Nearly 40 small businesses in sleepy villages from Oregon to New York are part of MaryJane Butters’ Project FARM—short for “First-class American Rural Made.” Butters, an organic farmer in northern Idaho, conceived the idea of putting a Project FARM label on qualified goods made in rural America as a way to support people "struggling to maintain a rural lifestyle" as "rural communities fade and farmers continue to disappear from our landscape."
According to the Council of Economic Advisors, the American farming industry isn’t in such bad shape. The Council forecast net farm income at $131 billion in 2013. Adjusted for inflation, that’s a 46 percent increase from 2008 and the highest net U.S. farm income since 1973.
Still, the Farm Bill that President Obama signed on Friday includes a major new initiative to help small businesses in rural U.S. “The importance of the Farm Bill goes well beyond the role of agriculture, by providing technical assistance and financing for long-term investments in the future of rural communities,” according to the Council’s report.
The “Made in Rural America” initiative will apply federal resources to help rural businesses take advantage of new investment opportunities and to access markets abroad. The initiative comes more than two years after the completion of the three-month national fact-finding tour of rural communities by the White House’s Rural Council.
Based on rural Americans' concerns and challenges that were uncovered during the tour, the President is instructing the Council, in coordination with the Departments of Agriculture and Commerce as well as the Small Business Administration, the Export-Import Bank, the Office of the United States Trade Representative, and other agencies, to “commit to connecting more rural businesses of all types to export information and assistance through a comprehensive strategy.”
Over the next 9 months, the President said the Made in Rural America initiative would:
- Host five regional forums to provide rural businesses with training on the basics of exporting, accessing federal support, and participating in major U.S. and overseas trade events.
- Convene a conference to connect “major investors with rural business leaders, high-level government officials, economic development experts, and other partners.”
- Offer training sessions to equip local USDA Rural Development staff to counsel businesses on export opportunities and resources and to deliver support or refer rural businesses to federal services.
- Provide enhanced export counseling for rural businesses to connect with foreign buyers.
- Promote rural-produced goods and services at trade missions, buyer programs, trade shows, and other promotion programs.
- Educate local leaders across the country on the importance of rural exports and connect these leaders with federal resources and information to better support rural businesses to develop their potential for exporting.
- Use the BusinessUSA portal to better connect rural businesses with export and investment resources and coordinate support from across the federal government.
It’s not clear which of the many federal definitions for "rural" the new White House plan will abide. MaryJane Butters considers only towns with fewer than 40 stoplights to be rural—and a business must be based in one to qualify for the Project FARM label. But Butters and the White House probably also differ on the definition of a small business that will help people in farm communities maintain the rural lifestyle. The President's investment initiative, he said, will "highlight successful projects in energy; biofuels and bioproducts; infrastructure, from transportation to water systems to telecommunications; healthcare; manufacturing; and local and regional food systems."
So, the crafters and candle makers that feature the Project FARM label aren’t exactly the target of the Made in Rural America initiative. But they say a rising tide lifts all boats.