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Archive for the 'Rural Communities' Category

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.

Rural Decline: One School at a Time

Tuesday, January 1st, 2008

I’ve only been through Magnolia, Iowa once or twice, and I don’t know much about the town. Though, what I do know reveals a story all to common in the Midwest and Great Plains. Located in Harrison County in far Western Iowa, the population of the area reached its peak over 100 years ago, a common pattern if not a peak even more distant in the past than nearby regions.

In 1900 there were 25,597 people in the county. By 2000 there were just 15,666, a 40% decline. I turned up some old pictures of the school in Magnolia. Here is the story they tell.

With many more people in both the town and the surrounding countryside, Magnolia was home to a three story brick school by 1916.

Magnolia School in 1916. Photo source.

By 1953 the school had been expanded with an addition that included a large gymnasium. The population of the county was already declining significantly by the middle of the century.

Magnolia School in 1953. Photo source.

I drove through Magnolia, population now less then 200, this last August. As I slowed down on Highway 127, I glanced right and caught just a glimpse of the now abandoned school a block to the North. The top floor has collapsed into the building. The few bricks that remain standing on the top floor frame a window, and highlight the collapse that is occurring on all sides of the building.

Magnolia School in August of 2007. This poor quality photo was taken with a cell phone camera, the only thing I had available.

It is likely fair to conclude that no children will ever again go to school in Magnolia. That’s unfortunate, but we can learn from this stunning rise and decline of a building.

As rural communities struggle to survive amidst a declining rural population, our social infrastructure is the most crucial resource we have. Communities with grocery stores, drug stores and schools will be the ones to survive to host another generation. Once these critical components of a community begin to fade away young adults looking for a place to raise a family skip by in search of one where the school is within walking distance, not a long bus ride away.

We need new policies, ideas, and innovations that keep more rural schools open, and ensure that few schools come to look like the one in Magnolia does today.

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.

The Value of Rural

Thursday, September 6th, 2007

By Steph Larsen

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

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

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

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

Another person commented:

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

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

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

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

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

As Wal-Mart Stock Rises, Rural America Falls

Saturday, August 4th, 2007

Before you catch yourself nodding in agreement with that title I have to warn you, Jim Branscome doesn’t agree:

[T]he reality of what really drives the rural American economy is Wal-Mart and the 39 other companies in the Yonder 40.

But perhaps I should back up and explain how we got to this point in the debate before I offer my full rebuttal of Jim’s claim. About a month ago the Daily Yonder asked Jim Branscome to come up with an index of stocks that represent the economic well-being of rural America. In unveiling the resulting Yonder 40, they proclaimed:

Finally, there’s a stock index that tells rural America how it’s doing. This is the Yonder 40, forty companies that reflect the economy of rural America.

It is an interesting idea, but there is a slight problem. It seems that a number of the companies selected for the Yonder 40 are companies whose interests and goals actually stand squarely at odds with the well-being of rural American - be it economic or otherwise. I first expressed this in a comment posted at Daily Yonder:

What does the Yonder 40 tell us?

This is an interesting idea — an economic indicator of the relative health of rural America. But what will we really know when the Yonder 40 soars, and when the Yonder 40 falls? With stocks like Wal-Mart, Tyson, Smithfield, Monsanto, and ConAgra included in the index, the economic health of rural America might in fact be measured as an inverse of the Yonder 40.

When Wal-Mart is doing well, businesses up and down main street in rural communities are being driven out of business. And when Wal-Mart is doing well money is being sucked out of rural communities, destined for the pockets of rich urbanites.

When Smithfield is doing well, farmers aren’t receiving a fair price for their livestock. And when Smithfield is doing well, family livestock producers are being put out of business. And so it goes for a number of the stocks in the Yonder 40.

So, what does the Yonder 40 really tell us?

To the credit of the editors at the Daily Yonder, they picked up on my comment, and repeated the question in a follow-up post about their stock index. They also went back and asked creator of the index, Jim Branscome, to respond to my concern about the reliability of concluding that when Wal-Mart (and other companies in the index) are doing well, rural America is doing well. This drew a response from Jim:

None of us may like it and would love a stock index that reflects the hard work of the small farmer and throws in the sweet smell of alfalfa drying in the windrow, but the reality of what really drives the rural American economy is Wal-Mart and the 39 other companies in the Yonder 40. [snip]

We sorted through about 3000 stocks before we selected the sainted 40. It would have been nice had we come across investable public companies that represent farmer cooperatives, rural electric co-ops, or worker-owned coal mines and sawmills. There ain’t none. No fan of the Daily Yonder may be comfortable with it, but the reality is that Thomas Jefferson’s vision of America as a nation of farmers and toilers in the soil is as dead as our third president. Or at least that’s what you find when you try to construct an index using SEC registered and stock exchange listed companies for rural America.

