USDA Rural Development Director Maria Gallegos Herrera
USDA Rural Development Director Maria Gallegos Herrera

RCAC presents a series of discussions with state directors for United States Department of Agriculture Rural Development (USDA RD). The series will provide a glimpse at USDA RD’s priorities and how state directors hope to assist rural communities in our region.

In this issue, we spoke to Maria Gallegos Herrera, State Director, USDA Rural Development-California.

Herrera grew up in California’s San Joaquin Valley rural agricultural communities and is the proud daughter of immigrant farmworkers from Michoacán, Mexico. Her tireless and passionate dedication to serving the state’s rural, underserved, and historically marginalized communities is evident in every aspect of her work.

She joined Governor Gavin Newsom’s office in 2019 as the Central California Deputy Regional Director of External Affairs. In July of 2021, she became the Central California Regional Director. Before that, Herrera was a Community Development Manager at Self-Help Enterprises. She also held positions at the Community Water Center and the California Department of Food and Agriculture. She served on the California Water Commission from 2015 to 2019 and received the 2019 Rachel’s Network Inaugural Catalyst Award.

In our conversation, we discussed the experience Herrera brings to USDA RD, the agency’s priorities,   climate change, drought, housing, infrastructure, climate resilience, and other challenges and opportunities in rural California.

RCAC: Tell us a little bit about yourself and the background you bring to USDA Rural Development.

Maria Gallegos Herrera: At the young age of three, my family and I left our home in Mexico and immigrated to the United States in search of a better life. We settled in the small city of Orange Cove in Fresno County, the heart of California’s San Joaquin Valley. Then, at 13, my father and I moved to neighboring unincorporated communities in northern Tulare County.

Both Orange Cove and the rural communities where I grew up persistently struggled with inadequate infrastructure, poverty and limited economic opportunities. Sadly, these conditions can be traced back to old redlining maps, historical disinvestments and discriminatory policies. For example, Tulare County’s 1973 General Plan policy deemed 15 rural unincorporated communities, including many of the communities I once called home, as non-viable and purposely withheld investments to force residents to move to other communities.

Growing up and spending my career in the San Joaquin Valley shaped my understanding of the needs and investment opportunities in rural California across the state and fueled my desire to serve.

Over the course of my career, I worked alongside community residents determined to enhance the quality of life and drive investments to their communities. I did so through community organizing, advocacy, legislation, technical assistance and project implementation. A key strategy in this work, and one of my favorite parts, has been relationship building. By fostering partnerships between communities, state and federal governments, philanthropy, and other key stakeholders, I have been part of teams that secured millions of dollars to ensure community residents can plan for and build healthy and sustainable, climate-resilient communities.

I also helped respond to natural disasters and public health emergencies. Most recently, while serving Governor Gavin Newsom as the Central California Regional Director of External Affairs, I helped advance the Administration’s COVID-19 response and vaccine equity efforts; created direct channels between underserved communities and state government; and guided private and public investments to improve access to healthcare, economic development, water infrastructure and drought relief.  

RCAC: What exactly is it that you do in this role?

Maria Gallegos Herrera: State directors serve as Rural Development’s chief executive officers in the field, where we have boots on the ground in every state and U.S. territory. State directors promote Rural Development’s mission and strategic goals and provide key leadership to develop and support a productive, diverse and inclusive state workforce. State directors help communicate the power of Rural Development’s opportunities for rural communities and  how rural America’s success benefits the rest of the country. In this role, I ensure that RD programs and efforts advance equity across rural communities in California.

RCAC: From what I understand, you were appointed to your position by the president. Tell us a little about that process — how did your appointment play out?

Maria Gallegos Herrera: It was a relatively lengthy process, which included an online application, several interviews and formal vetting. The final part was the official announcement from the White House.

As a Latina immigrant, originally from the Mexican state of Michoacán and daughter of farmworkers, I identify with many of the communities that have been historically under-represented in government, particularly in rural California. For these reasons, it is an honor to serve the Biden-Harris administration. It is a privilege to help improve the quality of life in rural America and contribute to building a government that reflects our rich diversity and works for all Americans.

RCAC: You spent a considerable amount of time working with Self-Help Enterprises to make safe and affordable housing, drinking water and sanitation available to low-income and vulnerable families in underserved communities across the San Joaquin Valley. Can you tell us how this informs your present work?

Maria Gallegos Herrera: Working at Self-Help Enterprises (SHE) helped broaden my technical expertise and reach many communities that historically were left behind in SHE’s eight-county service area.

I helped several rural communities secure state,  federal and private resources to improve water and wastewater systems and services, as well as respond to drought impacts. One of the programs I helped communities tap into was the USDA RD Emergency Community Water Assistance Grant program. This provided me the opportunity to increase my knowledge of RD, and the critical role that technical assistance providers play in helping rural communities access its resources.

I oversaw and supported implementation of community outreach, engagement and leadership development activities to improve community participation in regional water management and groundwater sustainability planning.

