NEWS

Investments in rural areas crucial in sustaining, growing communities

Michelle Stangler
Correspondent

Initiatives to grow rural areas in Wisconsin, such as the Rural Partners Network, strive to partner with communities to expand opportunities in highspeed internet, strengthening regional food systems benefiting agricultural producers, and many additional areas.

Five Star Energy Services underground utility construction workers clear debris in preparation to install the underground fiber optic cable on Wednesday, August 3, 2022 in Ripon, Wis. Federal monies are helping to bring access to highspeed internet in rural areas.

The Rural Partners Network (RPN) strives to connect federal resources from agencies such as the departments of agriculture, education, labor and more to help rural communities through job creation, infrastructure development and community improvement.

Wisconsin was part of the second cohort of states selected for the program among 10 other states in total. Community networks in Wisconsin includes Northern Wisconsin Community Networking including Ashland, Iron and Price counties, Greater Menominee Community Network including Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin and Menominee County, Forest County Community Network, Northwestern Wisconsin Community Network including Eau Claire, Dunn, Clark, Buffalo, Pepin and Chippewa counties and the Adam County Visionary Community Network.

The program is a hands-on technical assistance initiative, said Chief of Staff in Rural Business Services Steffanie Bezruki.

“Rural development staff are embedded in these communities to work hands on with businesses, nonprofits and local leaders,” said Bezruk. "Staff will assist by listening to them, and then connecting them with federal grants and resources they need, to achieve their vision for economic development.”

These investments show the diverse needs of rural communities within the network and offer to help meet the need in the area, Bezruki said.

Earlier this month, Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack and Ambassador Susan Rice, White House Domestic Policy Advisor were in Wisconsin and visited the Menominee tribal enterprises to highlight the community network that’s being led in partnership with their local county government, their tribal college and other partners in the area.

“Rural people make up American’s spirit and character and provide the everyday essentials our country depends on,” Vilsack said in a press release.

During the trip, Ambassador Rice and Secretary Vilsack highlighted their interest in advancing their sustainable forestry and wood products. The College of Menominee National will use a $344,895 Trial College Initiative Grant to make facility improvements in addition to add work trucks and a passenger van.

Another initiative is through USDA’s efforts to strengthen the food supply chain. Earlier in November an announcement led to Crescent Meats, LLC in Cadott being awarded a $1.5 million Meat and Poultry Processing Expansion Program grant. This funding comes from a pool of $233 million in grants and loans to help small and mid-sized meat processing plants expand to help boost competition in a highly concentrated industry.

The grant will help offset costs in the Chippewa County facility for a 19,400 square foot expansion project to increase production, add 35 jobs, improve food safety, and streamline processes, according to a press release.

“This is a husband-and-wife operation that the kids are now working at as well, that’s going to be able to expand as the result of this investment,” Bezruki said.

Investments into rural communities in the food sector can help increase competition in the meat and poultry processing sector and give consumers more choices at the grocery store, said Bezruki.

The pandemic shone the spotlight on an issue that needs critical attention - the importance of access to highspeed internet. Bezruki noted not only are small rural businesses impacted by broadband access, but farmers who aren’t able to take advantage of precision agriculture technologies because they don’t have connectivity are impacted, too.

Through the bipartisan infrastructure law, an investment of $2 billion in loans and grants are being available for high speed.

“We are just getting started," Bezruki said.

The USDA Rural Development agency helps rural communities grow and prosper and also includes efforts within the inflation reduction act, reconnect loan and grant program and the water and waste disposal loan and grant program.

There are many ways for rural communities to stay connected. More information on ways rural communities can stay connected, visit rural.gov.