BLACKSBURG —  Virginia Cooperative Extension was recently recognized by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture for its commitment to strengthening rural economies.

The award recognizes an Extension initiative called Stronger Economies Together, a program that promotes collaboration among rural communities by pooling shared economic assets among municipalities and expanding the vision of local policymakers in rural areas to think regionally beyond their own counties.

The team was recognized at a ceremony at the NIFA Day of Appreciation in Washington, D.C.

“We place high value on the teams of researchers and other individuals who have enacted positive change on the future of agriculture and science through their work,” Sonny Ramaswamy, director of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, said in a news release.

The project is a collaboration of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development, the Regional Rural Development Centers, and a team of land-grant Extension faculty, including Martha Walker, community viability specialist in the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics in the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

The goal of SET is to guide multicounty regions to construct and implement a regional economic development plan that builds upon local and regional strengths and assets. The SET program is now in its fifth year.

This year, three regions in Virginia have been selected as part of the SET 2015-16 initiative.

The regions include the Eastern Shore, consisting of Accomack and Northampton counties and Tangier Island; the Mount Rogers Planning District, made up of Bland, Carroll, Grayson, Smyth, Washington, and Wythe counties and the cities of Bristol and Galax; and most recently added the Northern Shenandoah Valley with Clarke, Frederick, Page, Shenandoah and Warren Counties, City of Winchester; Towns of Berryville, Front Royal, Luray, Middletown, Strasburg, Stephens City, and Woodstock.

Each of these three regions will benefit from a focused initiative to explore regional economic advantages and to formulate economic blueprints for the regions.

Among its many accomplishments, the SET program has provided two regional teams with tools, training, and technical expertise. Diverse teams of regional stakeholders participated in a 12- to 18-month program, which strengthened the collaborative capacity and economic development knowledge of participants, culminating in a high-quality economic plan for the regions. Community viability specialists from Extension and personnel from partner organizations engaged participants in team-building activities and the use of up-to-date data and analytical tools.

Virginia Cooperative Extension and its partners implemented the program in two Virginia regions: the Northern Neck-Chesapeake Bay area and a section of Southside Virginia.

The Northern Neck-Chesapeake Bay Region Partnership secured implementation funding, established a small business incubator, and developed one of SET’s nationally recognized regional economic plans.

Virginia’s Growth Alliance, which comprises six counties and one city in Southside, established a new economic development partnership, crafted a regional entrepreneurship plan, and better identified regional economic clusters.

In both areas, the program successfully built the foundation for job creation, forged new partnerships, and encouraged local government officials to continue working together across municipal boundaries. Both regions participated in the SET national program assessment in September 2014.

The program was an outgrowth of recognizing the sizable constraints of limited economic resources faced by rural economies that are compounded by declining industries that cause the labor pool to flee rural regions.

To date the national SET program has leveraged $112 million in grants and resources in designated regions, region-specific infrastructure planning to strengthen rural healthcare, agritourism, broadband access, entrepreneurism, agribusiness, and transportation.

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