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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.

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.

Map No More

Monday, December 25th, 2006

This is simply astounding!

Mapmaker puts tiny towns on road to oblivion

CHATTOOGAVILLE, Georgia (AP) — Poetry Tulip has vanished. So have Due West and Po Biddy Crossroads. Cloudland and Roosterville are gone, too.

A total of 488 communities have been erased from the latest version of Georgia’s official map, victims of too few people and too many letters of type.

Georgia’s Department of Transportation, which drew the new map, said that the goal was to make it clearer and less cluttered and that many of the dropped communities were mere “placeholders,” generally with fewer than 2,500 people. Some are unincorporated and so small they are not even recognized by the Census Bureau.

The state began handing out the new map at rest stops and welcome centers over the summer. […]

“We’re not under obligation to show every single community,” department spokeswoman Karlene Barron said. “While we want to, there’s a balancing act. And the map was getting illegible.”

No further comment.

Hat tip: CFRA Blog.

Smithfield and Organized Labor

Saturday, December 16th, 2006

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

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.

Wal Mart Done Destroying Rural Communities:

Tuesday, October 24th, 2006

Will move to urban communities next.

Concerned by “dwindling returns,” Wal Mart will scale back new store openings in the coming year while it figures out how to adapt its rural-community-destroying-model to effectively destroy the economic vitality of major urban areas as well.

BIG-CITY PUSH

Richard Hastings, retail analyst with Bernard Sands, said the slowdown comes as 44-year-old Wal-Mart faces a maturing home market and sets its sights on major urban areas, where both costs and community opposition are higher.

“They’ve run out of the kinds of rural and suburban inexpensive lease locations that they enjoyed for so many years,'’ Hastings said.

Wal Mart stock rose 2 percent on the news.

Outmigration is Costly

Monday, September 25th, 2006

The Dakotas and other Great Plains states are a leading indicator of things to come for larger sections of the rural U.S. Without clear and significant policy changes this trend will only intensify and spread.

FARGO (AP) - North Dakota lost nearly $1 billion in net taxable income from 1993 to 2005 due to outmigration, a State Data Center report says.

The figures show people moving to North Dakota during the 13-year span brought with them $5.5 billion in net taxable income, about $1 billion less than the what people leaving the state took with them.

The number of people leaving the state between 1993 and 2005 totaled 434,091, based on the number of exemptions claimed on income tax returns, said Karen Olson, an information specialist at the Data Center. The number of people who moved to the state during that period totaled 389,725, based on the tax exemptions, she said.

The rest of the story is below the fold.

(more…)

There is a battle going on…

Tuesday, September 5th, 2006

It is a battle over the future of education in rural communities.

[I]t’s not pretty and certainly not rational. Across the country, states are pushing to close their small rural schools with the mistaken hope of saving money. This struggle is currently happening in almost all regions of the country and includes states as diverse as Arkansas, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Nebraska, South Carolina, and South Dakota…

What is especially irrational about this trend is that these efforts persist in spite of overwhelming evidence that smaller schools are beneficial for kids. For example, research evidence documents that when socioeconomic factors are controlled, children in smaller schools:

  • Are more academically successful than those in larger schools.
    • Have higher graduation rates.
      • Are more likely to take advanced level courses.
        • Are more likely to participate in extra-curricular activities.
          • In addition, small schools are frequently the glue that binds together small communities, serving as their economic and social hub. Small villages that lose their schools lose more than a building—they lose their collective cultural and civic center.

            For nearly as long as I can remember, administrators of my hometown school (Laurens–Marathon) in rural Iowa have been scheming to further consolidate the already consolidated district. They came close to success several years ago, but things turned south for their plans at a community meeting in the neighboring community we were to be consolidated with.

            The meeting got off to a slow start, but before the night was out even the superintendent of the neighboring school had relinquished his chair behind the table with the local school board to approach the microphone. “I speak not as an administrator, but as a parent and community member,” he said, “And as a parent and community member I want my children to graduate from our own school.”

            The gymnasium erupted in cheers. The local school board and the superintendent from Laurens–Marathon sat stone-faced on the other side of their table.

