Rural Roots 

by Richard G. Johnstone Jr., Editor

Richard Johnstone
Richard Johnstone

Rural America lost an advocate and a friend just before Thanksgiving, when teacher, writer and farmer Noel Perrin died on his farm in the other “V” state, Vermont. Anyone who loves rural areas and rural life — whether as birthplace, backdrop for weekend getaways, home base, retirement locale, or for armchair visits through books — would enjoy reading Mr. Perrin’s classic four-volume collection of essays: First Person Rural, Second Person Rural, Third Person Rural and Last Person Rural. 

Virginia’s 13 electric cooperatives, plus more than 900 electric co-ops in 46 other states, have their roots deeply embedded in rural soil, even as the landscape of the Commonwealth continues to change at breathtaking speed, with residential housing developments, commercial office parks, and retail centers seemingly sprouting at every crossroads. With thousands of folks, many from urban areas, moving into Virginia’s electric cooperative service territories each year, it’s appropriate in this first issue of a new year to remember these rural roots.

Because, in a very real sense, these rural roots account for the way that electric cooperatives were set up in, and have operated since, the 1930s and early ’40s.

For instance, it’s the long-time rural tradition of neighbor helping neighbor that led farmers and small-town merchants, teachers and tradespeople back then to form cooperatives to provide themselves with a service that no one else would: electricity.

By using the cooperative’s not-for-profit business model to provide themselves with this service, they were able to receive electricity at cost, which is a hard price to beat. And because each community formed its own cooperative, it ensured that local people would be serving other local people, with all of them having a vested interest in the well-being of the community. Finally, because cooperatives are owned by those they serve, they are democratic institutions, with all member-consumers invited to attend the annual meeting to vote on policy matters and select board members from among their neighbors.

But (and this is the real core question), does the electric cooperative business model — born in rural America in the heart of the Great Depression — still work in a rapidly suburbanizing and urbanizing Virginia in the heart of a long period of general prosperity? Surprising perhaps only to those who may not be very familiar with cooperatives, the answer is a resounding yes. National surveys of electric utility customers consistently show electric cooperatives at or near the top in customer satisfaction levels.

And in a world where rapid change is the daily order, where national chains dominate the retail scene in virtually every community, and where customer service is frequently an oxymoron, we think that electric cooperatives offer a refreshing alternative. Responsive service from local people. Service at cost. Democratic involvement of the customers. Concern for community.

And on this latter point, we hope that you will notice, and detach, and refer to, and use the enclosed Virginia State Legislative Guide, which we’ve provided as a public service to member-consumers of Virginia’s electric cooperatives every year since 1989. The legislative process affects all Virginians, and we hope that you will get to know your legislators and let them know your thoughts on the issues of the day.

Another aspect of this concern for community is embodied in the magazine you are now reading. Cooperative Living has been published continuously since 1946 for the member-consumers of Virginia’s electric cooperatives, to keep you informed about your cooperative, and your community.

All of these things set electric cooperatives apart from other types of utilities, and other forms of business. We hope you enjoy the magazine, and that 2005 will be a great year for you and your family. And, as always, we would love to hear from you, with story ideas, suggestions, compliments, and yes, criticisms too. Please write or email us at the address on the facing page.

Now back to Noel Perrin, whose passing was noted at the outset of this column. One of my favorite Perrin essays is called “The Rural Immigration Law,” from Second Person Rural. In it he writes, “Each man kills the thing he loves, Oscar Wilde wrote in a poem that later became a popular song. As a general statement, this won’t do ... But practically all tourists and most people who move to the country do kill the thing they love. They don’t mean to — they may not even realize they have done it — but they still kill it.

“The tourist does it simply by being a tourist. What he loves is foreignness, difference, the exotic. So he goes in search of it and, of course, brings himself along. The next thing you know there’s a Holiday Inn in Munich.

“The case with people who move to the country is more complicated. What they bring along is a series of unconscious assumptions.”

He then proceeds to talk about those assumptions, the new resident’s desire to keep-the-area-the-same-but-add-all-the-things-they-liked-back-in-the-city. And Perrin notes that this desire can “kill” what made the area special in the first place.

As rural Virginia continues to undergo dramatic growth and change, we believe that electric cooperatives offer a way to save the best of the past. Sure, electric cooperatives offer their members the ability to utilize all the electricity-intensive, high-tech marvels that are such a large part of daily life in the 21st century. But just as, indeed maybe more, importantly, electric cooperatives are a strong anchor to a rural past of friendly, responsive service and strong civic involvement from a business that is locally owned.

Amidst all the dizzying changes in the Commonwealth and our communities, it’s these rural roots that will continue to define and feed our service-oriented culture. 


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