Strengthening Rural Louisiana

Linda Benedict  |  8/23/2007 2:46:29 AM

James N. Barnes

Rural Louisiana continues to face significant challenges to improve local economies. For example, one out of every four people in rural Louisiana lives in poverty, and roughly three quarters of all rural parishes have been defined as persistent poverty areas.

Despite persistent poverty, we have limited stakeholder input from rural residents regarding rural development research and extension strategies to improve community rural development. If we are going to make progress, we must listen to rural residents, institutions and other economic development organizations.

The LSU AgCenter has taken steps to gather input from rural residents about the most pressing issues in rural areas and is responding to these research and extension needs to strengthen rural Louisiana.

Listen to the people
On Sept. 6, 2006, the LSU AgCenter’s Delta Rural Development Center (DRDC), a satellite center for the Louisiana Center for Rural Initiatives (LCRI), took an important step to gather rural stakeholder input to better develop and deliver rural development research and extension programming. With funding support from the Kellogg Foundation and the Southern Rural Development Center, DRDC and LCRI faculty held roundtable discussions in Calhoun and Winnsboro.

Approximately 50 participants came from groups such as police jury and school board associations, economic development organizations, mayors and other elected officials, residents, agricultural producers, rural business owners and chamber of commerce executives. Using a focus group discussion approach provided by the Southern Rural Development Center, participants were asked to identify rural development needs and list some initiatives that would strengthen rural Louisiana.

Suggested Rural Development Priorities  
Participants identified and prioritized three core areas of rural development research and extension needs. Read "Table 1. Northern Louisiana Rural Development Rountable Results."

The highest priority was to address issues related to improving education and workforce development. The general consensus was rural communities struggle to assess workforce skills and do not understand the role of economic incentives needed to improve business recruitment. In addition, participants cited the need for more emphasis on providing existing rural business owners with technical assistance in order to spur business growth, such as how to gain access to high-speed Internet to sell their products on-line.

The second priority was for more research and extension programming aimed at spurring economic development of both agricultural- and non-agricultural-based businesses. Participants cited lack of an entrepreneurial environment, limited access to high-speed Internet, drug usage and insufficient information about bio-fuels and other value-added agricultural opportunities as significant barriers to development.

The third priority was research and extension programming in natural resource and environmental management to strengthen rural Louisiana by identifying new solid-waste management strategies, including water distribution infrastructure and water quality, adopting more conservation land uses to preserve natural resources and reducing air and water pollution.

Moving Forward
LCRI and DRDC faculty and community rural development agents are developing new and adjusting existing extension programming to focus more on rural entrepreneurship, value-added agricultural enterprise development and other programs aimed at providing community leaders with tools to manage resources. Suggested initiatives include:
  • Start a business incubator program that provides access to high-speed Internet to give rural business owners the necessary technological infrastructure to create new companies and expand into on-line markets. Access to dial-up Internet is insufficient to spur the creation and sustainability of new rural businesses and job growth.

  • Teach adult entrepreneurs how to start and manage ebusinesses, such as establishing Storefront businesses on eBay, as well as develop Web sites. Educational programs can be provided using distance education technology and regional partnerships with economic development institutions and organziations.

  • Teach youth in rural areas business management skills (marketing, sales, finance, economics, etc.) necessary to start and grow businesses, including how to buy and sell items on the Internet. Rural youth could work with local retailers to expand their businesses into global markets. This approach has been piloted in West Carroll Parish.

  • Develop alternative supply-chain business model arrangements for energy crops to learn about bio-fuel opportunities in Northeast Louisiana.

  • Provide strategic planning educational presentations for producers and others who are interested in exploring bio-fuel businesses, such as successful case studies in Louisiana. Nontraditional markets for crops may yield opportunities for longterm sustainable economic stability and growth for agriculture in Louisiana.

  • Organize and host a regional workshop to assess renewable energy options for producers and others in the business community. This will include bio-fuels and non-traditional sources of energy. Conducted by LSU AgCenter, this conference could include partners from neighboring states.
Innovation and Collaboration
Gathering information from public and private organizations in rural Louisiana as well as understanding perspectives from residents provides new information which is presently being used to develop new ways to organize resources within the LSU AgCenter.

This organizational innovation provides at least two fundamental effects aimed at strengthening community development in rural Louisiana. First, stakeholder input provides a set of suggested priorities for research and extension programming. This means the LCRI and the DRDC must become increasingly more relevant, timely and focused on the most important community development needs in rural Louisiana.

The LCRI and the DRDC will be able to leverage resources more effectively when collaborating with other Louisiana institutions, such as the Southern University Agricultural Center, as well as other institutions of higher education in the South. Similar roundtable discussions conducted throughout the South during 2006 identified top priorities for rural development research and extension programming in other states. These results can be used in a systemic way to identify other states with similar priorities and cooperatively develop projects which address common community rural development problems.

Much of the work ahead will require significant institutional collaborations with organizations such as police jury and school board associations, economic development organizations and private foundations. Resources are simply too limited to recreate the proverbial wheels of rural economic development. Bringing innovation in various forms to rural areas and working with collaborative partners is a better approach. And that’s exactly what it’s going to take to strengthen rural Louisiana.

James N. Barnes, Director and Assistant Professor, Delta Rural Development Center (DRDC), Oak Grove, La., and Department of Agricultural Economics & Agribusiness, LSU AgCenter, Baton Rouge, La.

About the LSU AgCenter’s Rural Development Efforts
The Louisiana Center for Rural Initiatives was created to understand more about the socioeconomic conditions and trends in rural areas of Louisiana as well as gather rural stakeholder input. LCRI is an interdisciplinary team of social scientists and policy professionals engaged in research and extension programs that contribute to sustainable community and rural development in Louisiana. LCRI, as created by Act 796 of the Louisiana Legislature, is a consortium between the LSU AgCenter and the Southern University Agricultural Center. LCRI is housed in the Department of Agricultural Economics & Agribusiness at LSU and operates the Delta Rural Development Center in Oak Grove, La.

(This article was published in the summer 2007 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)
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