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Archive for November, 2005

But We Wired Our House For It…

Wednesday, November 30th, 2005

I am generally supportive of efforts to bring high speed internet to rural areas, but I can’t generate too much sympathy for the couple profiled by the New York Times yesterday.

Daniel and Linda Hawkins expected to lose some amenities when they moved to this small farming town, population 1,759, from a slightly larger city nearby. But they were so sure they would have high-speed Internet access that they had high-capacity wiring installed in every room in the house. […]

But to the couple’s dismay, their new house, complete with a fishing pond in the back, lies in a wireless dead zone […]

Follow the link above to see a picture of the couple’s new “farm” house. Sounds and looks like exurban sprawl to me.

The rest of the story actually touches on some important points regarding federal support to bring broadband to rural areas. I just wish the writer had chosen a different lead-in for the story. I suggest a community like rural Scottsburg, Indiana where city officials undertook their own high speed internet project last year (in an effort to prevent two businesses from leaving town) after their requests for broadband were turned down by commercial interests.

Remnants of Rural Past

Monday, November 28th, 2005

I’ve been running across a number of stories lately about the wasting of traditional rural communities. This one in particular caught my eye — probably because of the striking black and white photos.

Someday they’ll all be gone.

Fleeting glances into the past, they’re reminders of all that we once were and will never be again.

Stately barns and sturdy homesteads were once the hallmarks of our growing country, paying rugged homage to a life measured by the grit on one’s hands.

Now these structures — and that life — are crumbling away. […]

Centerville

As the farmer goes, so go the house and barn. Buildings fade from the landscape when family farms are sold to large concerns, rendering the old wooden stalwarts as essential as horse-drawn plows.

Some of these bucolic beacons still exist, however, dotting the hills and valleys of our state with their weathered beauty. […]

Tieton Drive

The Dunford barn, on Highway 97 northwest of Ellensburg, also exudes a majestic air, posing in front of the gently rising foothills of the Stuart range.

Still used occasionally for hay, the barn has survived in three different centuries since being built in the late 1800s. […]

Highway 97

All that’s left of the town of 400 is its hollowed-out high school and a pump house.

Technically now a historic ruin, the high school was an architectural showplace when built in 1916. […]

Hanford High School

In Black Rock country around Moxee, a vestige of the Meeboer homestead appears like an aging ancestor of early America. Belying its once functional form, the skeletal remains sit along what’s now Highway 24. […]

Highway 24

As America ages, fewer and fewer of these pioneer structures will remain to remind us of our rustic roots.

With more shingles dropping from roofs each year and boards rotting, the days of grandeur for old barns and homesteads are on the decline.

“People just don’t need these barns so much anymore,” he concludes. “Some are going to rot to the ground pretty soon.”

And with them will go a piece of our pastoral past, an aging whisper in history.

Outsourcing to Rural

Monday, November 28th, 2005

Could rural sourcing help bring jobs to rural communities?

When Robin Viera graduated from East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina, in May, she assumed she would have to relocate to a larger city to use her degree in business and systems analysis. But she was reluctant to uproot her husband and 11-year-old stepson, and leave behind their extended families.

Instead, she landed a program-analyst position with Rural Sourcing, an IT company that outsources not to India or Mexico, but rural America. […]

Rural Sourcing claims to provide information technology services at 30 percent to 50 percent below most U.S. consulting firms by tapping into the increasing number of IT professionals in rural America, where overhead and wages are lower than in metropolitan areas. […]

“I believed there is untapped talent in these locations that has been overlooked,” said White, who grew up in Oxford, Arkansas, which had a population of 200 at the time. Many rural American communities have suffered proverbial brain drains, White said. Subsequently, their populations are aging and tax bases are shrinking. When she started Rural Sourcing, her goal was to help reverse these trends. […]

Today Rural Sourcing claims 20 clients, including Mattel and Cardinal Health, $1 million in revenue and 50 full-time employees at five IT centers in Arkansas, North Carolina and Missouri. […] She hopes to employ 100 full-time consultants by the end of next year, and 1,000 within five to seven years.

I’m generally optimistic about the work being done by Rural Sourcing. The project might benefit from some new public policy (local, state and national) that seeks to support the development of networks and infrastructures needed to encourage the spread of rural sourcing to more communities.

At the local level, city councils, mayors and community leaders should look to implement policies that will encourage jobs to be rural-sourced to their communities.

More land grant universities, traditionally charged with teaching agricultural practices, should be encouraged to pursue centers to study the possibilities of rural sourcing in their respective states, and also to follow the lead of the Delta Center for Economic Development at Arkansas State University by helping to develop the infrastructure needed to make rural sourcing a reality.

And finally, it is easy to imagine a host of national policy changes that would encourage more rural sourcing. These range from the mundane (federal appropriations to encourage the practice) to the particularly significant (changes in trade policy–hey, we can hope).

This all comes with the caveat I offered here.

Hunger in the Country

Sunday, November 27th, 2005

In the days leading up to Thanksgiving last week NPR aired a series of in-depth stories on hunger in the United States.

