When Tom Dorr finished high school, he went away to college, and after earning his degree, returned to the family farm in the heartland of rural America.
He went on to run the farm and other businesses, was active in state and national commodity organizations, was a director of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, and then was named by President Bush to the post of Under Secretary for Rural Development at USDA.
“I was the only one in my high school class to come back after college,” he says. “The others felt their opportunities were elsewhere.”
That is a scenario Dorr would like there to be less of in the years ahead, and he wants USDA’s rural development programs to be a catalyst for making the nation’s non-metropolitan areas more attractive for people to live, work, and raise families.
With almost missionary zeal, he passionately paints a picture of a rural America that can be reawakened and revitalized through technology, education, economic opportunities, and an increasing desire of urbanites to relocate to the countryside.
“If we see agriculture’s future as just traditional farming, I think we’re spinning our wheels,” Dorr said in recent conversation with a group of agricultural journalists.
Too many people, he says, have “a mental picture of an isolated, timeless world — American gothic. But that image has evolved to one of mechanization, hybridization, biotechnology, and world markets. It’s a brave new world.”
Intellectually-driven opportunities, aided by the Internet and broadband communications, “can take place anywhere,” Dorr says, and USDA’s rural development programs can help facilitate the acquisition of skills and resources to foster those opportunities.
“Rural areas have an enormous competitive advantage in abundant land, clean environment, and a highly motivated workforce. Thanks to modern communications and transportation, the traditional barriers of time, distance, and rural isolation are crumbling.”
President Bush early on in his administration set “a fairly aggressive policy for rural America,” he says, and further demonstrating its importance, of the questions Secretary of Agriculture Johanns has been asking in his listening sessions preliminary to a new farm bill, “two of the six deal with rural development.”
More importantly, Dorr notes, is that funding for rural development programs has gone from $5.8 billion in 1995 to $14.8 billion last year.
“Not many years ago, rural development was handled by three separate agencies, and efforts were more reactive than proactive. Today, it’s a substantially different agency, with a very aggressive branding campaign and an expanded mission to make our programs more market-driven.”
Two of the “great opportunities” for rural America, Dorr says, are energy and place. The recently-passed energy bill has $2.6 billion for ethanol and funding for other alternate energy projects, including biomass. The challenge is to position rural America to recognize and capitalize on the “enormous upside potential” in these opportunities, he says.
And says Dorr, as technology and communications free more people to work and live anywhere, with access to capital and markets, “one of the great advantages for rural America is a sense of place” and a wish to enjoy the benefits of life outside the cities.