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Commentary: A better definition of ‘rural’ would help California

Issue Date: September 6, 2017
By Corinne Madison
Corrine Madison
The Renewable Energy for America Program, or REAP, is open to towns with a population of fewer than 50,000. But the Rural Water and Waste Disposal Loan and Grant Program, known as WWD, is strictly limited to communities with a population of as many as 10,000.

When most people think of a mortgage lender, they tend to think of the big Wall Street banks: Wells Fargo, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, you name it. However, people often forget about one of the biggest lenders in the nation: the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development division.

Rural Development, or RD, handles $220 billion worth of loans across the nation; of that, $871 million was awarded to California in 2016. Administered by RD's three agencies, its loan and grant programs seek to help provide housing solutions, expand access to adequate utilities, and support small businesses and agricultural cooperatives.

The programs are written into federal farm legislation, and range from loans that help low-income families purchase a home to loans that help a producer add value to his or her agricultural product, so that it can do better in the market. As you can imagine, these programs can be instrumental in maintaining the vitality of America's rural areas.

When farmers and ranchers apply for USDA programs, they have to meet certain eligibility requirements. Most importantly, they have to be in a rural area.

But what defines "rural"? As it turns out, that's not so straightforward.

Population size, census data, the distance (in miles and in minutes) from a metropolitan area and county size are all determining factors in the USDA definition of "rural." Some programs also consider if there's an urban area within the county, or if the number of people leaving a town is higher than the number of people moving in (outmigration). Is the community underserved? Is it "rural in character"? What is its rurality?

Needless to say, trying to find what defines "rural" is an incredibly dizzying task.

The short and simple answer is: There is no short and simple answer.

The definition of rural is unique for each program. Let's take a look at two important programs for California: the Renewable Energy for America Program, or REAP, and the Rural Water and Waste Disposal Loan and Grant Program, known as WWD.

REAP aims to cut energy costs for agricultural producers and rural small business owners by making it possible for them to acquire renewable-energy systems. The program funded 85 California projects in 2016, totaling $7.2 million.

WWD ensures rural communities have safe drinking water and assures proper disposal of wastewater. California received $23.7 million in grants and loans last year, but for only 29 projects.

Yes, the projects funded by these programs differ in nature, but in looking at the disparity in the number of California projects, it's hard to argue that eligibility requirements don't play a role. REAP is open to towns with a population of fewer than 50,000. But WWD is strictly limited to communities with a population of as many as 10,000. Here in California, that becomes a limiting factor.

Even though our state's population is denser than others, it doesn't mean rural communities don't need grants or loans to increase broadband access, stimulate local economies and support small businesses. Just last week, I was driving through Marysville, a city that supports the surrounding agricultural economy, and it was discouraging to see the signs of outmigration and dwindling resources. Unfortunately, Marysville isn't alone. Towns such as Chester, Castroville and Avenal could all use extra money to provide their citizens with more opportunities. I bet you can think of more.

A more accurate definition of what makes a community rural could benefit those and other California communities.

Trying to improve the definition of "rural" is not a new goal. Efforts made during the 2008 Farm Bill reauthorization aimed to expand the population limit, and USDA itself has published several reports on the topic. One of the most thorough, a 107-page report published in 2013, came in an attempt from the Obama administration to streamline the eligibility requirements. One of its recommendations, for example, was to set the population maximum to 50,000 for every program—something that was only partially achieved.

As Congress begins drafting the upcoming farm bill, the California Farm Bureau Federation will advocate on behalf of our rural communities to improve and expand the eligibility requirements for many RD programs. We're working with the California Department of Food and Agriculture and with other agricultural groups to find a solution. Even though our state's population density and distribution makes California unique, it shouldn't prevent our rural communities from thriving.

There's not an easy solution, and changing the USDA definition of "rural" certainly won't happen without pushback. But it's important. Rural communities are the backbone of agriculture and the protectors of our national forests. They are vital to our state and nation, and we have to protect them.

(Corinne Madison is legislative analyst in the California Farm Bureau Federation Federal Policy Department. She may be contacted at

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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