Some things never change. Consider the case of the Missouri farmer who was interviewed by a government commission investigating the state of rural America. The farmer was particularly concerned about the worker shortage and knew exactly who or what was to blame: The nation’s declining birth rate. “The people have gone out of the baby business,” he said. Statistically speaking, he was correct. The nation’s birth rate had fallen by nearly half when he was interviewed.
Of course, keep in mind that he was interviewed in 1909.
That might also explain why one of his proposed solutions was this: “Give a pension to every mother who gives birth to seven living boys on American soil.” The farmer and his wife – especially his wife – were certainly doing their part: They had 11 children, although the government report didn’t specify how many sons and how many daughters.
The report in question came from the Country Life Commission, a panel set up by President Theodore Roosevelt in his final year in office to respond to some of the social turmoil of the day. The agricultural age had given way to the industrial age, upending American society in complicated ways. Some worried that people were abandoning farms for the cities, others worried that rural areas were falling behind more technologically sophisticated urban ones. An entire social movement – the country life movement – sprang up to address the concern that rural America was being abandoned and left behind.
The commission – chaired by Cornell University horticulturist Liberty Hyde Bailey – held 30 public hearings (one of them in Richmond) and took more than 120,000 written comments. When the report finally came out it was in such high demand that Washington ran out of copies, forcing the Spokane Chamber of Commerce to write to Roosevelt’s successor – President William Howard Taft – to seek permission to print their own copies. Taft’s secretary (today we’d call that position the chief of staff) replied: “Telegram received. The President has not the slightest objection to the free distribution of the report of the Country Life Commission, appointed by Mr. Roosevelt. He thinks it would be an excellent thing for the Spokane Chamber of Commerce to do.”
That report contained several recommendations that were enacted – most notably, an national agricultural extension service to spread knowledge about new scientific methods to American farms and an expansion of the Post Office to include parcel delivery, which would enable rural Americans to do mail-order business.
It also contained one that was not: “Some central national agency” to pay attention to, and promote, rural America.
Perhaps this idea was not stated forcefully or clearly enough – it was buried in some bureaucratic language.
Perhaps this idea was floated at the wrong time – Roosevelt was a proponent of an energetic federal government, Taft was what we would think of today as a more traditional Republican, who was not keen on governmental activism. Or perhaps it has come to fruition in other ways; the U.S. Department of Agriculture today deals with a lot more than just farming.
Either way, history has filed this report away, maybe not quite in the dustbin of history but some file cabinet that’s rarely opened. A commentary piece on The Daily Yonder – a website covering rural America – on the report’s centennial in 2009 described it this way: “The Report of the Country Life Commission is not exactly well known and is rarely read now. Roosevelt’s biographers hardly mention it. It comes up in rural studies classes as part of all-too-brief historic discussions of rural development policies. In reality, the report is a gem partially obscured behind layers of time. Pull it out, read it, and you will find old ideas glittering, enough to shed light on rural sustainability today.”
One of those old ideas that is glittering still is the suggestion for some central agency focused on rural America, maybe not at the national level, but at least the state one.
In July, I wrote a column about a paper that had been published in the University of Richmond Law Review. The article was entitled “Those Who Need the Most Get the Least: The Challenge of and Opportunity for Helping Rural Virginia,” which is the kind of nerdy policy discussion that I’m unnaturally drawn to. Apparently, this shows: Of the 311 citations the article cited, 12 were from articles in Cardinal. The article was written by Andrew Block and Antonella Nicholas – he’s a professor of law and director of the State and Local Government Policy Clinic at the University of Virginia School of Law; she was then a third-year law student there and is now a law school graduate. Their piece covered a lot of the economic and demographic ground that I have in many of my columns. Short version: Rural Virginia needs more jobs, a better health care system, and, well, lots of other things.
