In times of crisis, our priorities become clear with family topping the list. The pandemic prompted a great migration home for many young Americans last year. As many offices and college campuses went virtual last spring, it presented a prime opportunity for recent graduates and young families to return home and relocate to smaller towns and communities. While only time will tell if these moves become permanent and take root, we now have a unique opportunity to encourage the next generation to plant and grow their lives and families in rural America.
We cannot expect young Americans to stay and build their families and careers, however, if the opportunities in rural communities lag behind our suburban and urban neighbors. Bridging the digital divide is critical to opening those opportunities and access to essential resources, healthcare, education and jobs. That’s why the American Farm Bureau is proud to partner with 19 other organizations, including Land O’ Lakes and Lead for America, in the new American Connection Corps. This pilot project will place 50 recent college graduates in communities across 12 states to work with local organizations and government entities to help tap into federal and state resources to increase broadband access and connect all members of the community.
American Connection Corps fellows will be paid through the program and serve for two years. In addition to their work on broadband access, they will take part in mentoring programs in their local communities, working with young people and empowering them to get involved in and help start local programs and businesses. This is a promising opportunity to bring young people home and encourage them to plant themselves in the local community. You can help spread the word too by encouraging dedicated young folks in your community to apply. The pilot program will begin in communities in Minnesota, Nebraska, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Tennessee, Arkansas, Kentucky, Georgia, Alabama, Kansas and Oregon.
If we are going to continue to strengthen agriculture and rebuild our rural economies, we need to create more pathways for young professionals in a variety of fields to return home. Agricultural communities also suffer from a shortage of professionals like veterinarians, whom we rely on to help in the care of our animals but often cannot afford to practice in more remote areas right out of school. Legislative solutions such as the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program Enhancement Act play an important role in bridging this gap as well. This bipartisan bill introduced by Reps. Ron Kind (D-WI), Adrian Smith (R-NE), Kurt Schrader (D-OR) and Dusty Johnson (R-SD) would reduce taxes for veterinarians who agree to practice in under-served rural areas.
Farm Bureau believes that innovation and small businesses also play a critical role in our rural economies. That’s what led us to start the Ag Innovation Challenge and continue to build on its success. This was the first national business competition to focus on rural entrepreneurs, and it’s been inspiring to see how these small business owners rise to address the challenges facing farmers and rural communities. Applications are now open for the 2022 competition, and we are excited to award $165,000 in start-up funds to 10 businesses thanks to our partnership with Farm Credit and our generous sponsors.
As we move forward as a nation to the other side of this pandemic—Lord-willing very soon—I hope that we carry with us the renewed focus on the importance of family and home. I might be a little biased, but I truly believe there is no better place to raise a family than farm country. Our rural communities and economy are critical to the well-being of our nation, and we can be stronger across our communities as we increase our ability to connect and build on our successes together.