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  assist rural communities in our region.

In this issue, we spoke to Rudy Soto, State Director, USDA Rural Development-Idaho.

Soto was born and raised in rural Nampa, Idaho, and is a member of the Shoshone Bannock Tribes of Fort Hall Reservation and the son of a farmworker. He is passionate about ensuring that Idaho’s rural residents have access to affordable housing, broadband internet and real opportunities to escape poverty.

In addition to serving in the U.S. Army National Guard, Soto worked as a legislative staffer for the U.S. House of Representatives, covering subjects such as energy, environment, agriculture, education, transportation and other issues of vital importance to tribes and rural communities. His previous position as Indigenous Leaders Organizer of Western Leaders Network (WLN) was dedicated to protecting public lands and promoting environmental stewardship across the West. As part of his campaign for Idaho’s 1st Congressional District, Soto took part in an RV tour that provided a first-hand look at rural realities in western and northern Idaho through a series of intimate town hall meetings and meet-and-greets.

During our conversation, we discussed Soto’s background, his vision for leadership at Rural Development, and his plans to create new opportunities for rural Idahoans.

RCAC: Tell us a little bit about yourself and the background that you bring to RD.

Rudy Soto: I come from having worked quite a bit in Washington, D.C., on the federal government-to-government relationship with tribes. I worked for the National Indian Child Welfare Association, the National Council of Urban Indian Health, the National Indian Gaming Association, and then on Capitol Hill as a staffer in the House of Representatives for Congressman Kurt Schrader of Oregon through the American Political Science Association’s Congressional Fellowship program, and then also for Congresswoman Norma Torres of California’s Inland Empire. I staffed her on the Natural Resources committee and handled ag, transportation, infrastructure, education, environment, energy and all things important to the West, basically. It was a privilege and a pleasure.

I have a background that spans many different fields, and that’s perfect for rural communities because they face challenges on so many fronts! Being born and raised in Idaho, I’m also excited to bring my connections and knowledge to bear for my home state and folks from small towns.

RCAC: What is it exactly that the state director does in this role?

Rudy Soto: We are the Biden-Harris administration’s primary spokespersons and representatives, in the field and on the front lines, in rural America. We’re here to help make sure our agency’s resources are being delivered expeditiously. This administration is making historic investments, and we are committed to fostering relationships and partnerships that will enable us to return taxpayer resources to underserved communities.

RCAC: Before your time on Capitol Hill and involvement with Western Leaders Network, your career in public service really began in the U.S. Armed Forces. How did your background in the military influence or lay the groundwork for your civilian career?

Rudy Soto: There’s a saying from my time in the Army that I like: “lead, follow, or get out of the way.” We were extremely mission-driven, so I can use that training and hard-charger mindset to help us overcome barriers and challenges as it pertains to rural communities.

RCAC: You were the Indigenous Leaders Organizer for Western Leaders Network before you were tapped by the Biden administration. Is there anything you learned from the network that shed light on the challenges and opportunities faced by rural and Indigenous households?

Rudy Soto: I loved my time with Western Leaders Network because it helped me become aware of the challenges and opportunities related to conservation and dealing with climate change; and figuring out how to seize opportunities that are sustainable and advance renewable energy while also helping rural communities figure out ways to pursue economic development that aren’t primarily based on extractive industries. Historically, rural communities are viewed in terms of taking resources from here and redistributing them elsewhere, sort of like trickle-down economics. As a result, some of these small towns may be left to die once that resource has been depleted. A circular economy is really what is needed, as Secretary Vilsack has emphasized. I’m excited about what our agency is doing on broadband and how it helps create pathways for outdoor recreation economies and telework in small towns so that rural communities can take advantage of the opportunities available through Internet connectivity.

RCAC: Rural communities face a range of crises, from the pandemic to climate change to the fear of a possible recession. How can RD help Idaho’s Indigenous and rural communities prosper during these times of change, crisis      and perhaps opportunity?

Rudy Soto: The economy is thriving, so we won’t have a recession, and we will move forward positively to maintain the good record this administration has built for rural communities. With the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, we will rebuild roads, bridges and rural America by connecting small towns that have never before been connected to the Internet. The Inflation Reduction Act also provides many resources to help people transition into a new future which is particularly beneficial to those who have historically lacked economic opportunities. Together with the American Rescue Plan, these new laws offer massive investment and economic development opportunities for small towns that will last for years and will enable us to increase the housing supply, create small businesses and build new hospitals and schools.

RCAC: Looking to the future, what do you hope to accomplish for rural communities in Idaho during your time in this position?

Rudy Soto: One of my big overarching priorities is to help low-income communities achieve the American dream of homeownership. I’m hard at work on this. I want to connect more small towns with the funding opportunities they’ve typically been unable to compete for. So, I’m working hard to partner with foundations, philanthropic organizations      and other federal funding agencies to help these small towns. Last but certainly not least, a big priority of mine is to create new housing opportunities for farm workers.

Also in this issue:

Featured case study: Yellow Pine, Idaho

Yellow Pine is an unincorporated census-designated place (CDP) in Valley County, Idaho. In 2019, the population of Yellow Pine was 246. This small mining community’s water storage and distribution systems were seriously damaged by earthquakes in 2020. Fortunately, by working closely with RCAC technical assistance provider Jeremy Peirsol, Yellow Pine Water Users Association was able to create balance sheets for the organization that allowed them to pursue two Emergency Community Water Assistance Grants (ECWAG). Read more