All four stories were excellent (in that awful, terrible kind of way). If you didn’t hear them I draw your attention in particular to the one on hunger in the rural U.S.

Fifteen percent of the rural people surveyed are uncertain about getting enough food. […]

In Smyth County, Va., the Hankins family lives these statistics every day. Their rural home is near the town of Chilhowie, a place of plenty once. Chilhowie is a Cherokee word, meaning “valley of many deer.” Just up the road is Hungry Mother State Park, a place named for a local legend about a mother’s sacrifice for a hungry child.

Wreatha Hankins is a 37-year-old mom with three children and a working husband. She has resorted to extraordinary measures to make sure her family eats, including skipping meals herself, skipping medicine for epilepsy and chronic back pain, doing her own dental work, selling family heirlooms and scouring Smyth County for the cheapest food available. She searches for food bargains at dollar stores, flea markets, roadside stands and the nearly expired meat section at supermarkets.

“We’re the working poor,” Wreatha says. In fact, Robbie Hankins works full-time at a cement plant. Wreatha works part-time as a substitute teacher. Last year, the couple made $22,000. That puts them just below the federal poverty threshold for a family of five. But it’s too much for food stamps. The family does get a monthly, 125-pound box of groceries from a local food pantry. And the children get free lunches at school. Eating otherwise is sometimes a challenge. “It bothers me knowing that I don’t know whether we’re going to have food from one week to the next,” says Robbie.

The “food insecure” in rural places face special challenges. High gas prices make the hunt for cheap or free food expensive. Some rural people, especially the disabled and elderly, don’t have cars, or cars that run reliably. And grocery stores and food pantries are fewer and farther between.

But really you must listen to the story to fully appreciate the challenges. When you listen you’ll learn how, among other tactics to preserve their food budget, Wreatha has resorted to home-spun dentistry using candle wax to repair a damaged tooth.

Listen here. Give here, or to your local food relief agency.

Rural Recruiting

Sunday, November 27th, 2005

U.S. soldiers are still dying in Iraq (80 in November. 96 in October.)

New recruits are still coming disproportionately from rural areas.

This from North Branch, Michigan.

Uncle Sam lures more from rural Michigan: Money, education attract military recruits who see few opportunities in small towns.

Military records show that Michigan’s military recruits come disproportionately from the state’s most rural areas, where young people enlist at a rate double that in the most populous parts of the state. […]

In the state’s 45 most rural counties — those in which at least 60 percent of people live in rural areas — about seven of every 1,000 young people ages 18-24 enlisted last year. In the state’s most populous counties, about four of every 1,000 young adults signed up.

The pattern is similar nationwide. […]

The same study found a correlation nationwide between lower economic status and increased likelihood of enlisting in the armed forces. Neither of these findings are particularly surprising. In a time of military conflict our all volunteer military is drawing more heavily on young people with limited alternatives (or a perception of limited alternatives).

But as Anita Bancs, research director for the National Priorities Project says, “If we’re going to engage in war, we ought to know who the people are who volunteer, who are serving in the armed forces and who put themselves at risk.”

As the national debate over the direction of the war in Iraq escalates, it is doubly important to recognize who is baring the burden of the current policy.

Rural Philanthropy

Friday, November 25th, 2005

From a recent editorial by Thomas Rowley at RUPRI.

According to a May 2004 report by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, foundations in the United States give out some $30 billion a year. Of that, a paltry $100.5 million was committed to rural development. Indeed, only 184 of 65,000 active grant-making foundations in the country gave to rural development. (Just two of those 184—the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and the Ford Foundation–together were responsible for 42 percent of the money to rural.)

Thanksgiving Travelers Head for Rural Areas

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2005

The AAA reports that “Small towns and rural areas top the list of preferred destinations, with 37 percent of the travel volume,” this Thanksgiving travel season.

Rural Air Service

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2005

Airline services to rural communities threatened in latest round of budget cuts.

Cuts target rural ‘lifeline’
Tiny towns say government-funded air service essential

Air travel is not always convenient. But how about having to drive more than 120 miles, much of it on a two-lane road, just to get to the airport?

That’s what the folks in Brownwood, Texas, have had to put up with since they lost their commercial air service a year ago, and that’s what dozens of other communities across rural America could face if the White House succeeds in slashing the Essential Air Service program. […]

Each year, Congress spends about $100 million on the program, which pays small airlines to fly to rural airports they would otherwise avoid because there aren’t enough passengers to cover the cost.

The Bush administration has repeatedly tried to shrink the program to serve only the most remote communities. […]

Under the White House plan, communities that get subsidized air service would have to kick in to help cover the cost. Cities less than 100 miles from a large or medium hub airport or 75 miles from a small hub could get federal help, but only for ground transportation, such as shuttle buses, to take people to a larger airport. […]

The cost to provide rural air service has quadrupled over the past decade. Several communities reported subsidies per passenger of more than $300 last year. At the same time, ridership has fallen in part because of the emergence of discount airlines that have made the drive to a larger airport financially worthwhile.

