Development • StrikeForce to provide poor southern Utah counties variety of grants, loans.
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Farmer Gilbert Harrison used to work sunup to sundown to keep his 10-acre alfalfa crop growing.
The land, in southern Utah's Navajo Nation reservation, used an antiquated irrigation system from the 1930s.
When he received a subsidized grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, his life changed dramatically. He no longer had to labor merely to keep the irrigation system workable.
"The one we installed with the NRCS is so much more water efficient," Harrison said. "It's let me grow the new alfalfa strains that give me four cuts per year instead of two or three. It's only me and my wife working here, so it saves up so much labor."
Fortunately for impoverished rural districts like Harrison's, the United States Department of Agriculture is launching a Utah branch of StrikeForce, a conglomeration of USDA departments designed to combat rural poverty through grants, subsidized loans and infrastructure project assistance.
StrikeForce partners with local groups to design community-specific plans from goat cooperatives in Georgia to nutrition assistance for children in New Mexico. The program has been active in rural areas of states with high agricultural employment, typically some of the poorer counties in the nation and especially in Utah. StrikeForce will serve families and communities that are in need, but the heavily farm- and ranch-oriented lands in southern Utah will benefit most.
San Juan County, home to the Four Corners area of the Navajo Nation, is the only Utah county currently classified as a "designated poverty" area. Farmer Gilbert Harrison, whose home is on the San Juan River, said that the Navajo people need assistance.
"The drought has been bad here," Harrison said. "We need the USDA to help out more with this kind of thing."
Navajo Nation representative Fred White said previous USDA initiatives have helped his community significantly.
"The primary subsistence of the Navajo Nations is cattle and sheep and horses," White said. "They [USDA] just finished fencing off 57,000 acres of Navajo Nation land and allowed the grass to come back. Now we have grass knee high, where we can put in cattle or sheep to graze."
David Brown, the state conservationist in charge of such projects, said the state of Utah has around $25 million allocated, which is enough to assist almost 100 percent of the demand in the Navajo Nation. Dave Conine, the state director for the USDA's rural development department, which focuses on housing, said the money his department spends generates jobs in construction for new homes and community building projects.
Conine said the money reserved for rural assistance is not a new appropriation, but a revolving fund of $24 billion specifically allocated for rural development. Any losses are paid from the interest on loans rather than new taxes from the federal government. For the 2012 fiscal year, Conine said the number of home foreclosures has been higher than usual but still lower than the national average for private bank mortgages.
By the numbers
In 2012, the Utah Rural Development department:
Put $412 million into guaranteed housing loans
Affected 2,503 units
Spent $89 million on 440 new construction projects
Created more than 2,000 jobs