I love Washington DC and I never turn down a chance to go. It had been a few years since my last visit which was in fall 2019 in a prepandemic world. That trip was a family Fall Break adventure with our neighbors. Four adults and four kids averaged dozens of miles each day as we attempted to see and do all the things that DC offers. It’s never possible to do everything in a single trip. Traveling with a group can be fun but also challenging and is usually a lesson in balancing different priorities.
At first glance, the VALOR trip seemed straightforward. We were provided with a solid itinerary that filled our days with a variety of educational visits balanced with some sightseeing opportunities. I was excited about the chance to visit some DC favorites while exploring deeper into the day to day work that takes place in DC offices. We also had the opportunity to interact with four other similar programs (Washington, New Mexico, Kansas, and Kentucky). We first met up at USDA for the morning where our combined group were provided a chance to hear several speakers from their leadership ranks. I’m not sure what you call a gathering of so many Secretaries, Under Secretaries, Deputy Secretaries, but I call it a great experience. I felt like I was among kindred spirits as I listened to these speakers share their thoughts to leadership and how they approach economic revitalization of rural areas. I loved every minute of the USDA visit.
I was blown away (and not just by the 40+mph wind gusts on that particular day) but the sheer size of the USDA office complex. I’ve walked by these buildings numerous times during previous visits to DC but I don’t think I ever really noticed just how many buildings (and city blocks) that are dedicated to USDA. The size of the office complex is really representative of all the programs that fall under the agency’s umbrella. When I’m working with prospective applicants to TRRC’s grant programs I often suggest USDA-RD as a source of matching funds. I know just enough to be dangerous about most of their programs however I do know that the RD regional staff are wonderful and can guide the potential project through the maze of programs, eligibility requirements, deadlines, etc. It’s clear that the commitment to promoting rural development opportunities is as strong at the top of USDA’s organizational structure as it is among the local and regional staff members I typically interact with.
Our happy little group of 11 arrived in the meeting room early and claimed our spots in the front of the room. We immediately noticed that there were A LOT of chairs in the room. Some of these groups are HUGE compared to ours (If you see Kansas you know what I mean). While there were similarities between the groups it was also easy to identify differences which usually reflected the characteristics and needs of the states and regions they each call home. Individual priorities quickly became apparent as attendees were given the opportunity to ask questions of the speakers. Some questions were very general and could be widely applied to different areas while others were quite specific and perhaps a little harder to answer.
My best interactions with members of other groups seemed to occur with the Kentucky group. I was really surprised that as we introduced ourselves to each other, and I began my very brief explanation of my role with Tobacco Commission (and that we have absolutely nothing to do with cigarette sales), that they were already familiar with us! I can’t tell you how rare it is that anyone outside the TRRC region is aware of who we are and how we were established. A few of them had worked with some of KY’s grant programs that are supported with their Master Settlement Agreement funds. The 48 states and territories who were party to the MSA could use the proceeds for basically anything they wanted to. There are very few that have programs that are similar to ours and it was a rare treat to compare notes on some of the investments made in VA and KY using these funds.
We later visited with DC Central Kitchen, a nonprofit organization that provides job culinary focused training and employment opportunities to at-risk individuals. During the same visit we also learned about Dreaming Out Loud, another DC based community development organization that utilizes food systems to create opportunities for underserved, marginalized residents. I spent my days focused on rural economic and community development and was excited to hear about some projects serving a very (VERY) urban area. I found that, although the communities are different, many the goals are similar. Regardless of where the project is located there is a shared priority of creating new opportunities (education, employment, etc.) for those we serve. Both of these projects could be adapted fairly easily to serve rural populations. I found the same to be true at Little Wild Things city farm where big things are happening in the field of micro greens! TRRC’s guidelines for agribusiness projects contain a focus on high value, low acreage crops. I’m not sure there are many things more “low acreage” than an unassuming cinderblock building in the middle of DC. As I browsed along the shelves of microgreens, all at various stages of growth, it occurred to me that this building really could be located anywhere.
I mentioned in my blog post from the Richmond seminar that I enjoy trips that give me a “city fix” for a few days. The DC visit certainly provided an opportunity for this and reminded me of all the things I still want to go back to do. I think there is likely another family trip to be planned in the not too distant future. I certainly got my fix in March. I came home and slept for 14 hours but woke up refreshed and excited about our next seminar. I love road trips and I think I’ll get my fill of one when our group heads to Kentucky in a few days!