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Alert: Family Farm Pork Producers, Take Action Today

Tuesday, December 16th, 2008

If you are a family farm pork producer, your action is needed before January 2.

The USDA (under the cover of Christmas) is asking pork producers if they want to vote on the pork checkoff. If 15% of producers request it, a vote will be held within one year. You can read more here.

The form producers need to fill out and mail along with a feed bill or other proof of production can be found at the USDA website, or more easily here: http://www.ruralpopulist.org/porkcheckoff.pdf. The proof of production must be from 2007. This is a vote of 2007 hog producers.

Send or deliver your completed form to your county FSA office before Jan 2.

Time is short but the internet is fast. Fill our your form today and send this alert to others.

Since the mandatory checkoff began, hundreds of millions of dollars has been collected by the National Pork Board from producers while the number of independent hog farmers plummeted. The National Pork Producers Council, with close historical and operating ties the National Pork Board, has supported vertical integration and packer ownership of livestock and has blocked legislation that will make markets open and fair for independent family farms. The checkoff has not benefited small family farms.

Pork producers have been through this election once before. They triumphed at the ballot box, and lost amidst political gamesmanship in Washington. A new administration and new leadership at USDA creates hope for a fair handling of the vote this time. All checkoffs should be democratically controlled by producers.

For a history on the battle to end the pork checkoff visit:
Center for Rural Affairs, Corporate Farming Notes
Land Stewardship Project, Pork Checkoff Campaign

If you are not a hog farmer yourself, please send this to farmers you know.

Updated December 16th with additional details regarding the relationship between the National Pork Board and the National Pork Producers.

Update 2: Don’t miss the comments on this post, and visit U.S. Food Policy for another post on this topic.

As We Sow

Sunday, April 6th, 2008

Part 1



Part 2


Part 3

Horribly depressing. Film credit.

Livestock pollution turns off young Iowans

Sunday, January 13th, 2008

I had the following oped published in today’s Des Moines Register:

Livestock pollution turns off young Iowans

BRIAN DEPEW, SPECIAL TO THE REGISTER

I recently returned from a visit to my family’s farm. While there, I was dismayed to learn that three more livestock confinement buildings are being built within 2 miles. Once complete, there will be 13 industrial livestock buildings within 3 miles of our farm. There is now at least one facility in every direction.

After growing up and attending college in Iowa, I left the state. Around the same time, political leaders in Iowa began to notice young Iowans leaving in droves. They wondered out loud: What can be done to keep our best and our brightest in the state? In 2005, legislators floated a plan to exempt Iowans under 30 from state income taxes. Then last year, the Legislature commissioned “Generation Iowa” to ponder the problem further.

But tax breaks and task forces will not help Iowa overcome the problems it faces. Today’s young adults are moving to places with vibrant natural resources, thriving communities and healthy economies. But for two decades Iowa’s leaders have sat silently while a corporate system of animal agriculture planted itself firmly in the state, undermining these crucial amenities. Our leaders are evading this issue and ignoring the barrier that large confinement operations create to a prosperous future.

Political leaders in Iowa have uncritically embraced the industrialization of animal agriculture and by doing so have contributed to the ongoing decline of family farms and rural communities. Iowa’s leaders took it a step further by ensuring that Iowa citizens have no recourse against the environmental destruction industrial livestock facilities sow upon the state.

I have some advice for the Generation Iowa Commission, due to report to the governor and Legislature on Jan. 15. If Iowa is serious about keeping young people in the state, it should work first to stop, and then reverse, the rise of large confinement operations. By destroying the economic and social fabric of rural Iowa and degrading the environment of the state, confinement facilities make returning to Iowa undesirable.

With palpable air pollution and undeniable water pollution, the environmental strife is easy to see. With fewer family livestock producers, rural communities are left without a vital sector of economic activity. As farm families leave the countryside, rural communities face the challenge of keeping afloat critical social infrastructure such as schools and government services. No young Iowan wants to return to a dying community or a polluted state.

For more than a decade, Iowa Democrats have run on a promise to clean up this mess. After taking charge last year of all three branches of state government for the first time in 40 years, they largely capitulated on this issue. They must do better in 2008.

Iowa cannot afford to lose another generation of young people to the allure of other states, and rural Iowa cannot afford to lose its next generation to the allure of the big city. The state must fiercely protect its resources and amenities from those looking to make a quick buck off the back of the state’s long-term viability.

Like others born and raised in the state, I would like to return one day, but I am loath to the idea of returning to a state overrun by an environmental, economic and socially detrimental livestock industry.

BRIAN DEPEW lives in Lyons, Neb. He grew up in Laurens and was the Green Party candidate for Iowa secretary of agriculture in 2002. He works for the Center for Rural Affairs, but these thoughts are his own.

Tom Harkin: Strengthening America with Investments in Rural America

Monday, September 10th, 2007

Guest Post by Iowa Senator Tom Harkin

In the last few weeks I’ve traveled to over 26 cities and towns all over Iowa to meet face to face with residents and listen to their hopes, their concerns, and their feedback on the 2007 farm bill, which will strengthen investment and economic opportunities for our rural communities and farmers, conserve our environment while decreasing our dependence on foreign sources of oil and improve the quality and safety of our food and nutritional options for our children.

What struck me most during these personal meetings was how our uniquely American entrepreneurial spirit is stronger than ever. I have always believed that one of the cardinal responsibilities of government is to provide the basic infrastructure for Americans with innovative ideas to be able to readily carry them out — and in Washington, Anamosa, Lake City, and other cities and rural communities across Iowa — I was able to witness this entrepreneurial spirit first hand.

In Washington, I met with a local family-owned company called Practical Environmental Solutions that started with a grant they received from the 2002 farm bill that helps to reduce waste by transforming wood into pellets that can burn cleanly in an oven. And in Anamosa and Lake City, I met with farmers who are using innovative conservation practices that not only help protect and improve the environment, but also help strengthen their income from the Conservation Security Program that I created in the 2002 farm bill.

Throughout Iowa, I witnessed the tremendous amount of good that we can accomplish when we pair good government policy with this entrepreneurial spirit and I am hopeful that the 2007 farm bill will continue and expand upon programs such as these to strengthen our farms, our children and our families, our rural communities, and our country.

We can strengthen our farms and secure the future for the next generation of farmers by expanding opportunities by promoting conservation through initiatives like the Conservation Security Program and expanding use of farm-based renewable energy produced throughout Iowa.

We can strengthen our farm payment system so that it can better focus on what it was designed to do – help farmers when their incomes fall and they really need the help. That’s why I support stronger payment limitations and integrity in our farm programs.

We can strengthen our children and our families by expanding the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program so that elementary schoolchildren around the country can have access to healthy and nutritious meals so they can focus in the classroom and their parents no longer have to worry about what their children going to school hungry.

We can strengthen our rural communities by ensuring that they are not left out of the information revolution by increasing broadband access and working to jumpstart a new Rural Collaborative Investment Program to boost rural infrastructure and spur effective economic development strategies.

And we can strengthen our country by increasing funding for innovative programs such as the Renewable Energy Systems and Energy Efficiency Improvements Program that helps entrepreneurs cover the cost of getting renewable energy facilities off the ground.

The 2007 farm bill is an incredibly important piece of legislation for Iowa and America’s future and I will fight every day to continue to be a voice for sensible policies and values that strengthen all of America.

Editors Note: Leave comments for Senator Harkin in the comment section below or at his own blog.

Beyond Agriculture

Monday, September 10th, 2007

In our next post, Iowa Senator Tom Harkin will write about his hopes for the 2007 Farm Bill. A story in yesterday’s Des Moines Register offers some policy-context to parts of his post.

Talk of agriculture often dominates discussions about the farm bill, but yesterday Philip Brasher wrote about another sort of battle brewing in the debate over the 2007 Farm Bill.

Brasher: Harkin prepares push for rural development

A battle could be brewing between the House and Senate on an issue that seldom gets much attention in Congress - rural development.

The chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Sen. Tom Harkin, is preparing a series of rural development proposals, including funding for water and sewer improvements, venture capital and even child-care centers, that would increase federal spending by $2 billion over the next five years.

The farm bill that passed the House this summer had relatively little new money for rural development programs. [Snip…]

A mandatory program must be included in the federal budget each year. Spending for other rural development programs in the House bill would be left to the discretion of congressional appropriations committees.

By contrast, all of the $2 billion in new rural development money that would be in Harkin’s legislation would be designated as mandatory spending, according to his staff, which provided a description of his plans.

“We need to help communities help themselves to create quality jobs and an improved quality of life,” says Harkin, D-Ia.

Harkin’s proposal provides money for rural water and sewer systems which currently face a large funding backlog. It also includes money for constructing and maintaining rural hospitals, assisted-living facilities and child care facilities.

The proposed legislation designates $100 million for microenterprise loan programs for people looking to start a new rural businesses, and $200 million over five years for value-added grants.

These are important programs for rural America, and critical after years of farm consolidation and rural out-migration driven by unlimited farm payments in the Commodity Title of the bill. But the fight won’t be easy.

Republican-led Congresses repeatedly nicked several rural development programs that were authorized in the 2002 farm bill, including the value-added grants and Internet loans. (This is the reason the House Agriculture Committee’s chairman, Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., gave for not putting more mandatory spending into rural development this year.)

Harkin has allies in the Bush administration for at least some of his ideas. In threatening to veto the House farm bill, the White House specifically cited the lack of funding for rural hospitals and infrastructure, among other reasons.

I will be watching the debate unfold, and hoping Harkin holds out for a full $2 billion in mandatory rural development spending in the 2007 Farm Bill.

Bush Dog: Earl Pomeroy

Sunday, September 9th, 2007

The activist-bloggers at openleft.com have launched a campaign targeting Bush Dog Democrats. You can read more here and here and join up here. Part of the campaign seeks to profile each of the identified Bush Dogs. You can find links to profiles of other Bush Dogs here. The following is a profile of Representative Earl Pomeroy.

Earl Pomeroy - North Dakota Representative At Large

Earl Pomeroy (D-NPL) is currently serving his 8th term in congress. Pomeroy was born a North Dakota native in 1952. He holds a BA in political science and a law degree from the University of North Dakota. Today, Pomeroy lives in Mandan, North Dakota.

The District: North Dakota has a single At-Large representative. Bush won the state with 63% of the vote in 2004, and the district has PVI score of 13 (+R) making it the fifth most Republican district of the Bush Dog candidates. At the level of state government, Republicans hold all but one statewide office and a sizable majority at the State House.

Nevertheless Pomeroy won re-election with 65.5% of the vote in 2006. North Dakota also reliably elects two Democratic Nonpartisan League U.S. Senators. This is driven in part by a vein of prairie-populism that has long existed in North Dakota.

The Year was 1992: Earl Pomeroy got his start in North Dakota politics in 1974 working as the driver for Byron Dorgan’s campaign for the U.S. House — the same seat that Pomeroy now holds. Dorgan lost his 1974 bid for congress, but was elected to the U.S. House in 1980.

After finishing law school in 1979, Pomeroy beginning practicing law. He was elected to the North Dakota State House in 1980, and was re-elected two years later. In 1984 Pomeroy ran for North Dakota Insurance Commissioner. He was elected, and re-elected to the post 1988.

In 1992 Pomeroy said he would not run for a third term as North Dakota Insurance Commissioner, and announced plans to become a Peace Corps volunteer in the former Soviet Union. At the time, he said a U.S. House race did not interest him. What followed is almost bizarre.