            The Rural School and Community Trust just published a new policy brief (excerpted above) The Hobbit Effect: Why Small Works in Public Schools. I think I will send a copy to the administrators at Laurens-Marathon.

            Rural Education

            Friday, August 18th, 2006

            “If students have to move away from their rural communities in order to use the things that we teach them, then we are teaching them the wrong things.” - David Nickell, West Kentucky Community and Technical College, at the 69th Annual Meeting of the Rural Sociological Society while speaking on The Death and Rebirth of Rural Sociology panel.

            Wendell Berry

            Thursday, August 17th, 2006

            The Rural Sociological Society, of which I am a member, honored Wendell Berry at their annual meeting with their “Distinguished Service to Rural Life” award. His acceptance speech was a highlight of the conference and drew a standing ovation. From the local paper:

            With a button stating “Stop Mountaintop Removal” pinned to his suit, Berry accepted a Distinguished Service to Rural Life award from the international Rural Sociological Society. The organization held its 69th annual meeting over the weekend in Louisville.

            Berry said he was surprised to be honored by the group, given that much of his writing over the years has generated controversy. His books and essays are known for a theme that blames the demise of rural communities on agribusiness and the industrial economy.

            “You don’t expect certain things. The things I’ve written have been controversial, and to have a whole group honor you for them is kind of a surprise,” he said, adding with a laugh, ” and kind of a relief.”

            If anyone in the crowd disagreed with him yesterday, no one indicated that. Instead, he was met with a steady line of students and teachers clutching his books, all of which he happily signed.

            After faulting the land grant university system for the continued degradation of farm and rural life in his acceptance speech, Berry said he believes that “someday we will look back on ‘objectivity’ in academic research as a very influential idea, but a very strange one indeed.”

            Put the Pick Up in Park, and Enjoy Idle Conversation

            Saturday, August 5th, 2006

            Rural essayist Michael Perry read an excerpt from his forthcoming book Truck: A Love Story on NPR’s All Things Considered last week. Listen here.

            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.

            Google Rural

            Sunday, July 23rd, 2006

            Rural areas with less expensive electricity might attract large digital companies that run large “server farms” requiring high loads of electricity to operate. As more and more of our computing goes online, the server and storage space required to meet growing computing demand will result in increased electricity demand on the part of the sever providers

            Energy costs have turned into the driving force behind site selection decisions by Google, Yahoo and other Internet operations. They’re eyeing rural areas with plentiful and cheap power. These cyber giants process massive amounts of information through server farms spread throughout the globe…

            Relocating server farms to rural locations shaves pennies per kilowatt-hour. But because server farms can consume as much power as a city of some 35,000 people, even modest reductions in electricity rates can save millions of dollars a year.

            My hometown in Northwest Iowa (Laurens) has quite low electricity rates due in large part to a share in a hydroelectricity dam that was purchased decades ago by the municipal power provider. For years the low electricity rates kept a large grocery distributor (Scrivener then Fleming) in town despite being 60 miles from the nearest four lane highway. Low electricity rates made running their cooling units cheap enough to make up for the extra driving their trucks had to do on rural two lane blacktops. They left town anyway in 1999 and took a couple of hundred jobs with them.

            The electricity is still cheap in Laurens. Perhaps this largely farming based economy can attract some new farms—server farms.

            Rural Out-Migration

            Tuesday, July 4th, 2006

            There’s nothing like bad news from one’s hometown to bring a blogger out of silence. I grew up in rural Pocahontas County, Iowa.

            Census figures released last week put an exclamation point on years of anxiety about population loss in rural Iowa.

            The problem is most severe in the quadrant west of I-35 and north of I-80. This area includes all eight counties that lost at least 5 percent of their populations between 2000 and 2005: Audubon, Calhoun, Cherokee, Ida, Kossuth, Monona, Pocahontas and Sac.

            Without enough new workers, the average age is rising in nearly every part of those counties, while school enrollment is declining.

            The report also solidifies the prediction that Iowa will lose another U.S. congressional seat when redistricting occurs in 2011. Iowa has steadily lost seats since a high of 11 seats in the early 1900s. The state last lost a seat in 1990 bringing Iowa down to five current Representatives.

