President Clinton returned to his home state today to tout government programs that encourage companies to invest in rural regions -- in this case, a tomato cooperative.

Pitching his package of tax breaks, loan guarantees and other incentives, the president hailed the co-op as the type of public-private venture that can other sections of America can mimic.

"The rest of us need to be committed to making a new market everywhere in this country where people haven't had their fair chance at the American dream," Clinton told an enthusiastic audience in a packing shed, which included many old friends who began helping him in campaigns as early as 1978.

This southern Arkansas hamlet -- the third stop in Clinton's two-day, four-state "New Markets" trip -- is like many rural areas that the nation's economic boom has largely passed by. The area's unemployment rate is 8.5 percent, and the poverty rate is 22.5 percent. The Labor Department today released the national unemployment rate for October: 4.1 percent. Arkansas' poverty rate is also well above the national average.

Things were even worse, however, in 1996, when 15 struggling farmers created the Hermitage Tomato Cooperative Association. Burger King, working through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which guaranteed loans for the co-op, agreed to buy its tomatoes from Hermitage. The fast-food giant now accounts for 88,000 of the 570,000 20-pound cartons of tomatoes the co-op sells annually.

Clinton today announced a new $4.8 million loan by The Farmer's Bank of Hamburg, Ark. -- also guaranteed by USDA -- that will help the co-op further upgrade its facilities. Restaurant Services Inc., which is Burger King's purchasing agent, also announced plans to buy 3.2 million pounds of cucumbers from the Mississippi Association of Cooperatives, a minority-owned group in the Mississippi Delta.

"We need more of these kinds of co-ops throughout our country," Clinton said.

The president was scheduled to be in Chicago later today, where House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and he will outline their goals for a consensus plan to meet the objectives of New Markets or the GOP version, called Renewable Communities.