First-term North Dakota Sen. Kent Conrad (D-NPL) was up for reelection in 1992. However, during his first campaign Conrad pledged that he would not run for re-election if the federal budget deficit had not fallen by the end of his term. By 1992 it became obvious that this would not be the case, and although hew likely could have gone back on his promise and still won reelection, Conrad considered his promise binding and did not run. North Dakota Congressman Byron Dorgan (D-NPL) ran for U.S. Senate to replace Senator Conrad.

This left North Dokota’s At-Large U.S. House seat open, and Pomeroy was drawn back into electoral politics. He won the House seat, and has held the position ever since.

Simultaneously, outgoing Senator Kent Conrad got an unusual opportunity to remain in the Senate. When long-serving North Dakota Senator Quentin Burdick (D-NPL) died in September of 1992 a special election was needed to fill the rest of the term. As this was not “running for re-election,” Conrad ran for and won election to the other Senate seat from North Dakota.

In Congress, Pomeroy sits on both the House Agriculture Committee and Ways and Means Committee.

Issues of Interest: Earl Pomeroy voted for the authorizing force in Iraq in 2002. In May of 2007 Pomeroy voted for H.R. 2206, authorizing more money for the Iraq war without putting any timelines or conditions on the Bush administration. Pomeroy also voted for S. 1927, expanding FISA and giving Bush the legal right to wiretap American citizens without a warrant.

In July of 2007 a video of Pomeroy discussing impeachment of Bush with activists on the streets of Washington appeared online.

The video sparked controversy in North Dakota, and Pomeroy subsequently apologized for referring to President Bush as a “clown” during the exchange.

A very rural and largely agricultural state, farm bill politics is of significant importance in North Dakota. From 1995 to 2005 North Dakota received an estimated $7.04 billion in farm subsidy payments. Originally intended to support small and mid-sized family farmers, farm subsidies are now widely credited with driving agriculture consolidation and contributing to rural out-migration. For this reason, farm program payment limits have overwhelming support amongst North Dakotans. Nevertheless, Pomeroy supported the House version of the 2007 Farm Bill that actually completely removes some existing payment limits and increases others limits.

The liberal Americans for Democratic Action gave Pomeroy an 80% liberal voting record and the American Conservative Union gave him a 38% conservative voting record in 2006. Pomeroy’s ProgressivePunch.org scores range from 52-90%.

Initial Impressions: The PVI is stacked against Pomeroy or any other potential candidate. However, the revival of populist-politics across the rural West creates an opportunity for the district. In North Dakota, the long history of the Non-Partisan League gives historical authority to rural populism. Earl Pomeroy knows some of the same rhetoric used by new darlings of the West such as Senator Jon Tester (D-MT). He needs to learn how to use that good-old-populist rhetoric to justify standing up and voting against the Bush Administration on issues such as the war and the invasion of personal liberty though expanded wiretapping authority. His constituents are already sympathetic to a populist argument for doing so.

Rural Bush Dogs: Pomeroy is one of several Bush Dogs from primarily Rural Districts in the Midwest and West. Others include Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (SD-AL), John Salazar (CO-03), Zack Space (OH-18), Collin Peterson (MN-07), and Tim Walz (MN-01).

Additional Sources: USA Today Article | Wikipedia: Earl Pomeroy | Wikipedia: Kent Conrad | Wikipedia: Byron Dorgan | Congressman Earl Pomeroy | Earl Pomeroy for Congress | Open Congress: Earl Pomeroy | Washington Post: Votes Against Party

Next Up: Senator Tom Harkin

Saturday, September 8th, 2007

On Monday Iowa Senator Tom Harkin will write a guest post at Rural Populist outlining his priorities for the 2007 Farm Bill. The House passed their version of the Farm Bill in late July. The Senate is expected to take up their version of the bill sometime this fall.

Senator Harkin is the Chairman of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee as well as the co-chair of the Senate Rural Health Caucus.

Let There Be No Doubt

Wednesday, July 11th, 2007

The Farm Bureau supports unlimited commodity subsidies — subsidies that help the nation’s largest farms drive family farmers out of business. Responding to a draft version of the 2007 Farm Bill, the Farm Bureau said in a press release:

While Farm Bureau was pleased there are no cuts to payment limits in the proposal, the organization will watch the debate closely in the future. “We recognize that the farm bill debate is far from over and that changes are likely in the coming weeks,” said Stallman. “Farm Bureau will be particularly watchful of changes to payment limitations and adjusted gross income caps.”

In so doing, Farm Bureau is protecting the interests of these “farms.”

Rank Farm Businesses Location 2003-2005
1 Balmoral Farming Partnership Newellton, LA $7,908,563
2 Phillips Farm Yazoo City, MS $5,893,194
3 Due West Glendora, MS $5,417,792
4 Kelley Enterprises Burlison, TN $4,933,845
5 Walker Place Danville, IL $4,627,034
6 R A Pickens & Son Company Pickens, AR $4,307,636
7 Dublin Farms Corcoran, CA $4,286,864
8 Morgan Farms Cleveland, MS $4,192,828
9 Perthshire Farms Gunnison, MS $4,161,420
10 P G C Farms Brinson, GA $4,157,017

The Farm Bureau has long claimed to be the “largest farmer-member organization” in the country, but when it comes to Farm Bill politics, they are a lobby for the interests of large agribusiness. Supporting $8 million subsidy checks is no way to be a friend of the farmer.

With their support for unlimited subsidy checks, Farm Bureau is helping to drive the continued consolidation of agriculture. I’m sure their lobbyists in Washington talk a good line about supporting farmers, but in the countryside the devastating effects of the agricultural policy they help write is clear.

Restoring Rural Roots

Monday, July 9th, 2007

by Steph Larsen

In a recent trip through the small town of Walthill, Nebraska, the phrase “rural revitalization” took on a whole new meaning. In this case, it was the lack of any kind of prosperity that made it obvious to me why rural communities are in need of revitalization. Main Street looked painfully deserted, with two recent arsons adding fresh scars to the once-active storefronts. As we drove around the residential area, most houses looked to be in some state of disrepair—so much so that it was difficult to really tell which were homes and which had already been abandoned. If ever there was a town that needed some life breathed back into it, this was it.

About the same time, I read an article about the aging farmer population and the simultaneous difficulty of young and beginning farmers breaking into farming. This from John Seewer from the Associated Press:

So many American farmers are working longer than ever before that one in four is at least 65 years old. [snip] Within the next decade those older farmers will be looking for someone to take over their operations and selling millions of acres of land.

Much of that land will be merged into bigger farms with fewer people working on them. Rural communities will lose even more young people, and a few will struggle for survival. [snip]

“Some of those communities will survive, but the nature of the community will change,” said Lori Garkovich, a rural sociologist at the University of Kentucky. “Studies have shown that industrial farms change communities in many ways.

Todd Stewart, who raises hogs and cattle near Meadow Grove, Neb., and at 47 is among the youngest farmers in the area, said it’s hard to find volunteers who will coach ball teams or help out at church anymore.

“Towns are hurting,” he said. “The school is usually the first to go, then it’s the churches and then the town. There’s going to be a lot of towns that will wither up and go away.”

Communities need people, of course, but vibrant, sustainable rural communities need people of all ages so that the infrastructure that makes a town strong—schools, churches, local businesses—are able to thrive. Farmers are a significant part of this equation, and being able to recruit young people into farming will only help to strengthen the communities in which they live.

In my last post, I talked about local ownership as a key component if rural communities will see any substantial benefit from the ethanol boom. It is clear, however, that it takes more than money to reinvigorate a community. Another component to this push for revitalization is to renew demand for the institutions that have been weakened as farms consolidated. The aspiring farmers I know are typically energetic folks who choose to come back to the land, and will greatly add to any community if only they can access the things they need to start farming.

Not coincidentally, I think about this as legislators in Washington, DC are writing the next Farm Bill. There is a lot of debate about the future of the commodity title and the need to increase money for nutrition and conservation, but often rural development seems to be thrown in as an afterthought—as if legislators know that it’s a good thing to say but think there isn’t enough political will to put their money where there mouths are.

Why aren’t rural voices demanding more from their legislators?

There clearly have been some voices, though I would argue not nearly enough. The 2002 Farm Bill included some promising provisions that help rural communities, including the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development and the Value Added Producer Grant Program (VAPG). The former was in the 2002 Farm Bill but did not receive funding from 2002-2007, while the later usually received between $15 million and $20 million dollars annually, or about one-third to one-half of the money it was slated to receive.

The draft of the 2007 Farm Bill was just released in the House by Chairman Collin Peterson, and while these two programs are funded at $15 million for Beginning Farmer and Rancher and $20 million for VAPG, legislators will need to hear from their constituents in order for these numbers to remain strong.

A welcome addition to the 2007 draft is the Rural Entrepreneurs and Microenterprise Development program, which would provide technical assistance and loans for starting a rural business. However, unlike the other two programs I mention, a slight technical difference in the language for the Microenterprise program means there’s no guarantee it will see a dime.

Rural communities aren’t receiving fair treatment in federal legislation, which is slightly ironic considering that it’s the Farm Bill, and most farming occurs in rural areas. This bill is a great opportunity to push for the rural revitalization that legislators keep promising—not with haphazard handouts but with strategic investments that assist new, resourceful, innovative farmers establish new roots and bring young people back to rural communities.

Why is the League of Rural Voters Shilling for Corporate Interests?

Saturday, July 7th, 2007

The League of Rural Voters is going to bat to support the proposed merger between the only two satellite radio companies - Sirius and XM. I wrote about this puzzling dynamic at some length a few weeks ago. You can read that analysis here.

After I first wrote, the League of Rural Voters issued an additional press release and a report on the merger (pdf).

The report seeks to rebut the argument that the proposed merger between Sirius and XM is similar to the proposed merger between satellite television providers Echostar and DirectTV. The FCC rejected that merger citing concerns over a lack of competition, consumer choice, and diversity of viewpoints in the market. In the latter half of my original post on this topic, I wrote about the rejected Echostar/DirectTV merger and its relation to the proposed Sirius/XM merger.

Quite aware of the argument against their position, the League of Rural Voters wrote the following in their press release:

League Of Rural Voters: SIRUS/XM merger is not ECHOSTAR/DIRECTV

The League of Rural Voters (LRV) today released a new analysis drawing clear differences between the DBS [Direct Broadcast Satellite] market in the 2002 Echostar/DirecTV attempt to merge, and the expanding, competitive audio entertainment market in the SIRIUS/XM merger. In doing so, LRV reaffirmed its support for the proposed merger between SIRIUS Satellite Radio (Nasdaq: SIRI) and XM Satellite Radio (Nasdaq: XMSR).

The press release links to a five page report (pdf) on the League of Rural Voters’ website. The report, with the League’s logo stamped on the front, sets out a point-by-point argument to show how the Sirius/XM merger is “A Fundamentally Different Merger for Rural Consumers” than the proposed Echostar/DirectTV merger was. The report takes up the FCC’s reasons for rejecting the satellite TV merger and offers a brief narrative in response to each to show that “Such concerns do not apply to satellite radio.”

I am not going to do a detailed analysis of the report right now. I will say this though, it certainly does not read like a report that vigorously examines the issue, and then draws a conclusion based on sufficient evidence pointing in one direction. Rather, it summarily dismisses each point from the Echostar/DirectTV case with very little real analysis of the issues at hand. But I want to leave the conclusion of the report aside for now. There are more interesting things going on here.

Of primary interest to me at this point is why the League of Rural Voters cares so much about this issue. The League has published a grand total of of 5 press releases since October of 2006, and two of them have been about their support for the Sirius/XM merger. They only list one other report on their website. This is not a group that runs around issuing press releases and reports on everything under the sun of possible interest to their cause. The League’s support of the proposed satellite radio merger represents a significant part of their work this year.