However, the service is more than just a convenience for local residents. Out-of-the-way communities depend on the airlines to speed up delivery of mail and supplies - and there’s the economic-development aspect, as well. […]

The arguments for cutting these services sound a lot like the arguments for cutting support for Amtrak. The problem is that both arguments fail to acknowledge an entire set of subsidies that go to airlines, roads, bridges, etc.

Sure rural air service costs taxpayers money, but so do roads, bridges, tunnels, and airlines which serve a large spectrum of our population.

Food and Class Status

Tuesday, November 22nd, 2005

There’s a good post and accompanying discussion in the comments section over at Gristmill where Tom Philpott has written a post about the sustainable food movement’s “class problem.”

Food and class

The sustainable-food movement has a class problem.

Slow Food, for example, is an essential organization, with its declaration of a universal “right to taste” and its mandate to …

“… oppose the standardisation of taste, defend the need for consumer information, protect cultural identities tied to food and gastronomic traditions, safeguard foods and cultivation and processing techniques inherited from tradition and defend domestic and wild animal and vegetable species.”

The group has undeniably done important work internationally toward those goals; yet its U.S. branch tends to throw pricey events accessible only to an economic elite.

The rest is here.

Say What?

Monday, November 21st, 2005

From the Brownfield Ag Network.

Vertical integration protecting against bird flu

Because nearly all commercial poultry production in the United States is company-managed — a system known as vertical integration — production processes are safer and more efficient, said Todd Applegate, Purdue Extension poultry specialist. […]

“The poultry industry is the most vertically integrated of all of our livestock industries,” Applegate said. “As we try to reduce the risk of bird flu in this country, having full control over the entire production process is probably a good thing.” […]

While wild fowl carrying the virus could enter the U.S., it is unlikely those birds could come in contact with chickens and other commercially raised poultry, Applegate said. In vertically integrated companies, poultry are carefully monitored to ensure optimum health and production quality, he said. Biosecurity measures are tight throughout the production process, especially on the parent farms and hatcheries, Applegate said. […]

Ops. He forgot to mention that the reason these operations are so “carefully monitored” and require such “tight biosecurity” is that if a bird flu outbreak did occur within the U.S. poultry industry the extreme confinement of animals will contribute significantly to the challenge of reigning the disease in.

In fact the high level of concentration (just four companies control over 50% of US poultry production) is in part to blame for the emergence of this new strain of bird flu.

Emergence of variant strains of both infectious bursal disease and avian bronchitis viruses add to the problems of selecting appropriate vaccines and programs for administration. It is evident that a high concentration of poultry in close proximity allows dissemination of variants. Within three years of the emergence of the Delaware variants of IBDV, virtually the entire industry east of the Mississippi was affected with these strains. There was evidence that the Delaware IBD viruses are now the predominant serotypes in Central America, requiring adjustment of both parent and broiler vaccination programs.

The Washington Post wrote as early as February of this year that the growing concentration in South East Asia poultry production is contributing to the spread of bird flu.

[With] chickens now packed into farmyards alongside other livestock, international health experts warn that conditions are set for a bird flu pandemic that could kill millions worldwide if the virus developed into a form capable of spreading among humans.

Writing in response to the Post, Applied Anthropologist Robert Nigh wrote the following for the Effect Measure blog.

The picture that is emerging, though, is that the rapid development of the confined poultry industry and associated technological changes and export trade has resulted in the appearance and rapid propagation of new, highly virulent strains of poultry diseases, some of which affect humans. These new strains not only represent a major threat to the future of poultry production but have resulted in serious potential threats to human health with very high costs for society.

The solution to this problem is not more of the same, i.e. more high tech solutions, drugs, “biosecurity ” and ” best practices ” applied to confined poultry operations, but rather to reverse the trend, back up from this dead end, abandon large chicken confinements and return to decentralized production in small flocks widely distributed in the countryside. This also implies that long-distance, ” global ” trade in poultry products would be largely abandoned.

Such conclusions may fall outside of Purdue Extension poultry specialist’s preview, but these conclusions are likely more palatable in the long run than any increased biosecurity measures can ever be.

Mad Cow Disease & Milk

Saturday, November 19th, 2005

I’ve written before about the USDA and FDA’s seeming inability to enforce their own regulations aimed at stemming the spread of mad cow disease.

Now this.

A new study in Canada suggests that the prions that cause mad cow disease can be passed through milk.

New research into prions, the infectious agents that cause mad cow-like diseases, has found them in the mammary glands of some sheep, raising questions about whether milk and milk products from infected animals could transmit the pathogens.

Prion experts were quick to insist the current potential risk to human health is low and may even be nil.

But they suggested the findings are a warning that if prion diseases in livestock aren’t rigorously hunted for and rooted out, milk and products like cheeses and yogurt could be a potential route of transmission of prions to humans.

In humans, prions — highly infectious misfolded proteins — cause the brain wasting variant-Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease or CJD.

The story broke two days ago, but has been carried primarily in the foreign press so far. I can’t find it in any major U.S. papers yet. There is a growing concern over food safety in this country, and I think this could be potentially explosive if picked up by major U.S. media outlets.

