By Robert Pore, firstname.lastname@example.org
Grand Island Independent
For Don Reeves of Central City, the mission statement for the Center for Rural Affairs has proved to be a blueprint for his work as a rural advocate.
That mission statement is: "Establish strong rural communities, social and economic justice, environmental stewardship, and genuine opportunity for all while engaging people in decisions that affect the quality of their lives and the future of their communities."
A lifelong farmer and rural advocate, Reeves is the president of the board of directors for the Center for Rural Affairs. The center, formerly of Walthill, is based in Lyons.
Someone who has worked closely with Reeves over the years is Chuck Hassebrook, executive director for the Center for Rural Affairs.
Hassebrook said Reeves has done a great job as the center's board president.
"He brings a lot of intelligence and knowledge to the job," Hassebrook said. "What is really valuable about that is he brings a wealth of particular experience both as a farmer and a person who has lived in rural America most of his life."
When he wasn't working the land, Hassebrook said, Reeves was working in Washington, D.C., for rural America interests.
"That, combined with the moral clarity he provides, makes him an unique and super board member and board chair," Hassebrook said.
Reeves knew the founders of the Center for Rural Affairs, Marty Strange, who was based in Scottsbluff, and Don Ralston, who was based in Grand Island.
Both Strange and Ralston were ex-VISTA volunteers who went to Walthill in 1972 to work for the Goldenrod Hills Community Action Council (GHCAC), a local arm of the Federal War on Poverty authorized by the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964.
When President Nixon proposed eliminating GHCAC, Ralston and Strange developed "an institutional survival strategy which would attack the causes and conditions of poverty in northeast Nebraska without the restrictions imposed on Federal Community Action Agency grantees," Reeves said.
It was that strategy that resulted in the formation of the Center for Rural Affairs.
"With their work in rural Nebraska they developed this sense of need for what was going on in rural communities," Reeves said.
That sense of need was the ongoing loss of family farms in rural Nebraska and declining population in rural communities.
"One of the strengths of the program from the beginning is to do enough research so we know what is going on," Reeves said.
Some of the early research projects that the Center for Rural Affairs tackled were the beginning of use of center pivot irrigation in the Sandhills and the impact that had on the environment and rural communities and the growth of industrial hog farms.
From the beginning, the Center for Rural Affairs has had two broad program areas: policy and strategic services.
While not an advocate for special interest groups, the center does strive to influence state and federal policies that strengthen family farms and rural communities.
For example, the two early research projects allowed the center to show policy makers that the result of the growth of large hog farms and the irrigation of environmentally fragile land was the result of government rules and regulations, such as tax breaks.
"Tax subsidies are always more valuable to rich people than poor people," Reeves said.
He said the center was also involved in the early stages of helping to develop cross-compliance policies where landowners would not be eligible for farm program payments unless the landowner was helping to protect the land resource.
"That helped to reduce soil loss by about half," Reeves said.
But those early cross-compliance rules have been reinterpreted by special interests since they were first applied to a point where Reeves said they are "practically worthless by now."
"The center had an early recognition that public policy makes a difference to the kind of communities you have," he said. "It was that kind of involvement that attracted my attention."
Reeves said the principles and values that guide his life are faith-based. He is a Quaker and the values that guide his faith are also ones he believes are essential to what the Center for Rural Affairs is all about -- honesty, integrity and equality.
Reeves lives within a mile of the farmstead where he was born in Merrick County.
One of the areas where the center is involved is developing economic opportunities for rural people and communities. The center has become a national leader in helping new small businesses form in rural America.
"The majority of new jobs don't come from big enterprises, but they come from small enterprises," he said. "That's even more true in rural areas than urban areas."
Over the last 15 years, the center's rural enterprise program has helped 3,500 small business owners get their start. There are 300 new ones this year the center is working with.
A new focus for the center, according to Reeves, is its involvement in rural health issues and how to get federal and state programs to better serve rural residents.
Another area on which the center staff is working to help rural residents is addressing the issue of poverty.
"Poverty is disproportionately rural," he said. "Most of the poorest counties in the country are rural counties and many of them are here in the upper Great Plains."
The question for Reeves is: "What does that say about how we distribute whatever kind of assistance is out there?" Some of the poorest counties in the nation are in Nebraska and neighboring South Dakota.
"More and more, hunger is seen as a product of poverty," Reeves said. "Many of the same things you observe in poor countries in the world you can see happening right here in our own state."
He said rural people working together can bring about change in rural communities through good research and advocacy that can help change public policy.
"Within limits, we can have the kind of communities we want," Reeves said. "So we need to be smart about what we might be able to change and what we probably can't change."
For more information about the Center for Rural Affairs and how individuals can get more involved in helping bring positive change to rural areas, visit the Center for Rural Affairs Web site, www.cfra.org.
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