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The Value of Rural

Thursday, September 6th, 2007

By Steph Larsen

In a recent post that was crossposted on Gristmill, there were a few comments that reflected a view of rural areas by folks who I can only assume have chosen not to spend much time in the country. They asked questions like:

“What’s so special about rural communities? Why isn’t it better if half these people just moved to the cities?”

I find myself defending rural communities more frequently lately, even though I’ve never been a permanent resident of one (yet). To my city friends, the statement that I’m spending three weeks in Nebraska is almost always met with raised eyebrows and quizzical looks. While they understand the desire to leave the swamp that is our nation’s capital, most of them are coastal people who haven’t given the Midwest more than a cursory glance as they drive by or fly over on their way to somewhere else.

There are a lot of answers to the question “Why care about rural communities?” One might be that with 55 million Americans living in rural areas, it would be undemocratic to categorically ignore their voices. Another would be equality–we routinely spend tax dollars revitalizing run-down parts of cities, and rural communities deserve similar treatment.

Another person commented:

“Explain to me why is it important to keep these small towns alive? Those who have left the small towns are gainfully employed elsewhere. Note that our food production has not fallen off in tangent with the decline of these rural centers. So, this is not leading to starvation. The future may be one of profitable organic farmers in close proximity to major urban centers, if that is what the market creates, and if the government and everyone else would stop trying to prop up a lifestyle that is an echo of our former agrarian economy.”

While it is certainly the case that our food production has not decreased dramatically because of the decline of diversified agriculture, it is also true that agriculture has gotten more consolidated and unsustainable, adopting many practices that are arguably much worse for the environment than ever before. As an advocate for local organic food, I personally make sure that as much of my food as possible comes from local organic sources, but I speculate that every major urban area does not have the space for profitable local organic farmers to feed all the residents in the nearby city, especially with rampant urban sprawl.

In addition, if even a majority of rural residents suddenly moved to the city, there would be a huge strain on infrastructure and resources, not to mention that a flood of labor would likely not do good things for wages and working conditions. In fact, today’s farm policy is partially a legacy of former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz, whose “Get big or get out,” “Fencerow to fencerow” style led to an influx of rural residents to urban areas that provided cheap labor for urban manufacturing.

There is one argument, however, that I think we can all relate to regardless of our roots. I want you to picture the place you consider home. Perhaps you are in that place now, and can look around, and feel how good it is to be there. Then, imagine what you would feel or do if someone told you that you couldn’t, or shouldn’t, live there anymore. Approximately 20% of Americans live in small towns and rural areas, and many of them are passionate about protecting their homes and communities. It’s unfair for folks to suggest that rural residents leave the places in which they want to live.

Many of us, whether we realize it or not, have rural roots or depend on rural areas. The idea of allowing rural communities to go to waste would have unintended and unforeseen consequences. I admire that our country still allows for equal opportunity to all our residents, and I hope that these opportunities would not be denied due to geography.

Whole Foods, Empty Promises

Saturday, July 14th, 2007

Long time readers know I’m no fan of corporate behemoths, and have no confidence in the idea that what a rural community needs to prosper is another Wal Mart, another large livestock facility, or a corporate dump.

For similar reasons, I don’t put much faith in Whole Foods’ recent promise to do more to support local farmers - an effort that would only slow the trend to corporatize the natural food market, not stop it. This week we got another reason to think Whole Foods will not be inclined to crusade for justice on any front as long as CEO John Mackey is in charge.

By now you’ve probably heard, Whole Foods CEO, John Mackey, spent much of the last two years posting anonymous diatribes online in an ongoing effort to paint his chief competitor, Wild Oats, in a negative light. Read the original story at the Wall Street Journal.

I want to draw attention to one of Mackey’s posts in particular - the one in which he talks of his love for Wal Mart, his disdain for labor unions, and his apparent dislike for anyone who might claim to be a victim of sexual or racial discrimination. Mackey writes:

Wal-Mart was just named the most admired company in America (also by Fortune Magazine — that magazine which obviously hates “working people”). I probably admire Wal-Mart more than any other company in the world (except for maybe Whole Foods!). What a great, great company! Wal-Mart has single handedly driven down retail prices across America. They have improved the standard of living for millions and millions of American people. Also Wal-Mart is crushing the parasitical unions across America. I love Wal-Mart! Damn straight that they should be on this list. Sexual discrimination lawsuits? Sexual harrassment lawsuits? Racial discrimination lawsuits? What company doesn’t have those? The Trial Lawyers (the richest professional class in the United States and the largest contributors to the Democratic Party — even bigger than labor unions which are #2) sue Wal-Mart. They sue Whole Foods Market. They sue every business which makes any money. They are probably even a bigger threat to our country than labor unions are (if that is possible?).