So, why satellite radio? The question simply baffles me. It is a Farm Bill year, after all. The Farm Bill is arguably the piece of legislation of most interest to rural issues, and it only comes up for debate and changes once every five years. One might think the Farm Bill would be of interest to the League of Rural Voters. However, on their website they have only a “Coming Soon” message on their 2007 Farm Bill page. Why does the League of Rural Voters feel compelled to spend time fighting to allow a merger of Sirius and XM radio, but lack the time to develop even a single page on their website about the 2007 Farm Bill?

But it gets even more interesting.

The LA Times ran an excellent opinion piece on the proposed merger and the role of interest groups in the process. While the whole story is quite interesting, the final paragraph is the kicker for us tonight.

Sirius, XM and American values

Got a big business deal in the works? Start lining up interest groups.

Worried about the proposed merger between the XM and Sirius satellite radio services? So are more than 70 members of Congress, Consumers Union, the Consumer Federation of America and the American Antitrust Institute, among other groups.

The article goes on to discuss this phenomena — whenever regulators are set to make an important and controversial decision, a “swarm of advocacy groups representing a rainbow array of ethnic groups, regional interests and other constituencies” emerge out of the woodwork to comment.

Some of them weigh in on their own accord. For example, Consumers Union and Consumer Federation routinely take positions on mergers involving telecommunications services (and, typically, oppose them). But other groups step up to the microphone at the behest of parties most affected by the government’s action. It’s become part of the game: If you want the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to bless your merger, as XM and Sirius do, you line up as many grass-roots allies as you can. Your opponents do too.

[snip]

Given the stakes involved, it’s not surprising that the process has been abused. [snip] There’s also the practice of pouring money into supposedly independent research groups, then trotting out studies that, amazingly enough, support their benefactors’ point of view.

[snip]

[Grassroots groups have] also helped XM and Sirius advance an argument that the publicly traded services can’t make themselves: that the two companies are too weak to survive as independent entities.

That’s one of the points made by the Minneapolis-based League of Rural Voters, which joined the debate at the behest of XM and Sirius. It released a report last week that argued the merger was fundamentally different from the proposed merger of satellite TV providers DirecTV and EchoStar, which the FCC unanimously rejected in 2002. Niel Ritchie, the league’s executive director, admitted that “the XM guys did this particular study,” but he said he agreed with its conclusions and was happy to put it out under the league’s banner.

Well now. The League of Rural Voters didn’t find their interest in satellite radio on their own. They entered the debate at the “behest of XM and Sirius.” And that not-so-balanced report (pdf) published by the League of Rural Voters was actually written by the corporate interest under scrutiny for their proposed merger. I double and triple checked. There is nothing in the report that indicates any authorship other than the League of Rural Voters.

I’ll leave it there for tonight. You all can draw your own conclusions from those last pieces of information.

Water Wars Creep Eastward

Saturday, July 7th, 2007

It is commonplace now to see stories about agricultural water demand colliding with other demands for water in the West. When the following came across my RSS reader, I assumed it was another such story:

Amendment to farm bill would help pay for small irrigation reservoirs

Drought-plagued farmers who can’t afford to irrigate could get some help in the near future if an amendment sponsored by a local congressman becomes part of the 2007 Farm Bill.

Read further though, and you learn that the lead sponsor on the legislation is U.S. Rep. Terry Everett (R-Alabama). Then this:

The grants would be targeted to farms in the southern and eastern United States and would be awarded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture on a competitive basis…

The demand for water and competitive pressures on that water are almost certain to be one of the most significant forces that will shape agriculture over the next 100 years.

Satellite Radio Merger: Differing Rural Perspectives

Sunday, June 10th, 2007

A recent press release by the League of Rural Voters left me scratching my head:

League of Rural Voters Adds its Voice and Support for Sirius/XM Satellite Radio Merger
May 31, 2007

SIRIUS/XM SATELLITE RADIO MERGER CRITICAL TO GROWTH AND DEVELOPMENT OF RURAL COMMUNITIES
Minneapolis, MN - The League of Rural Voters urged the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to approve the merger between XM Radio (Nasdaq: XMSR) and SIRIUS Satellite Radio (Nasdaq: SIRI), noting that the combined entity would offer listeners in rural communities more programming options at lower prices than those currently available from the two companies separately.

“In many rural areas throughout America, commercial radio reception can be extremely limited. Satellite radio has offered listeners in rural areas a robust alternative with hundreds of specialized channels that meet the programming needs of rural America,” said Niel Ritchie, the League’s Executive Director.

Consolidation of the commercial, over-the-air radio industry over the last decade has left much of rural America behind in recent years, as locally-owned stations are replaced with corporate conglomerates producing homogenized content with so-called local news and weather delivered from offices hundreds of miles away.

So, the League of Rural Voters is voicing support for the consolidation of the satellite radio industry to help deal with the negative impacts of consolidation of over-the-air radio stations.

Huh?

Of course, there is the line that you expect to hear from the executives at Sirius and XM. Only it’s right there in the League of Rural Voters press release:

[T]he combined entity would offer listeners in rural communities more programming options at lower prices than those currently available from the two companies separately.

Isn’t that what all companies who want to merge say? This merger will allow us to combine our efforts to bring more (insert product or service) to consumers at a lower cost.

Senator Herb Kohl (D-WI) agrees. On May 23, 2007 Kohl wrote a letter to the Justice Department and Federal Communications Commission urging them to block the proposed merger. Kohl is the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights Subcommittee, which held a hearing earlier this year to examine the XM-Sirius merger. In a letter to regulators, Kohl wrote:

I have concluded this merger, if permitted to proceed, would cause substantial harm to competition and consumers, would be contrary to antitrust law and not in the public interest, and therefore should be blocked by your agencies.

As you know, XM and Sirius are the only two providers of satellite radio service in the United States. If satellite radio is considered to be a distinct market, this merger is to a two to one merger to monopoly and should be forbidden under the antitrust laws. If satellite radio is a separate market, the combined firm will have the ability to raise price to consumers, who will have no choice to accept the price increase. Such a result should be unacceptable under antitrust law and as a matter of communications policy. [snip]

The merger’s proponents, however, argue that new technologies will in the future create competitive alternatives. However, only new entry that is “timely” is properly considered to be a competitive alternative under antitrust analysis. “Timely” means likely to be on the market within the next two years. No new technology satisfies this requirement. [snip]

In addition, the parties concede that, due to the enormous capital expenditure running into billions of dollars for new satellites, as well as the regulatory difficulties in obtaining new spectrum licenses, the parties concede that the entry of a new satellite radio service is unlikely. [snip]

In sum, because this merger will result in a satellite radio monopoly, it will violate section 7 of the Clayton Act which forbids any merger or acquisition when “the effect of such acquisition may be substantially to lessen competition, or tend to create a monopoly.” Elimination of the head-to-head competition currently offered by XM and Sirius leaving only a monopoly satellite radio service will likely result in higher prices and poorer service being offered to consumers. Satellite radio is a unique service for which none of the other audio services is a substitute. Uncertain promises of competition from new technologies tomorrow do not protect consumers from higher prices today. The antitrust laws should not countenance such a dangerous outcome. I therefore urge the Justice Department to bring a legal action to block this merger.

Further, because of the likely harm to competition and consumers, we believe this merger is not in the public interest, and we likewise urge the FCC to deny approval to this merger under the Communications Act. Nor has there any basis demonstrated for the FCC to eliminate its rule — first promulgated when satellite radio was licensed in 1997 — that there be at least two licensees for satellite radio.

I therefore urge that both of your agencies take all necessary actions to deny approval of this merger and prevent the creation of this satellite radio monopoly.

That last point in bold above warrants further explanation. When satellite radio came about in the late 1990s the FCC created two spectrum slots for two independent license holders. The argument used at the time was that two licensees holders in the satellite radio market would provide an “an incentive to diversify programming.”

I want to return to the to the position of the League of Rural Voters though. Unless Sirius and XM are both in danger of imminent and complete collapse, and a merger in particular is the only way to ensure that satellite radio in some form can continue, I don’t really understand the position of the League. Furthermore, I can’t find anyone claiming that such imminent demise awaits either (and certainly not both) Sirius and XM.

The argument that is advanced in the League’s press release is that a merged company will offer more programming options at a lower price. This runs counter, however, to the original intention by the FCC of creating spectrum space for two satellite radio companies to ensure a diversity of programs and a competitive market to keep prices in check.

I don’t think the FCC is likely to forget their reasoning, and I offer their recent rejection of the EchoStar Dish TV and DirectTV merger as a clue to what their opinion of the Siruis and XM merger will be.

The merger would create the largest satellite television company, merging EchoStar’s Dish Network with Hughes’ DirectTV. The companies claimed that the merger would help them compete better with cable and would make it more feasible for them to carry local television broadcasts.

But the FCC rejected these claims. In most urban areas of the country, the number of pay television competitors would drop from three, including the local cable franchise, to two if the merger were approved, the FCC said. And in many rural areas, the combined satellite company would have a monopoly on paid television services.

Having such little competition would actually decrease the incentive for the combined satellite television company to offer local programming, the FCC said.

“Such a loss of competition is likely to harm consumers by eliminating an existing viable competitor in every market; creating the potential for higher prices and lower service quality; and negatively impacting future innovation,” the FCC said in a statement.

A government regulator doing their job to keep corporate powers in check while watching out for the common consumer. How refreshing.

A merger of Sirius and XM would almost certainly guarantee a permanent monopoly in the satellite radio business. Therefore, lacking compelling reasons to think otherwise, I am inclined to err on the side of a competitive marketplace when determining what will be best for consumers.

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

Biofuels: Boon or Bust?

Sunday, April 15th, 2007

by Steph Larsen

Biofuels are clearly getting a lot of attention lately, and some speculate that ethanol and biodiesel will bring much needed income and spur revitalization in rural communities. Ethanol might be good for the price of corn at the moment, but it looks like it’s not going to be helping residents of rural America as much as one might think. From the Omaha World Herald:

“The EPA on Thursday substantially relaxed air pollution standards for plants that manufacture ethanol for fuel, eliminating one of the major hurdles to plant size.

“The rule will allow plants to generate two-and-a-half times more of certain types of air pollution before they face regulation. Included are particulates, volatile organic compounds and sulfur dioxide. The change also exempts some emissions from being counted toward the limit.

“Critics condemned the change as unnecessarily increasing the risk to public health. Supporters say the change represents a more balanced, fair approach to regulation that allows industry to take advantage of the economies of scale.”

“Fair” by these new standards means that the people who live near ethanol plants are the ones who may suffer more problems with asthma and other diseases caused by increased air pollution. The rule change came about because plants making ethanol for food or alcohol could pollute 250 tons, while those making ethanol for fuel could pollute 100 tons. With this decision, the EPA is choosing to prioritize the interests of corporate ethanol producers by allowing plants to pollute at the higher level, at the expense of public health and the environment.

It’s true that biofuel companies have the potential to bring income into struggling communities, except that chance for revitalization is lost when those companies choose to relocate to urban centers. From the Des Moines Register:

“Biodiesel company Renewable Energy Group Inc. says it is considering a plan to relocate its corporate headquarters to Ames. ‘The company, now based in Ralston, in Carroll County, plans to relocate to central Iowa as part of plans to grow from its current 70 employees to 300 by 2010,’ said spokeswoman Alicia Clancy.”