Budget Reconciliation

Saturday, November 19th, 2005

My friends in D.C. tell me it could have been worse. From the National Farmers Union.

House Budget Plan Wrong for Rural America

National Farmers Union President Dave Frederickson made the following statement following the U.S. House of Representative’s passage of its budget reconciliation legislation late last night:

“The House’s passage of nearly $4 billion in cuts to programs that benefit rural America is the wrong move at the wrong time. The representatives’ plan will make a bad situation out on the farm even worse.

“These cuts will place a further burden on our farmers and ranchers who are already struggling due to low commodity prices, skyrocketing energy costs, and devastating weather conditions. Now is not the time to cut programs beneficial to our nation’s producers and rural communities.

“The House reconciliation legislation cuts $1.033 billion from the farm safety net for 2006 through 2010. It also makes $734 million in reductions in conservation spending. Farm spending makes up less than 1 percent of the federal budget, yet farmers and ranchers are required to take more than 9 percent of all federal spending reductions. Policymakers are placing a disproportionate share of the burden on rural America while proposing tax cuts for the nation’s wealthy.”

The bill is headed for committee where it will get melded with the Senate’s version from last week.

Judge Supports Small Schools

Wednesday, November 16th, 2005

There has been a movement underfoot in Nebraska to require small elementary schools to merge with larger districts. Yesterday a Judge rulled in favor of plaintiffs seeking to prevent the new law from taking effect.

A state law requiring all elementary-only schools to merge with larger districts was put on hold by a judge Monday, keeping alive hopes that the consolidation law will be overturned by voters next year.

Even if voters don’t repeal the law, at the very least the Legislature will have to rewrite it to set new deadlines, said Sen. Ron Raikes of Lincoln, the chief backer of the law.

“I’m just very disappointed,” Raikes said.

Note that the “chief backer of the law” is a legislator from Lincoln, the second largest city in the state.

If the schools are dissolved as current law requires in June 2006, “a fair opportunity to vote in a meaningful manner will not be available,” Lancaster County District Judge Paul Merritt Jr. ruled.

Merritt’s granting of a temporary injunction means that the law is suspended and the mergers cannot move ahead. Unless his decision is overturned, the schools can remain open at least until voters get a chance in November 2006 to decide whether to throw out the merger law.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that we’ll win at the ballot box,” said Mike Nolles, president of Class I’s United, a group that supports the elementary-only schools. […]

This year there are 206 elementary-only schools in Nebraska, many of which are in the most rural parts of the state. Supporters of the schools fought the law, saying they should be able to determine their own fate and not be forced to merge.

Law proponents argue that having K-12 districts statewide will save money and provide a more equitable education to all students.

The Nebraska based Center for Rural Affairs has issued multiple studies that seek to show such claims are untenable.

“Playing Politics”

Sunday, November 13th, 2005

Being on the Iowa State University Campus, Drew Miller is in a good position to have casual conversation about the Leopold Center with folks in-the-know.

I talked to someone close to the Ag College at ISU, who said that Dewitt and Wintersteen are close friends, and that Wintersteen likes to play politics. She’s apparently done it before - when a search committee had decided on a candidate, she overruled them and forced them to ask one of her friends first.

The rest is here.

Have You Written a Letter Yet?

Wednesday, November 9th, 2005

Have you written a letter to Iowa State University Administration yet?

One More

Wednesday, November 9th, 2005

This week’s Cityview (Des Monies, Iowa Alternative Weekly) also has a story.

Mother Earth

Imagine you’re an administrator and you’ve got this employee who’s catching a lot of attention. A guy who left a family legacy to move across state lines and take on your institution’s mission as nothing less than a personal crusade. An employee who travels so tirelessly for his job that you simply say the word “Iowa” anywhere across the country and folks in the field recite his name with a certain reverence. A director who members of your own board call “a world and national leader,” who constituents say “symbolized strength and hope.”

What do you do with an employee like that? Demote him. And do it with a 48-hour ultimatum. […]

And thanks to such potential conflicts of interest, there have been calls from the grassroots to “break the Leopold Center free” from Iowa State, a concern Kirschenmann had openly addressed with administration, asking “pointblank, is this a center of the university or a Center at the university.” So concerned about the power dynamics, he’s even gone to Paul Johnson, who helped craft the original legislation, and discovered that there were fears from the start that locating the center at Iowa State “would eventually corrupt it.”

According to a protest letter addressed to university officials circulating among activists last week, concern is mounting that Kirschenmann’s demotion is clear evidence of such corruption: “By removing Dr. Kirschenmann from this position, Iowa State University is allowing outside business interests to effectively control the agenda of a prominent American university, thereby further eroding the once unique independent status of academic institutions in American life.” And to be perfectly honest, Kirschenmann can’t say he entirely disagrees.

“This issue is not just about me or the Leopold Center,” he says. “It’s an issue about whether or not public institutions can still have intellectual pursuits without being hampered by outside pressure.”

Again, the link is good for a week. The entire story is copied below the fold.