            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?

            School Buildings for Sale

            Thursday, May 25th, 2006

            Aside from the fact that the school had to close in the first place, I love this story.

            Speaking from the unique new home of his electronic business TAB Funkenwerks, [Oliver Archut] tells his story in a deep European accent: “On CNN I saw a documentary that the heartland of the United States is bleeding out. The schools are empty, the hospitals are empty. And they pretty much said that they were giving it away. That’s when I told my wife, find me a school.”

            So with a few keystrokes, Oliver’s wife and business partner Gwen went to the place to people go when they’re looking to get a deal on something totally random.

            “I just threw in school on e-Bay and there it was,” says perky Gwen from her office. “I was shocked. I had to speak with people three times before I actually believed the price they had said.”

            The price for the 30-thousand square foot former school: 25 grand. Too good to pass up. So the Archuts packed up their shop in Seattle, headed east, and didn’t stop until they were in Gaylord, Kansas.

            “There was no way you’re going to find a 30-thousand square foot anything in Seattle for 25 thousand dollars,” Gwen says. “That’s a minimum three million dollar investment.”

            So they bought the school and relocated their business from Seattle, Washington (Population 600,000) to Gaylord, Kansas (Population 145). They say that they have everything that they need in Gaylord: high speed internet, UPS service, potential employees, and a very low cost of doing business.

            Gwen and Oliver aren’t the only ones buying old rural schools for new business ventures. There’s others too.

            And now for the best part. Have a business idea? You too can buy an old rural school on ebay. There is about half a dozen for sale right now. Gaylord, Kansas set a trend though because schools are bringing more than $25,000 these days.

            Rural Bus Rides

            Friday, May 19th, 2006

            A school consolidation in works in Arkansas is threatening to leave some students with round trip bus rides totaling three hours each day. A parent group has filed a lawsuit claiming that excessive time on a bus violates students’ right to equal educational opportunities under the state constitution.

            And now for the urban hegemony quote of the week:

            Doug Eaton, director of public school facilities and transportation for Arkansas, said relocation is one option for rural residents concerned about lengthy bus rides.

            “If they don’t like to ride the bus, move closer to the school,” Eaton said in a telephone interview.

            Chris Heller, attorney for the Paron patrons, responded that the state Supreme Court has ruled that residence should not play a role in whether a student receives an adequate education.

            “A statement like (Eaton’s) is similar to saying if kids in poor Delta school districts don’t like the education they’re getting, they ought to move to Little Rock,” Heller said….

            The lawsuit against the state Board of Education… claims long bus rides hurt academic performance.

            Eaton said that claim could be extended to the point of arguing whether a Ford or Chevrolet bus is better for children.

            “I think anybody would be extremely, extremely hard pressed to be able to draw a parallel between a child’s inability to read and write and how long they’ve sat on a bus,” Eaton said.

            However, Rod McKnight of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services cited numerous studies that suggest a correlation between long bus rides and student achievement, though he said even those conclusions have conditions.

            In Nebraska rural school proponents are also fighting legislation that would force more rural school consolidations, and thus increase bus ride lengths for students there.

            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.

            Septic Tanks Baffle Urbanites

            Monday, May 15th, 2006

            I have to shake my head at the increasing number of stories about urban dwellers who move to the country only to complain that the water pressure isn’t high enough, they can’t get high speed internet or any one of a number of other things.

            This story from over the weekend takes the cake though.

            Septic tanks can baffle some
            City dwellers new to the country often unfamiliar with maintenance of rural systems

            When Candice Quinn Kelly and her husband bought a house in the farmlands of Charles County, Md., they loved the rural feel and the big, open yard — especially the small patch of miraculously lush grass in the middle. To Kelly, raised in Baltimore, that odd strip of bright green turf was like having her own little piece of the golf fairway at Pebble Beach.

            Then it started getting soggy, which was curious. But they chalked it up to low ground. It wasn’t until their toilets stopped flushing one day that they recognized the flourishing greenery for what it was: a spongy marsh of human waste.

            A local agricultural extension agent goes on to say that some people don’t even realize that their new homes have septic tanks.

