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New Farm Bill programs aim to cultivate rural innovation

December 20, 2018

The latest Farm Bill, expected to be signed into law Thursday, contains provisions that could provide significant new tools for rural innovations. The two greatest opportunities are the Rural Innovation Stronger Economy (RISE) grant program, which creates an innovation cluster and strategy program for rural regions, and a change to allow the existing Community Facilities program to support incubators, makerspaces, and job training centers.

RISE Grants

This program would provide between $500,000 and $2 million over four years for regional innovation initiatives in rural regions. Activities must be connected to an existing or emerging cluster and could include facilitating market connections, supporting commercialization, and providing workforce and entrepreneurship services. The original bill was sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) with Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.). Eligibility includes nonprofits, institutions of higher education, governments and tribes, and requires the support of a network of similar entities to apply. The program is open to communities fitting USDA’s broadest definition of rural, a population of 50,000 or comparable density. The authorization extends through FY 2023.

The RISE program has been authorized but may require a direct appropriation before grants can be awarded. The FY 2019 budget for USDA has not yet passed Congress, but the current version of the legislation, completed in May, does not include funding for the new program.

Community Facilities Program

The USDA-RD Community Facilities program provides direct loans, guarantees of third-party loans and grants for community infrastructure. The program is often used for hospitals, schools, community centers and similar institutions, but can be used more broadly. The Farm Bill’s accompanying report directs USDA to include incubators, co-working spaces, makerspaces, and “residential” entrepreneur and innovation centers. The program uses USDA’s 20,000-person definition of a rural region.

The Community Facilities program adjustment should be able to go into effect immediately. In practice, state- and program-level staff may need to be educated on the role and opportunity of innovation facilities in the communities.

Other Innovation Provisions

The bill contains two other noteworthy sections. First, the Rural Business Investment Corporation authorization is extended and allows for greater participation by the Farm Credit System, which may allow more capital to flow into these entities. A second section establishes a grant, direct loan and loan guarantee program for rural broadband investments.

If you are interested in the implementation of these initiatives, contact SSTI Policy and Development Director Jason Rittenberg (614.901.1690 | rittenberg@ssti.org) to learn more.

policy, rural, innovation, usda