(more…)

Farm News Story

Wednesday, November 9th, 2005

A couple of more news stories tonight for anyone who hasn’t seen them. First from the Farm News in Iowa.

Leopold leader asked to step down
By RANDY MUDGETT- Managing Editor

AMES — Fred Kirschenmann is no longer the director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Ames. Last week, Wendy Wintersteen, interim dean of Iowa State University’s College of Agriculture, asked Kirschenmann to either resign his post or accept a position as a distinguished fellow for the Leopold Center.

The above link will only work for a week. The entire story is coppied below the fold.

(more…)

It’s Time to Act

Monday, November 7th, 2005

No new posts tonight. We know enough to act.

Instead of you reading what I have to say I want the administration at Iowa State to read what you have to say. If you haven’t yet written a letter please do so now.

Send your letter to all of the following people:

Wendy Wintersteen
Interim Dean, College of Agriculture, Iowa State University
138 Curtiss Hall, Ames, Iowa 50011-1050
Phone (515) 294-2518, Fax (515) 268-9995
Email: wwinters@iastate.edu

Benjamin J. Allen
Provost, Iowa State University
1550 Beardshear Hall, Ames, Iowa 50011-2021
Phone (515) 294-9591, Fax (515) 294-8844
Email: provost@iastate.edu

Gregory L. Geoffroy
President, Iowa State University
1750 Beardshear Hall, Ames, Iowa 50011-2035
Phone (515) 294-2042, Fax (515) 294-0565
Email: president@iastate.edu

Click for “more” below to see some talking points and the letter I am sending. Modify these to reflect your personal position. Tell them what perspective you are coming from, what troubles you about the situation and what you would like to see done to remedy it.

Oh, and expect to get a whitewashing response from Wintersteen. She sends the same damn response to every single person—identical down to the formatting errors.

Update: After you have written your own letter please send this link to others and encourage them to write a letter as well.

(more…)

A Distinguished Fellow

Sunday, November 6th, 2005

A nice column by Alan Guebert in today’s Lincoln Journal Star.

Farm and Food: A distinguished fellow

In the big, slow move from the big, painted house in town this past summer my worn copy of Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac went missing.

Truth be told, the lovely little book of simple, powerful essays explaining mankind’s deep connections to the land never made the move with Emerson, Thoreau, McPhee and the rest of my literary family.

The most likely explanation of its disappearance is that I lent it out years ago and, unlike the waterfowl, songbirds or wildflowers Leopold wrote so powerfully and poetically about on his Wisconsin farm, the book that pioneered “the land ethic” never returned.

I know that’s what happened to some of my other great possessions—a drywall T-square, an expensive gear-puller, my pruning saw. The last time I looked they were there to be employed and enjoyed; the next time I looked they were sadly, madly, gone.

I hope that’s not the case with Fred Kirschenmann who, until Oct. 28, was the director of the Leopold Center, Iowa State University’s globally-recognized research and education center for sustainable agriculture.

Officially, Kirschenmann was promoted from his administrative post, a position he held since 2000, to “a new leadership role as a distinguished fellow of the center” where, according to the ISU press release, he “will devote his time to national sustainable agriculture priorities affecting broad segments of U.S. agriculture.”

Unofficially, say many of his peers, he was shuffled off to the academic gulag by powerful farm and commodity groups in Iowa who worried the Kirschenmann-led Center’s authoritative research and growing reputation undermined their agribiz-or-bust approach to farming.

The way the Kirschenmann coup occurred, they suggest, confirms it.

The rest is worth a read.

Former-Former Director Speaks Out

Saturday, November 5th, 2005

Yesterday a letter from Dennis Keeney (Leopold Center Director prior to Kirschenmann) began circulating online. Here are the highlights.

In a way, I am probably closer to the Center than anyone, because I was the first director in 1988 and the one who set it on course. […]

As we know, the Center is now in the midst of change, more rapid than usually happens in academia where leadership change occurs normally with slow transition from retirement or job change. […]

Much of the activist farm and environmental community are viewing this change with alarm. Are there ulterior motives in Dr. Kirschenmann’s removal? I am convinced that this is not the case. The situation in the Center had reached a point where change was needed. […]

The past two years it was obvious to me that the Iowa agricultural community was not being engaged by the Center. These are the obvious groups; the chemical and other input providers, main line agricultural organizations such as Farm Bureau, and the important commodity groups. […]

The change will be good for the Center and for the state. Dr. Jerry DeWitt is one of the most qualified persons nationwide to step in and lead the Center. […]

I wish that the leadership change had not been a necessary action. I want more than anyone to see the Center succeed over the long run. It was my life for 12 years. […]

Dennis Keeney
Former Director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture
Iowa State University

The very first email about this matter named the Farm Bureau as a group potentially behind the ouster of Kirschenmann. Keeney also names the Farm Bureau. Now both an opponent and a supporter of the ouster cite the Farm Bureau.

Draw your own conclusions.

Update: For anyone unaware, the Farm Bureau isn’t much of a farmer’s organization, and it certainly isn’t a supporter of sustainable agriculture. Rather it is an insurance company and rather large lobbying machine for financial and corporate agribusiness interests.

