USDA official discusses rural challenges

Climate change, food supply chain instability and access to resources are among the critical challenges facing rural areas, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture undersecretary for rural development, who met with students in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences March 3.

“Thank you for your work connecting the incredible work that Cornell does to communities across New York,” said Xochitl Torres Small, who held a question and answer session with students and faculty in Stocking Hall. “Even in just the little bit of conversation we’ve had, it’s been clear that you think so systemically about how to integrate the great work that happens at Cornell with impacting change on the ground.”

Xochitl Torres Small, U.S. Department of Agriculture undersecretary for rural development, speaks March 3 at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Torres Small, the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants, spoke about how her own life has been shaped by the opportunities she and her family had in rural New Mexico.

“If you think back into anybody’s family history, there’s a point where rural opportunity made a difference,” Torres Small said. “I love being able to share how when systems work, when there are opportunities for everyone, it really expands the pie across the board, supporting all of our country. The work that happens in rural communities sustains, feeds, fuels all of us.”

After talking about her background, Torres Small answered students’ questions. Martin Liu, a doctoral student in the field of food science, asked how the influx of people moving from cities into rural areas amid the COVID-19 pandemic may change the needs of rural populations.

“In the future we might see remote work becoming more of a staple of American life,” Liu said. “How does that change how rural development itself is approached from the federal government?”

Torres Small said her office is working on bringing broadband to rural areas with a focus on high speeds. Access to broadband for rural areas is critical, she said.

“People are realizing the power and exceptional nature of rural life and wanting to go back,” Torres Small said. “But if they don’t have a reliable platform for accessing good internet, they’re just not going to stay. If we want to incentivize more entrepreneurship, then we really have to create that investment on the ground.”

Cornell impacting New York State

Karl Kunze ‘17, a doctoral student in the field of plant breeding, asked what the federal government is doing to promote education in rural areas, where the cost of private universities may be out of reach.

Grants and loans that invest in programs to teach skills needed in rural communities, as well as the larger job market, are part of that solution, Torres Small said, as are access to distance learning and telemedicine.

“One of the things Cornell CALS is trying to do is get at that cost and that accessibility, and make sure we’re open to everybody,” said Julie Suarez, CALS’ associate dean for land-grant affairs, who introduced Small at the event.