            Rural School Funding

            Wednesday, May 10th, 2006

            The Department of the Interior is backing off of their earlier plan to sell off pieces of national forest land to provide funding for rural schools in former logging communities. The payments are the result of federal legislation designed to offset declines in local tax bases in the wake of new federal forest policies in the 1990s that restricted logging on federal land.

            The Department will look for other funding sources.

            Rural Health Professional Shortage

            Monday, May 8th, 2006

            Nearly the entire state of North Dakota is a “health professional shortage area.”

            ND

            In prior years Canadian and other foreign doctors in the country on J1 visas have helped to fill the void in rural areas. J1 visa applicants are required to work in underserved areas, but the number of applicants for J1 visas is falling.

            A hospital administrator in rural North Dakota says towns like his are getting left out in the cold as a result.

            “We used to have 150 applicants,” Urvand said.

            The hospital has had a physician vacancy for nearly a half year, with only a handful of applications. […]

            Since 1994, the J1 visa program has cut the number of physician vacancies by half, while at any given time, there are still 20 vacancies statewide.

            The same is true in Tioga. It made a couple of offers to physicians, but in both cases, the offer was turned down because the physician’s spouse didn’t want to make the move. […]

            Since 1994, the J1 visa program has cut the number of physician vacancies by half, while at any given time, there are still 20 vacancies statewide.

            The problem with spouse comfort is common, but so is cultural comfort.

            Tioga Medical Center administrator Randall Peterson said he’s found that’s part of the reason some foreign physicians don’t want to come to small rural communities. […]

            Yet another factor is a separate visa program, called H1B, which does not require rural service.

            In effect, one visa program undercuts the other.

            It’ll get worse. By 2020, the physician shortage will reach 200,000, with small towns feeling the hardest pinch. […]

            Prior to September 11, 2001, the USDA administered a program to recruit physicians to practice in rural areas on J1 visas, and they were successful in bringing at least 3,000 doctors to underserved rural areas during the 1990s. The USDA terminated its program in early 2002.

            The department of Health and Human Services has since reinstituted a much more limited program that is not expected to be able to keep up with demand in underserved areas.

            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.

            Exurban Sprawl

            Friday, May 5th, 2006

            A new report (pdf) out of Colorado documents an agricultural land loss rate of 690 acres per day! Colorado is ranked third in the nation, behind Texas and New Mexico, for overall agricultural land lost in the past five years.

            A major cause of the land loss is ranchette-style development of houses on lots between two and 40 acres. And now developers in the state are planning a mammoth, private road project to ease the congestion caused by the exurban sprawl.

            Farming Magazine

            Thursday, May 4th, 2006

            I’ve added a new periodical to my already too-long reading list. My first issue of Farming Magazine arrived recently. I was sold at the subtitle, “People, Land and Community.” The rest of the magazine hasn’t let me down yet either. Unfortunately, the magazine’s website doesn’t do it justice. You can subscribe there though.

            (Youth) Renewing the Countryside

            Monday, May 1st, 2006

            I’m on the advisory committee for this forthcoming book. Here’s the press release & call for stories.

            For Immediate Release

            Contact:
            Beth Munnich, Renewing the Countryside
            (612) 871-1541, beth@rtcinfo.org
            www.renewingthecountryside.org

            A Younger Face for Rural America

            Contribute your stories, images to book showcasing role of young people in rural revitalization

            Minneapolis, MN—As rural populations decline, community leaders across the country find themselves concerned about how to hold on to young residents—and attract young families to rural places. But young people are, in fact, making lives for themselves in rural America—launching new businesses, keeping family farms in production, starting new farms, and becoming involved in their local communities. Moreover, young people in both rural and urban areas are engaging in rural development by participating in farm-to-school programs, community gardens, and exchange programs that give young people a taste of rural lifestyles. Forward-thinking communities are finding new and innovative ways to engage the next generation in building a better future for their original and adopted hometowns.

            Consider contributing your story or photo to Youth Renewing the Countryside, a book in progress that will capture the best stories of hope and youth-led renewal in rural America. The book will be produced by young writers and photographers who tell the success stories of young adults crafting rural livelihoods that support themselves, their families, and their communities, and of youth programs that build social capital while strengthening local food systems. The book will form the basis for a national public education campaign about the role of young people in sustaining and revitalizing rural communities.