Divergent Views of Sustainability

Friday, November 4th, 2005

There was likely more than one reason why Interim Dean Wintersteen took the action that resulted in Kirschenmann’s resignation as Director of the Leopold Center one week ago today.

I can’t yet put my finger on each of the seperate reasons, but one factor is certain to be diverging views on just what “sustainable” agriculture is.

Wintersteen herself trumpets soil and water conservation.

“There was a significant number of folks who felt like they didn’t have significant connection to the center,” she said.

Among those who complained of Kirschenmann’s performance are corn and soybean producers who wanted more research on issues the center had historically dealt with, such as water quality and conservation research, Wintersteen said.

Others agree.

Hamilton said the center needs to do more on environmental issues, both for smaller and larger farmers. DeWitt, he said, will have a positive impact there.

Kirschenmann has a deeper understanding of what sustainability is. Our food system needs to be environmentally sustainable, but is also (and just as importantly) needs to be socially and economically sustainable. This notion is reflected in Kirschenmann’s Ag of the Middle work.

Some of the board members that Wintersteen left out of her decision agree with Kirschenmann’s approach.

Marvin Shirley, the former chair of the advisory board, said he believed Kirschenmann was doing a good job carrying out the center’s mission. “A lot of the problems and solutions to agriculture are beyond Iowa’s borders,” said Shirley, who represents the Iowa Farmers Union on the advisory board. “You can’t lose focus of Iowa, but to solve those problems, you have to be involved in a larger area than just Iowa.”

This debate is being played out as an “Iowa focus” versus a “national focus” disagreement. Wintersteen and folk are arguing that the Center needs to be more Iowa focused. This discussion of increasing the Center’s “Iowa focus” appears in tandem nearly every time with discussion of increasing the Center’s “soil and water conservation” research, and reaching out to a more diverse set of stakeholder groups.

As if to reassure those of us who might be catching on Wintersteen follows up with this:

Wintersteen said that as a distinguished fellow, Kirschenmann will work on national sustainable agriculture issues, the decreasing number of medium-sized family farms, and niche-marketing opportunities.

I don’t doubt that this is true, but he won’t be doing it as the Director of the Leopold Center any more. These things, unfortunately, do make a difference.

Iowa Farmers Union Steps Up

Thursday, November 3rd, 2005

Iowa Farmers Union (IFU) came out swinging in a press release sent out earlier today.

KIRSCHENMANN’S REMOVAL SIGNALS QUESTIONABLE DIRECTION FOR SUSTAINABLE AGRICULTURE IN IOWA

AMES–Iowa State University’s administration is moving in a questionable direction by removing renowned sustainable agriculture champion Frederick Kirschenmann from the position of director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, says Chris Petersen, president of Iowa Farmers Union. […]

“Taking Fred Kirschenmann out as director of the Leopold Center sends a questionable message,” says Petersen. “Is it that ISU’s administration is not comfortable with the strong stance Fred has taken for years opposing the economic and environmental abuses of corporate agriculture in Iowa and across the country?” […]

Dr. Kirschenmann’s efforts have evidently angered agri-business interests, who for more than a year have lobbied the dean’s office in the College of Agriculture to stop his work on sustainable agriculture and other projects that benefit family farmers and the land, Petersen said.

“Fred’s tenure brought hope and opportunity for Iowa’s farmers,” Petersen said. […]

In keeping with the principles of academic freedom, Dr. Kirschenmann was originally hired through a legally mandated search committee, Petersen said. “We are concerned that this process was not followed in naming the Center’s interim director,” he said, “and we urge that the Leopold Center be allowed to operate without strings attached, as the Legislature intended. We have great respect for Jerry DeWitt and hope he can keep the Center focused on its mission without administrative or corporate interference.”

Interim Dean Wintersteen has said that part the motivation behind her action was that some of the stakeholder groups in Iowa were not happy with Kirschenmann. IFU is obviously not one of these dissatisfied groups. Perhaps Wintersteen would like to clarify who these unhappy groups are.

More News Stories

Thursday, November 3rd, 2005

From the Ames Tribune we get Director’s removal shocks board members.

Several advisory board members to the Leopold Center at Iowa State University said they were shocked to hear of the removal of the center’s director, noting they were not aware of any problems with his leadership.

“As far as I could tell, everything seemed to be pretty even-keeled,” said Kelly Donham, a farmer and representative on the board of the University of Iowa. “I didn’t have any inkling or suggestions there were some concerns or problems at that time.”

Marvin Shirley, the former chair of the advisory board, said he believed Kirschenmann was doing a good job carrying out the center’s mission.

“A lot of the problems and solutions to agriculture are beyond Iowa’s borders,” said Shirley, who represents the Iowa Farmers Union on the advisory board. “You can’t lose focus of Iowa, but to solve those problems, you have to be involved in a larger area than just Iowa.”

From the Des Moines Register we get ISU ag director: I was forced to resign.

