Ag Secretary Vilsack announces $124M in funding for smaller farms and rural businesses, 19 in NE

Ag Secretary Vilsack announces $124M in funding for smaller farms and rural businesses, 19 in NE
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack was in Omaha on Thursday. (Cindy Gonzalez/Nebraska Examiner)
March 29th, 2024 | Nebraska Examiner

OMAHA — U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack visited Omaha Thursday and announced $124 million in grants and loans to projects in 44 states that are aimed at saving energy and creating more income streams for smaller farmers and rural businesses.

The heftiest award — nearly $4 million — went to Nebraska’s Bluestem Systems to help boost a creative process that removes water and pathogens from manure. In doing so, the company produces dry fertilizer and recycles the water for on-site use.

Bluestem’s grant is part of the USDA’s Fertilizer Production Expansion Program (FPEP), and the rest of the funding comes via the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP). 

In all, Vilsack said, the 542 projects — most of the awards range from about $7,000 to $1 million — are expected to advance President Joe Biden’s pledge to expand clean energy and allow small- to mid-sized farm and rural operations a better chance at competing with larger counterparts.

Among recipients were 19 Nebraska entities.

Record farm income, but bounty is concentrated

To a group of about 75 people at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, Vilsack described key challenges faced by most farmers. Since 1981, he said, the nation has lost some 545,000 farms and 155 million acres of former farmland.

While the nation has enjoyed record farm income in the last few years, he said, the income has been concentrated among about 7% of s farms that cumulatively collect up to 89% of the bounty.

Part of the answer to shrinking rural communities, Vilsack said, is to provide access to funding via programs such as REAP and FPEP. Such monies, he said, open the door to creating other “value-added” opportunities and sources of income for farmers.

Instead of “get big or get out,” Vilsack said: “The word is entrepreneurial.”

Among a panel of guests that shared stories with the agriculture secretary was the manager of the last grocery store standing in Superior, Nebraska.

Jenny McCord of Ideal Enterprises spoke of how a REAP grant helped update the family-owned business and, ultimately, helped keep the lights on.

The funding was used to modernize freezer systems in the 75-year-old market, saving substantially on energy and utility costs. Along with her husband, McCord said, her two sons are among those who work in the business, which is a lifeline to the town’s economy.

“If the grocery store closes in town, the town starts to die,” she said. 

Fertilizer mix, recycled water

Russ Vering, owner of Bluestem Systems, based in Howells, Nebraska, also was on the panel. He said the nearly $4 million FPEP award headed to his business will help construction and equipment purchases at two Nebraska locations and another in Iowa.

Vering said the funding more specifically will accelerate development of Bluestem’s process that removes water from manure and separates remaining solid nutrients to create a fertilizer mix. The water is recycled for use in the plant, Vering said — nearly eliminating the need to haul away water and thereby also reducing traffic on the roads.

“We’re excited,” Vering said. “We’re going to make a great impact on farms in Nebraska by reducing costs and defining sustainability.”

Vilsack spent more than an hour participating in the roundtable discussion and talking to the audience about the Biden administration’s investment in rural communities nationwide.

Of the newly announced funding, Vilsack said, “Investments announced today will expand access to renewable energy systems and domestic fertilizer, all while creating good-paying jobs and saving people money that they can then invest back into their businesses and communities.” 

Most of the funds stem from the Inflation Reduction Act, the nation’s largest-ever investment in combating the climate crisis, through the REAP program. More than $1.8 billion has been invested via REAP since Biden took office. And more than $174 million has been invested through the FPEP program.

Wind turbines, solar systems

A sampling of REAP awards:

  • Nebraska’s Darr Grain company in Cozad is to receive $164,250 to install wind turbines at a grain storage facility, which are expected to save $9,700 in electrical costs per year and generate more than 138,000 kilowatt hours of electricity per year. That represents 77% of the company’s energy use, enough to power nine homes.
  • In Maine, Moorit Hill Farm, with its $64,950, is to install a roof mount solar system that is expected to save the equivalent of 100% of the farm’s annual energy use. According to a news release, that is enough clean energy to power nearly five homes, replace 50,000 pounds of burning coal or replace about eight gasoline powered cars.
  • In Idaho, Boulder Creek Oz is to use its $20,000 award to buy and install a biomass furnace to provide additional heat to cabins and mountain lodging in Boundary County. The venture anticipates saving more than $3,800 a year. It is to replace about 94% of its energy use per year.

Vilsack told the Omaha audience that investment into such programs will help revive the rural economy and contribute to the nation in other ways. 

“Food security is national security,” he said.

He said rural communities produce youths who grow up practicing the value of “giving back” to community and country.

“It’s a great new day,” he said after outlining USDA programs. “I’m very optimistic.”


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