DES MOINES, Iowa — The U.S. Department of Agriculture's focus has traditionally been on food production, agriculture and natural resources but under the administration of President Barack Obama the USDA also has taken on a broader rural economic development role.
The agency has funded energy projects, small business loans, upgrades to power lines and other electrical equipment, water and wastewater treatment facilities and broadband expansion to improve high speed Internet. The USDA also has provided funding to help low-income rural residents build their financial literacy and learn to prepare income tax returns.
Providing such financial support seems to stray from the agency's fundamental role, but Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said rural development is an important part of its mission.
"Part of our responsibility is to support rural America and I am very much focused on this as secretary," he said in an interview with The Associated Press. "There are opportunities for the USDA to complement its traditional role supporting production agriculture given the fact that our famers are extraordinarily successful and innovative and efficient and as a result we've seen a decline in the number of farmers needed to produce most of the food we consume. We have to figure out ways to complement agriculture and further develop rural resources."
Critics have viewed some efforts as outside the responsibility of the department. For example, the USDA's plan announced in May to offer up to $100 million in grants to help pay for the installation of 10,000 gas pumps that offer blends of gasoline ranging from 15 percent ethanol up to 85 percent ethanol was met with harsh criticism.
In March, 15 Republicans and three Democrats in Congress wrote a letter to a House appropriations subcommittee on agriculture and rural development, asking for language in next year's funding bill that would prohibit the Department of Agriculture from making grants for the installation of blender pumps and not allow the department to pay the salaries or expenses of personnel to promote exporting ethanol.
"The federal government's creation of an artificial market for the ethanol industry is negatively impacting the American consumers, livestock farmers, food producers, retailers, air and water quality, and the ability to feed our nation's hungry," the letter said.
Vilsack makes no apologies for the expanded economic development mission.
"There has been a significant focus on that in this administration. It's because this administration is focused on job creation, trying to bring manufacturing back, trying to improve income opportunities," he said.
Last week, Vilsack was promoting a new round of funding of up to $800,000 for the administration's Local Foods, Local Places program. It's a partnership between the USDA and other federal agencies to provide direct technical support for farmers markets, food hubs and other local food systems.
Local food sales topped $11.7 billion in 2014, according to industry estimates.
There are 8,400 farmers markets in the U.S., the USDA said, and about 150,000 farmers now sell products directly to consumers through the local markets.
Vilsack said USDA has invested $800 million in more than 29,000 food hubs, farmers markets, small-scale processing facilities and other local and regional food projects.
The agency has released data for each state to illustrate its commitment to helping local economies.
The USDA said since 2009 it has invested in 1,000 local food projects in Iowa and 617 in Nebraska. The agency has made investments to help 1,583 rural Iowa businesses and 642 in Nebraska. In Iowa USDA said it provided $112.8 million and $10.9 million in Nebraska to help rural manufacturers increase production and capacity.