Fred Kirschenmann said he was forced to resign as director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture because of differences over how much the Iowa State University center should focus on Iowa. […]

Advocates of sustainable agriculture are protesting Wintersteen’s decision and have started a letter-writing campaign.

Weisenbach said sustainable agricultural advocates like and respect DeWitt and the work he has done, but she said there are a lot of questions about why Kirschenmann was removed as director.

“There is a lot of shock and concern, a lot of mystery and suspicions about why Fred was replaced,” she said.

And this interesting comment from Board Member Neil Hamilton

Neil Hamilton, director of Drake University’s Agricultural Law Center, has been on the Leopold Center’s advisory board since it began in 1987. If some farm groups pressured Wintersteen to remove Kirschenmann, Hamilton said, he wasn’t aware of it.

“This is not a question of big agribusiness trying to undo what the center was trying to do,” Hamilton said. “The center needs to focus on Iowa farming and sustainable agriculture and this is a positive development for Fred, sustainable agriculture and the state of Iowa.”

Hamilton said the center needs to do more on environmental issues, both for smaller and larger farmers. DeWitt, he said, will have a positive impact there.

More commentary later.

Others Chime In

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2005

The folks over at Grist have a post up.

The highlights

Seedy business: A sustainable-ag champion gets plowed under at Iowa State

Plunked down in the land of huge, chemical-addicted grain farms and the nation’s greatest concentration of hog feedlots, Iowa State University’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture has always had a tough row to hoe. […]

Now, however, a sudden purge at the top has called the Center’s much-prized independence from industrial agriculture into question. […]

Last Friday, the college issued a press release announcing that the Leopold Center’s director of five years, Fred Kirschenmann, had “accepted a new leadership role as a distinguished fellow of the center.” […]

Kirschenmann himself, however, tells a more interesting tale than what’s contained in the press release’s bland prose. He says his move from director to “distinguished fellow” came suddenly and without his own input.

“On Wednesday [Oct. 26] I received a letter from the interim dean asking me to resign by Friday and decide by then if I would accept the position of distinguished fellow at the center,” Kirschenmann told me yesterday.

“I wrote her [the interim dean] back telling her I thought she was moving too fast, that there wouldn’t be time for a smooth transition. She wrote back that it was a done deal — she had already named a new director.”

Kirschenmann says the interim dean, Wendy Wintersteen, had been on Leopold’s advisory board for years and had served on the search committee that hired him in 2000. “She was always very supportive of what we were doing,” Kirschenmann says. “Until about two years ago. Then she became very critical.”

Her critique centered on the idea that in its work the Leopold Center was neglecting “key stakeholders,” Kirschenmann adds. “But she never really clarified who those stakeholders were.”

Might she have been refering to agribusiness interests? “You can draw your own conclusions,” Kirschenmann says. […]

Read the whole post over at Grist.

Questions to Ask

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2005

In the Iowa State Daily story Interim Dean Wendy Wintersteen stated that there was a “significant number of people who felt they did not have a significant connection to the center.” Her following statement suggests that this might include some of the large commodity groups. What groups and/or individuals complained that they did not have adequate communication with the Leopold Center?

The Ames Tribune story reveals that Wintersteen made the “executive” decision to give Kirschenmann 48 hours to resign or take a new position within the Center. Wintersteen is currently four months into a six month stint as Interim Dean of the College of Agriculture. Interim deans don’t often take it upon themselves to topple nationally known scholars. If anything this sort of thing occurs after a permanent dean is appointed. Did Wintersteen act on her sole discretion in making her decision? Was she subject to directive, pressure or demands from others in the College, University or ag community?

Iowa Code, Section 266.39, dictates that the Leopold Center Board of Directors is to assist in the selection of the Center’s Director. When will the board convene to begin this process? Two years from now is not an acceptable answer.

Add your questions in the comments.

Too Big for His Britches

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2005

It is becoming clear why some people wanted Kirschenmann out of his leadership post. I started to see hints of it yesterday in statements from Interim Dean Wintersteen. From yesterday’s Ames Tribune story

Wintersteen stressed the Leopold Center is an Iowa center.

“As such, it is critically important that there are very clear projects and programs here in the state,” she said.

Wintersteen said projects and programs that begin in Iowa could then be used to solve similar issues across the country in such areas as water quality and soil conservation.

With his move into issues of national policy, and work like his ag in the middle project, Kirschenmann was becoming a voice to be reckoned with. Kirschenmann’s powerful ideas ran up against powerful politics and the latter walked away the winner.

This morning’s Iowa State Daily has a story that all but confirms my worst suspicions.

Frederick Kirschenmann, who has held the position since July 2000, was removed from his position Tuesday concerning complaints from Iowa agriculture groups accusing Kirschenmann of not communicating with them, Wintersteen said.

“There was a significant number of folks who felt like they didn’t have significant connection to the center,” she said.

Among those who complained of Kirschenmann’s performance are corn and soybean producers who wanted more research on issues the center had historically dealt with, such as water quality and conservation research, Wintersteen said.

