BANGOR, Maine — After two decades working with Aroostook County potato farmers, Tim Hobbs is hitting the ground running as the new Maine state director for the USDA Rural Development agency.
“They use this phrase, drinking from a fire hose. It sounds so cliche, but it’s kind of like that,” said Hobbs, describing his first three weeks on the job.
Hobbs, the former grower relations director for the Maine Potato Board and director of the Central Aroostook Soil & Water Conservation District, has been busy familiarizing himself with the USDA Rural Development agency’s array of rural economic development programs and the priorities of the Trump Administration in Washington D.C.
“The priorities have been narrowed down to three categories: innovation, partnerships and infrastructure,” Hobbs said.
In 2016, USDA-RD spent $402 million in Maine, with more than $300 million of that devoted to housing, including guaranteed loans for homebuyers and rental housing. The agency’s programs also spent $55 million in community projects, such as healthcare, roads and wastewater facilities, as well as $8.7 million in business grants and loans.
Since 2007, USDA-RD programs have spent $225 million in Aroostook County. Among those investments have been grants under the Rural Energy for America Program renewable energy program that have helped potato farms such as Labrie Farms in St Agatha and Double G Farms in Blaine adopt solar power for their potato storage facilities.
Other recent beneficiaries of USDA-RD programs include the Aroostook House of Comfort, northern Maine’s first hospice house, which received a $2.8 million loan through the agency.
“Rural Development is essentially a bank. We’re a lending institution,” Hobbs said.
Hobbs, who grew up in Washburn, replaced another Aroostook County native, Virginia Manuel, originally from Littleton, as head of USDA-RD.
Hobbs did not grow up on a family farm — his father was a banker — but like many in his generation, he spent at least a part of the summer and fall working for local farms.
“I might as well have grown up on a farm,” Hobbs said, noting that his parents wanted to keep him and his brothers busy. “Busy meant haying and picking rocks and picking potatoes.”
Hobbs said he’s not exactly sure why he was offered the job as the USDA-RD Maine director — a presidential appointment — but he was interested in working under the new president.
“When Donald Trump got elected president, I expressed some interest in working for the administration. I sent in an application.”
While still taking in the lay of the land at the USDA-RD, Hobbs said he has some of his own goals over the next few years.
“Having been on the other side of this desk, one of the things that was important to me then and is important today is customer service,” Hobbs said. “My interest is: Are we providing something that’s necessary to the public and are we making it as easy to access as we can?”
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