The Center for Rural Affairs was founded in 1973 by rural Nebraskans concerned about the loss of economic opportunity in agriculture and the decline of rural communities. From a base in northeast Nebraska, the Center has built a broad program to address the problems of rural people.
One of our first projects reported on the growth of large-scale hog factories, the public policies that favored them, and the threat they posed to family farms. Who Will Sit Up With the Corporate Sow? demonstrated the Center’s prophetic vision as it predicted the onerous impacts consolidation and vertical integration would have on family farms.
Wheels of Fortune, a 1975 report on the impact of new irrigation technology on land ownership and use in Nebraska, anticipated the major controversies that have developed over land and water use, absentee ownership, and exploitative irrigation development of the Great Plains.
In 1976, our Small Farm Energy Project launched pioneering on-farm research on renewable energy production and energy-saving techniques for small farms. That was followed by work to help small farms explore innovative farming practices to conserve water, cut costs and build soil health – work that helped lead the way for the sustainable agriculture movement.
In 1979, we established the Small Farm Advocacy Project, laying the foundation for decades of national family farm advocacy. In the 1980s, we succeeded in expanding federal low-interest loans for beginning farmers and cutting federal tax shelters that subsidized mega farms. Today, the Center is the nation’s leading voice for capping excessive federal subsidies to mega farms that help them bid land away from beginners and drive family farms off the land.
We played a pivotal role in 1982 in a coalition of farm and religious groups to pass Initiative 300 by a vote of Nebraskans to restrict corporate farming and protect family farms and ranches. Regrettably, I-300 was overturned by a federal judge in 2006.
In 1987, organizational changes were initiated that decentralized both management and program responsibilities. Project work became structured into two programs, each with its own leader, while a more participatory management system was implemented. The board of directors became more active in planning and evaluation. Our program structure has continued to evolve. Four programs now carry out the work of the Center for Rural Affairs.
We helped form the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition in 1988, now the leading voice for sustainable agriculture policy in Washington, DC. In the early 1990s, we were the lead founder of the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture. Our historic efforts in creating these organizations were pivotal in establishing a voice for grassroots conservation and sustainable agriculture advocates in federal policy debates.
In 1990, we launched our Rural Enterprise Assistance Project (REAP) to provide loans, training and business planning assistance to rural microenterprises – businesses with up to 10 employees. In 2001, we added a Women’s Business Center, and in 2004, a Latino Business Center. We drew on experiences with REAP to win the new federal Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program in the 2006 farm bill. That program is now helping small businesses across all of rural America, and to date has invested over $50 million in rural small business development across 42 states.
Also in 1990, the Center pioneered Land Link, the first agricultural linking program in the nation. Our goal was to transfer farms from retiring conservation-minded farmers and ranchers to like-minded beginners. Land Link has since been replicated in 20 states and in Japan and Australia. More recently, we evolved our approach to seek estate gifts of land to be received by the Center’s Granary Foundation and rent or sell to beginning farmers or ranchers.
Staff began “doing its homework” on global warming and published Mares Tails and Mackerel Scales in 1992. This report outlined the likely effects of climate change on agriculture, quantified agriculture’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and presented viable strategies to reduce warming, protect farm income, and enhance food system resilience to climate change. We continue to be a voice within agriculture for addressing climate change.
To ensure our own long-term sustainability, we took two critical steps in 1996. We established an endowment, and we completed the process begun in 1987 by Marty Strange to reduce the Center’s reliance on its founders. Marty resigned as program director. Chuck Hassebrook, a 30-year veteran of the Center, was named as his replacement. Longtime administrative director and co-founder Don Ralston retired from the Center in 2001, and Chuck Hassebrook became executive director.
Our research focused national attention on the growth of rural poverty in the Great Plains in 1999 with publication of Trampled Dreams: The Neglected Economy of the Rural Great Plains. In 2003 a major update, Swept Away: Chronic Hardship and Fresh Promise on the Great Plains pushed rural development reform onto the public policy agenda.
The 2002 farm bill contained many of our proposals for enhanced conservation, assistance for value-added agriculture, and help for beginning farmers and ranchers, including a pioneering green payment program, the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Value Added Producer Grant Program. More than 70 million acres are now enrolled in the Conservation Stewardship program nationwide.
In 2008, we collaborated with others to develop new entrepreneurially-based rural development policy and support for beginning farmers and ranchers and were a leading voice in favor of farm program reform. We began a project to help farmers learn more about carbon management in 2002. And we stepped up efforts to help family farmers build new cooperatives to reach high value markets.
In 2004, the 30th anniversary of our founding, the Center moved from Walthill to a new modest headquarters in the small farming community of Lyons, Nebraska. We invested in an accessible, state-of-art, brand new building on Main Street. To us, the new building and our program speak volumes about our history and our future. We live and work in rural America, and we are here for the long haul.
Around that time, Iowa State University contacted us about setting up a section on the Center for Rural Affairs in their library archives. They, and we, wanted to see that the Center’s unique history was preserved for others to learn from. Center administrative staff continues to work to keep the archives up-to-date.
Since then we have produced and disseminated research on federal underinvestment in rural development in the most demographically challenged communities, rural socio-economic trends, proven rural development strategies, and the corporate takeover of many aspects of the rural economy. We have also produced reports on health care disparities in rural America and on the connections between health care reform and rural development.
In 2009, the Center joined the health care debate and quickly became the nation’s leading rural voice for reform. We stepped up to address this difficult issue because skyrocketing health insurance premiums were swelling the ranks of the rural uninsured and undermining rural entrepreneurship. We engaged rural Americans in the debate over the Affordable Care Act, helped win provisions to address the unique concerns of rural health providers, and lent support to passage of this historic legislation.
In 2010, we also advocated for a federal Renewable Electricity Standard of 20 percent. Our focus has now turned to advocating for improved transmission, the renewable energy infrastructure that will connect wind-rich areas with more distant regions with high energy demand. We continue to sponsor a popular Farm Bill Helpline that helps connect farmers and ranchers to sustainable agriculture, organic, and beginning farmer and rancher programs.
The Center stepped up lending and technical assistance to rural micro businesses in 2010 and 2011 in the wake of the financial crisis. To date, the Center has provided over $12 million in small business loans; and provided loans, business training and business planning assistance to more than 10,000 entrepreneurs.
In 2010, the Center helped students in Cody, Nebraska (population 156), launch their effort to establish a grocery store in their hometown. Today, the store is a thriving student-operated business. In addition, the Center has worked to introduce local healthy foods to school lunch programs and serves as the Midwest regional leader of the National Farm to School Network.
Rural America has become more diverse, with recent immigration from foreign lands. Our new residents can be left to live in the shadows, or they can be invited to become full participants in building strong and thriving communities. Since 2013, the Center has worked with several communities to bring together long-time residents and recent immigrants to lead and revitalize their communities and help new immigrants launch small businesses.
In 2013, Brian Depew became the third generation of leadership at the Center when Chuck Hassebrook moved on to pursue elected office. With a strong board and strong staff, the Center’s work moved forward without missing a beat.
The Center’s enduring history of innovative, insightful and effective work for Rural America provides a solid foundation. On that foundation, with your support, the Center continues to give voice to your concerns. Major efforts to expand services for small businesses, serve beginning farmers and ranchers, develop vibrant small towns, and win policy change that supports our collective values are underway today.
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