Kirschenmann was fired demoted because he didn’t placate the big commodity groups with feel-good “water quality” research. Everyone is for water quality and soil conservation. Kirschenmann outgrew his britches when he tried to move the conversation from water quality to more systemic socio-economic issues that underlay the most significant problems faced by our farm and food systems.

Other Recent Changes

Tuesday, November 1st, 2005

I had forgotten about this.

In July of this year Mike Duffy, Associate Director of the Leopold Center, left the Center to “pursue teaching and research opportunities in the ISU Department of Economics on a full-time basis.”

Duffy had been with the Center for 13 years.

Administration Duties

Tuesday, November 1st, 2005

If there is a hint of legitimacy in asking for Kirschenmann’s resignation as director of the Leopold Center it swirls around the issue of administrative duties.

From an email sent to graduate students in the sustainable ag program at Iowa State by Interim Dean Wintersteen

The new arrangement is meant to allow Dr. Kirschenmann to focus his excellent work and service, while placing the main administrative duties in the hands of another nationally recognized authority in sustainable agriculture, Dr. DeWitt.

This is just a snippet of a longer, very carefully crafted email. It is the only statement in the email that seems like it could be a hint at the possibility of a real story.

That being said, even if this is true a whole series of questions regarding the abrupt nature of the move, the involvement of an interim dean, the lack of involvement of the board, the appointment of an interim director for a two year term, and so on remain unanswered.

If you have a good (and well liked) visionary who isn’t up to par as a manager there are much better ways of dealing with the situation than sending the interim dean to fire them on short notice.

I remain agnostic on the matter for the time being.

Update: In a forthcoming post I will make an argument that Kirschenmann’s forced resignation is not related to this point, but rather appears to be politically motivated.

Interim Director….?

Tuesday, November 1st, 2005

Although I am still seeking final confirmation on the matter I have heard from at least two people in a position to know that Interim Dean Wendy Wintersteen has appointed Jerry DeWitt as Interim Director of the Leopold Center for a two year term.

That seems like a pretty long “interim” appointment to me (especially considering that Wintersteen herself is only Interim Dean).

In fact, this may be construed as an attempt to circumvent the legally mandated process for selecting a new director for the Center.

Iowa Code, Section 266.39 which deals with the Leopold Center states

The board shall provide the president of Iowa state university of science and technology with a list of three candidates from which the director shall be selected. The board shall provide an additional list of three candidates if requested by the president. The board shall advise the director in the development of a budget, on the policies and procedures of the center, in the funding of research grant proposals, and regarding program planning and review.

While the code does not say anything about the appropriate length of time that interim directors should be appointed, I think it can be safely said that two years is longer than usual. Whether or not there is a real legal issue I’ll have to leave to a lawyer.

“Iowa Focus”

Tuesday, November 1st, 2005

The first mainstream story comes from the Ames Tribune.

Leopold director told to resign

After leading Iowa State University’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture for five years, Fred Kirschenmann was told to resign his position as director last week to clear the way for a leader who would be more focused on Iowa issues and provide a stronger Iowa presence.

The Leopold Center is indeed a state funded initiative. What this does or should mean about their research “focus” deserves a bit more fleshing out. The cynic in me suggests that perhaps this is another way of saying that Kirschenmann had become too powerful of a national voice.

After receiving notice on Wednesday morning, the surprised Kirschenmann was given 48 hours to decide whether to accept a distinguished fellow role to remain with the center.

Wendy Wintersteen, the interim dean of ISU’s College of Agriculture who made the executive decision, has appointed ISU professor Jerry DeWitt as interim director of the center. DeWitt previously served as coordinator of the university Extension’s sustainable agricultural program.

Why is the interim dean making executive decisions and implementing 48 hour deadlines just two months before her term is over? Aren’t matters of this nature typically left to an incoming dean? Why was the Board of Directors not involved?

“We wanted to find a mechanism to take advantage of Fred’s leadership, but have somebody in the position of interim director that could manage the day-to-day affairs of the center and provide a clear Iowa focus for the center,” said Wintersteen, who took over interim duties as dean of the College of Agriculture on Aug. 1. “What better way than to bring these two folks together to serve the center’s mission.”

I would humbly suggest that a better way might not involve executive decisions by an interim dean and surprise 48 hour deadlines.

Kirschenmann said he is uncertain whether the new structure will work.

“If I can continue to fulfill the center’s mission, I will work hard to do that,” he said. “If it turns out I am not given that freedom, I will probably move on to something else.”

The center, formed in 1987 through the Groundwater Protection Act, works to research the negative impacts of agricultural practices, assist in developing alternative practices and works with ISU Extension to inform the public of the center’s findings, according to its Web site.

Kirschenmann, who has long been a national and international leader in sustainable agriculture, said the reasons why he was told to resign were never made specific to him. He added that Wintersteen had been “somewhat unhappy” with his performance during the past couple years because he was not sufficiently engaged with Iowa’s stakeholder groups.

The rest is below the fold. (more…)

More Later

Tuesday, November 1st, 2005

I’ll post some more significant commentary on Fred Kirschenmann and the Leopold Center later this afternoon. I have other commitments to attend to first.

Be a Populist

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