RCAC presents an ongoing series of discussions featuring state directors from the United States Department of Agriculture Rural Development. Our series provides a glimpse into USDA RD’s priorities and showcases the dedication of state directors in serving rural communities within our region.
In this issue, we speak with Helen Price Johnson, USDA RD State Director for Washington.
A third-generation small business owner, Helen has worked statewide advocating for rural places and people.
Joining USDA in January 2022, she previously served three terms as an Island County Commissioner, is a past president of the Washington State Association of Counties, a two-term member of the South Whidbey School Board and a member of the Board of Directors of the Whidbey Community Foundation. The South Whidbey Record recognized Helen as a Hometown Hero.
With a bachelor’s degree in administration and legal processes from Mills College, Helen leverages her vast knowledge and experience to emphasize the importance of investing in rural infrastructure, ensuring that rural communities remain at the heart of Washington’s development initiatives.
She and her husband live on Whidbey Island. They have four grown children and four adorable grandchildren.
RCAC: Can you explain the primary goals and objectives of the department under your leadership, especially considering the challenges Washington’s rural communities face?
Helen Price Johnson: This moment in time is critical for building prosperity across Washington’s rural communities. We have a combination of historic funding opportunities made possible through recent legislation, an increasing climate crisis and limited local resources to meet ever expanding needs. At RD-WA our focus is on building capacity for our underserved communities. As a local elected official, I felt the frustration of feeling that most federal funding was out of reach. In my time as State Director for Rural Development, I want to change that. We are actively engaging with local leaders, technical assistance providers, philanthropy, state and federal partners to find ways to redirect funding pipelines to better reach these areas of our state and support the families and businesses there.
RCAC: How has your experience as a third-generation small business owner shaped your approach as the USDA-RD State Director for Washington, especially in addressing rural business challenges and opportunities?
Helen Price Johnson: My grandparents opened a family clothing store on Whidbey Island in the 1950s, and I worked there with my mother as a child, then as an adult, I owned and operated that business. For 25 years, my husband and I have owned a small construction business on the island. So, I know first-hand the challenges of small business owners – the higher costs of supplies in rural areas, the difficulties in keeping a trained workforce, and then finding affordable housing for them.
In addition to providing local jobs and economic opportunity, rural businesses bring value and strengthen the fabric of rural communities in other ways. These folks are often the key leaders of the local civic clubs, sponsoring children’s sports teams, serving on town councils, and generating local tax revenues. They know and love the communities they serve. As a small business owner, you are often the first one to show up and the last one to leave. That is why I’m an advocate for streamlining funding application processes and reporting requirements to make them more user-friendly.
Rural communities depend upon local businesses for their vitality and resiliency. Opening access to USDA resources for small business owners to invest and expand opportunities for their hometowns is very exciting and can have long-term positive impacts for the whole state.
RCAC: Rural housing security affects not only working families but also the businesses that rely on them. How is USDA-RD addressing communities’ housing needs to ensure that both residents and businesses can thrive in rural Washington?
Helen Price Johnson: Rural housing in Washington is in a crisis. We have a shortage of single-family housing stock, an aging multi-family rental inventory, limited workforce housing in recreational communities, and inadequate municipal infrastructure. At WA-RD we can help – we partner with local lenders to help rural families buy a home. We provide funds for low-income seniors with grants and loans to repair their homes so they can age in place. We also finance infrastructure for water and wastewater systems for housing developments. The Washington housing team leads the nation in working with regional non-profit partners to deliver the USDA-RD Self-help Housing Program which is a sweat-equity path to homeownership. For the lowest income buyers, the demand in our state is so high for our direct loan program, we have a two-year backlog of applications.
RCAC: How is your team drawing inspiration from initiatives like the Rural Partners Network and collaborating with other agencies to ensure that the state’s diverse communities benefit from tailored strategies and resources?
Helen Price Johnson: Though Washington is not one of the states currently funded for this pilot program, we are taking the strategy to heart, and actively collaborating with other federal agencies to better serve our rural communities. As an example, we have 29 federally recognized tribal nations in Washington. Many are in remote regions and have limited staff capacity to access federal resources. By working together with our sister agencies, we can reduce the administrative barriers to these critical funds and open more opportunities for prosperity and resiliency across Indian Country.
Another example is our work as part of a state-wide network focused on expanding access to rural childcare. This is a critical need, and systemic change is necessary to bring this vital service to our rural working families and businesses. Rural Development WA is actively working to bring together new solutions to meet the needs of the communities we serve.
RCAC: High-speed internet has become a cornerstone of modern society and is essential for businesses, education, and even healthcare. How is USDA-RD addressing the digital divide and ensuring that small rural and Indigenous communities in Washington are not left behind in this digital age?
Helen Price Johnson: Availability of high-speed internet is just as urgent a need in today’s world as rural electricity was back in the 1930s. USDA led the way then and is a key resource provider now. Rural families deserve affordable access to telehealth, banking, education and job opportunities that come via the online world. Our agency actively engages with the WA State’s broadband office, as well as local providers, and we are having some big success! Recently USDA Reconnect funds have been awarded in Okanogan, Lewis, Cowlitz, Kitsap, and Whatcom Counties to expand access to high-speed internet. This will make a huge difference for the students, seniors and businesses there. Distance learning and telemedicine awards to the University of Washington are another example. This investment is expanding access to dental care and job training in small towns across our state. There is much more to be done and we look forward to working around the state to braid the USDA resources together with other agencies to fill the gaps in service.
RCAC: How is USDA-RD integrating sustainability and environmentally friendly initiatives into its overall approach to development, especially considering the state’s abundant natural resources and diverse ecosystems?
Helen Price Johnson: Reducing climate pollution and increasing resilience to the impacts of climate change through economic support to rural communities is a high priority for the Biden-Harris Administration. For example, recent investments from the Inflation Reduction Act in bio-based fertilizer production will reduce reliance on fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions in our state. The Rural Energy for America Program provides incentives for small rural businesses and ag producers to increase energy efficiency in their operations and produce clean energy to offset utility bills, with up to 50% project cost share. Also, RD supports public utility districts to produce renewable energy and reduce their carbon footprint. Water and wastewater systems can be upgraded to meet today’s quality standards using RD financing options. We can partner with communities to help fund climate resiliency planning, emergency response facilities, and even community relocation efforts made necessary due to rising sea levels and tsunami threats. Investments in the cross-laminated timber industry have the potential to transform wildfire-prone forested areas into climate resilient, affordable housing materials, producing job creators. These are just a few examples.
RCAC: Lastly, what legacy do you hope to leave behind for Washington’s rural communities during your tenure as the USDA-RD State Director, and what steps are you taking to achieve that vision?
Helen Price Johnson: Ensuring all of Washington’s rural residents have equitable access to Rural Development programs and reap the benefits from the funded projects now and into the future; that is my goal. For too long, communities of color, tribal nations and remote rural communities have been left behind. My goal is to empower WA’s rural communities, to create resilient partnerships across federal, state, and local agencies, raise awareness of the rural challenges across our state, and create pathways to redirect the funding pipes – to create economic opportunities for generations to come.
Also in this issue of Network News
Sun Country Estates Maintenance Association
Sun Country Estates is a mobile home park in Yakima, Washington. The rural community consists of manufactured homes and is located along the Yakima River east of Seattle at the foot of the Cascade Mountain range. Property owners share the costs to maintain, repair and replace property through the homeowner’s association, Sun Country Estates Maintenance Association (SCEMA).