Rural Farms Lacked Access to the Electrical Grid for Much of the 20th Century

As electricity became widely available in cities in the early 1900s, rural areas rarely received any. The power companies thought they would not be able to recoup the cost of their investment in infrastructure, so they neglected the farmers and other residents of rural areas.

Minnesota was instrumental in changing this view. In 1923, the Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering at the state university conducted an experiment to provide electricity to nine farms. The Department partnered with Northern States Power Company (now Xcel Energy) to provide the electricity.

The “Red Wing Project” succeeded in cost-effectively providing electricity to these farms. Thus, stakeholders now realized that rural electrification was economically feasible. The report on this project had an enormous influence on the federal government which decided to support rural electrification.

Farmers in the Great Plains circumvented the lack of an electrical infrastructure by installing wind-electric plants. However, most farms continued to lack electricity until the 1930s. For instance, less than 4% of the country’s farm had access to centralized electrical services in January 1925.

The situation began to improve with the creation of the groundbreaking Tennessee Valley Authority in 1933. The TVA enabled the distribution of electricity throughout the Tennessee Valley through electrical cooperatives.

The federal government stepped in to deal with the lack of adequate electrification to farms with the creation of the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) in 1935. It became the Rural Electrification Act in 1936 by an act of Congress.

In 1939, the REA became a division of the USDA and administered loan programs for electrification and phone service in rural areas. In less than five years, the number of farms that had access to electricity more than doubled.

This program became a huge success, and by early 1970s, about 98% of all farms in the US had electric service. In this day and age, it seems hard to imagine that the producers of food for the country had to do so without electricity. Now the US helps to feed the world.


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