            Renewing the Countryside, a Minneapolis-based non-profit organization, in partnership with the USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, is now seeking stories and story ideas, as well as young writers and photographers to be part of the Youth Renewing the Countryside production team this summer. A national committee composed of representatives from farming, youth development, and entrepreneurship networks, along with writers and photographers, will select the stories to be included in the publication and the writers and photographers who will create it. Selected contributors will be paired with professional writers and photographers who will act as mentors throughout the process. Renewing the Countryside will provide modest compensation to writers and photographers for their work.

            Details are below the fold. (more…)

            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.

            Photo Blogging

            Saturday, February 18th, 2006

            The Late Great Plains

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

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

            On the Reservation

            Wednesday, February 15th, 2006

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

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

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

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

            Terrible Idea

            Monday, February 13th, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            Voting in Rural Areas

            Sunday, February 12th, 2006

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

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

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

            Photo Blogging

            Saturday, February 11th, 2006

            The Late Great Plains

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

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

            Gold Creek, Montana

            Tuesday, January 31st, 2006

            The second google result for Gold Creek, Montana directs you to a ghosttowns.com page for the town. The third result indicates that the town had a population of 35 in 1939.

            Yesterday the one room school house in Gold Creek was featured as part of the series on one room school houses on NPR’s Morning Edition.

            Gold Creek, Mont., has no stores, gas stations or bars, and its one church is closed. But it is rich in grazing land, and it still has a one-room school.

            It’s a tiny community in Powell County, on the western slope of the continental divide, once famous as the first place gold was discovered in Montana 150 years ago. And near here, in 1883, the Northern Pacific Railroad completed its east-to-west connection.

            But, like much of the state, Powell County has seen economic boom and bust. The mining and cattle ranching that once made it prosperous no longer sustain its people.

            Today Gold Creek is one of several small communities in the county that’s struggling to hold itself together. Jobs are scarce and young people are leaving the county to find work.

            At Gold Creek School last spring, teacher Kim Tozzi had six students, in kindergarten through sixth grade.

            Tozzi had come to Gold Creek from large urban and suburban schools in Las Vegas, Kansas City and Salt Lake City…

            Read more, see pictures and listen to the feature story here. The rest of the series is here. The series continues through June.

            My parents taught in a two room school house in Galata, Montana in the 1970s. The school is still open, and I visited it on this trip.

            Reversing the Rural Decline

            Tuesday, December 13th, 2005

            by Brian Depew

            There’s yet another story today about the shrinking population of the rural United States. This one is from Kansas where 3/4 of the state’s 105 counties lost population between 2000 and 2004, and for the eighth year in a row 60 percent of the school districts in the state saw their enrollment decline yet again in 2005.

            The story discusses the usual causes (changes in the agriculture sector), and the usual responses (school consolidation).

            I admire communities like Utica, Kansas where they hung onto their school until last year when enrollment for the entire district fell below 40 students, and Cuba, Kansas where a school with an enrollment of 100 students remains open.

            But stubborn perseverance alone will not save these communities. We must transform how we think about rural areas.

            We need to move beyond current policies that have done little to reverse the long decline, and instead implement public policies that seek to support and build the civil institutions that rural people depend on (schools included).

            This means figuring out how to arrest population decline, but initially it means more than that. It means using creative ideas to keep schools, post offices and grocery stores open. It means looking at new and creative ways to fund vital activities. It means forming new coalitions to lobby state and federal governments for both fiscal support and beneficial policy changes.

            Some of the community leaders in the story understand the problem.

            “We’ve got to find things people can do to stay in Republic County,” said [school Superintendent] Lysell, who’s also active in the county’s economic development efforts. “What we have now is a sort of cycle — we give our kids a really good education, they go off to college and then they don’t come back because they can’t make the kind of money here that they can make in the larger cities. And then with fewer people here, we start to lose businesses,” he said.

            But we have to move beyond defeatist response like this one given by the director of the Center for Economic Development and Business Research at Wichita State University.