“Clancy said Friday that a move would help in the company’s expansion plans, strengthen its ability to recruit workers and improve operational efficiency. Relocating to Ames would put the company closer to research partners at Iowa State University and business partners including the construction and engineering company Todd and Sargent.”

Ralston had a population of 98 in 2000, and estimates projected that number to decrease even further. 230 new jobs would certainly go a long way to encourage growth and attracting new residents to Carroll County, and their business partners in Ames are only 50 miles away, hardly far by Midwestern standards.

Biofuels could be a valuable asset for rural areas, but only if jobs and profits aren’t exported to urban centers. In addition to existing incentives for biofuel production, there should be incentives for local ownership in order to capture the full benefit for struggling communities.

Hillary’s Wal-Mart History

Saturday, April 7th, 2007

Hillary Clinton was in Iowa this week courting rural caucus voters. From the Des Moines Register:

Fort Madison, Ia. - Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton introduced her campaign to rural Iowa Monday… promoting her agenda as the same as small-town America’s.

“There’s a lot we can do, and obviously we need a new goal of revitalizing the rural economies of America,” the New York senator told about 200 southeast Iowans.

I wonder if her plan for revitalizing rural economies involves her old ties to Wal-Mart. Excerpts from a 2000 Village Voice article:

Twice in three days last week, Hillary Rodham Clinton basked in the adulation of cheering union members. Her record of supporting collective bargaining, however, is considerably worse than wobbly.

Pity the thousands of unionists at last Tuesday’s state Democratic convention who chanted her name… They would have dropped their forks if they had heard that Hillary served for six years on the board of the dreaded Wal-Mart, a union-busting behemoth. If they had learned the details of her friendship with Wal-Mart, they might have lost their lunches.

She didn’t mention Wal-Mart… As she was leaving the dais, she ignored a reporter’s question about Wal-Mart, and she ignored it again when she strode by reporters in the hotel lobby.

But there are questions. In 1986, when Hillary was first lady of Arkansas, she was put on the board of Wal-Mart… So what the hell was she doing on the Wal-Mart board? According to press accounts at the time, she was a show horse at the company’s annual meetings when founder Sam Walton bused in cheering throngs to celebrate his non-union empire, which is headquartered in Arkansas, one of the country’s poorest states…

It’s no surprise that Hillary is a strong supporter of free trade with China. Wal-Mart, despite its “Buy American” advertising campaign, is the single largest U.S. importer, and half of its imports come from China…

During her tenure on the board, she presumably helped preside over the most remarkable growth of any company until Bill Gates came along. The number of Wal-Mart employees grew during the ’80s from 21,600 to 279,000, while sales soared from $1.2 billion to $25.8 billion.

And the Clintons depended on Wal-Mart’s largesse not only for Hillary’s regular payments as a board member but for travel expenses on Wal-Mart planes and for heavy campaign contributions to Bill’s campaigns there and nationally…

During the same period, small towns all over America began complaining that Wal-Mart was squeezing out ma-and-pa stores and leaving little burgs throughout the Midwest and South with downtowns that featured little more than empty storefronts…

As part of Hillary Clinton’s gamble with the board of Wal-Mart, she supported trade policies that sent often previously rural-based manufacturing jobs overseas. She had oversight over a company that offers jobs void of health care and other essential benefits.

And perhaps most poignantly, Hillary Clinton played a key role in a company that uses anti-competitive practices to drive small rural businesses under—leaving boarded over windows up and down main street in rural communities across America.

That is no way to revitalize rural America.

Rural Development Goes Urban

Friday, April 6th, 2007

From the Washington Post:

Data Show Rural Money’s Urban Drift
Friday, April 6, 2007

A Washington Post analysis found that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development program sends billions each year to areas that bear little resemblance to the isolated, rural regions where the program started in the 1930s. Over the past five years, for example, the program has funneled more in grants and guaranteed loans to major metropolitan areas of more than 1 million people ($10.9 billion) than it has to distressed rural counties ($8.6 billion).

The analysis was based on more than 150,000 actions reported to the government-wide Federal Assistance Award Data System by Rural Development from 2001 to 2005. The system contained actions totaling $64 billion, about 90 percent of all of the grants, loans and loan guarantees awarded by the three agencies that make up the program.

The Post’s review found that an additional $8.8 billion was funneled to counties classified by the USDA as retirement or resort destinations. For the $42 billion that could be analyzed in more detail, The Post found that about 75 percent was sent to Zip codes within a 45-mile drive of an urban area, as defined by the University of Washington’s Rural Health Research Center.

Fired for Doing His Job

Wednesday, April 4th, 2007

From today’s Des Moines Register:

Replaced appointee blasts Culver:
Environmental commission now weaker, he charges

A departing member of the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission wore a white t-shirt to his final meeting Tuesday to express his disappointment with Gov. Chet Culver’s attention to the environment.

Commissioner Francis Thicke of Fairfield used the occasion to accuse Culver’s administration of catering to the interests of agribusinesses.

“Environmental Protection Commissioner” was printed on the t-shirt Thicke wore to the meeting.

But the word “commissioner” was crossed out with a big red “x” and “fired for protecting the environment” was hand-written below that.

Let’s see that shirt:

Fired for Protecting the Environment Shirt

I know Francis, and it’s not everyday that I expect to see him wearing such a shirt. That alone, speaks to the gravity of the situation at hand. Back to this morning’s news story:

Thicke suggested that Culver’s environmental platform is run by agriculture groups and Lt. Gov. Patty Judge, the former Iowa secretary of agriculture, at the expense of the state’s environment.

“What signal was the Culver/Judge administration trying to send when it ignored the recommendation of the many environmental organizations who called for the reappointment of the EPC commissioners, deferring instead to the dictates of agribusiness special interests who lobbied for our removal?” Thicke asked.

Thicke was one of four members of the nine-member commission who were replaced by Culver last month.

[snip]

The commission has been in the middle of an increasingly tense battle over livestock farming, including what to do about the odors, manure and chemical emissions from confinements and feedlots.

[snip]

Thicke said during Tuesday’s commission meeting: “A few days ago, it became clearer to me where at least part of the Culver/Judge administration is coming from. I spoke with one of my neighbors who is proposing to build a 4,800-hog confinement about a mile and a half upwind from me. When I talked to him about it he said Patty Judge is his ‘champion’ and the reason he is planning on going through with this in spite of the objections of his neighbors. He said Patty Judge told him that Iowa is an agricultural state and anyone who doesn’t like it can leave in any of four directions.”

[snip]

Judge has her say on all issues, Anderson said. “She is a very influential member of this administration…”

Francis worked tirelessly on the Iowa Environmental Protection Commission–often taking time off from his farming operation in southeast Iowa to drive to Des Moines for regular meetings. Francis did it because he has a strong commitment to the future of Iowa. Few people have more integrity in all of the work that they do than Francis does, and it is distressing that Democratic Governor Culver did not reappoint him and the three other commissioners to the EPC.

One wonders what the rest of the Culver/Judge administration holds for the future of Iowa agriculture and Iowa’s natural resources.

Montana Democrats

Monday, March 26th, 2007

Montana Democrats have been on an impressive roll state-wide the last several years. Now they are gearing up to go after the single at-large U.S. House Seat. Here’s one potential candidate:

Dennis McDonald — The current chair of the Democratic Party in Montana, Dennis may find his background as a rancher and relative political outsider comes in more useful as a candidate than as a behind-the-scenes manager. Dennis is a founder of R-CALF, has deep connections across rural Montana, and could undermine part of Dennis’s base. He’d continue the successful formula that has worked for Montana Democrats — run a rancher or farmer who is good on gun issues and can be forceful on trade, keep the base unified, and win.

Left in the West has more.

Payment Limits

Thursday, March 22nd, 2007

Comments of farmer and Senator Jon Tester on the floor of the U.S. Senate speaking in favor of stricter farm bill payment limits.

Mr. President, I thank Senator Baucus for allowing me to speak. I also thank the good Senator from North Dakota.

Mr. President, I rise to speak on amendment No. 464, the Grassley-Dorgan amendment on farm payment limitations, making those limitations max out at $250,000. That is a quarter of a million dollars. That is how much money that is going to be maxed out for individual family farmers to get. That is a reasonable request. I think it makes the farm bill more defendable to the American people.

I am a family farmer. I understand family farmers are the backbone of this country. They keep our food security there so we do not have people going hungry. What the farm program has meant to do, and has always been meant to be, is a safety net for farmers so when market prices drop they have that safety net to depend upon. There is not one farmer I know of who does not want to get their income from the marketplace. So we need to keep it that way.

We need to encourage fair trade deals. We need to encourage more competition in the marketplace. We need to make sure our freight rates are, what I would call, not abusive, if we are going to keep family farmers on the land.

Some 30 years ago, the student body in the high school I went to in a farming community had 160 kids in it. Today, that same student body is less than half that size because we have not had a farm bill that has worked for the farmers.

This amendment makes sense because it puts a cap of $250,000 on the benefits from farm program subsidies and eliminates those big agribusinesses that have been taking money they do not need, quite frankly. They do not need that safety net that the farm program subsidies provide in our farm program.

So with that, Mr. President, I ask that all the Members of the Senate support amendment No. 464, the Grassley-Dorgan amendment, because it is the right thing to do.

Thank you, Senator Tester.

The Battle of the Map

Sunday, January 7th, 2007

Updating a story covered a couple of weeks ago here, residents of towns set to be erased from official state maps in Georgia have gained the support of the governor in their effort to be put back on the map.

Gov. Sonny Perdue […] sent a letter to Georgia Board of Transportation Chairman Mike Evans, asking the board to revisit its decision to remove almost 500 small towns and communities from the state’s official highway map.

Perdue asked the state DOT to restore the names after receiving a barrage of complaints from residents of the affected communities.

Last Year in Review

Friday, January 5th, 2007

The Brownfield Network did a review of the “big stories” in agriculture in 2006. It is an hour long audio report that can be listened to streaming or downloaded. It is mainstream agriculture news, but a decent review nonetheless.

Rural Pharmacies in Trouble

Monday, January 1st, 2007

An important story from The Rural Blog.

Medicare drug program is Wal-Marting rural pharmacies, CBS says

“What Wal-Mart once did to rural downtowns, Medicare is doing to the rural drug store.” That was how CBS correspondent Wyatt Andrews summed up his report last night on how the new Medicare Part D program for prescription drugs is hurting the small, independent pharmacies prevalent in rural areas — a story to which The Rural Blog has been calling attention for months.

“My life’s earnings have gone right out the window,” said Columbus, Miss., pharmacist Don Walden, the focus of Andrews’ report. “Walden says the problem is that seniors get Medicare coverage through private insurance companies, which in turn, have lowered the fees and reimbursements they pay him.” (Photo of Walden in his Medical Arts Pharmacy from CBSNews.com.)

Walden is resisting chain pharmacies’ offers to buy his store, but Andrews lists several that have gone out of business: “Gone this year is the old Taylor Drug Store in tiny Granville, Ohio. There is no more Centennial Merit Drugs in Monte Vista, Colo. When Randy Spainhour closed down Penslow’s pharmacy in Holly Ridge, N.C., he mailed his license back blaming, the ‘low reimbursement of Medicare’.”

The Rural Blog reported Aug. 24 that a survey of more than 500 community pharmacists revealed that nearly nine out of 10 (89 percent) are getting less money and a third are considering shutting down since Part D started last Jan. 1. “The survey found that more than half (55 percent) of respondents said they have had to obtain outside loans or financing to supplement their pharmacy’s cash flow because of slow reimbursement by health care plans,” according to the National Community Pharmacists Association.