Had we tried somehow to value the private companies that deal with rural America, impossible as that probably is, we would also have had to list Cargill and Koch Industries and the Chicago Board of Trade as well as the little bitty businesses that dot our small towns.

While briefly lamenting the downfall of the small farmer, the farmer cooperative, and the locally owned sawmill, Jim stands by his original assertions. He further asserts that the stock price of companies like Wal-Mart, Smithfield and Monsanto are a representative corollary to the economic well-being of rural America. I feel the need to further explain my objection.

In outlining my objection, I will stick with Wal-Mart as an example. However, my objection is not about Wal-Mart per se, and the argument can be easily extended to Smithfield, Monsanto, or a number of the other companies that comprise the Yonder 40.

A shuttered building on Main Street in Lyons.

If you walk down Main Street in Lyons, Nebraska (population 960) where I live it doesn’t take long to start to understand the result of the Walmartization of rural America. A solid 50% of the buildings on Main Street are simply closed, boarded up or vacant. With a lack of economic activity on the street, even some remaining businesses are open sporadically at best. A few can still be counted on to be open every day, but of those, one often wonders how they manage to stay open and how many more years they will hang on for.

It hasn’t always been this way. But ever since Wal-Mart began their concerted campaign to infiltrate rural America, and stake their business model on gobbling up an ever-increasing share of rural retail activity, small businesses up and down Main Street in Lyons and small town streets like it across the country, have been shuttering their doors (pdf). Every time one does it means a loss of local jobs and local economic activity. These are losses that often have ripple effects throughout a community. Wal-Mart is most often located in a nearby mid-sized town, and even if one does drive to Wal-Mart to work, the jobs don’t pay what the local jobs did. To add insult to injury, Wal-Mart’s profits are wired to Arkansas at the close of business every day. With them goes the multiplier effect of money spent locally.

In short, this is to say, when Wal-Mart does well rural America does poorly. But let’s look at some numbers too.

From 1990 to 2000 Wal-Mart stock rose from an adjusted daily close of $6.45 per share to $53.31 per share. That is an 8-fold increase. Following the logic of the Yonder 40, this should be an indication of rising prospects for rural American during the same time period. But rural America did not fair quite so well during the 1990s.

Swept Away, a study done by Jon Bailey at the Center for Rural Affairs, reports that while per capita earnings for metropolitan counties in the states studied rose steadily between 1990 and 2000, rural farm and rural non-farm per capita earnings were essentially stagnant in real dollars. At the beginning of the decade, the average person in rural farm counties earned 58 cents for every dollar earned by the average person in a metropolitan county. But by 2000, the average rural farm county resident earned only 48 cents for every dollar earned by a metropolitan county resident. During the same time period, metropolitan counties also saw a job growth rate of 25%. Rural farm counties experienced job growth at a rate just 1/5 of metropolitan counties.

In the 10 year period in question Wal-Mart stock doubled, and then doubled, and then doubled again. However, for every year of that period, rural America slipped further and further behind the earnings and job growth of their fellow metropolitan residents. During this time period rural America also continued to lose population, watch the number of farmers decline, and watch the younger generation depart for the city.

So, there does not in fact seem to be a positive correlation between Wal-Mart’s stock price and the overall economic health of rural America. While I use Wal-Mart as the focus of my rebuttal, I will stand behind my argument in reference to the entire Yonder 40 index.

In his response to me, Jim Branscome also counters my critique by arguing that the companies in the Yonder 40 were used in part because there are a limited number of publicly traded companies to choose from. Home-grown businesses that might actually tell us something about the economic prospects of rural America aren’t traded on the big stock exchanges. However, that is not a reason to argue that the companies that do comprise the Yonder 40 are positively related to the economic fortunes of rural America. If anything it reveals a crack in the methodology behind using a stock index to measure the economic health of rural America. At the end of the day, I would actually argue that this is close to the truth. I doubt there are very many companies that are traded publicly that have a positive correlation with the economic (and social) health of rural communities.

All that being said, I think we should keep the Yonder 40. That might seem like a strange conclusion, but I think it does tell us something.

When Wal-Mart’s stock goes up, another small business that was the life-blood for a rural community somewhere will shutter its doors. When Monsanto’s stock goes up, you can count out another family farmer whose children would enroll in rural school struggling to maintain enrollment. And when Smithfield’s stock goes up, you you can bank on more environmental degradation from large livestock facilities - degradation that has a negative environmental, social and economic impact for rural communities.

