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Politics & Government

US Agriculture Secretary Announces Rural Infrastructure Funds

two men stand at a podium in front of a brick building
John Smith

The US Agriculture Secretary visited the Town of Sullivan in Bridgeport Wednesday to unveil a $10 billion equity program that will provide low-cost loans for rural areas with infrastructure projects on their wish list.

The U.S. Rural Infrastructure Opportunity Fund could provide towns, villages and counties the necessary capital to take on energy projects, broadband access and upgrades, wastewater systems, and other rural service needs.  Secretary Vilsack says the fund will attract investors that can find a stable return on investment, with up to “a three or four percent return.”

CoBank, a national cooperative bank serving rural states and a member of the Farm Credit System, is the fund’s anchor investor, providing the fund’s initial $10 billion. Vilsack spoke Wednesday about the need to give back to rural communities that are experiencing poverty and population decline, even as they provide valuable contributions to their urban and suburban  counterparts: 
As the wireless world grows, Vilsack feels broadband needs to reach rural populations, especially Agri-businesses. “For agricultural producers, broadband expansion means the ability to access real-time markets, so they can make decisions in real time. That actually can cost them or make them money, depending upon what the markets are doing on a particular day and when they make a decision to sell product.”

Although the new $14 million Pump House in Bridgeport did not receive financing through the new program, it did receive a grant for half of the cost from the USDA. The other half was paid for by the state.  Town of Sullivan Supervisor John Becker says about 700 homes will no longer need septic tanks:

brick building
Credit John Smith / WAER News
The Town of Sullivan pump house provides much-needed septic processing for about 700 homes

“Some of the homes were seasonal camps at one time, which people have turned into year-round homes with families. Sometimes, the septic tanks only consisted of a pipe running to a ditch running to the lake, or running to a 55-gallon drum, so this gets all of that waste out of the environment here and goes and gets treated.”

The new Rural Infrastructure Opportunity Fund can be also utilized for construction of community facilities such as libraries, school and educational buildings, fire stations and hospitals.  Secretary Vilsack says during his tenure, the USDA has invested in more than 13,000 rural projects that create new businesses and jobs. The fund is part of an effort from the White House to provide vehicles for private equity investments to fund agriculture research and other interests central to rural communities.