USDA hopes to invigorate small-town economies nationwide by helping farmers expand their businesses or find new markets to stay afloat, say federal officials.

Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan told about 100 farmers, rural businessmen and government agents this week that the federal government could help them sell directly to schools that want to offer more fresh food to their students, aid in developing cooperatives and even provide help with cold storage.

She was one of several speakers at a conference hosted by the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.

Phil Givens of Tahlequah, Okla., grows row crops and runs a consulting business that helps link cities, schools and other entities with farms and rural businesses. It's frustrating that so many people who would benefit from government help don't know it's available, he said.

"You can qualify for surplus and excess equipment," Givens added. "There are loan packages. ... People just don't know how to access the money."

Glenn Dixon of Lake Providence, La., an agricultural agent affiliated with Southern University, specializes in linking growers to buyers and helping farmers expand their markets. He also said many farmers need help with the business aspects of their operations.

"We have some phenomenal producers but some of them, they lack that (business) element," Dixon said. "They need the processes in place for them to be successful."

The conference provided an opportunity to do some valuable networking. Between sessions, Dixon was on the phone with a colleague who wanted help getting some south Louisiana oranges to market. He had just met a purchasing agent who might be able to help.

Merrigan said USDA is working to help farmers bring more produce to inner-city areas that are lacking in grocery stores and farmers' markets. Farmers interested in starting traveling markets can get help forming a co-op, putting their produce in a van, and taking the market to potential customers, she said.

The agency also wants to reach out to younger, smaller farmers who earn less than $10,000 per year. Many of those farmers grow specialty crops, that's often organic. USDA wants to help them sell more food in their own communities.

"That's really the rural development component of it," Merrigan said. "Fresh food close to the farm increases the joy in the food."

Source:  The Associated Press.