That is to say, when the Yonder 40 soars we best expect troubled times ahead for rural America.

The Town I Grew Up In

Tuesday, July 10th, 2007

I grew up in (or rather near) Laurens, Iowa. Laurens native Rick Davis writes about growing up in Laurens in the 1950s and 60s in this week’s mylaurens.com online newspaper. He tells a different story (pdf) than the one I could tell today:

A couple thousand miles and 40 years of living somewhere else separate me from Laurens these days. Yet it always will be my hometown – a special slice of Americana in which my roots always will be deepest.

I grew up in Laurens in the 1950s-60s era when “The Busiest Little Town in Iowa” had a bustling downtown of businesses that included furniture, men’s clothing, a movie theater and three grocery stores. Laurens also had an industrial base back then that included M & JR Hakes and Iowa Industrial Hydraulics; a golf course on land that once was an airport and its own consolidation-free school system.

[snip]

Jobs for Laurens kids of that era involved roll-up-your-sleeves summer tasks like cutting corn out of the beans and baling hay. Or you could bag groceries at Don’s Clover Farm or Hinn’s Super Value, pump gas for the locals (because self-service stations were years away from reality) or car-hop at the Dairy Bar or Lucky Luchsinger’s Drive-In. For younger kids on bikes, there were newspaper delivery routes around town, offering the Des Moines Register, the sister-paper Tribune and the Fort Dodge Messenger. I remember all that about Laurens, no doubt romanticizing its significance because nostalgia can do that to you.

Laurens is located in Pocahontas County. The county has been losing population every decade since Rick Davis was a boy. The population of all of Pocahontas County in 1950 was 15,496. By 2000 it had dropped precipitously to 8,662. In the years since the 2000 census Pocahontas County lost population faster than any other single county in the state.

Today there is no furniture store and no movie theater in Laurens. The town probably counts itself as lucky to still support one grocery store, and tales of three (including one that was open 24 hours a day) were just that by the time I was growing up in Laurens. I graduate from Laurens-Marathon consolidated school, and I fear that the school will soon be consolidated once more with yet another dying town nearby.

This is the story of rural communities across much of the country. Rick Davis reminds us that it hasn’t always been this way, but then he laments that he is likely being nostalgic. However, it is important to remember, one can be nostalgic for very good reasons. Laurens probably was a better place when it thrived in the ways Rick describes, and we should work to reinvigorate it - and all of rural America - to thrive once again.

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.

Ag Education: A Different Way

Saturday, June 2nd, 2007

The Associated Press reported this week that twice as many Iowa high schools are looking for teachers for their agricultural education programs this year than there are potential candidates graduating with the appropriate degree from Iowa State University. The same is generally true in other states as well.

Some educators warn that a shortage of agriculture instructors could stifle student development in 1 of Iowa’s largest industries. […]

A national study on agriculture educators indicated 40 high school ag departments across the country shut down last year due to the lack of a qualified teacher.

Low pay compared to the business world and the urbanization of America are blamed for the shortage.

The solutions suggested in the story, while not bad ideas, are pretty run-of-the-mill:

Miller hopes several steps recently taken by the state will attract young people into the profession.

Those efforts include boosting teacher salaries, providing sign-on bonuses and using student-loan forgiveness programs.

I graduated from a small school district in Iowa with a declining number of students and a dwindling number of students enrolled in the agricultural education program. Not only will my high school face the challenge of finding a new teacher for the position someday, but it will also face the challenge of continuing to justify a full time position for a limited number of students interested in agriculture. I suspect the same is true at many small, rural districts across the country.

Furthermore, the districts that will face the most challenges attracting, retaining, and justifying full time agricultural education teachers are the districts where maintaining such programs is both most critical and holds the most promise for attracting students serious about a future in farming.

So, I have a proposal for Iowa State University. Establish a program that will allow local farmers to go back to school part-time to become agricultural education teachers in their local districts. Utilize the current extension service to reach out to potential candidates, and to deliver initial instruction. Follow that up with a combination of distance-based learning and short periods of intensive instruction on campus during farmers’ off-seasons.

Who could be better suited to train and mentor the next generation of farmers than one or two local farmers who work as part-time agricultural education instructors at their local school? Even just off the top of my head, I can think of several farmers I know who would make excellent teachers, and I bet some of them would jump at the opportunity to do so.

While loan forgiveness, higher pay, and sign-on bonuses are all ways to attract the needed professionals to rural communities, we must also think outside of the box and turn to our local resources when seeking to solve the challenges facing rural communities today.

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.

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.

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