For Mackey, an interest in the all-mighty dollar trumps workers rights and pesky discrimination lawsuits. Mackey’s love for Wal Mart, which relies on boatloads of imported merchandise, legions of poverty-stricken workers, and clear anti-competitive practices, leaves one wondering.

Just how serious can Whole Foods possibly be about helping small, local farmers?

Hat tip: Tom Philpott at Gristmill

Farm Labor Movement

Tuesday, May 29th, 2007

The movement for a fair and just agricultural and rural policy and the movement for fair and just labor policy are both close to my heart. For that reason, agricultural labor movements, and the history of the agricultural labor movement is of particular interest. A guest post on Ethicurean last week offers a good primer on the history of the farm labor movement in the context of the current immigration debate.

Quick! The history of U.S. policy on farm labor in 60 seconds. During and after World War II, U.S. workers shift out of farming and into industrial jobs. Agricultural producers mobilize to persuade the government to help find workers. In 1951, Congress passes a law creating the Bracero guestworker program, which allows producers to “import” Mexican workers legally for seasonal jobs and send them home afterward. (Bracero means “farm worker.”) In addition to tying migrants to one employer, Bracero contracts establish standards for housing, pay, and the guarantee of work that are lower than those applied to U.S. workers. The President’s Commission on Migratory Labor provides this assessment of the situation in a 1951 report: “We depend on misfortune to build up our force of migratory workers, and when the supply is low because there is not enough misfortune at home, we rely on misfortune abroad to replenish the supply.”

Honesty in government — a real breath of fresh air, no?

Fast-forward to the 1960s. The Bracero Program has become the focal point for organizing by the United Farm Workers (UFW) union, which charges that it undermines domestic labor conditions and drives down wages industry-wide. The opposition kills the program in 1964, and the farm labor market tightens. The UFW launches campaigns against the use of undocumented workers as strike-breakers and wins concessions for unionized workers requiring rest periods, clean drinking water, and the provision and use of protective clothing during pesticide application. By 1973, the UFW represents 67,000 workers on California farms producing grapes, lettuce, strawberries, and other specialty crops.

But the UFW’s heyday is short. The networks established during the Bracero era between communities in Mexico and the United States are strong, economies in Mexico and Central America are weak, and the rate of undocumented migration surges. UFW wage strikes in the late ’70s and early ‘80s don’t gain many friends among producers, who turn to the growing pool of undocumented workers instead. By 1983, the number of UFW contracts has dropped from a high of 180 to fewer than 20.

In the ’80s, a weakened UFW decides to switch gears and help undocumented workers become legal immigrants so they can join and support the union. They’re stymied by two factors: first, employers use the threat of job termination to keep workers from even talking to the union, and second, when workers do manage to gain legal status, they typically leave the farm sector for better-paying positions in other industries. They’re replaced by newly arrived undocumented migrants — and the UFW is back to where it started.

And that brings us to today.

Read the rest at Ethicurean

Smithfield and Organized Labor

Saturday, December 16th, 2006

The news program NOW on PBS traveled to Tar Heel, North Carolina this week to report on the twelve-year long battle to unionize the Smithfield packing plant there. It is the worlds largest packing plant, and is located in a relatively rural part of the state. The United Food and Commercial Workers have been fighting against employer intimidation and other anti-union tactics at the plant since it opened in 1990.

“[Smithfield] values the hog and the processing of that hog more than they do the safety and the well-being of their employees,” [long time employee Keith] Ludlum tells NOW. The UFCW is calling for a national boycott of Smithfield products.

You can watch the show online if you missed the local playing on PBS.

Rolling Stone magazine also has a long feature article this week on Smithfield Foods and environmental concerns associated with the concentration of livestock.

Slaughterhouse Employees Walk Out

Monday, November 20th, 2006

At the Smithfield Packing plant in Tar Heel N.C. hundreds of (and possibly as many as 1,000) nonunion workers walked out in a show of worker solidarity last Friday.

Workers involved in the walkout said it was fueled by anger over Smithfield’s recent decision to fire several dozen immigrants who the company said had presented false Social Security numbers in applying for a job. […] A number of workers said the discontent stemmed not just from the recent firings but also from brusque treatment, the speed of the production line and widespread injuries.

The workers at this, the largest slaughter house in the world, have been fighting for union representation for nearly a decade.

Workers are back at work today with promises from plant officials to ease regulations on firing of immigrant workers who cannot immediately provide proper documentation, and to meet for further talks.

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