George Plaven/Capital Press
Building relationships is key to running an efficient, effective federal agency, says John Huffman, the new director of USDA Rural Development for the state of Oregon.
That is why Huffman, a former Republican state representative from The Dalles, Ore., said he wants his staff to work more like consultants, rather than become isolated in one specific program area.
Huffman laid out his position and goals for rural development at the 5th annual SEDCOR Ag Breakfast in Mt. Angel, Ore., where he delivered the keynote presentation to an estimated 181 people.
“I’m just excited to be working for USDA and plugging people in where I can,” Huffman said. “I’ve got the best job in the world. I get paid to go out and make friends.”
USDA Rural Development does more than just on-farm grants and programs, Huffman said. It focuses on the very building blocks for rural communities, such as housing, expanding broadband internet access and combating the opioid epidemic.
“We’re finding out it really is hard to separate out the opioid crisis from who we are, and what we’re doing,” Huffman said. “It is having such a phenomenal impact on the rural areas we serve.”
Huffman was appointed by the Trump administration in October 2017. When he arrived, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said his goal was to make the USDA the most efficient and customer-focused agency in government — or, as Huffman translated, “You have to do more, better, with fewer resources.”
Drawing on his 10 years of experience in the Oregon Legislature, Huffman talked about how he was able to leverage his network of contacts into legislation and resources for projects from solar developments to converting an old lumber mill into a wood pellet facility in John Day, Ore.
By working more like consultants and increasing accessibility, Huffman said USDA Rural Development can achieve similar results.
“I just want to be an access resource point,” he said. “I want to be part of helping (people) find solutions.”
SEDCOR, or the Strategic Economic Development Corporation, is a nonprofit that strives to enhance and diversify jobs in the Mid-Willamette Valley. According to group’s the last annual report, SEDCOR stimulated more than $96 million of new investment through projects that added or retained 575 jobs in Marion, Polk and Yamhill counties.
Agriculture is an important part of the region’s economy, said SEDCOR President Chad Freeman. The purpose of the annual breakfast meetings is for farmers to meet and hear from other companies and officials who can make them more successful in the field.
“I don’t think a lot of people understand the value of what agriculture does,” Freeman said. He added there is a great opportunity to make those connections as agriculture and technology become increasingly intertwined.
Mark Hoyt, a Salem, Ore., attorney and 2018 SEDCOR chair, said the Willamette Valley is a “uniquely and remarkably” productive area, growing more than 225 different crops. The latest 2012 Farm Census shows Marion County is the top agricultural county in the state, with more than $592 million in total value.
“Agriculture is a significant commodity,” Hoyt said.