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Rural cooperatives get $5.8m boost

Grants will help create jobs and boost rural economies in 22 states.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is awarding 29 grants totaling $5.8 million to help rural cooperatives create jobs and support business expansion. The funds are being provided through the Rural Cooperative Development Grant (RCDG) program, which helps fund nonprofit groups, such as rural cooperative development centers and higher education institutions.

"America's rural communities have incredible potential to create jobs and expand economic opportunities," Vilsack said. "Many rural businesses and organizations are succeeding under the cooperative business model, and with access to additional resources, they can boost job creation and create an environment where more products are made in rural America. The funding USDA is announcing will provide the critical training and technical assistance rural cooperatives and nonprofit groups need to help strengthen America's 'Main Street' businesses."

Development centers can use RCDG funds for feasibility studies, strategic planning, leadership and operations training and business plan development. Recipients are required to contribute matching funds that equal 25% of total project costs.

Sam Rikkers, administrator of USDA's Rural Business-Cooperative Service, announced the 29 awardees on Vilsack's behalf during a visit Monday to the Ohio Cooperative Development Center (OCDC) at Ohio State University's South Centers campus in Piketon, Ohio. OCDC is receiving a $199,984 grant to help businesses and individuals in rural Ohio and West Virginia explore cooperative opportunities in several industries, including energy and wood products.

OCDC also will provide a seed grant program to develop and expand cooperatives. It hopes to assist 20 businesses and eight start-ups. These efforts are projected to create or save 40 jobs. The center has provided more than 2,900 hours of technical assistance since 2011, creating 194 jobs and retaining 229.

The Texas Rural Cooperative Center (TRCC) at The University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley is receiving a $199,393 grant to help start, expand and improve cooperatives and mutually owned businesses in Texas and New Mexico. TRCC is located in the south Texas city of Edinburg in Hidalgo County, one of the poorest in the U.S. TRCC serves a 33-county region that contains more than 1 million poor people and the largest number of impoverished rural colonias in the nation. The area receives additional assistance through USDA's StrikeForce for Rural Growth & Opportunity initiative. Through StrikeForce, USDA staff work with state, local and community officials to increase awareness of USDA programs and help build program participation through intensive community outreach and technical assistance.

The announcement is part of USDA's observance of National Cooperative Month. Each year in October, the department highlights the economic impact and innovation of cooperative businesses, particularly in rural communities.

Projects in 22 states are receiving RCDG funding. The funding for each project currently announced is contingent upon the recipient meeting the terms of the grant agreement.

Several of the grants support technical assistance to strengthen local and regional food systems. Over the course of the Obama Administration, USDA has invested close to $1 billion in 40,000 local food-related projects on farms and in communities across the country. USDA has provided $50.5 million for 257 cooperative grants for projects nationwide since the start of the Obama Administration. This funding has helped more than 4,700 businesses.

In fiscal 2015, Oregon's Community & Shelter Assistance Corporation received a $200,000 RCDG grant to provide technical assistance and training to seven manufactured housing cooperatives. The funds helped owners of manufactured dwellings form nonprofit cooperatives to convert their parks from investor owned into resident owned, creating safe and affordable dwellings and stabilized communities.

Since 2009, USDA Rural Development has invested nearly $13 billion to start or expand nearly 112,000 rural businesses; helped bring high-speed internet access to nearly 6 million rural residents and businesses; helped 1.1 million rural residents buy homes, and funded nearly 9,200 community facilities such as schools, public safety and health care facilities. USDA also has invested $31.3 billion in 963 electric projects that have financed more than 185,000 miles of transmission and distribution lines serving 4.6 million rural residents.

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