Grant Menke grew up working the family corn and soybean farm near Calumet. A political science graduate of the University of Northern Iowa, he later worked as policy director for the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association.


In August, Menke got the call from President Donald Trump to be state director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development program in Iowa. His world goes far beyond corn and soybeans, ethanol and biodiesel. Now he’s into broadband, Main Street, housing, commercial buildings, schools and many other things that can help a small town succeed.

We talked a bit about Menke’s new job, based in the Federal Building in downtown Des Moines.


What attracted you to this position?


It’s what I’m passionate about. Rural Iowa is my passion. I grew up in rural Iowa, I was raised in rural Iowa, went to school in Iowa. I tried my hand out in [Washington, D.C.] for a while. I worked on [U.S. Sen. Chuck] Grassley’s Finance Committee staff from 2003 to 2009. Absence makes the heart grow fonder. My passion for rural Iowa was definitely exponentially increased.


How so?


There were things happening in terms of the renaissance with the advent of the biofuels industry. I always tell people when I graduated from high school in 1998, there were no dry-mill ethanol plants and no biodiesel plants. When I moved back to Iowa in 2009, I think there were about 40 ethanol plants and 12 biodiesel plants. Just to think how that one area just completely exploded over a short period. …

Seeing what rural prosperity can look like and what rural Iowans can achieve when they put their minds to it really got me excited about that role with renewable fuels, and, taking it further, the work with USDA Rural Development.


What excites you most about the job?


Just getting out and learning what is going on in all these different communities.


What is your central mission?


Our chief mission is improving economic opportunities, and improving and enhancing the quality of life in rural communities throughout the state. We get involved more on the community development side on infrastructure, on business development, on housing, on all these things that are keys to the future of rural communities. That’s our motto: “Committed to the Future of Rural Communities.” I’m on board with it 100%.


Can you describe some of your programs?


Our programs are divided into several main areas. We have our housing programs, and we do home loans, direct home loans, guaranteed home loans. We also have multifamily housing complexes around the state where we provide rental assistance and affordable housing options for rural Iowans. We provide financing.


Then we have our community programs, which are divided into two main areas. Community facilities, where we help finance big buildings in small towns — hospitals, schools, community buildings, fire stations, assisted living facilities, child care centers. Any essential community facility. Now infrastructure is a huge focus. Road and bridge improvements, things like that.


We also have our water and environmental programs. Obviously, the state has a huge focus on water quality. We are very aligned with that in terms of helping to upgrade water infrastructure in rural communities. Last year we had a record amount of investment in the state, for 44 projects totalling $132 million.


We also have our business programs that help with job creation with creating and expanding local rural businesses. We have business and industry loan guarantees for expansions.


We have a program that deals with rural renewable energy and energy efficiency. So we’ve done a lot of solar projects, a lot of energy efficiency projects, upgrades of lighting, grain dryers, etc.


And we have rural business development grants to help with training and technical assistance.


We also have the Rural Economic Development loan and grant program, which is a fantastic program where Iowa is probably the best in the nation at it, where we work with the rural electric cooperatives and Iowa Area Development Group and have a revolving loan fund. We can provide loans of up to $2 million and grants of up to $300,000 that goes to a rural electric cooperative who then re-lends that money to a local business opportunity, like a spec building or school building. The loans are zero percent for 10 years.


We also have the rural utility service. We’ve historically been involved in bringing electrical service and telephones, and now broadband is that next infrastructure challenge. We have a new program that uses $600 million to deploy broadband across the country.


How did USDA get so involved in economic development?


The history of the agency goes back more than 80 years. It was the Farmers Home Administration. Essentially the [Farm Service Agency] and Rural Development were the same agency. There have been a couple of periods of transition. The housing programs came in the ’60s and the community economic development came in the ’90s.


What drives home the importance of these programs in Iowa?


Of our 3 million-plus population, two-thirds of that population lives in communities that are defined as rural. By our definition, that is the communities of 20,000 and under. Rural communities have been the lifeblood of our state forever.


How big is your operation?


We have 11 offices and between 70 and 75 employees.


How are you wired?


I would say it’s first and foremost about integrity. Honesty, building trust, leading by example. I’m very encouraging. I’m a very positive person. I bring a lot of energy to my job to help motivate and inspire the people I work with. I’m very engaging. I’m intellectually curious.


What do you do in your spare time?


I’m a huge baseball fan. I spent six years umpiring minor league baseball. I got up to AA before my first son was born, but the idea of being a part-time, half-the-year dad was not particularly appealing. But it was a great experience. I played second base in high school, but officiating was where I was better.

I’m a big hockey fan. Washington Capitals. I’m also very involved in Saylorville Church. I sang in college. I was in the Men’s Glee Club at UNI.


Did you play an instrument?


I played the bassoon. I was all-state for three years, but granted, the competition is a little lower for that instrument. There aren’t too many bassoonists.