Seventy years ago, nightfall across rural America meant a flickering existence by lantern light because at the edge of cities, electric service extended no further. Only about 10 percent of America’s farms had electricity in the early 1930s, with few power lines to bridge the distant miles.
Early on, farm equipment ran on steam, horse or human power. Electricity was not yet widely available to provide light, to heat buildings, pump water, nor power farm equipment. Government statistics at the time calculated the work produced from an average farm horse at no more than three hours per day, with the labor from that horse costing approximately eight cents per hour. “It is obvious,” observed a 1913 author, “almost any form of mechanized power is cheaper than this.”
In 1935, a spark of progress zipped across the country through power lines that hummed with energy – the electrical “juice” that a USDA research engineering chief later described as “a super-duper sort of stuff” – as fluid as water pumped miles away to be siphoned off where it is needed.
Along with electricity came the efficiency of milking machines. Farmers like my father, who were starting their farming careers, could double their productivity with the flip of a switch.
Soon, electricity brought other farm inventions: heating lamps to hatch and warm new-born chicks for their survival, irrigation pumps to water fields, and light to fill the darkness with the pull of a switch.
A new sort of energy
Now, that generation’s grandchildren have flipped the switch to send energy back from the farm, growing the renewable resource of corn to produce ethanol to stretch gasoline supplies. Perhaps not too long from now we will be able to judge the economic practicality of producing ethanol from cellulose, the stalks and agricultural waste material from the grassy rangelands and woody underbrush.
First, researchers must find the right enzyme to break down a plant’s fibrous cell walls and then entrepreneurs will search for the most economical way to turn that material into sugars and eventually into cellulosic ethanol.
Yet, with some of the best and brightest minds in America at work, I believe we are on the verge of significant technological breakthroughs in a whole host of alternative energy sources. These investments will pay dividends in terms of jobs that will improve our lives, improve our environment and make us less reliant on imported oil.
Power to the prairies brought radio, fireside chats and the cohesion of a nation to lift itself out of the Great Depression. Research laid the foundation for the government investment though the 1935 Rural Electrification Act, which in turn drove economic development driven by private investment. Electrification happened so much more quickly than dreamed possible, and it was hailed later as one of the federal government’s greatest success stories of the 20th century.
Three generations later, the early steps into ethanol are poised to make great strides. Renewable energy is providing energy security for our nation, but at the same time creating a Rural Renaissance that is allowing sons and daughters to remain on America’s farms, ranches and small towns. The government’s investment in agriculture through rural electrification may just plow those returns right back into the fields with new forms of energy to fuel America with the “juice” that first brought power to the prairies.
Mike Johanns is the 28th U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, former Nebraska governor and the youngest of four children raised on the family farm near Osage, Iowa. For more information visit www.usda.gov.