A May 8 item in The Rural Blog referenced a study that shows rural residents are paying more for drugs than urbanites under Medicare Part D prescription drug plan. The study by the Center for Rural Health Policy Analysis of the Rural Policy Research Institute reported that average monthly premiums for Medicare Advantage prescription drug plans vary from $6 in urban New Hampshire to $53 in rural Hawaii. Click here for the archived item and click here for the study.


Ed. Note:
I draw a lot of source material from The Rural Blog which is supported by the The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky. I recommend the site to anyone who likes the material on this site.

The Year of Food

Friday, December 29th, 2006

Was 2006 the year food went political?

“This is the year everyone discovered that food is about politics and people can do something about it,” [said Marion Nestle]. “In a world in which people feel more and more distant from global forces that control their lives, they can do something by, as the British put it, ‘voting with your trolley,’ their word for shopping cart.”

This year saw food safety issues come to public prominence with more contamination instances than I can even recall.

Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma hit best-seller lists, and Fast Food Nation was made into a film. New York City banned trans-fats. Chicago banned foie gras, and Whole Foods Market stopped selling live lobsters (both citing animal welfare concerns).

Heated debates continued over the standards behind the “organic” label, and most recently over FDA’s decision that meat and milk from cloned animals is safe for human consumption.

In Iowa (the heart of America’s Bread Basket), sustainable agriculture and local food advocate Denise O’Brien raised a record amount of money in her bid to become Iowa Secretary of Agriculture. She lost very narrowly, and only after big agribusiness dropped tens of thousands into the race in the waning days.

Look for the rise of food politics to continue in 2007. There is a new farm bill on the horizon, and Democrats are in control of the House and Senate. Expect much debate, and even more money to fuel that debate.

The Other Owner

Monday, December 11th, 2006

Parke Wilde at the U.S. Food Policy Blog has a good post up about recent developments regarding the pork checkoff and National Pork Producers Council’s (NPPC) “Other White Meat” advertising slogan.

I was raising pigs in 2000 when a coalition of pork producers forced a vote on the mandatory pork checkoff program, and I’ve since followed the debate over mandatory agricultural checkoff programs closely. In a story too long to tell here, and ably told elsewhere, the mandatory pork checkoff remains in place today despite a majority farmer vote against it. Since 2000 there have been court battles fought against the cattle, mushroom, and other similar agricultural checkoff programs.

The sale of the NPPC’s “Other White Meat” slogan to the National Pork Board adds another interesting wrinkle to the case.

If this all sounds a bit foreign to you, start with Wilde’s June post. With that background out of the way, read about Wilde’s Freedom of Information Act request designed to find out more details about the transfer.

Renew Rural Iowa Initiative

Saturday, December 9th, 2006

The Iowa Farm Bureau (IFB) recently launched a new initiative to Renew Rural Iowa. The effort will focus on medium and large businesses located in rural Iowa, encouraging them to expand their businesses, and create more jobs in rural communities. We need to build our rural business infrastructure, and someone needs to do sustainable work in this area. But one wonders why the Iowa Farm Bureau is focusing their efforts on expanding non-farm businesses in rural communities. Their own answer is somewhat astounding:

Why is Iowa Farm Bureau focused on this initiative?

Nearly 90 percent of farmers today derive part of their income from off-farm employment. The Iowa Entrepreneurial Report Card, released every year from Washington, D.C., shows Iowa ranks last (50th) in new business creation and long-term employment growth. That, coupled with declining population trends, puts Iowa at risk for losing even more family farmers.

The IFB is apparently worried that the farmers in Iowa might not have access to adequate off-farm income to supplement their farm-related income. Rather than focusing on agricultural policy reform that would make it possible for farmers to make a decent living by farming, the Farm Bureau seemingly wants struggling family farmers to be able to spend more time working off the farm.

Nevertheless, creating and sustaining businesses located in rural communities is important, but here careful attention to the types of businesses the IFB wants to foster is warranted. Defining their target audience the Farm Bureau writes:

1. Anyone with an existing business, or planning to start a business that will generate in excess of $500,000 in 12 to 18 months.

2. Anyone who has a business plan that demonstrates the ability of generating in excess of $5 million in 3 to 5 years through interstate commerce.

3. Anyone with a place of business located in an Iowa community that is less than 30,000 […]

This initiative hardly sounds like a program for new, small-scale, rural-entrepreneurs destine to repopulate Main Street storefronts, and bring critical services to rural Iowa.

Additionally, the IFB’s sole partner organization in the initiative is the Entrepreneurial Development Center (EDC). This Cedar Rapids-based group touts its own vision as providing “economic growth in the Cedar Rapids / Iowa City Technology Corridor through the development and expansion of entrepreneurial enterprise.” This corridor is only marginally “rural,” and EDC is backed by decidedly non-rural funders such as the Cedar Rapids Chamber of Commerce.

The initiative website also hosts a press release (pdf) with praise from the CEO of the controversial company Trans Ova. Trans Ova has come under attack in recent years for genetic engineering and cloning of cows to produce pharmaceuticals in their milk.

Thus, on two more counts the motive of this initiative is called into question.

Unfortunately, this sort of behavior is hardly unexpected from the Farm Bureau. The Farm Bureau has long claimed to be the “largest farmer-member organization” in the country. In reality they are an insurance provider and a lobby for large agribusiness. They helped drive the consolidation of agriculture, and establish current farm policy that now makes family farmers dependent on off-farm income.

The Farm Bureau hasn’t made any move to convince me that want any more farmers, and they are not particularly concerned with new and innovative ways for current farmers to make a decent living on the land.

To people who follow the Farm Bureau and agriculture policy this is no surprise. But their Renew Rural Iowa initiative once again reveals that their real concern is not the revitalization of rural communities through an invigorated farm-economy. Perhaps they are hoping to mask the true devastating effects of the agriculture policy that they helped write.

Rural communities need a diverse economic base, and this must include more than just agriculture jobs. But in Iowa, it must also include a vibrant agricultural sector.

Note: Thanks to reader SW for additional analysis on this topic.

Giving Thanks to Farmers

Thursday, November 23rd, 2006

Happy Thanksgiving. I’ll let NPR do the work for me today (they did a good job).

Farm Aid is as much a ritual gathering of America’s farming community as it is a fundraiser and a concert.

At the annual event, corn and pig farmers trade tips and plot lobbying strategies, and college kids listen as Dave Matthews plays a killer set. It’s a story of hard times and new possibilities, of farmers markets, of young people, whose parents were forced off the land, returning to farm again, and the beginning of new food chains.

Listen to the tribute.

This Land Not for Sale to the Army

Tuesday, November 21st, 2006

Military officials are seeking to expand the training base at Fort Carson, Colorado by buying up 400,000 acres of Pinon Canyon (and as much as 2.3 million acres over the next 20 years). This land in rural Las Animas County is home to a deep tradition of farming and ranching. Local ranchers, typically supportive of the Fort Carson base, are now sporting “This Land Not for Sale to the Army” signs along their property boundaries.

Precisely where that additional 418,000 acres will be located is unclear, but the zone the Army is looking at encompasses 1 million acres, perhaps 5,000 people, two entire towns, three schools, two state highways and untold historic sites, including visible wagon wheel tracks on the Santa Fe Trail and dinosaur tracks.

For those not in the sites of the expansion, even Fort Carson officials admit that the planned expansion will have little or no economic benefit for the surrounding area.

Democrats Take Control: Push Biotech

Monday, November 20th, 2006

The two Democrats poised to take control of the House and Senate Ag Committees are both signatories to a recent letter that reads in part:

The EU has avoided for too long its WTO obligations … The illegal discrimination against biotech products on nonscientific grounds must cease.

Welcome Senator Harkin. Welcome Representative Peterson. We’re so glad you’re back in charge and working on the important things first.

The outgoing chairs were also signatories to the letter.

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.

Rural Outreach and Senate Dems

Wednesday, November 15th, 2006

What does Senator Lincoln do in her role as “Chair of Rural Outreach”?

Blanche L. Lincoln, Chair of Rural Outreach

As she did in the 109th Congress, Senator Lincoln will again serve as Chair of Rural Outreach. This position was created in the last Congress as a sign of the Democrats’ strong commitment to aggressively engage and communicate with rural Americans. In this post, Senator Lincoln will continue guide rural outreach for the Caucus and find new ways to reach rural, suburban and exurban American communities.

The good:

Senator Lincoln has sponsored legislation to support the Delta Regional Authority.

She issued a “Rural Report Card” detailing Bush’s failed rural agenda.

Senator Lincoln sits on the Agriculture Committee and is part of the Rural Health Caucus.

The not so good:

Lincoln was among the minority of Democrats to support CAFTA. (Right, because these trade agreements have been excellent for the agriculture and manufacturing sectors that rural areas depend on.)

Lincoln voted in favor of restricting class action lawsuits and tightening rules on personal bankruptcy. (That should help alleviate the crushing rural poverty in the Senator’s home state.)

Lincoln was one of the few Democrats in Congress to vote in favor of the 2001 Bush tax cuts.

Farmers in the Senate

Tuesday, November 14th, 2006

My post below prompted me to research the history of farmers in the U.S. Senate. The following list includes U.S. Senators since 1900 who were also farmers. The parenthetical comments list their occupation(s) as taken from the Political Graveyard and/or the Congressional Bibliographic Directory site. As you can see, many “farmers” were also bankers, lawyers, sheriffs, etc. It will take significantly more research to determine which of these Senators were primarily farmers, and which were bankers who owned a farm.

Farmer-Senators Since 1900

Ellison DuRant Smith (D-SC) U.S. Senator 1909-44 (engaged in mercantile and agricultural pursuits, organizer of the Southern Cotton Association, field agent and general organizer in the cotton protective movement 1905-1908, known as “Cotton Ed”)

Obadiah Gardner (D-ME) U.S. Senator 1911-13 (engaged in the lumber, lime, and creamery business, and also in agricultural pursuits and in cattle raising)

Henry Wilder Keyes (R-NH) U.S. Senator 1919-37 (farmer, banker, and politician)

Magnus Johnson (DFL-MN) U.S. Senator 1923-25 (lumberjack, farmer, school clerk and assessor)

Lynn Joseph Frazier (R-ND) U.S. Senator 1923-41 (farmer and politician)

Hamilton Fish Kean (R-NJ) U.S. Senator 1929-35 (engaged in banking and agricultural pursuits)

John Gillis Townsend, Jr. (R-DE) U.S. Senator 1929-41 (engaged in banking, also interested in manufacturing and agricultural pursuits)

Robert Davis Carey (R-WY) U.S. Senator 1930-37 (engaged in the raising of livestock and agricultural pursuits, also interested in banking, politician)

Patrick Anthony McCarran (D-NV) U.S. Senator 1933-54 (farmer, lawyer and judge)

Harry Flood Byrd (R-VA) U.S. Senator 1933-65 (newspaper publisher, fruit farmer, politician)

Guy Mark Gillette (D-IA) U.S. Senator 1936-45 (military, engaged in agricultural pursuits, attorney)

George David Aiken (R-VT) U.S. Senator 1941-75 (engaged in fruit farming in 1912, also conducted an extensive nursery business and commercial cultivation of wildflowers)

Zales Nelson Ecton (R-MT) U.S. Senator 1947-53 (grain farmer and livestock rancher)

Earle Chester Clements (D-KY) U.S. Senator 1950-57 (farmer, sheriff and county judge)

Frank Carlson (R-KS) U.S. Senator 1950-69 (farmer and rancher)

Frank Aloysius Barrett (R-WY) U.S. Senator 1953-59 (lawyer, rancher, politician and civil servant)

Henry Louis Bellmon (R-OK) U.S. Senator 1969-81 (farmer, rancher and politician)

Summary thoughts in relation to the newest farmer in the Senate, Jon Tester (D-MT):

There are not many other Senators who were just farmers, the way Jon Tester has been just a farmer for most of his life. Not many farmer-Senators on this list rose as quickly to the U.S. Senate as Jon Tester has. Most were long-term politicians holding a variety of posts and rising though U.S. congressional positions or governor seats to the U.S. Senate.

