USDA Marks 70th Anniversary of Landmark Rural Legislation

Rural Cooperatives, July-August 2005 | Go to article overview

USDA Marks 70th Anniversary of Landmark Rural Legislation


Seventy years ago, much of rural America existed in a world of candle and lantern light after the sun went down. Long after most urban citizens had electric lights and power, the nation's rural quality of life and productivity were severely hampered by the lack of widely available electricity. Only about 10 percent of America's farms had electricity in the early 1930s and progress at expanding service was very slow.

The country was also in the midst of a terrible economic depression that caused millions to lose their lobs. Large swathes of the nation were also suffering from a severe drought and wind storms that combined to create the "dust bowl" conditions that drove tens of thousands of farmers from their land.

In 1935, Congress responded with two crucial pieces of legislation that forever changed the face of rural America, creating the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) and Resettlement Administration. Both were among the predecessor agencies of today's USDA Rural Development.

The REA, working in partnership with thousands of local utility cooperatives, brought electric power to almost every corner of the nation. Rural electrification happened much quicker than many dreamed possible at the time. Indeed, many historians say that the effort was one of the federal government's greatest success stories of the 20th century. In 1949, REA added a rural telephone program that had a similar impact on bringing telephone service to rural areas.

Like the REA, the Resettlement Administration had a dramatic impact on the quality of rural life. Focused initially on emergency relief during the crisis of the Great Depression, the Resettlement Administration made small loans to help farmers get through tough times, built and managed migrant worker camps, constructed rural water projects, purchased land for conservation purposes, resettled displaced Farmers on new land and even built entire model communities from the ground up. Out of this eclectic mix of programs grew the Farm Security Administration and then the Farmers Home Administration (FmHA).

REA and FmHA merged with several other USDA programs--including the Agricultural Cooperative Service--to create USDA Rural Development in 1994.

See Johanns notes huge impact on quality of life

The 70th anniversary, of the creation of REA and the Resettlement Administration--which launched America's quest for rural electrification, homeownership and economic security.--was marked during a special ceremony at USDA headquarters in Washington, D.C., in May.

"The rural electrification effort of the 20th century serves as a benchmark of excellence," Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said. "In 70 years, the quality of life in rural America has dramatically improved, due in large part to the massive effort by USDA to bring economic opportunity, affordable housing and electric, telephone, water and wastewater infrastructure to rural communities across the nation. President Bush has now challenged us to bring telecommunications technologies, such as broadband, with the same dedication to rural communities by 2007."

Having grown up on a dairy, farm in Iowa, Johanns said he feels a personal connection to the mission of Rural Development.

"When I was growing up, I asked my mother, 'can you remember a time when you did not have electricity?'" Johanns recalled. "She said, 'Yes, of course. When your dad and I started farming and milking cows, it was by hand.' My mother was a very plainspoken woman, and added, 'As a matter of fact, half the heck I caught in nay life was from not holding the lantern right while your dad was milking the cows.'"

As the former governor of Nebraska, Johanns said he takes pride in knowing that the "father of the Rural Electrification Program" was Senator George Norris of Nebraska. Johanns said he keeps a bust of Norris on his desk. Johanns quoted Norris from a letter he wrote in 1935 to Morris Cook, the first REA administrator, saying, "If you can launch this great work in the right direction and demonstrate that it will bring comforts, enjoyment and prosperity, to our farmers and that it can be done without financial loss, you will have made one of the greatest contributions towards the improvement of farm life that could possibly be imagined. …

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