter future.
Here at home, we like to tell the starfish parable. I can often be found remarking, “It matters to that starfish,” meaning that every investment of kindness, of time, of critical funding, it all counts to the people benefiting. By investing in water infrastructure, business opportunities, and the American food supply chain, USDA Rural Development is helping rural communities — and it matters.
This year the Rural Development Community Facilities Direct Loan and Grant Program awarded more than $100,000 to the Old Town YMCA to upgrade their fire suppression system. This allows them to safely continue serving thousands of people in Penobscot County. In December, we awarded over $22 million in western Maine to keep pollution out of our critical waterways and habitats, supporting safe drinking water and waste systems in Oxford, and Franklin counties.
At Rural Development, we are proud to keep the promise the Biden-Harris administration made to the people of Maine: We will partner to provide clean, safe, livable communities that support economic development.
Through the Food Supply Chain Guaranteed Loan Program and the Meat and Poultry Processing Expansion Program, we’re answering the president’s call to create more resilient, diverse, and secure supply chains. I know that the biggest hurdle we face on my small farm is a lack of processing; we can grow more food for our neighbors’ tables if we have the inspected facilities to send it to.
We can grow our economy from the bottom up and the middle out by providing the support small businesses need to be sustainable. Maine’s own Russell Libby taught me about the multiplier effect; each dollar spent at local businesses circulates in our economy, strengthening each of us as it does so. The president’s commitment to buy American products can only be realized if we have the goods to purchase here. Maine RD is committed to supporting our manufacturers through Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program, Rural Business Development Grants, and Value Added Producer Grant programming. Last year alone our business programs team invested nearly $85 million here in Maine which includes support for energy independence through the Rural Energy for America Program.
This year, with a slate of new programs brought forward by the Biden-Harris administration, Rural Development in Maine is poised to go even further in our support of sustainable communities. We’re getting Mainers into safe, affordable living spaces through our Single-Family Housing program, and making sure that we honor our commitment to provide equitable access to federal resources, creating community spaces, and job opportunities that help us keep our young graduates right here at home. The message can get lost amidst the noise and worry of what’s wrong, but each one of these investments is helping us to do better, and it matters to that starfish.
I believe in us here in Maine wholeheartedly. We are leading the way with the thoughtful management of our natural resources and our pragmatic commitment to not be blown off course. In the face of hard times and daunting news, it is more important than ever to celebrate our successes and wins, and at Maine Rural Development that is exactly what we are doing.