There is a noticeable decline in the number of elected farmer-Senators about the middle of the last century with only three of the seventeen Senators listed above achieving election after 1950.

My sources profess their own incompleteness. If I missed someone, add them in the comments below.

Hi-ho, The derry-o

Monday, November 13th, 2006

There’s a farmer in the Senate
There’s a farmer in the Senate
Hi-ho, The derry-o
There’s a farmer in the Senate
Jon Tester, Farmer

The New York Times has a short profile of Senator-Elect Jon Tester today.

GREAT FALLS, Mont., Nov. 9 — When he joins the United States Senate in January, big Jon Tester — who is just under 300 pounds in his boots — will most likely be the only person in the world’s most exclusive club who knows how to butcher a cow or grease a combine.

All his life, Mr. Tester, 50, has lived no more than two hours from his farm, an infinity of flat on the windswept expanse of north-central Montana, hard by the Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation.

For all the talk about the new Democrats swept into office on Tuesday, the senator-elect from Montana truly is your grandfather’s Democrat — a pro-gun, anti-big-business prairie pragmatist whose life is defined by the treeless patch of hard Montana dirt that has been in the family since 1916.

It is a place with 105-degree summer days and winter chills of 30 below zero, where his grandparents are buried, where his two children learned to grow crops in a dry land entirely dependent on rainfall, and where, he says, he earned barely $20,000 a year farming over the last decade.

“It’s always been tight, trying to make a living on that farm,” said Mr. Tester, still looking dazed and bloodshot-eyed after defeating Senator Conrad Burns, a three-term incumbent, by fewer than 3,000 votes.

Chouteau County, where Mr. Tester lives on a homestead of 1,800 acres, lost 8.5 percent of its population in the last five years — typical of much of rural America that has been in decline since the Dust Bowl.

To make extra money, Mr. Tester taught music to schoolchildren, and still plays a decent trumpet despite having only seven fingers (he lost the rest to a meat grinder as a child). He got into politics just eight years ago in a sustained rage over what utility deregulation had done to small farmers and businesses in Montana.

“You think of the Senate as a millionaire’s club — well, Jon is going to be the blue-collar guy who brings an old-fashioned, Jeffersonian ideal about being tied to the land,” said Steve Doherty, a friend of Mr. Tester’s for 20 years. “He’s a small farmer from the homestead. That’s absolutely who he is. That place defines him.” […]

Congress has done little to improve the lives of people living in the dying towns across rural America, Mr. Doherty said.

“When Jon talks about the cafe that’s trying to hold on, the hardware store that just closed, the third generation that can’t make a living on the farm, he is living that life,” Mr. Doherty said. […]

Mr. Tester and his wife of 28 years, Sharla, grow organic lentils, barley, peas and gluten-free grain in a county with 1.5 people per square mile. It is all earth and sky on the Tester family ground. A hundred years ago, a region with so few people was considered frontier. […]

Asked why he became a Democrat in a region that has been overwhelmingly Republican for the last generation, Mr. Tester said: “It started with my parents, who always said the Democrats work for the middle class. And in agriculture, Franklin Roosevelt did a lot of good things.”

Friends say not to worry about Mr. Tester going native in Washington. He said he planned to return home to the farm several times a month. He promised his barber, Bill Graves, that he would continue to come back to get his hair cut in the same wheat-field bristle.

Jon Tester, Farmer
There’s a farmer in the Senate
There’s a farmer in the Senate…

Update: The Political Graveyard has a list of farmer-politicians. I’m currently combing through it to find out when the last time a real farmer was elected to the U.S. Senate.

Update Two: See list above.

Election: Rural Roundup

Monday, October 30th, 2006

Democrats are rising in the rural Midwest and West as rural populists.

In the Montana Senate race Democrat and farmer Jon Tester is battling hard against an incumbent Republican. Read Tester’s recently released ag policy paper. The race was recently profiled by the Weekly Standard.

In Nebraska, Scott Kleeb continues to rise in polls for an open congressional seat in a district that hasn’t had Democratic representation in a very long time. Dubbed the Cowboy Candidate, Kleeb is a forth generation rancher with a PhD from Yale. He recently landed a surprise endorsment from the Omaha World Herald. Kleeb’s internal numbers show him up in this supposed-to-be-safe-Republican district. And the GOP is freaking out over it.

Elsewhere, the Democrat holds a narrow lead in Idaho’s Gubernatorial race. There is also a chance for a congressional pickup by Democrats in Idaho. Vice President Cheney has been dispatched to the state to campaign for Republicans. The lone congressional seat in Wyoming is also in play.

And these aren’t the only races where populist democrats are making strong showings in traditionally Republican, often rural territory. What’s going on? I have plenty of my own thoughts, but precious little time to write these days. Here is some analysis from others:

A Rural Revolt in the West?
GOP Losing Their Rural Base
Poll Shows Rural Voters Shifting to Democrats.

Win or lose on election night, the political landscape in the rural U.S. is changing.

The Symbolism

Wednesday, August 16th, 2006

The year is 2015… The quadruple subsidy (pdf) of ethanol proves to be an insufficient method of producing enough biofuel to meet skyrocketing demands. In response, the petrol-guzzling military industrial complex plows through the Midwest on a hungry rampage consuming entire fields of corn, bucolic family farms and unused windmills in the process. Still, all the corn in the country proves to be an inadequate solution to the post peak-oil energy crisis.

Photo Credit: Sean Sheerin (2006), Land Stewardship Letter, Vol 24, No. 2.

What About Us?

Saturday, July 29th, 2006

Rural school students in South Carolina are asking their state legistators, “What about us?

“It affects us to the point where you can see the depression,” Monisha Brown explained as she toured a reporter through a photo exhibit of school facilities in rural South Carolina. The photos vividly illustrate unsafe and inappropriate conditions: exposed wiring, bathrooms with overflowing plumbing, crumbling bricks and rotting wood, and a host of makeshift efforts to keep out the rain.

If I can find any of the photos online, I’ll link to them here.

Debating Farm Policy…

Sunday, July 9th, 2006

…Presidential debate style. That’s what the Environmental Working Group is proposing.

Environmental Working Group (EWG) President Ken Cook today challenged one the nation’s most ardent and articulate defenders of status quo farm subsidy programs to a nationwide series of policy debates about the programs, former House Agriculture Committee Chairman Larry Combest (R-TX).

Farm Journal Editor and past National Press Club President Sonja Hillgren has agreed to moderate the first debate in Washington, DC this fall. Cook suggested further debates be held across the nation before farm and ranch audiences, including Combest’s home state of Texas. The debates would be moderated by distinguished agricultural journalists and policy experts.

From the challenge letter.

My idea for the format is simple, if it is agreeable to you. Each of us would have 20 minutes to make our case however we see fit. Call it “PowerPoint at 20 paces.” We would have a few minutes to respond to one another’s presentations, after which a moderator (or moderators) would pose questions of their own, and invite them from the audience, for another 45 minutes or so, with 3-4 minutes for each of us to summarize. We could arrange to debate specific topics beforehand, or leave the debate completely open…

EWG is a long time critic and watchdog of the current farm subsidy payment system.

Iowa Ag Sec Race

Wednesday, May 31st, 2006

Interested readers can listen to last Friday’s Iowa Secretary of Agriculture State House Forum online. The first hour is the Democrat’s candidates. The second hour is Republicans.

Join the Network

Sunday, May 28th, 2006

The Center for Rural Affairs is gunning for 10,000 names on their Strengthening Rural America Petition. You can read the document here and sign up here.

When rural young people are denied the opportunity to build homes, businesses, lives and careers, rural America contributes fewer taxes, fewer jobs and less productivity to America. To contribute to the nation’s prosperity, Rural America must share in it.

When community is weakened, the bonds that make us strong are weakened. In strong communities we are more likely to help each other. To uplift rural values, we must lift up rural communities.

The WalMarting of the American economy – the destruction of family farms and small business – is shrinking the rural middle class. People denied a stake in the American dream, are less likely to take responsibility for sustaining it.

Don’t think of this as just another internet petition (what good do all those online petitions do anyway, right). By signing this petition you are joining the Center for Rural Affairs in their new “National Rural Action Network” campaign. The goal of the new network is to organize rural people to effectively pressure lawmakers to develop policies that work for the rural United States.

I joined the network. Will you?

Minimal Rural Tax Cut

Thursday, May 18th, 2006

Stolen from the IRJCI (Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues) Blog.

Most rural families will receive less than $50 annually in a tax bill slated to be signed today by President Bush, according to a press release from the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy.

The Tax Increase Prevention and Reconciliation Act of 2005 (H.R. 4297) is projected to provide a total of $70 billion in tax cuts to America’s taxpayers. “Based upon an analysis by the Tax Policy Center, the primary beneficiaries of the legislation are higher income households and those who invest in the stock market. Median household income is twenty-five percent lower for non-metro families than for metro families (USDA Economic Research Service) and fewer rural residents than urban residents participate in a retirement plan (Bureau of Labor Statistics, March 2005),” states the release.

According to the Tax Policy Center, the annual average savings include:
$0 for income less than $10,000
$3 for $10,000-20,000
$10 for $20,000-30,000
$17 for $30,000-40,000
$47 for $40,000-50,000
$112 for $50,000-75,000
$406 for $75,000-100,000
$1,395 for $100,000-200,000
$4,527 for $200,000-500,000
$5,656 for $500,000-1,000,000
and $42,766 for more than $1 million.

There are lots of other interesting news items at IRJCI as usual.

California Rural Hospitals

Tuesday, May 16th, 2006

Nearly all of the rural hospitals in California are facing the risk of being closed by the state if they cannot meet new seismic building codes. The new codes are intended to make sure hospitals are still standing and operational after a major earthquake. The state has not provided funding or a funding mechanism to help small and nonprofit hospitals implement the changes.

The cost of upgrading all California hospitals to meet the new seismic codes likely exceeds $50 billion.

USDA: “War in Iraq is Going Great.”

Monday, May 8th, 2006

Maybe I should make a new category for “unbelievable.” From today’s Washington Post.

Career appointees at the Department of Agriculture were stunned last week to receive e-mailed instructions that include Bush administration “talking points” — saying things such as “President Bush has a clear strategy for victory in Iraq” — in every speech they give for the department.

Unfortunately, this is apparently not a joke.

The e-mail, sent to about 60 undersecretaries, assistant secretaries and other political appointees, was also sent to “a few people to whom it should not have gone,” said the department’s communications director, Terri Teuber . The career people, we are assured, are not being asked to spread the great news on Iraq in their talks to food stamp recipients, disadvantaged farmers, enviros or other folks.

So we know about this because they admittedly and accidentally sent their email to some career appointees who presumably leaked the email and associated documents. Notice however, there is no denial of the more basic point that political appointees at the USDA are being asked to incorporate talking points about Iraq into their speeches.

Good thing the White House attached (pdf) some suggestions on how they might do this.

