Photo Blogging

The Late Great Plains

The ruins of a homesteader’s cabin in New Mexico lie in a county with less than one person per square mile, a density akin to Greenland. Throughout much of the Great Plains, farm families continue to lose their most valued crop—the next generation of farmers.

From a feature story in National Geographic Magazine. Jim Richardson, photographer.

On the Reservation

Some of the most impoverished rural communities in the United States are on Native American reservations. No more is this the case than on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

Most of the 2.7 million acres that make up the South Dakota reservation lie within Shannon County and Jackson County, two of the poorest counties in the U.S.

Unemployment on the Reservation hovers around 85% and 97% live below the federal poverty level. Adolescent suicide is 4 times the national average, and many of the families lack even basic services such as electricity and telephone service. The population on Pine Ridge has among the shortest life expectancies of any group in the entire Western Hemisphere (47 years for males and just over 50 years for females), and the infant mortality rate is five times the United States national average.

Watch for a photo blogging post on Pine Ridge Reservation later this week.

Urban Hegemony

In response to a shortage of dentists in rural Alaska, local leaders decided to send Alaska natives to New Zealand to be trained as dental therapists. The first eight trainees are now helping to perform basic dental work in remote areas of the state.

The American Dental Association (ADA) isn’t happy about it.

A recent court case filed by the ADA seeks to prohibit foreign trained dental therapists from practicing in Alaska. While much of the rest of the developed world has such practitioners (think nurse practitioners for dentistry) the U.S. has no such category. The ADA argues that the practice will “put people at risk.”

As if Alaska’s current lack of dentists and resulting high tooth decay rates don’t “put people at risk.”

Rural areas need to seek creative solutions to deal with the low numbers of healthcare providers in their areas. Dental therapists (good enough for New Zealand, Canada, Australia and Great Britain) should be a part of the solution.

The ADA is also taking their fight to the U.S. Congress where they hope to limit the spread of the program beyond the state of Alaska.

Terrible Idea

It’s hard to believe that someone still thinks this is a good idea.

Edmore, N.D., Farmer says Animal Operations can Rescue Rural Population Decline

EDMORE, N.D. – North Dakota is prime ground for growing hogs.

“It has lots of agricultural land, lots of grain and lots of open space ,” said Kevin Tyndall, a consultant from Canadian hog producer Hytek.

Paul Ivesdal, an Edmore farmer, agrees. “I’d like to see 1 million hogs in our school district,” he said. “We could site a hog operation in each township.”

That’s a lofty goal, considering that Ivesdal has unsuccessfully attempted to get one 21,000-hog operation approved…

Frustrated by a year’s delay, Ivesdal said he might move his proposed hog operation a mile north, into Cavalier County. He said Viking Feeders also is considering a switch to a 5,000-sow farrowing operation rather than the 21,000-hog business that finishes the animals and sends them to market.

“The farrowing operation means 17 or 18 jobs, compared to the six jobs with the finishing barns,” Ivesdal said. “But the finishing uses about four times as much grain. I’m leaning toward creating more jobs over more feed.”

A farrowing operation, a nursery operation and two 20,000-head finishing sites constitute what is called a loop.

“We could get 10 loops in the school district,” Ivesdal said. “We could site one in each township. Sure, that’s a dream, but I don’t see any other business coming here.”

Although it might be a dream to Ivesdal, it’s a nightmare to others, judging by the resistance to his current plan. Most Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations meet with complaints from neighbors, but Viking Feeders has had detractors from the entire Devils Lake basin. The lake’s flooding has been disastrous to many, but the one plus is that it’s made for a great fishery and the tourism that comes with it. Some fear his hog operation will pollute the water…

“If we could have 10 loops, that would be 350 jobs,” he said. “That would be a lot of kids in our school district. We don’t have 160 kids in our whole (K-12) school now.”

He said the most basic jobs would pay $10 an hour, plus provide health insurance, retirement, vacation, other benefits and the chance to advance. “Here in rural North Dakota, that’s not bad for the lowest job on the totem pole,” he said.

Not so quick with all those numbers there. The following is from my own Master’s Thesis.

A study by the University of Missouri found that independent hog producers support three times more employees than industrial agribusiness producers do (Ikerd 1994). Research in Virginia showed that 5,000 sows held by many local producers as opposed to two or three industrial agribusiness operations provided 10% more jobs, a 20% greater increase in local retail sales and a 37% greater increase in per capita income for those employed by the operations (Thornsbury et al. 1994)…

In addition to these factors, several studies have shown that the presence of industrial scale animal production depresses the value of nearby real estate, reduces tax revenue for local governing entities, and is associated with an increased dependence on government social programs (Trom 2005). A family farm system of agriculture is also more compatible with rural tourism than an industrial agribusiness system is.

Furthermore, measurements of economic growth are not always a reflection of desirable trends. When measured strictly in terms of gross national product or per capita income, a growing economy is not necessarily a reflection of improved circumstance for the majority of individuals in a society. More important indicators, such as income distribution and standard of living indexes, are a more accurate reflection of the benefit of growth to the majority of people.

The reporter, unfortunately, doesn’t explore this angle—at all. (Full citations available upon request.)

Voting in Rural Areas

I spent two years in Larimer County, Colorado. During that time the County Clerk and Recorder was launching a first-in-the-nation experiment. Instead of having precinct polling locations, Larimer County received special permission from the state legislature to consolidate their 143 precinct polling locations into just 20-30 (depending on the election) “voting centers.” You can read more about Larimer County’s experiment here.

I worked on a Colorado State House campaign while in Larimer County (we lost by 480 votes, and the candidate, John Kefalas, is running again). That experience allowed me to have an up close and personal experience with many aspects of the voting center model. The result is that I am more than a bit conflicted about the new model. If forced to decide today, I’d say “no” to the expansion of the model. That’s a post of another blog at another time though, and the fact of the matter is that the vote center idea is catching on.

As vote centers expand to other counties in Colorado as well as to other states, one question that must not be overlooked is the possible consequence for rural areas where precincts are already sparsely located. So, while there are some good arguments for consolidating some urban voting locations, efforts should be made to ensure that the implementation of the voting center model does not result in longer drives on election day for rural residents.

For Iowa Readers

From the Register’s letters.

Something stinks
February 10, 2006

I haven’t trusted Patty Judge ever since she came to northwest Iowa and, instead of driving the planned route past factory farms, her caravan was suddenly “rerouted” by her “team” to avoid having to drive by them (try living by them, Patty). Reading that she accepted $20,000 from the DeCosters and $5,000 from Smithland PAC, she is on the top of my list for who not to support as a candidate for governor (“Widespread Donors Feed Governor Race,” Jan. 28). I’m thinking she must be confused, and think she’s a Republican.

Carol Dupic

Photo Blogging

The Late Great Plains

A town that once rated a visit from President Calvin Coolidge in 1927 was strong enough to ride out the Great Depression that followed. But hard times finally took their toll on the Great Plains. Today Ardmore, South Dakota, is a ghost town.

From a feature story in National Geographic Magazine. Jim Richardson, photographer.