By Michael E.C. Gery
Not long ago, when I first set out to make a living, I realized that housing, transportation and food were my biggest expenses. Many of my peers were in the same situation. We lived way out in the country. Some of us drove 30 or 40 miles to work and a grocery. It didn’t take long for us to help one another get by. Eight of us rented a big old farmhouse and planted a garden. We shared the kitchen, and alternated preparing meals and doing chores. We shared rides and helped one another repair those vehicles when they broke down. And we joined the local, newly formed food cooperative.
Joining the food co-op required a membership fee. We paid a woman named Sharon to manage the weekly orders. We took turns driving a truck each week to a larger food cooperative 30 miles away where we’d pick up the cheese, beans, flour, rice, nuts, peanut butter, cooking oil, whatever fruits and vegetables they had. And we all met in a church basement that evening where Sharon and volunteers sorted the orders.
Cooperative businesses —which are celebrated each October — are alive and well in America. Across the nation, 29,000 co-ops and credit unions employ 850,000 people and generate $74 billion in annual wages and nearly $500 billion in revenue. They all operate by the same principles: They are not-for-profit, owned by members, are democratically controlled, and they return to members any revenue not required to maintain and grow the business. Your electric cooperative operates the same way.
When J.C. Blucher Ehringhaus of Elizabeth City ran for governor in 1932, he cited an N.C. State College survey reporting that 99 of every 100 farms in the state had no electricity, at a time when people in cities and large towns did. At his urging, the General Assembly in April 1935 established the North Carolina Rural Electrification Authority (NCREA) “to secure electrical service for the rural districts of the State where service is not now being rendered.” The same act provided for “electric membership corporations” to be formed, “not organized for pecuniary profit,” but to provide electricity to their rural communities.
Later in 1935, the Roosevelt administration created the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) as part of the federal “relief” initiatives to put people to work during the Great Depression. Soon, however, visionaries leading the effort turned the REA into a lending agency. And after protracted arguments among private and city-owned electric utilities, the same visionaries convinced Congress to make REA a permanent agency to loan primarily to cooperatives that were formed and governed by the rural people who would be served by them. The REA also crafted legal structures, engineering standards and assistance, and educational programs to ensure sound management and construction of the rural cooperatives’ systems. In the Tarboro area, Edgecombe-Martin County EMC in May 1936 was among the first 18 co-ops to obtain an REA loan.
It was an amazingly successful movement. In North Carolina, the NCREA, Extension agents and others worked together to survey the needs, help organize co-ops and build systems, finance appliances and teach people how to benefit from it all. Just 20 years after the REA, more than 95 percent of the state’s farm communities had electricity.
As former Congressman Jerry Voorhis wrote in “American Cooperatives,” his 1961 book, “What commercial business couldn’t do cooperative business accomplished brilliantly.”