            “[Rural Communities that have bucked the trend] are exceptions rather than the rule,” said WSU’s Harrah, adding, “I don’t expect to see a turnaround.”

            Clearly they’re not going to help us.

            We need leaders (people in positions like school Superintendent Lysell) to bring rural communities together and form grassroots organizations. These organizations can (and should) be the hub of innovative ideas about how to maintain and build the civil institutions rural communities need. Additionally, these groups need to be encouraged to stand up and demand policy changes when they are needed at the state and federal level.

            I believe that a sustainable rural future is possible, but it will have to start in the communities most affected by the current decline. Policies that keep schools in rural communities, bring jobs back and implement creative funding mechanisms are a start. With support and encouragement I believe that ideas like these will see wider implementation, and that many more ideas like them will emerge from our rural communities.

            There’s certainly no sense in waiting around for the solutions to come from above.

            The declines have the attention of Sen. Janis Lee, D-Kensington.

            “It’s been devastating,” Lee said. “I don’t know the answer, but I think it’s pretty clear that economic efforts that have been undertaken in this state haven’t worked. I don’t think they have a clue what we’re dealing with out here.”

            We have to take the solutions to them. They are waiting.

            More Pigs from the Big Guys

            Tuesday, December 13th, 2005

            There is an interesting tidbit in the Corporate Farming Notes section of the latest newsletter from Center for Rural Affairs.

            According to Successful Farming Magazine, the largest 20 hog producers in the United States have added over 140,000 sows to their numbers in the last year. Fifty-seven percent of those were added through consolidation, larger production companies purchasing smaller operations. But approximately 61,000 of those sows are new – about half being added by converting existing nurseries to gilt development units. Iowa Select Farms is adding 20,000 sows through this type of conversion.

            As a result, finishing barns are going up throughout the Midwest. The Farmers Cooperative Society in Sioux Center, Iowa is pushing to build 60,000 new hog-finishing spaces this year.

            Update: The Iowa DNR pushes back.

            Jeff Vonk, director of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, said his staff has been concerned about record confinement construction over the past few years.

            Some of those projects have been built in areas vulnerable to groundwater pollution. Others were constructed in areas where no land was available nearby for manure application, so the producers trucked the wastes more than 35 miles, risking a leak, Vonk said. Other manure is spread on slopes where it probably runs off into rivers and lakes, he said.

            “We want to make sure these confinements are getting the proper scrutiny,” said Vonk […]

            The department is filing an emergency rule that, by Dec. 30, would give Vonk the power to block or change plans for additions to confinements or for new buildings.

            It’s about freaking time.

            Pharma Crops, Farmers and Rural Communities

            Monday, December 12th, 2005

            A new report written by Iowa State Economics Professor Robert Wisner and commissioned by the Union for Concerned Scientists examines the potential benefits and risks of pharmaceutical crops for farmers and rural communities. The report website is here.

            To gain support for pharma crop production at the state level and state subsidies for their industry, pharma crop proponents have touted the substantial benefits that these new crops would bring to farmers and rural America. However, these claims were never backed up by economic analyses.

            To fill this gap, UCS commissioned Dr. Robert Wisner, University Professor in the Department of Economics at Iowa State University, to take a close look at the economic benefits and risks of pharma crops to growers and rural communities. Dr. Wisner, one of the nation’s leading agricultural economists, found some drug and biotechnology companies may profit from “pharma crops,” but farmers and rural communities are likely to see few if any benefits.

            After careful review of Dr. Wisner’s report, UCS concludes that pharma crop proponents’ claims are inflated and, importantly, whatever benefits do materialize, most farmers will not be major beneficiaries.

            I’m reading through the report summary now, and it seems to be well done.

            No Power

            Friday, December 2nd, 2005

            Days after a snow and ice storm swept through the Great Plains a number of communities are still waiting for the power to come back on as temperatures hover in the teens.

            In South Dakota volunteers have begun going door to door urging people without heat to report to one of the 68 shelters set up across the state.

            The teams will identify people at risk because of no power, offer information on protecting their homes from freezing water pipes and other cold-weather problems, and provide transportation to shelters.

