University of Wisconsin Center for Cooperatives
Rural Cooperatives, March/April 2000, p. 2.
Published by the Rural Business and Cooperative Development Service 

Borders are no longer barriers for co-ops

By Jill Long Thompson
Under Secretary
USDA Rural Development

As we begin this century of increased global interaction and communication, we recognize the need to work toward improving the technological infrastructure of rural America. Increasing the level of agricultural trade with foreign nations will do much to improve the economic vitality of rural America and the rural cooperatives which are so vital to its well-being.

There are several articles in this magazine that detail trade programs and technical assistance efforts between the United States and our international partners. Some of these initiatives, such as our effort to create cooperative village banks in South Africa, will help those who are disenfranchised by poverty. We are also committed to working with our international partners whose future economic development will create marketing opportunities for rural Americans.

USDA Rural Development has provided technical assistance in certain countries in this hemisphere to help promote their agricultural development efforts. We expect to continue offering our assistance in a range of disciplines, from production techniques, to marketing, extension, pest and disease eradication, and food safety, among others.

In the United States, agricultural cooperatives remain a key component of rural economies. While "rural" is more than agriculture, the future success of our nation's small farms and their cooperatives is critically linked to the success of economies or rural communities to which they are interconnected.

Our rural economy has strengthened and is growing, but remains fragile and uneven. Rural earnings, after a decade of decline, are rising at rates similar to urban rates in some areas, as is per capita income. Rural unemployment continues to decline, to historically low levels. However, challenges remain. Even with double-digit percentage growth in the amount of jobs, the incomes remain significantly lower in rural areas relative to urban areas.

In June of 1998, when I hosted the Second International Conference on Women in Agriculture, more than 1,000 participants from 50 countries came together to discuss issues facing women in agriculture and to facilitate the exchange of information. During the conference, we established that in rural communities around the world, we have similar challenges, many of which can be addressed by cooperatives. Creating value-added cooperatives can do much to generate additional income for rural people, as shown by the cover story in this issue about how rural women in Alaska are earning income by knitting musk ox wool into beautiful garments.

In June of 1999, we successfully brought together leaders from several countries to create cooperative relationships to strengthen our nations' rural areas and increase the channels of communication between rural Latin America and rural United States. Again, we found that we share similar concerns, such as overcoming limited technological alternatives.

With President Clinton and Vice President Gore's leadership, we are working to build partnerships and develop a comprehensive approach to closing the digital divide and bringing digital opportunity to all Americans. Bringing advanced telecommunications technology to rural America has made significant impacts on people's lives. Through our various programs, Rural Development is providing many advantages to rural electric and telephone cooperatives to receive funding for the purpose of putting these new technologies to work for rural residents. We are also working to create opportunities with current and potential trading partners around the globe. Communities will revitalize themselves when opportunities exist for entrepreneurial initiatives, small business expansion and job training—all of which offer upward mobility without community members having to move to urban areas to find employment.

In closing, rural economic development and poverty alleviation strategies shared between countries and rural communities will ultimately lead to enriched families, empowered communities, and developed nations.

 Return to UWCC Homepage