Montana, Iowa, and Our Future

This recent story in the Des Moines Register reported the following.

In Iowa, we’ve always been able to take for granted that the land will provide.

But think about this: Almost half of the state’s farmland is owned by people older than 65. A quarter belongs to people over 74.

As much as 50 percent of the state’s farmland must be sold or passed on in the next 10 to 15 years.

“What is occurring in Iowa is occurring across much of the country,” said Michael Duffy, an economist who tallied the figures for a 2002 survey of farmland ownership at Iowa State University.

Iowa and other Midwestern states will be forever changed by the transference of that much farmland. An unprecedented proportion of farmland owners won’t live in rural areas anymore; thousands, in fact, won’t live within the state.

More than nostalgia is at stake.

A couple of things made this report hit home for me. First, I grew up on a relatively small family farm in northwest Iowa. Second, I just returned from driving home across the great plains of Montana, and in particular the golden (wheat) triangle.

Montana’s wheat belt appears to have undergone significant change in recent years. As I drove aimlessly down mile after mile of gravel road southeast of Shelby only a few houses broke the proverbial amber waves of grain. About three fourths of these houses were abandoned. Now, I am used to seeing abandoned houses in rural areas, but what struck me about Montana’s wheat country was that a large percentage of the abandoned houses seemed to have been abandoned in just the last 10-15 years. Abandoned farmsteads in other parts of the country have been empty much longer.

It was harvest time, and wheat fields hosted trios of large combines moving across them. In one particular case each of three combines was buttressed by a grain truck or wagon. Campers sat at the edge of some of the fields, and fuel trucks delivered petroleum to the fields. It took me a bit to put it all together. The fuel trucks were required because the nearest farmsteads were much too far away to fetch fuel from, and the campers provided a place for these laborers to sleep.

Back on the interstate headed for Wyoming we repeatedly passed harvester crews headed for the field. A crew typically consisted of two or three grain trucks, three combines being pulled on flatbeds, and often a camper all traveling as a group down the road. These crews (presumably custom operators and not just local farmers) can move across wheat country harvesting thousands of acres at a time, and leaving little reason for anyone to occupy the remaining farm houses.

Wheat country has always been more well suited to this type of industrialization, but corn and soybean territory, like my home state of Iowa, is by no means immune to the trend.

With nearly half of all farmland in Iowa owned by people over 65, and no clear new generation of farmers there is reason for grave concern.

I return not with renewed hope, but at least with a renewed sense of urgency for the battle that must be fought if the future of our farm and rural communities is to be anything but dim.

Indeed, “More than nostalgia is at stake.”

House Keeping

I’m back from my trip to Montana and Wyoming, but am now working on moving from Colorado to Michigan. Posting will resume, but will be irregular for at least another week.

Also, I browse the web with Opera, and I recommend it highly. Opera is far superior to Internet Explorer, and while Mozilla’a Firefox is catching up, Opera still seems to lead in functionality and integration ability. But really this all just an introduction to an apology to those viewing the site in Firefox and IE. I just checked the site in those two browsers, and there are some serious display problems–not the least of which has to do with the placement of the news feed side bar.

I’ll work on these issues, but likely not until after the move. If anyone one has any pointers, or wants to help fix these issues, send me an email.

Next Two Weeks

I’m signing off for two weeks. Yesterday I defended my thesis, and today I leave for a two week backpacking trip to Wyoming and Montana. I’ll be hiking, driving and wondering about many of the rural parts of those two states. I’ll log my impressions here once I return. If you are one of my few regular readers, take a break for a couple of weeks, but be sure to check in again at the beginning of August.

You can also check in for new content on the new food and rural news feed on the left-hand side of the page.


Today I defend my thesis for my Master of Arts degree in philosophy from Colorado State University. The thesis is titled “There is a Moral Obligation to Save the Family Farm.”

Some readers might recall a book by a similar title from the late 1980s. That would be Gary Comstock’s 1987 book “Is There a Moral Obligation to Save the Family Farm?” You can read Comstock’s book cover to cover and you won’t really find an answer to the question that he poses in the title. Comstock’s conclusion is ambiguous at best.

The goal in writing my thesis was to offer a contribution to the field of agricultural ethics that sought to establish an unambiguous answer to Comstock’s important question. By 4:00 PM today I should know whether my committee deems my project successful.

