Revitalizing rural Iowa: Annette Sweeney named state director for USDA Rural Development in Iowa
By DARCY DOUGHERTY
DES MOINES – What if millions of dollars were available to enhance rural development in Iowa, from modern medical facilities to expanded broadband infrastructure? It’s not only possible but has been a reality
in recent years through
USDA Rural Development in Iowa.
Now the agency has a new asset to help spur economic development across the state, since President Donald Trump’s Administration recently appointed Annette Sweeney as the new state director for USDA Rural Development in Iowa.
“I want to bring rural back to economic development in Iowa,” said Sweeney, a former state lawmaker and ag leader whose family farms in the Buckeye area. “My new role gives me a whole new way to help light the spark to benefit agriculture and rural Iowa.”
Sweeney brings a variety of experiences as a parent, teacher, family farmer, business owner and church volunteer to her new role at USDA Rural Development in Iowa, which provides loans and grants to help expand economic opportunities and create jobs. Sweeney has been impressed by how hard the USDA Rural Development staff work to help support infrastructure improvements, business development, home ownership, community services such as schools, public safety and health care, and high-speed internet access in rural areas.
“When you see something that would improve your community, it’s inspiring when UDSA Rural Development can play a role in making it a reality,” Sweeney said.
In 2017, USDA Rural Development in Iowa helped fund a variety of projects in the Farm News coverage area, including Studio 21, a business-development center in Estherville; a new fire truck for the City of Kamrar; and opportunities to promote job creation opportunities in northwest Iowa through the O’Brien County Economic Development Corporation.
“I call these intense opportunities,” said Sweeney, who served from 2009 to 2013 in the Iowa House of Representatives, where her work improved opportunities for rural businesses and enhanced the quality of life for rural Iowans. “Our staff is excited about these possibilities.”
Focusing on rural broadband access
USDA Rural Development has 11 offices across the state to serve the 1.7 million Iowans living in rural areas. Locations include a state office in Des Moines, along with area offices in Albia, Atlantic, Humboldt, Indianola, Iowa Falls, Le Mars, Mount Pleasant, Storm Lake, Tipton and Waverly.
Since 2009, the size of the USDA Rural Development in Iowa has been reduced by more than 25 percent. While the organization had more than 120 employees eight years ago, the team now includes 82 employees statewide.
“This is a lean organization,” said Sweeney, who noted that the USDA Rural Development’s budget in Iowa last year was $500 million. “Our team is the ‘boots on the ground’ in Iowa who are the eyes and ears of USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue.”
This focus on needs at the local and state levels helps give Iowans a voice at the federal level. Since reliable, affordable broadband access remains a challenge in many parts of rural Iowa, Sweeney will emphasize the need for improved rural broadband access in Iowa when she travels to Washington, D.C. in early December.
“This is a key item I want to discuss when I meet with Secretary Perdue and other USDA Rural Development directors,” Sweeney said.
Nearly 40 percent of rural residents and businesses lack access to the same quality service available in urban centers, according to USDA. In November 2017, USDA announced it is investing more than $200 million in infrastructure projects to bring broadband to hundreds of unserved and underserved rural communities across the country.
“Broadband infrastructure is vital to our economy and quality of life in rural America,” Sweeney emphasized.
Supporting Iowa’s rural entrepreneurs and innovators
Sweeney knows first-hand how essential rural broadband is to Iowa in today’s global economy. She has participated in trade missions to Brazil, China and South Korea promoting the quality of Iowa agricultural products. She also served on the State Agriculture and Rural Leaders board of directors working with legislators across the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom.
All these experiences have convinced her of the value of investing in rural economic development in its various forms.
“The goal of rural development is to connect businesses with their customers, whether that’s farmers to markets or doctors to patients,” said Sweeney, who has served on the Governor’s Council on Agriculture Education and has volunteered with the Southfork Watershed Alliance, Iowa Corn Growers Association and America Agri-Women, the nation’s largest coalition of farm, ranch and agribusiness women. “We also want to support entrepreneurs and innovators in rural Iowa.”
Sweeney and the USDA Rural Development team in Iowa look forward to helping revitalize rural Iowa. “Our goal is to give rural people a leg up, not a hand out, to help them prosper,” she said. “I want to help Iowa become an example of what rural economic development can do to improve people’s quality of life.”
For more information about USDA Rural Development in Iowa, log onto www.rd.usda.gov/ia.
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