The e-mail provided language “being used by Secretary [Michael O.] Johanns and deputy secretary [Charles F.] Conner in all of their remarks and is being sent to you for inclusion in your speeches.”

Another attachment “contains specific examples of [Global War on Terror] messages within agriculture speeches. Please use these message points as often as possible.”

Suggestion include.

“Several topics I’d like to talk about today — Farm Bill, trade with Japan, WTO, avian flu . . . but before I do, let me touch on a subject people always ask about . . . progress in Iraq.”

Or this

“I’d like to take a moment to talk about a nation that is just now beginning to rebuild its own agricultural production.”

“Iraq is part to the ‘fertile crescent’ of Mesopotamia,. It is there, in around 8,500 to 8,000 B.C., that mankind first domesticated wheat, there that agriculture was born. In recent years, however, the birthplace of farming has been in trouble. But revitalization is underway. President Bush has a clear strategy . . .”

Glad to see we’ve got our priorities straight at the USDA. While we are at it maybe we can just roll the upcoming farm bill into the next Iraq appropriations bill. Oh wait, we’re already doing that too.

Hat tip to IowaUnderground.

State GMO Bills

Sunday, May 7th, 2006

In Vermont the Governor is set to veto a bill that would allow farmers to sue manufacturers of genetically modified seeds for damages if their crops are contaminated by the GMOs. The Governor says that he is worried that the bill would discourage seed companies from selling their seeds in the state. The biotech industry opposes the bill, but says that they would continue to sell seed in the state if the bill became law.

At least the state legislature in Vermont sent this bill to the Governor’s desk and not the premeption bill that is being sent to a number of other Governor’s desks.

Arizona Board of Regents

Saturday, May 6th, 2006

Recent legislation in Arizona will require that two State Board of Regents members be from counties other than the state’s two major population centers of Pima (Tucson) and Maricopa (Phoenix) counties.

Rural Arizona residents will be guaranteed representation on the state Board of Regents two years from now.

Without comment, Gov. Janet Napolitano signed legislation Thursday to require that when the terms of two board members end in 2008 they will be replaced by people who do not live in either Pima or Maricopa counties.

Together Pima and Maricopa County represent about 75% of the state’s population. All ten of the current regents are from either Pima or Maricopa County, so the enactment of the legislation is not merely symbolic.

Poverty in Rural America

Tuesday, April 18th, 2006

If you didn’t hear it, go listen to this NPR story on rural poverty among the elderly poor.

For Harrison County resident Billie Leas, retirement means some reliance on assistance programs. Once a month, she receives a box filled with 35 pounds worth of free, government-commodity food — dried milk, corn flakes, peas, peanut butter, evaporated milk and canned meat, vegetables, fruit and juice.

Leas, a widow close to 80, says she gets by on less than $250 a week. Her husband worked at a coal mine and steel mill, but he died six months short of a pension. So Leas depends on Social Security, most of which goes to rent, heat, power, groceries and medicine. A safety net of county, state and federal programs also helps. Leas says it is difficult to accept this kind of aid. She never imagined she’d still be struggling to get by in retirement.

Listen for the part about the 94 year old women who relies on a government food box to get by. She has very little money left from her monthly Social Security check to buy food after paying her heating and other bills. President Bush wants to cut funding for her monthly food box.

For Iowa Readers

Sunday, February 12th, 2006

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
Emmetsburg

New Dean at Iowa State

Wednesday, December 21st, 2005

Iowa State University has a new Dean at the College of Agriculture. Dean Wendy Wintersteen. Not a single one of the news stories about the appointment includes a mention of Wintersteen’s involvement in the recent controversy at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

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.

“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…)

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.

Graduate Program in Sustainable Ag

Monday, October 31st, 2005

Rumor has it that the Graduate Students in the Sustianable Agriculture program at Iowa State are not happy about the unexpected announcement regarding Fred Kirschenmann.

If I have time tomorrow I will try to catch up with some of them.

More on Kirschenmann

Monday, October 31st, 2005

Following up on the previous post.

Iowa State University released a Friday press release on the matter with a considerably different slant.

KIRSCHENMANN NAMED DISTINGUISHED FELLOW; DEWITT TO BECOME INTERIM DIRECTOR OF LEOPOLD CENTER

Fred Kirschenmann, director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University, has accepted a new leadership role as a distinguished fellow of the center.

Jerry DeWitt, coordinator of ISU Extension’s sustainable agriculture program and its Pest Management and Environment Program, has been named interim director of the Leopold Center, effective Nov. 1.

As a Leopold Center Distinguished Fellow, Kirschenmann will devote his time to national sustainable agriculture priorities affecting broad segments of U.S. agriculture. He will lead Iowa State’s participation in a multistate project to address the diminishing number of mid-sized farms, many of which are family farms.

“Dr. Kirschenmann’s service to the center has greatly enhanced Iowa State’s reputation in sustainable agriculture,” said Wendy Wintersteen, interim dean of the College of Agriculture. “His emphasis on marketing and food systems, ecology and policy will continue to guide the center’s programs.”

“We look forward to his continued leadership on critical national issues,” Wintersteen said. “We are committed to continuing the excellence in research and education that the Leopold Center has demonstrated for the past 18 years.”

Kirschenmann, who was named center director in 2000, is a longtime leader in national and international sustainable agriculture. He was the second director of the center and the first farmer to hold the position. He is a professor in ISU’s Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies.

I used google news and did individual checks on all the likely news outlets, and it appears that no one has carried this story yet.

Update: I have confirmed that the IA State press release was a late-Friday-afternoon dump.

Fred Kirschenmann Removed as Director of Leopold Center

Monday, October 31st, 2005

I’m sure that many readers know Fred Kirschenmann and/or the work being done by the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University.

I received the following email late today.

Folks,

Last week, Fred Kirschenmann was given 48 hours to resign as director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and to accept a position as the “Distinguished Fellow” of the center. A new director was appointed before Fred was given notice. Over the past five years, Fred has worked tirelessly and with great dedication to the vision and work of the center. He has been highly respected by the Center’s staff.

The reason for Fred’s removal from the directorship of the Center seems clear. Fred had not placated agribusiness. They’ve been ferociously lobbying the dean’s office for the past year and a half to get him to stop his work on Ag in the Middle and other projects that benefit farmers and the land.

[snip]

The acting dean (Wendy Wintersteen) has caved in to the demands of powerful corporate interests instead of standing for a clear vision for the future and the best interests of Iowa.

Some think that Ms. Wintersteen fired Fred in exchange for the Farm Bureau et. al.’s support for her becoming the next Dean.

Letters can be sent to:

Benjamin J. Allen
Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost
Iowa State University
Office of the Provost, 1550 Beardshear Hall, Ames,
Iowa 50011-2021
Phone 515-294-9591, provost@iastate.edu

Gregory L. Geoffroy
President, Iowa State University
1750 Beardshear Hall
515) 294-2042
president@iastate.edu

Thanks,

xxx xxxxxxx

I have corroborated the information as “accurate” with someone close to the Leopold Center. I am working to obtain more information.

700 Sq Miles of WiFi

Monday, October 24th, 2005

On a good day I can pick up my neighbor’s wifi (shh, don’t tell). If you live within the 700 square mile block near rural Hermiston, Oregon you can pick up free uninterrupted wifi for miles in every direction.

While cities around the country are battling over plans to offer free or cheap Internet access, this lonely terrain is served by what is billed as the world’s largest hotspot, a wireless cloud that stretches over 700 square miles of landscape so dry and desolate it could have been lifted from a cowboy tune.

Attempts to bring wifi clouds to several large urban areas have been more or less stymied by major telecom companies (who are pouring money into state legislative bills that will prohibit the practice).

But here among the thistle, large providers such as local phone company Qwest Communications International Inc. see little profit potential. So wireless entrepreneur Fred Ziari drew no resistance for his proposed wireless network, enabling him to quickly build the $5 million cloud at his own expense.

The service is free to general users. Ziari hopes to recover is investment through contracts with local government agencies and businesses who utilize more bandwidth and features on the network.

Asked why other municipalities have had a harder time succeeding, he replies: “Politics.”

“If we get a go-ahead, we can do a fairly good-sized city in a month or two,” said Ziari. “The problem is getting the go-ahead.”

Looks like most rural residents will keep dialing up for a little while longer.

Rural Prisons and Political Clout

Sunday, October 16th, 2005

An interesting post by Spencer Overton a week ago points to the fact that for the purposes of redistricting most states count prisoners as residents of the community in which they are imprisoned. These same prisoners (for the most part) are not allowed to vote in their new districts.

This has the effect, Overton argues, of increasing the political clout of the rural communities where prisons are increasingly located, while at the same time decreasing the political clout of the inner-city neighborhoods where many of the prisoners came from.

Overton writes

About two million people resided in American correctional facilities in 2000. In drawing Congressional and state legislative districts, most states count these prisoners where they are incarcerated rather than where they resided before their conviction. According to Peter Wagner at the Prison Policy Initiative, as rural areas shrink in population, the burgeoning prison populations preserve the political careers of rural legislators while siphoning political influence from urban areas. Rural counties contain only about 20 percent of our nation’s population but have secured about 60 percent of new prison construction.

I would like to see a more specific analysis of the numbers before drawing a final conclusion about the significance of this trend, but in one state house district in Ohio the prison population now accounts for nearly 10% of the district.

A quick quiz on democracy and incarceration: what do Pickaway Correctional Institution, Ross Correctional Institution and Chillicothe Correctional Institution have in common, besides being prisons in Ohio?

The answer is that they’re all in Ohio House of Representatives district 85. And because the U.S. census counts prisoners in the place where they are incarcerated rather than the place where they lived prior to arrest, it also means that every inmate in those facilities — about 9 percent of the total population of the district, according to the website Prisoners of the Census – is counted as a resident of the area.

The issues raised here run from those of rural communities and prison construction (why it’s rural development, don’t you know), to issues of race and political representation, to the debate over felon voting rights. More than I can sort out before bed.

(Former) Rural State Senator for President

Friday, October 14th, 2005

Western Dem picks up on the recent travels of former minority leader Tom Daschle. Apparently he is even headed for Iowa to speak at their annual Jefferson Jackson Day Dinner. Daschle has also been to New York and Virginia in recent months.

Daschle was defeated in 2004 in a particularly nasty (and a bit underhanded) race. The loss ended his 20+ year career in Washington, and thus his 20+ year career of being elected in a primarily rural state.

While I won’t be supporting Daschle for much of anything, it is certainly possible to understand what he thinks he might bring to the table.

Update: Don’t get me wrong. I’m perfectly aware of the near impossibility of launching a campaign for national office from the position of defeated senator. Not to mention the skeltons in this particular defeated senator’s closet.

Doctor Doctor

Saturday, July 9th, 2005

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.

A Road Runs Through By It

Friday, July 1st, 2005

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.

Idaho Democrats

Thursday, June 30th, 2005

In an effort to capitalizing on the rising trend of Democrats in rural western states, the Idaho Democratic Party is running radio ads in their state (listen here). I’m not sure how large the ad buy is, but this is coming from a state party that did not even field a candidate last year for the U.S. Senate race.

Matt Singer over at Left in the West sees a populist U.S. Senator in Idaho’s future.

Rural (Social Security) Rebellion

Thursday, June 30th, 2005

From Western Democrat

Another rural rebellion against the GOP

More than 20 rural groups, including the American Corn Growers Association and the National Farmers Union, are united against Bush’s social security agenda. What’s the matter with Kansas, indeed.