For those who might be interested, the brief abstract to my thesis appears below the fold.

Continue reading “Thesis”

News Feed Added

As you can see (left-hand side of page) I have added a news feed to the site. The feed is provided by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and will carry food and rural related news. Just click on any story headline to open it in a new window.

I hope that readers find this service useful. Thanks to the Kellogg foundation for providing the feed. Also if you are so inclined you can sign up for the RSS feed yourself at their site.

Conservation Security Program

National Public Radio had an excellent report on the Conservation Security Program (CSP) on Morning Edition this morning. Check out the web extra and listen to the report later today here.

The federal government is expected to pay $24 billion in farm subsidies this year. Critics, including quite a few farmers, say taxpayers shouldn’t pay for corn or cotton surpluses. Instead, they say the funds should go toward things that benefit the public, such as cleaner water and a healthier environment.

The CSP is a new initiative. It pays farmers to give the environment a helping hand. Farmers can qualify for payments if they can show that they’ve done a good job protecting the environment in the past. They must also show that they’re preventing manure or other fertilizer from running into streams, and that they’re conserving soil and minimizing pesticide use.

Once they qualify, farmers can get extra points — and higher payments — for doing additional things that provide habitat for wildlife or protect streams and groundwater. They include cutting back on fertilizer or pesticides, converting crop land into permanent pasture, or building windmills to supply the farm with energy.

The CSP—if fully enacted—would go a long way toward needed reforms in U.S. farm subsidies. This includes the current debate over cotton subsidies.

A Mining Boom

A common misconception among urbanites is that rural is synonymous with agriculture. While some rural communities are affected by the structure and trends of agriculture, other rural communities rely on mining, forestry and manufacturing.

Rural communities that have ties to mining are currently witnessing rapid changes in the industry. Coal mining in particular is being driven to expand by increased foreign demand and high oil prices. This expansion is resulting in high wages and significant labor shortages.

Coal industry and union executives are concerned that Pennsylvania soon could face shortages of skilled coal miners that already are cropping up elsewhere in the other Appalachian Basin states of Ohio, West Virginia, Maryland, Virginia and Kentucky.

Mining employment grew briefly in the 1970s, but collapsed again in the 1980s and has remained depressed until recently.

The lack of hiring in the past two decades — exacerbated by new technology that eliminated many mining jobs and increased the skills needed to be a miner — has left the industry with outright labor shortages in some industry strongholds, such as southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky, and a rapidly aging work force in others, including Pennsylvania.

Most of the people in the available labor pool aren’t trained to be miners, and universities and trade schools have scaled back or eliminated mining programs in recent years. To combat the labor shortage mining companies have increased salaries by $10,000 in recent years, but even that is not helping.

Average salaries of from $68,000 to $87,000 (for coal miners), health benefits, life insurance and vacations are not enough to lure people to this grime-and-dirt work. […]

The job is not sexy, to say the least. Women are reluctant to move to remote mining towns despite high salaries, making it a predominantly male profession. And, it is an instable industry. Today’s boom is tomorrow’s bust.

Despite the current labor shortages more mines are slated to open and other previously shuttered mines will reopen in the coming year.

Additional mine openings will bring additional jobs to often depressed rural economies, but whether these jobs bring more benefit or harm in the long-term remains an open question. Many rural communities today are facing clean-up bills from an environmental mess left behind by the last round of mines to go bust.

Few can blame those looking for a job, but I would argue that we would be better off investing tax dollars today in sustainable rural development, rather than tomorrow cleaning up after another round of busted mines.

Doctor Doctor

Nevada Congressman Jim Gibbons (R-NV) has proposed providing a $20,000 federal tax credit to encourage doctors to practice in rural areas.

In defense of the potential expense to the federal government Gibbons said

“Yes, it’s going to be expensive, but having no doctors in a critical time of need will be far more expensive.”

An impressive realization from a member of the Republican Party, but Democratic Party officials claim that the move is politically motivated.

Gibbons is expected to run for Nevada governor next year, but has yet to announce his candidacy. […] A state Democratic Party official suggested Gibbons’ news conference Thursday in the state’s second-largest city was politically motivated.

“This is supposed to be about rural doctors,” party spokesman Jon Summers said.

