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StrikeForce aims to help reduce rural poverty in Utah

SALT LAKE CITY — Gilbert Harris, 70, and his wife manually watered their 10 acres of alfalfa and Native American corn for most of his farming career. It took them five days every two weeks.

Through funding provided by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Harris installed gated irrigation a little more than five years ago and reduced the time he spent watering by one to two days.

“All these people are here to help you, but you have to put it together. We found out that is the secret,” Harris said in a video created by the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Utah is one of 10 states selected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to participate in the StrikeForce initiative, created in an effort to boost economic development and job creation.

StrikeForce began in 2010 in Arkansas, Mississippi and Georgia, and expanded to Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada in 2011. The Department of Agriculture selects states based on U.S. Census Bureau reports that show consistently impoverished rural areas.

Through StrikeForce, farmers such as Harris and other businesses in rural areas can become aware of available resources while partnering with one of three U.S. Department of Agriculture agencies in Utah — the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Farm Service Agency and Rural Development.

The agencies collectively help by providing microloans to beginning farmers and businesses, teaching farmers how to improve productivity and energy efficiency, and developing new construction projects in rural areas.

Now, these agencies will combine forces to meet the needs of the rural communities.

“I think you could actually build a town with our programs,” said Dave Conine, state director of Rural Development in Utah.

Utah will focus on the Navajo nation in San Juan County first because it is the only county in the state that meets criteria for persistent poverty. This means 20 percent or more of the population has been living in poverty for the past 30 years, as measured by census reports.

San Juan County has 29.9 percent of its population living at or below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's small area income and poverty estimates.

Any person who does not have enough income to buy food, shelter, clothes and other “essential goods and services” qualifies as poor, according to the Census Bureau.

The poverty line is at $11,161 for one person and $25,603 for two adults and three children, according to the U.S. Office of Management and Budget.

The three agencies will identify farmers or other individuals who could benefit through the programs. The Governor's Office of Economic Development would then provide technical assistance throughout the application process, said Beverly Evans, director of Rural Development in the Governor's Office of Economic Development.

Additional tax dollars generated through successful farmers and businesses will indirectly benefit the rural communities, she said.

The initial focus of the initiative in Utah is to get the word out about the programs to San Juan and other rural counties.

The Census Bureau's small area income and poverty estimates show high poverty levels in other rural counties in Utah, with Piute County at 21.1 percent, Iron County at 21.1 percent and Sanpete County at 17.8 percent.

Any program that creates new jobs helps the entire economy, said Jeff Edwards, CEO of the Economic Development Corporation of Utah.

As a nonprofit organization that works to develop competitive companies throughout the state, the Economic Development Corporation of Utah believes that a rising tide floats all boats, Edwards said. In other words, as San Juan County's economy improves, Utah’s economy will benefit, too.


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