Former Island County commissioner Helen Price Johnson touted the work of her new employer and described opportunities available for the Whidbey Island community during a recent presentation.
Price Johnson is now Washington state’s director of Rural Development at the United States Department of Agriculture. She explained that the mission of Rural Development is to increase economic opportunity and improve quality of life for all of rural America.
Price Johnson was the Greenbank Progressive Club’s speaker for November. The club’s members meet on the second Tuesday of every month to enjoy a potluck dinner and guest speaker. The club is not political and meets in a historic community hall on Bakken and Firehouse roads on Central Whidbey. For more information, visit greenbankprogressiveclub.org.
Price Johnson, a South Whidbey resident, spoke about how Rural Development addresses problems that rural communities tend to face, including infrastructure and housing needs. Rural Development’s goal is to help those communities to thrive by assisting rural businesses, such as local farms, breweries and wineries.
“For a very long time, our economies in rural areas were really extractive for the most part,” she said. “People would come and take natural resources from rural areas and go manufacture something out of them in more urbanized areas.”
In Island County, she said major investments have been made over the last four or five years. There is a large array of different financial assistance programs, including money for housing.
For example, Rural Development provided almost $129 million in funding for multi-family housing in Island County. A grant of over $62,000 was awarded to Habitat for Humanity of Island County in 2019 for repairs of owner-occupied homes. There are low interest loans available for low-income seniors for safety repairs such as ramps, septic systems and roofs.
Rural Development helps farmers make and sell products through value-added producer grants. These grants can help with business planning and financial assistance farmers may need to bring their goods to market.
Another focus of Rural Development is helping businesses and farms convert to renewable energy. The USDA will pay up to 25% for projects such as installing solar panels. With the passing of the Inflation Reduction Act, that percentage may be raised to 50%, Price Johnson said.
Rural Development also supports communities by providing funds for safe drinking water, sanitary waste disposal, electricity and public facilities, such as WhidbeyHealth.
“In 2020, the USDA was integral to the upgrades for our WhidbeyHealth,” she said. “It was $35.7 million in a loan from.”
Lastly, Price-Johnson spoke about efforts to provide broadband internet to rural areas in Island County, the lack of which was highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic. In the next month or so, people who qualify for government programs such as SNAP, WIC and Medicaid will be eligible for internet access priced at $30 per month.
The USDA also announced earlier this month that it awarded the Island Grown Farmers Cooperative an $815,891 grant as part of the Meat and Poultry Processing Expansion Program, allowing the co-op to increase the number of animals processed and to build a permanent facility.
The Island Grown Farmers Cooperative is based in Skagit County but has members on Whidbey Island, including Three Sisters Farm, which accounts for 30% of the co-op’s production. The co-op serves farms across San Juan, Island, Skagit and Whatcom counties.
Visit rd.usda.gov to learn more about Rural Development at the USDA.