The law review article included one policy proposal that I singled out for attention simply because it seemed so unusual: Virginia should establish a cabinet secretariat focused specifically on rural areas. “Only a high-level position like this, with the authority to unify and direct efforts to improve the lives of rural Virginians, will have the ability to fully and comprehensively help rural communities in a way that they both need and deserve,” the authors said.
I write lots of words – “words, words, words,” as Shakespeare’s Hamlet said – and sometimes it’s hard to tell which of those people will react to. To my astonishment, some people have reacted to that column about the paper calling for a Secretary of Rural Virginia.
When I spoke to a business group in August, I was told by one member that there might be a major lobbying push in the next General Assembly session for just such a position.
When I spoke to a class with the Rural Virginia Leadership Institute recently in Abingdon – a group that included local government officials from across the state – several people expressed hope that such an effort would come to fruition. Alex White, a member of the Luray Town Council, followed up with information on Roosevelt’s Country Life Commission and the note “I would love to partner however I can to promote the idea of a rural cabinet-level agency here in VA!”
And now I see where the Roanoke Valley-Alleghany Regional Commission has booked Block and Nicholas as the speakers at its annual dinner on Oct. 19. (The event is open to the public; tickets are available here.)
The politics of this would be curious indeed. Republicans are generally averse to expanding the size of government but the business person I first heard from in support of a rural secretariat very much comes from the right-hand side of the political spectrum. I don’t know the politics of the local officials who told me in Abingdon they liked this idea but I do know that all come from localities that vote heavily Republican. I also know that seven of the eight localities in the Roanoke Valley-Alleghany Regional Commission routinely vote Republican.
The rationale for such a cabinet secretariat is that the interests of rural Virginia are likely to get overlooked in the normal course of business in a state that is now predominantly urban. It also would reflect that reality that the nature of economic development in rural Virginia is quite different than it is in the rest of Virginia. Just look at data centers: In Northern Virginia, they’ve now become controversial, with many people looking to limit their development. In parts of Southwest and Southside, though, localities are desperate to land data centers.
Or take the case of one community in Southwest Virginia: I recently spoke with Keith Harless, the town manager of Pennington Gap in Lee County. He talked about the difficulty of attracting economic development to his town. One of the trailheads for the Spearhead Trails is near the town, so it’s naturally wanted to promote tourism. However, that requires hotels and “we haven’t had a lot of private enthusiasm and ownership,” he told me. The town’s response: It now operates its own recreational vehicle park. The town also had a problem with a lot of absentee landlords, who were letting their properties deterioriate. “Property hoarders,” he called them. Pennington Gap’s response? It’s bought some of those properities, as a way to jumpstart redevelopment.
Attracting hotels or other development isn’t a problem in other parts of Virginia. In much of rural Virginia it is – and not necessarily rural Virginia, either. Pennington Gap’s model – buy up old properities to get them out of the hands of “property hoarders” in hopes of selling them for development – is exactly the model that Danville has pursued, with great success for “the comeback city.” Brunswick County is now doing the same thing. The county’s Industrial Development Authority is currently developing one property “because it’s hard to get a developer interested” in a rural area, says Brunswick IDA director Mike Dotti. Small things that happen naturally in bigger areas are often big things – and hard ones – in rural areas.
I haven’t been able to find any states with rural secretaries. Many have assistant secretaries devoted to rural economic development; so does Virginia. I did find one place, though, that has a full-fledged cabinet position devoted to rural economic development – Canada. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau established that office in 2019, and the rationale from his Liberal Party government is very similar to what I’m hearing from conservative areas in Virginia: “The rural reality is very different than the urban reality.” That’s a quote from Bernadatte Jordan, the inaugural Minister of Rural Economic Development. Trudeau is now on his third such minister; the first two – Jordan and Maryam Monsef – have lost their seats in parliament. (And in a parliamentary system, a cabinet minister must be a member of parliament). That’s too bad for them but is potentially good news for Virginia: That means we have two potential speakers we could invite to tell us more on how such a secretariat could work.