These experiences confirmed that rural communities and families don’t ever have just one challenge—it’s not just drinking water or housing—it is an all-of-the-above situation that reflects the historic disinvestments in rural communities. It also reinforced the need to create strong community engagement plans that foster meaningful community participation and technical assistance programs that enable communities to design solutions that best meet their needs.

I plan to draw upon my lived experience, professional expertise and strong community relations to advance my present work. Key to this is learning about the diverse communities across the state from those who know them best – the residents. I plan to continue to build relationships with communities and leaders all across California.

RCAC: COVID has sharply impacted families in California, especially among immigrants, Native communities, and communities of color. How does your agency hope to address the longstanding racial and housing equity challenges that grew during the pandemic?

Maria Gallegos Herrera: Under President Biden, Vice President Harris and Agriculture Secretary Vilsack’s leadership, USDA is committed to being an ally for people in rural communities by investing in infrastructure and opportunities that help them build back better and increasing equity in and for rural communities.

Equity in housing is one of the best ways USDA RD can meet these objectives. Through our loans and grant programs, we help people who would otherwise have no path to homeownership achieve that dream.

Homeownership through USDA RD has a personal place in my heart. My mother, a former farmworker, achieved homeownership in the San Joaquin Valley through a USDA loan. That loan helped my family afford our first home.

Recently, I had the honor and privilege of participating in the grand opening of the Our Town St. Helena – Brenkle Court Mutual Self-Help project that made homeownership possible for eight low-income hard-working families in Napa County. This project is a prime example of how USDA’s Rural Development programs help advance equity, provide opportunity for all and achieve rural prosperity.

We are proud to be a partner in providing quality, affordable housing opportunities for hard-working families in rural California.  

RCAC: California and the U.S. West have been facing a megadrought for over two decades, as well as intensifying climate conditions, and these trends show little sign of abating. How does USDA Rural Development hope to manage this crisis and adapt rural communities to climate change and its consequences?

Maria Gallegos Herrera: Under President Biden, Vice President Harris and Agriculture Secretary Vilsack’s leadership, USDA is committed to supporting America’s rural communities on the frontlines of climate change by building disaster resiliency and making climate-smart investments (increasing access to renewable energy and fuel infrastructure) and creating new income opportunities.

People in rural communities continue to see first-hand the devastation climate change and increasingly severe weather can have on their safety, health and livelihoods. By investing in climate-smart infrastructure, we are creating good-paying jobs in rural America and empowering people in these communities with resources to help them build back better and be more resilient for decades to come.

USDA RD is uniquely positioned to support drought resilience and response and address long-standing water challenges because we provide loans and grants to rural people. We also develop partnerships with local leaders to promote growth and prosperity for rural families and local communities.

USDA RD has several programs to help mitigate climate change effects. For example, the Emergency Community Water Assistance Grant (ECWAG) program is available to help eligible rural communities that are experiencing a significant decline in the quality or quantity of drinking water as a direct result of the drought. ECWAG helps them obtain or maintain water sources of sufficient quantity and quality. These programs were highly utilized during the last severe drought and continue to be used today.

During the last drought, we utilized this program to help Tulare County and   Monson, Okieville and East Porterville communities plan, design, and construct connections to neighboring water systems or new local water systems.

We recently received two ECWAG applications, one from the Kettleman City Community Services District and the other from the City of Huron. These applications will assist these two communities to address their water shortage, due to drought, for this year.

The team is also working with another potential applicant, Grizzly Flats Community Services District, which is seeking assistance under ECWAG to address an imminent threat to its water source line caused by the Caldor Fire. This project would benefit the Grizzly Flats community in El Dorado County.

Our Rural Energy for America Program provides guaranteed loan financing and grant funding to agricultural producers and rural small businesses for renewable energy systems or to make energy efficiency improvements. Agricultural producers may also apply for new energy-efficient equipment and new system loans for agricultural production and processing. One example of this is Everlasting Gardens, a woman-owned organic farm producing Asian foods for sale to markets and restaurants in the San Francisco Bay area. High energy costs comprise a large part of farm-operating expenses and the project funds were used to purchase a 17kW solar array to offset electrical costs that normal operations incur. This project is projected to save Everlasting Gardens $8,183 per year and will replace 24,068kWh per year, which is enough electricity to power two homes per year.

RCAC: Lastly, what do you hope to accomplish during your time in this position?

Maria Gallegos Herrera: I hope to be an ally for people in rural communities by investing in infrastructure and opportunities that help them build back better. I hope to support America’s rural communities on the frontlines of climate change by building disaster resiliency and making climate-smart investments (increasing access to renewable energy and fuel infrastructure) and creating new income opportunities. I hope to help increase equity in and for rural communities; identify and break down barriers that rural communities face when seeking support from government partners; and fortify access points for communities to continue to bring investments from all government levels by creating lasting partnerships.