The Denver Post
DENVER - When Mike Brady opened Pelican Jo's Pizzeria in Windsor in 2011, money was so tight he couldn't even afford a menu board. The country was battling back from the Great Recession, and getting a bank loan seemed impossible.
"If you walked into a bank and said you wanted to open a restaurant, it was like cockroaches when the lights went on," he said.
Help came from a surprising source: the federal farm bill, which includes a pool of money to help improve the economic stability of rural communities and small towns across America.
In February 2012, Brady landed a $30,000 loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which got him through the rough business start.
"That made a huge difference," he said. "Since then, we've tripled our volume and doubled our workforce."
The farm bill, better known for funding things such as food stamps and farm subsidies, is also the rural bill. It funds the USDA Rural Development program, a venture capitalist for rural America which helps build or support such community essentials as fire stations, schools, libraries and medical clinics. More than $400 million flowed into Colorado in fiscal 2013.
"It's critical to the fabric of rural Colorado," said U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat on the Senate's Agriculture Committee who also served on the Farm Bill Conference Committee. "This program enables people to have access to resources they'd otherwise not have."
Entrepreneurs are important to rural life, and even tiny businesses are getting help. The Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program, created in 2008, provides small loans to enterprises that have fewer than 10 employees and can't get conventional credit.
"So many of our rural towns, particularly the one-stoplight towns, are (dominated) by small business," said U.S. Rep. Cory Gardner, R-Yuma. "The local grain operator and the hospital are usually the biggest (places), but the rest are businesses with one or two people."
In Colorado, farm-bill funding for rural development has bolstered a range of resources, including a preschool in Bayfield, a domestic-abuse safe-house in Dillon and the Axis Health System in Cortez, which provides integrated health care services to people in Dolores and Montezuma counties.
The Milliken Fire Protection District got a $5,000 USDA grant that allowed it to buy a new 40-kilowatt generator, installed in January, to keep systems running during a power outage.
When the power went out during a big snowstorm a few years ago, firefighters had to pull the manual release to get the bay doors open for the trucks to get out. Luckily, power didn't go out during the September floods, when Milliken was an island surrounded by water for about five days and residents from mobile home parks had to be evacuated.
"If we'd have lost power, we would have been stuck," said Fire Chief Ron Bateman. "Beyond getting the doors open for the trucks to get out, we need the ability to keep the engines charged up."
In Summit County, financing from the USDA Rural Development program helped the nonprofit Advocates for Victims of Assault to purchase space for new offices and a new safe-house in Dillon for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.
"We can serve more people," legal advocate Lori Schiefen said. "We also have more storage space. Before, we didn't have any way to store food, coats and toilet paper."
Farm-bill funding also helped create the Haxtun Community Childcare Center, which has attracted more residents.
The center got a $50,000 grant to help purchase equipment and a $50,000 loan at a lower-than-market interest rate to help with operating costs during its first few years .
"We created six jobs and now have 125 children," said Gibson. "It's attracting (young people) back to our community."
Federal farm bill backs ag and small businesses