“Following his stunning victory last fall among rural voters, it is difficult to understand first, his suggested devastating and draconian cuts in agriculture support and now in the area of Social Security benefits. These were never issues during the campaign. Rural America did not vote for agriculture and Social Security cuts last November. The President should understand this and we hope to assist him in understanding this.”

Hit the previous post here to see how rural areas are more heavily dependent on Social Security than urban areas. Then head over to Western Democrat for the rest and some discussion.

Mad Cow Case Confirmed

Friday, June 24th, 2005

As you have probably heard

Tests Confirm 2nd Case of Mad Cow Disease in U.S.

The Agriculture Department said today that tests conducted on an animal that died in November, suspected of having mad cow disease, had turned out positive, confirming the second case of the disease to be found in the United States in the last two years.

As long as the FDA, USDA and beef industry continue to drag their feet on the implementation of new safety standards this will continue to happen.

Your Tax Dollars at Work

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2005

This story from last week just came to my attention.

USDA plants its own pro-CAFTA news

WASHINGTON - (KRT) - The U.S. Department of Agriculture has churned out three dozen radio and television news segments since the first of the year that promote a controversial trade agreement with Central America opposed by labor unions, the sugar industry and many members of Congress, including some Republicans.

Amid an intense debate over government-funded efforts to influence news coverage, the pre-packaged reports have been widely distributed to broadcast outlets across the country for easy insertion into newscasts.

Readers will recall that this is not the first time this administration has drawn attention for muddling in news reporting. A number of these reports incorporate sound bites from Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns and other top officials at the USDA.

In one radio segment, Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said that passing CAFTA should be an easy decision for members of Congress.

“I can’t imagine how any senator or House member from ag country could stand up and vote against CAFTA,” Johanns said. “It makes no sense to me. It’s voting against our producers.”

In another radio segment promoting CAFTA, Allen Johnson, a top U.S. trade official, dismissed the sugar industry’s “dire forecasts” about CAFTA’s impact as “a Chicken Little sort of thing that isn’t real.”

These “news” releases come complete with a recorded disclaimer at the end of the tape, conveniently placed for cutting.

“These releases, which are produced and distributed with taxpayer dollars, are provided to 675 rural radio stations and numerous televisions stations where they are run, without disclosure of their source, as news reports,” the senators wrote. “We are concerned that many listeners in rural America may believe these releases are objective news reports […]

[…] USDA spokesman Ed Loyd defended the practice, noting that the reports are all clearly identified as coming from the USDA.

“They are reports about what the secretary of agriculture has said,” Loyd said. “We clearly state that we are the source. We’re not disguising that we are the source.”

But the taglines disclosing the USDA’s role generally are at the ends of the reports, and Akaka and Landrieu said some news stations drop those taglines.

One radio producer says

“I use a lot of their stuff verbatim,” he said. “Everything I’ve been able to use has been pretty well-balanced as far as I can tell.”

On more controversial issues such as CAFTA, Molino said he normally follows up the USDA report with a comment from a Louisiana member of Congress who opposes the trade deal.

Bush needs all of the help he can get to bolster CAFTA. Like other administration proposals, Bush has struggled to get support for the trade agreement since its proposal last year. For years Washington policy makers have been advising farmers that more trade is the answer to our agricultural surplus. The tactic hasn’t really worked yet, and more and more farmers are becoming wary of additional trade agreements as a way to raise commodity prices.

If anyone has ever heard/seen one of these things that included the disclaimer leave a note in the comment section.

Late Update: You can listen to some of the USDA’s “news” releases on their website. The so-called disclaimer reads as follows, “In Washington, I’m [reporter’s name] reporting for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.” It’s a quick little bit that could easily be missed by all but the most discerning ear. Even if you catch it, the significance may remain unclear.

Social Security

Tuesday, June 21st, 2005

A new study by the Institute for America’s Future shows that rural areas are move heavily dependent on Social Security than urban areas.

In Ohio

Social Security benefits account for 7 percent of rural Ohio’s income, compared with 5.6 percent in urban areas.

Older women in rural Ohio, who make up 7.2 percent of the state’s 1.3 million people, collect Social Security benefits, compared with 6.3 percent of their non-rural counterparts across the country.

Rural Ohio relies more on Social Security benefits because of the dangers of farming, with disability beneficiaries accounting for 2.7 percent in rural areas, compared to 2.4 percent in nonrural areas.

Follow the link to the study if you want to see the report for your state.

Rural Fire Departments

Tuesday, June 21st, 2005

Some rural fire departments are running on empty just fine with the help of a military surplus program.

Mayor Rodger Sill pulls his lanky frame up into the truck’s cab and slowly drives the rumbling red diesel out of the fire department garage. […]

Stanley’s annual fire department budget is barely $12,000, but sitting in the garage is about $3 million worth of supplies acquired for free through a national military surplus program.

Congress established the Federal Excess Personal Property program more than 50 years ago. It allows rural fire departments to claim government equipment no longer in use.

So far so good, but then we learn more.

The firetruck Sill demonstrated was formerly a military dump truck. When an air guard unit based in St. Paul, Minn., acquired another, it sent the vehicle to surplus with slightly more than 20,000 miles on it. Besides filing paperwork, the city just needed to drive it home.

Why is the military sending dump trucks that only have 20,000 miles on them to surplus?

The mayor even snagged a never-assembled hoop building — $40,000 worth of steel beams and sheet metal — sitting at a Navy surplus site in Chicago. Once built, the 3,600-square-foot structure will serve as the city’s new fire station.

I’m glad we’re helping out rural fire departments, but I can think of more efficient ways to do it. If we cut back on record high military spending we could spend more on direct support for rural development. With unassembled hoop buildings going to surplus it is safe to say that such cuts would not endanger anyone’s security.

People don’t think enough about the trade-offs that we face as a result of our overgrown military budget. Money for farm and rural programs is just one of many areas that could be more than adequately funded with relatively small percentage cuts in our military spending.

Rural Communities Pay the Price

Sunday, June 19th, 2005

Coming off of a week that saw 25 U.S. deaths in Iraq it bears repeating that between 30 and 40% of those killed in Iraq come from rural communities and small towns.

$1.30

Saturday, June 18th, 2005

That’s the per capita tax revenue that is directed to public broadcasting services in the United States. Compare that to well over $100 per capita in European countries. That $1.30 is apparently too much for some Republicans in Congress.

They want to cut funding to less than $1.00 per person per year for next year, and eliminate it within two years. If enacted the cuts stand to hit rural stations the hardest. While many urbanly located stations now raise 90% or more of their funds from private and corporate donors, stations in rural areas still depend on federal funds for 30% or more of their budget.

Much of this hostility has been generated by the conservative charge of a liberal bias in public broadcasting. A myth that I believe is the result of Republicans distaste for the truth. When reporters report on the issue, rather that regurgitating partisan talking points they are accused of being liberal.

This isn’t the first time public broadcasting funds have been threatened, and I’m inclined to think that funding will be restored this time as well. While pubic broadcasting might see minor cuts next year, I doubt Republicans will follow through with their full threat.

But that’s not the point, and they never intended it to be. Instead, repeated threats of funding cuts are intended to keep public broadcasters walking on eggshells as they attempt to please partisan newsmakers.

All the while rural stations are caught in a more precarious situation than most.

Farm Policy Talk

Tuesday, June 14th, 2005

Bush was at the Pennsylvania State FFA (formally Future Farmers of America) Conference today to talk about Social Security reform. He also had a thing or two to say about his administration’s “successful” farm policy.

You see, we tried to reduce government interference in the agricultural market, and at the same time, create incentives for sound conservation practices.

I wonder if those “incentives for conservation” could be the new Conservation Security Program (CSP). The CSP was championed by family farm groups, and was considered a bright spot in an otherwise dim farm bill. To date the Bush Administration has prevented the program from being fully implemented. Current funding is capped at $202 million (total farm bill expenditures exceeded $11.5 billion in 2003). Properly funding the CSP would require at least $2-3 billion.

And speaking about tax relief, in order to make sure our farms stay within our farming families, we need to get rid of the death tax once and for all. […] For the sake of family farmers, Congress needs to get rid of the death tax forever. (Applause.)

Right. Except any farm large enough to be subject to the estate tax is quite likely anything but a family farm. In fact, the estate tax more than likely helps preserve family farms by leveling the playing field through taxes on the largest farm estates.

None of this should be a surprise from this administration. Instead, think of it as motivation to fight their poor ag and rural policy. Remember this was a speech to a captive group of young aspiring farmers. People who should be on our side.

The entire relevant excerpt of from the speech appears below the fold, including a bit about the upcoming vote in congress on CAFTA.

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Rural Broadband

Tuesday, June 14th, 2005

The issue of broadband internet service in rural areas has been getting more attention lately. Most notably the broadband giants (Verizon, Comcast, Excite, SBC, etc) have been lobbying congress to pass legislation that would prohibit municipalities from getting into the internet business. These proposed regulations have been prompted primarily by plans to bring free WiFi to big cities.

If the regulations are approved they will also prevent rural municipalities from providing broadband in their communities. These rural communities often have no broadband available until the local government takes the initiative. The lack of high-speed internet in these communities compounds the difficulty of getting businesses to locate there.

There have been some victories at the state and local level. In Texas a grassroots group worked to defeat a bill in the state legislature that would have banned municipal broadband. And yesterday in a related case the Maine Supreme Court ruled that Verizon must offer competing providers bandwidth on their network, thus making it easier to extend broadband to rural areas of the state.

Other states have been friendlier to the big boys. Washington, Nevada, Utah, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Missouri, Arkansas, Pennsylvania (Phillidelphia has an exemption), Virginia, and South Carolina all passed some form of legislation that restricts municipal broadband. In other states legislation is pending, and a small handful of states recently defeated similar proposals.

In our continued effort to follow the money we see that cable TV’s political contribuions hover between 5 and 10 million per election cycle with a pretty even partisan divide. While the telephone industry contributes between 10 and 20 million per cycle with Republicans edging out Democrats.

This has also been discussed over at Kos here and here.

Not COOL

Saturday, June 11th, 2005

The U.S. House voted this week to postpone the implementation of mandatory County of Origin Labeling (COOL). Opponents claim that the cost of implementing COOL would harm U.S. producers.

The labels “would present a nightmare” of record-keeping and legal costs that consumers would have to bear, said Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-Texas, who voted against the labeling.

The industry estimates it could cost as much as $4 billion in the first year.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte, the House Agriculture Committee chairman, said the labels would do the opposite of what was intended, adding $10 per head of cattle to ranchers’ costs.

“It will make our producers less competitive with foreign meat producers, not more competitive,” said Goodlatte, R-Va.

Depending on who is doing the calculations, estimates for the beef and pork industries combined range from just $200 million to over $7 billion annually. Even the figure cited in the article is for first year expenses. One can assume that the price tag would be significantly less in subsequent years.

But none of this should be a surprise. Food processors and retailers, who oppose the legislation, have given tens of millions of dollars to candidates in recent years.

Update: better add the additional millions given by meat processors in recent years. Money given almost exclusively to Republicans.

Bush’s Budget and Rural America

Monday, March 14th, 2005

The irony abounds. Residents in rural areas voted overwhelmingly for George Bush. Their reward—across the board cuts of money previously allocated for rural development and agriculture programs.

The Center for Rural Affairs reports that rural America may loose more than one-third of the federal dollars currently allocated to rural economic and rural community development. This is in addition to significant cuts to direct farmer aid including a 50% slashing of the Conservation Security Program and an across-the-board reduction of five percent for all farm program payments.

Read the Action Brief (pdf here) from the Center for Rural Affairs or catch the highlights below the fold.

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