USDA program provides help for Colorado farmers, ranchers
For The Fence Post
Like many farmers in Weld County, Les Hardesty is feeling the pressure from the recent collapse of the New Frontier Bank of Greeley, the state’s largest agriculture lender.
Hardesty, who milks 650 cows west of Greeley, and who is the chairman of the Dairy Farmers of America Mountain Area Council, knows many dairy farmers are concerned they are going to be forced out of business.
“The people in the dairy industry want to stay,” he said. “Production is still very strong.” But rising feed costs and dropping dairy prices may make that unlikely.
“We want to build methane digesters on farms and be able to sell the excess power (they’ll generate) to power companies and help our city cousins with electricity,” he said. “Take fertilizer and generate electricity.
That would be a win-win. The product left over sequesters carbon, you put it in the soil.”
But putting big plans into action takes money, and the dairy farmers don’t have any extra money.
Enter Jim Isgar.
Isgar left his state senate seat recently to become the new state director of the USDA Rural Development, an agency with more than 40 programs providing loans and grants to farmers, ranchers and rural folks that can help them with a multitude of needs. Like starting a new business that will help provide renewable energy while saving farms.
“I’d say there’s a good chance we might have something that would help,” Isgar said. The agency offers loans and grants for renewable energy projects and market development grants, among others, that might help turn Hardesty’s dream into a reality, he said.
“A lot are struggling,” said Isgar, who was on his way recently to Greeley to tour a lamb cooperative facility.
Isgar wants rural folks in Colorado to know about the programs his agency offers, and he is traveling the state to tell people.
“We have to get people to understand what programs we have, what they qualify for, to come and sit down with our rural directors,” he said. Isgar said he is committed to helping the rural communities in Colorado. He encourages folks to come to USDA Rural Development offices to discuss their needs and ideas for projects.
“Trying to keep rural areas strong and vibrant is our goal,” he said.
Rural development programs include utilities programs, housing programs, business programs and community development programs. Some of these programs are receiving even more funding through the stimulus funds provided by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. In the future, new programs also may be added with the extra funding.
“The things that have been going the longest are our housing and rural electrification programs,” he said. It was the help rural development provided with their low interest loans that made it possible to bring electricity into sparsely populated areas.
Another program Isgar said he wants to spread the word about is the agency’s home repair program.
Loans up to $20,000 are available at 1 percent interest for 20 years. Seniors 62 and older can qualify for grants up to $7,500. Grants do not have to be repaid.
“Sometimes we have older people who need to make their home handicapped accessible, or weatherize,” he said. “We have a limited amount of funds, but some are still available.”
In some years, there is money left over because not enough people knew about the programs and didn’t apply. Isgar is determined to change that.
Housing programs are one of his priorities.
“Banks have tightened up on what they can do,” he said. “Housing is important because people have to be able to afford to live in these rural communities. Some places are getting boarded up. People need to afford to live in these homes permanently. That also helps support the economy and schools (in rural communities).”
Rural development can provide 100 percent of low interest housing loans with no down payment for a 33-year period.
Although rural development doesn’t have programs to directly help farmers faced with foreclosure, they can help indirectly. One way is to help provide funding for cooperatives that can help farmers cut the costs to market their products. Another is to fund projects that will help add value to products. Economic development programs can help businesses get started. There are many more.
“We have a lot of good programs. I’m learning them all,” Isgar said.
In addition to strengthening the state’s rural communities, the biggest challenge that lies ahead for Isgar is in his own agency.
“Last year we got over $400 million in funding for loans and grants,” he said. “It takes dollars. It takes people. We need more staff.”
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