The HVADC Cultivator

HVADC Goes to Bat for BTA:
Mr. Erling Goes to Washington (Virtually)

DSC_0104.JPG

This summer, Hudson Valley AgriBusiness Development Corporation (HVADC) and the Agricultural Viability Alliance (the Alliance) have made significant movement in advancing their mission to secure $300 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act stimulus funding through the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), dedicated to new programs that will bring vital one-on-one Business Technical Assistance (BTA) to farmers and agriculture businesses throughout the Hudson Valley, the Northeast and beyond.

 

Leading the push is HVADC Executive Director and Alliance founding member Todd Erling. This June Erling testified before Congress and in July met personally with U.S. Sectary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and U.S. Representative Antonio Delgado (D-NY-19), as part of Delgado’s Agricultural Advisory Committee.

 

In both high-profile events Erling stressed the vital need for BTA and a rethinking of how to address the biggest issues facing farmers, the importance of human resources, and the development of soft infrastructure for rural communities that have economies centered on farm and food entrepreneurship.

 

The importance and visibility of these interactions, as well as the productive behind-the-scenes work being accomplished on an on-going basis with undersecretary-level staff at the USDA, the American Farmland Trust and elsewhere has Erling increasingly optimistic. HVADC was instrumental in getting 119 agricultural organizations to sign the  Alliance funding request to the USDA, as well as a letter in Congress signed by over 50 members. These BTA focused initiatives are what HVADC has been championing for 14 years. Now, as a leading member of the  Alliance, HVADC’s mission is the DNA of a project that may soon improve the lives and businesses of countless people in rural communities across the nation.

 

“We really need to start considering human capital and BTA as infrastructure,” Erling said. “There is a critical need and the time is now. I’m pleased that the hard work of all the staff at HVADC and our partner organizations in the Alliance is paying off and that I am able to speak in these important settings with the collective voice of a massive agricultural community behind me.”    

 

In his visit to the Hudson Valley July 15 and 16, Secretary Vilsack was able to see the diversity and resilience of the region’s agricultural identity. Thanks to HVADC’s close working relationship with Representative Delgado, and Erling’s position on his agricultural advisory committee, Erling was able to speak directly with the Secretary on the 16th, about the importance of BTA and specifically how it can help farmers navigate complex labor issues to find fair, equitable and productive solutions for farm owners and the immigrant workforce.

 

“As we’ve been discussing where Business Technical Assistance is needed, issues surrounding labor keep coming up,” Erling said. “Farmers need interactions with BTA professionals who can help create labor solutions that are positive for everyone. And we need to create a system where those professionals and BTA resources can be developed, maintained and strengthened.”

 

In the meeting with Vilsack, Erling was able to build off testimony he gave via Zoom on June 15, before the U.S. Congress Subcommittee on Commodity Exchanges, Energy, and Credit (CEEC). As a subcommittee of the House Agriculture Committee, chaired by Representative Delgado, the group met with the task of “Examining Opportunities for Growth and Investment in Rural America.”

 

Erling testified on behalf of HVADC, The Farm and Food Growth Fund and the Alliance. It was a crucial opportunity for him to explain the need for BTA on a national stage.

 

Erling’s testimony stressed the value of supporting BTA services with federal funding through the USDA, particularly through long term Rural Development programs that can be administered by non-profits like HVADC and its Alliance partners.

 

In his testimony and questioning by subcommittee members, Erling spoke to the issue of how the Rebuild Rural America Act which was introduced in both houses of Congress earlier this year (in the House of Representatives by Representative Delgado and in the Senate by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY)) could provide a roadmap for sustained strategic investment in our rural communities that could be modeled after existing successful programs aiding urban areas. 

 

Erling cited the challenges economically vulnerable rural communities face and how similar they often are to underserved urban communities, including underfunded schools, lack of access to capital, diminished business and financial planning capabilities, failing infrastructure and lack of access to high-speed broadband. He explained how a model that has benefited urban communities for many years could be expanded to rural areas in need by providing five year block grants to allow access to flexible and appropriate resources and funds. That would include regional BTA support to address the human side of agribusiness ventures. Developing and providing a “solid Rolodex” of service providers for strategic planning, succession planning, promotion, and financial one-on-one counseling would bolster farms and food businesses on their pathway to success.

 

“This week's hearing examined a topic many of us know intimately – the critical need and importance of investment in rural America," said Delgado after the testimony. "USDA analyses tell us that between 2010 and 2018, population growth in rural America has lagged behind the growth in our urban areas. Additionally, job growth in rural communities increased at just half of the rate it did in urban areas. The time is long overdue for critical investment in our rural communities. Congress must deliver broadband, technical assistance, and infrastructure upgrades to rural regions across the United States. I thank Executive Director Todd Erling for his critical testimony about how we can support and strengthen our rural communities."

 

Erling’s testimony garnered national coverage, as RFDTV covered the committee’s hearing in a June 16 piece which may be viewed at: https://www.rfdtv.com/story/44115851/rural-business-leaders-call-for-more-technical-assistance.

 

Erling said he felt a real sense of duty to bring these issues to the national stage especially given the massive strain the global pandemic put on agriculture and food businesses, which so often serve as the anchor for rural communities. According to a New York Farm Bureau member survey, in New York alone, 43% of farms report to have lost sales during the pandemic. More than a third of farms and agribusinesses (37%) are experiencing cash flow issues and almost half (47%) say they have significantly reduced spending to local vendors and suppliers or will do so in the future. A combination of federal investment combined with a commitment to business development could not only assist rural areas in recovering economically from COVID-19 but also lay the foundation for sustained economic growth into the future.

 

“The significance of having this opportunity to testify on the behalf of HVADC, the Alliance and agribusinesses across the country, is that BTA is really a missing link in helping our rural communities survive and thrive. This subcommittee and the House Agriculture Committee ultimately oversee the USDA’s rural development funding through Rebuild and that support could be the masonry that holds all the pieces together for programs that provide BTA services,” Erling commented after testifying.

 

While there is still more work to do before the USDA resources needed to help American farmers get the BTA they deserve are secured, the work done this summer by HVADC leadership and staff represents significant progress to that end and a huge increase in the recognition of the success of HVADC’s programmatic methodology.

 

“The stimulus package was designed to help America ‘Build Back Better,’” said Erling. “We need to fund the existing programs that work but we should really be looking to invest in people and the best way to do that is what HVADC, the Alliance, and 50+ members of Congress demand. A systemic increase in funding for BTA, and a understanding that there are new more effective and human ways to support our agricultural economies, is integral to helping make sure farmers are Growing Back Better.”