StrikeForce helps Southwest Georgia

Jerome Tucker, left, and Linda Riggins help coordinate the USDA StrikeForce initiative in 11 Southwest Georgia counties.

Jerome Tucker, left, and Linda Riggins help coordinate the USDA StrikeForce initiative in 11 Southwest Georgia counties.

ALBANY — Members of the Southwest Georgia Project for Community Education, a 50-year-old Albany organization dedicated to social change, is charged with helping to improve the economic situation of surrounding rural communities.

In 2010 the U.S. Department of Agriculture, led by Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack, initiated StrikeForce, a cross-agency program designed to accelerate assistance to minority and underserved farmers in high-poverty counties of Georgia, Mississippi and Arkansas. According to USDA sources, all three service center agencies — the Farm Service Agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service and Rural Development — are involved in accomplishing the objectives of StrikeForce.

While the StrikeForce initiative is active in 60 Georgia counties, SWGAP administers the program regionally to 11 rural counties in the Albany region. Counties are identified for inclusion in the StrikeForce program by their poverty rates of 20 percent or higher, said Jerome Tucker, coordinator for Georgia StrikeForce. Because of its urban population, Dougherty County is not included in the program.

According to Linda Riggins, coordinator of the StrikeForce/Southwest Georgia program, the greatest challenge is to make communities and individuals aware of help which may be available from the USDA.

“The tactic is to pull community leaders and ordinary citizens together and introduce the concept to them,” Riggins said. “Out of the meetings comes the needs. A meeting of 58 people in one particular county identified 29 people who had housing issues which could be addressed.”

Riggins said that for those who qualify, home funding is available from the USDA for repair, rehabilitation or purchase. Qualifications for grants or low-interest loans include credit checks and acceptable work history. For repair or rehab, applicants must be at least 62 years old and own a home.

In addition to community development assistance, StrikeForce concentrates on farming, especially in the area of water and irrigation. Vontice Jackson, district conservationist with USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, says the NRCS works one-on-one with farmers to provide cost-share assistance for irrigation, including well installation and design of watering systems to suit individual needs. According to Jackson, NRCS has allocated approximately $19 million throughout Georgia this fiscal year.

“Agriculture is such a huge piece of the economy,” Tucker said, “especially in Southwest Georgia. If the ag piece doesn’t work, the economy doesn’t work. We’re going from county to county to have these meetings but we still don’t make contact with everyone.”

Riggins said the StrikeForce team is seeking and recruiting farmers that are socially disadvantaged, beginning farmers and those who have limited resources for farming.

“Part of what we do is sponsor various workshops and information meetings and encourage the farmers to participate,” Riggins said. “One of the workshops resulted in a farmer creating his own solar panels to provide electricity for his irrigation system.”

According to Riggins, USDA funding has included a $40,000 grant toward building a farmers market, another $40,000 for a walk-in freezer, money to improve infrastructure such as roads and sewers and more than $2 million for a broadband system.

“Many of these towns don’t have resources available to access the programs,” Tucker said. It would take you all week to list the programs available. What we do is find out what the communities want to do, then tap the piece within USDA that best suits that application, be it a farmer, be it a business, be it a community. We help them through the maze.”

Riggins said one ultimate goal of the program is to position farmers for participation in a regional “food hub,” with greater production and a system of transporting fruits and vegetable to a processing center and “large buyers” in Albany.”

“As you put more dollars in farmers’ pockets they’re going to show up at the Albany Mall. Put more dollars into rural communities they’ll come to Albany to spend it.”

According to StrikeForce sources, eligibility workshops for USDA programs are planned for several dates in various county locations throughout the summer. For more information call the Southwest Georgia StrikeForce at (229) 317-4355 or email StrikeForce@swgaproject.com.