I’ll admit that holding a new conference about rural doctors in the second-largest city in the state doesn’t quite strike me as the brightest political move, but nonetheless the charge that Gibbons’ move is politically motivated is interesting. If by politically motivated they mean that Gibbons is responding to a critical issue in the state because he is running for office, then I hope we see more such “politically motivate” moves from all candidates no matter what their party affiliation.

If Gibbons fails to act on his rhetoric that’s another story.

This Week

Expect light posting this week. I will be spending time preparing for my thesis defense and subsequent trip to Wyoming and Montana.

I’ll let other people do the work for me today.

Rural Caucus

Oregon Democrats are starting a rural caucus.

Our greatest chance for advancing the aims of the Democratic Party now and in the foreseeable future will come by way of electing Democrats from rural areas in Oregon and across the nation. The “Red/Blue” maps have shown an urban/rural split in Oregon and the rest of the nation. As Democrats we need to learn how to obtain more support in what have been “red” areas. In urban areas, we probably have as much support as we ever will, growth for the Democratic Party will have to come from rural areas.

Rural Supreme Court Justices

The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues points out on their blog that O’Connor’s retirement from the Supreme Court leaves the court without a connection to rural areas.

Not only was O’Connor raised on a working ranch in Arizona, she is the only member of the court who has stood for elective office, as a judge in her home state. There are broad and deep virtues to working the land for a living, and working the electorate for an office. You gain a grasp of others’ beliefs, values and daily concerns in ways that urban work and appointive office rarely provide.


Likewise, this country, which is becoming more deeply divided about the role of the judiciary and the social issues it is being asked to decide, would probably feel better about the Supreme Court if at least one justice had the experiences of working the land and asking for votes.

Agriculture Subsidies

President Bush says that the U.S. is willing to end agriculture subsidies.

President George Bush has made an offer as reported by the London Times this morning:

Asked directly if America would drop its subsidy system if the EU abandoned the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), Mr. Bush said: “Absolutely. And I think we have an obligation to work together to do that.

Good luck with that one Mr. Bush.

A Road Runs Through By It

Kiowa, population of 581, is located southeast of Denver, Colorado. Kiowa (map) is also one of the towns likely to be effected by a proposed new road. This isn’t just any road though. Nicknamed the “Superslab,” the proposed private toll road would cut through seven predominately rural counties along Colorado’s Front Range.

Planning for the Superslab has been underway since 1988, but garnered renewed attention during the recently concluded Colorado legislative season. Residents in the path of the proposed road objected to the 660 foot wide and 210 mile long “land grab” facilitated by an 1870’s Colorado law intended to encourage infrastructure development in and around old mining towns. The law facilitates the transfer of land taken by eminent domain by the state to private companies (a principle just recently upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court—though the cases are not completely analogous).

Superslab investors drew a bit of unwanted attention when they approached the state legislature this spring seeking to firm up the legislation that would allow them to set and collect tolls for such a project.

Much of the objection stems from rural residents who have little to gain from the project. With exurban sprawl already threatening the livelihood and way of life in many Front Range, Colorado communities, more roads stand to exacerbate the issue.

Furthermore, the road offers virtually nothing in the way of economic prospects for these communities. The proposed 210 mile road will include just 13 interchanges, intersecting only with major cross roads. In addition all roadside services will be contained within “service pods,” private entities owned by the same investors that will own the road.

Colorado isn’t the only state looking to private toll roads in recent years, and just this week it was reported that the U.S. Congress is set to pass legislation making private investment in large road projects tax free.

In Kiowa, Colorado residents are biding their time. After expressing outrage over the proposed road during the last legislative season, road opponents were able to get legislation favorable to Superslab investors pulled. The newly elected Democratic majority in the State House and Senate also passed legislation expanding public oversight of future private road projects, and even tried to change the law governing the use of eminent domain for private toll roads. Those bills were vetoed however by Colorado’s Republican Governor (also a long time friend of Superslab mastermind Mike Wells).

For the time being plans are on hold, but with nearly 20 years of preparation already behind them, Superslab proponents aren’t likely to give up yet.

You can read more on the proposed road here, here and here. Citizen organizations opposed to the road have websites here, here and here. Opponents even have their own blog.