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Agricultural Agencies Form Team To Boost Rural Development

Karen Meisenheimer

Elizabeth Bolton (352) 392-1987

BRANFORD—While most of Florida enjoys record growth, local leaders in rural communities are trying to reverse a decade of decline and boost economic recovery with help from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the University of Florida.

For the first time, four agencies from USDA and UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences have combined forces to help foster rural development in the state, initiating Team USDA.

The combined resources of funding, education and networking available through Team USDA are being offered to two communities in North Central Florida in pilot projects that include ecotourism and a business development center, said UF’s Elizabeth Bolton, an expert in leadership development.

“Times are hard for so many small agricultural businesses in Florida,” Bolton said. “What is there for people to do? What kind of jobs are available? These two communities are working to come up with solutions and Team USDA can be a viable resource for them.”

The four USDA agencies include Rural Development, Farm Service, Forest Service and Natural Resource Conservation Service — all actively involved in economic development. Madison County and the town of Branford were selected for the initial projects because they met specific criteria, Bolton said.

“It was important that the communities showed strong leadership and a tangible commitment to economic development,” she said. “Both Madison and Branford were already involved in strategic planning that included a very strong interest in protecting their natural reSources.”

Despite its pristine location along the Suwannee River, Branford has struggled economically due to the decline in farming opportunities. Community leaders plan to promote ecotourism through a newly completed nature trail that will highlight the river and the area’s unspoiled surroundings.

The Suwannee River Greenway at Branford is a four-mile recreational trail along the abandoned railroad corridor in downtown Branford. It is the first of many trails planned for Greenway 2000, a program initiated in 1995 by citizens, businesses and government agencies in North Central Florida to explore ways to better utilize the area’s public conservation lands.

“This project will greatly enhance the town of Branford both aesthetically and economically,” said Doug Ulmer, coordinator for the Suwannee River Resource Conservation and Development Council.

The greenway project will create a park-like environment in the downtown area, linking it to the river and connecting Branford to Suwannee County’s Little River Springs Park, Ulmer said. Plans also include new nature trails and camping sites.

Through Team USDA, the Branford community could tap into resources that include grant money for signage, new structures or parking lots. Educational programs are available to help businesses sustain and grow. Small business loans are possible for entrepreneurs creating new businesses or fixing up old ones along the trail, USDA officials said.

Greenway organizers anticipate that the trail will attract enterprises such as bed and breakfasts, bike shops, retail outlets and restaurants.

A rural community 20 miles east of Tallahassee with a population of 18,000, Madison County was one of the state’s top producers of soybeans. With the decline of row crop agriculture in the area, the county’s production land dropped from 75,000 acres to about 25,000 acres in the last 15 years, said Jim Fletcher, county extension director for Madison.

The decline of agricultural dollars has forced farmers and supporting businesses to adopt alternative strategies.

“The county had to come up with ways to help remaining businesses grow and prosper,” he said. “And help new businesses through the critical startup period when most small businesses fail.”

Through the UF cooperative extension service, a community leadership program was developed that led to the birth of Vision 2010, a grass roots organization of concerned citizens working toward the development of the county. Educational programs for small businesses were also developed.

What community leaders hope to create next is a “one-stop shopping center” for local businesses.

“Currently, there is no central place for entrepreneurs to go to seek information on doing business,” Fletcher said. “A business resource center would provide information to the local business owner.

“Whether it’s the need for forms, accessing the Internet or finding what the requirements are for the business to operate in the county,” he said, “the local agencies feel this center is deeply needed and would be a huge success.”

Both communities have received encouraging words from representatives of Team USDA. Funding from grants and loans is very appropriate for these two projects, said Ron Whitfield, director for the USDA Rural Development office in Gainesville.

“These are very viable projects and very appropriate for Rural Development funds,” Whitfield said. “The counties need to prioritize what’s needed year By year and maybe tailor some things the right way to be eligible for RD grants. But I think they can get enough of the pieces together and get the right people interested. It can be done.”