From investing in broadband, water, sewer, community facilities and housing, the person who oversees the Rural Development mission area at the U.S. Department of Agriculture has a vast array of responsibilities. But for the last four years, that position was not filled because former Secretary Sonny Perdue decided not to do so. Now, the new leader of USDA's rural development efforts wants to underscore the importance and diversity of farm country and “making sure that all of our country knows how crucial rural America is for our success.”

Confirmed earlier this month as USDA’s Undersecretary for Rural Development, Xochitl Torres Small brings experience from Capitol Hill to the position, something she hopes to leverage now that she’s serving a broader constituency. The former member of Congress — and House Ag Committee member — spoke with Agri-Pulse from her home in New Mexico with suitcases packed for an upcoming move to the nation’s capital after working her first few weeks on the job remotely.

The following conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: With so many different programs that you've got in your portfolio for rural development, how are you trying to establish priorities and focus areas in your early days?

A: You’re absolutely right, Rural Development does almost everything under the sun for rural communities, so there’s a lot to do. Starting out, it’s important for me to get a sense of all the work that’s done, and I'm really grateful for my experience as a rep for a rural district to know how crucial rural development is. So we can talk about all of the programs that they do, but sometimes it's easier — and I think it's better for rural communities — when you think of rural development as a whole. You can reach out to the field office or we're reaching out to communities to identify what their specific needs are, and figure out how to invest in them, to help bring a community's vision to life.

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So, when it comes to priorities for Rural Development, I am just so deeply grateful to get to work under the leadership of President (Joe) Biden, Vice President (Kamala) Harris and Agriculture Secretary (Tom) Vilsack, to be a real ally for people in rural communities by investing in infrastructure and opportunities that help to build back better. A fundamental component of that is supporting rural communities on the frontlines of climate change by building disaster resiliency, whether it be forest fires or droughts or floods, while also making climate-smart investments like increasing access to renewable energy and fuel infrastructure, and then creating new income opportunities in those markets.

Also, it's about increasing equity, and Rural Development has a key part there because so many communities across rural America have been left behind. And so, fighting for that as we take on systemic injustices to build brighter futures for everyone.

Q: During COVID, we’ve seen a lot of hospitals be overwhelmed with a patient load and often underwhelmed with resources. I know RD has a portfolio for community facilities including hospitals, so can you tell us how you’re starting to deploy more funds to help those rural hospitals?

It's such a crucial question, and it's an example of where Rural Development has key resources to help invest. The most common one is the community facilities; as a representative, I worked in the midst of COVID with a rural community that was trying to keep their clinic open, and trying to identify resources, and Rural Development was one of the first places we turned. So that's certainly important in investing in future resiliency.

Rural Development is also standing up a program — has actually already done so — and is getting money out the door to increase and support hospitals as well as clinics, and to provide vaccinations and to increase and get out some of the support that's necessary for people with COVID, or people who are trying to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Q: You mentioned outreach into some of these rural areas, and I know that's been an important component so that they know these programs are options, but you haven't exactly had a lot of staff in place, especially at the state level. I know you have acting and interim folks, but what can folks anticipate in terms of where you are with current staffing and where you hope to be maybe six, 12 months from now.

The first thing I want to do is just recognize the incredible civil servants who have been keeping Rural Development going as we struggle to make sure that we have the resources and the people in place that we need to do our enormous mission.

I'm the first undersecretary that Rural Development has seen for over four years, so that starts at the top in terms of being able to make sure that we're getting the investments in rural communities that we need.

You also mentioned the state directors, and that's so crucial to the mission. I've talked about how important the state or field offices are to connecting directly with leadership on the ground, with the people who need these resources. So, we've been working hard to identify the right people to do that work.

Rural Development is a large portfolio, and finding people who have experience in all of those sectors is crucial, but I'm really excited about the first tranche of state directors who've come on board — I actually attended the same orientation as them — and it's exciting to see the kind of people who will be leading in the states.

A good example is our new state director from Alabama, Nivory Gordon. He's worked in Rural Development for three decades, so he knows all of those resources that can help bring a community's vision to life, but he also has on-the-ground experience about how crucial it is to support the people who are supporting all of America. He is a cattle producer; he runs the operation with his wife and his kids. And so that's a good example of the type of fit that we're looking for, to lead Rural Development nationwide.

Q: Another program that is under the purview of Rural Development is rural broadband. Talk to us a little bit more broadly about how that is advancing and whether or not you have sufficient resources right now.

It's a huge need as we look at what is the infrastructure that can help level the playing field so that no matter where in the country you are, you can compete in the worldwide marketplace, broadband or good reliable internet is crucial. It's one of the key things that we've all realized in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

I'm so proud of Rural Development, the work that they've done to try to get money out of the door quickly in the midst of a pandemic, setting up an entirely new program and working to make those awards, and I’m excited to continue to work with Rural Development to speed up the process that we can get through a lot of the reports that are necessary — all of the environmental and historic — to get money out the door.

So, when it comes to how we reach those underserved populations, folks who don't have internet at all, or folks who have internet that's meaningless because it takes so long you can't even do a video, finding the ways to get to them is a challenge. Rural Development has a unique set of skills to be able to get that done, whether it's preexisting relationships with the rural electric coops, whether it's understanding how to work with a hospital and a library to get internet closer to that last mile, and understanding that sometimes it's not always the maps that will have the best information but it's the people on the ground. So Rural Development is a crucial partner and will be coordinating with the other entities that are taking on this broadband challenge whether it's (the National Telecommunications and Information Administration) or (the Federal Communications Commission), making sure we're all working together, and there's strong coordination.

Editor's note: Spencer Chase contributed to this report. Wyant is president and founder of Agri-Pulse Communications Inc. For more news, go to www.Agri-Pulse.com.