            [Gov. Mike] Rounds said many local citizens, especially older people, don’t want to leave their homes, in spite of cold and lack of power. He quoted one local official as telling him, “I just can’t get them to go to a shelter.’’

            The door-to-door teams will try to encourage shelter use. South Dakotans aren’t used to asking for help, the governor said.

            Officials estimate that 10,000 miles of power lines were damaged in the storm.

            How Big is Your Town’s Endowment?

            Thursday, December 1st, 2005

            I missed this New York Times story a couple of weeks ago.

            The story highlighted Ord, Nebraska (population 2,200) and the recently established Ord Foundation. These community endowments are being established in a small, but growing, number of rural communities.

            In Ord the endowment recently offered relocation assistance to 10 young couples who moved to town.

            In some rural communities (if they reach their fundraising goals) the new endowments are posed to provide more yearly revenue than local property taxes currently do.

            Even smaller towns have gotten involved. Shickley, a village in Fillmore County in the southeastern part of the state, with a population of 363, has built an endowment of $300,000 in just four years, after a local banking family posted a $105,000 challenge grant. If the town can raise $1 million - by 2011 it is hoped - it will provide more than the present annual property tax intake of $42,000. This year, the endowment’s extra $13,000 helped renovate the Fillmore County Courthouse, support a local history project and maintain a new library and public swimming pool.

            The success of the endowments in many rural communities is being staked on local residents, rather than on wealthy external funders.

            The critical part of creating an endowment is to involve as many residents as possible, through a local founders club that requires a minimum commitment of $1,000. In Ord, 55 donors signed up within the first two weeks.

            Colleges and Universities track their alumni like hawks, knowing that one day these former students will be in the position to contribute to their alma mater’s endowment. Towns in Nebraska are now doing the same.

            Nebraska does not have a large pool of part-time residents to tap, and it has an outflow of young residents - the children of potential donors - who move away when they go to college and do not return. So virtually every town has tracked down alumni networks, even for grade schools, to draw from the huge intergenerational wealth transfer that could be coming in the next decades.

            The executive director of the foundation in Ord, Nebraska says, “”There is a renewed sense of hope in this community that we can help ourselves, we have to help ourselves because no one else is going to.”

            Indeed.

            Update: If you live in a rural community, consider sending a link to this post to your local mayor, city council members and school officials.

            Remnants of Rural Past

            Monday, November 28th, 2005

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

            Someday they’ll all be gone.

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

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

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

            Centerville

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

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

            Tieton Drive

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

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

            Highway 97

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

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

            Hanford High School

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

            Highway 24

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

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

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

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

            Outsourcing to Rural

            Monday, November 28th, 2005

            Could rural sourcing help bring jobs to rural communities?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            This all comes with the caveat I offered here.

            Hunger in the Country

            Sunday, November 27th, 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            Rural Recruiting

            Sunday, November 27th, 2005

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

            New recruits are still coming disproportionately from rural areas.

            This from North Branch, Michigan.

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

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

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

            The pattern is similar nationwide. […]

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

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

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

            Rural Philanthropy

            Friday, November 25th, 2005

            From a recent editorial by Thomas Rowley at RUPRI.

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

            Thanksgiving Travelers Head for Rural Areas

            Wednesday, November 23rd, 2005

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

            Rural Air Service

            Wednesday, November 23rd, 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            Judge Supports Small Schools

            Wednesday, November 16th, 2005

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            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.

            Starbucks Goes Rural

            Sunday, October 23rd, 2005

            The Seattle based coffee GIANT wants to increase their number of U.S. locations from 7,000 outlets t0 15,000 outlets. In many urban areas you can already find locations from which multiple Starbucks can be seen from a single location (I once stumbled across a website that catalogued photos of such locations, but I can’t put my fingers on it at the moment). Since the company has all but saturated urban areas in the U.S. they are turning to rural areas as they seek to double their current number of locations.

            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.

            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.

            Bad Rural Development

            Wednesday, June 29th, 2005

            For several months I have been working on my own writing project (a mater’s thesis). As a result I’ve fallen behind on reading other people’s writing, but now that I am wrapping up my project I have been turning to my growing pile of books.

            Last night I was able to start reading Jared Diamond’s new book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Diamond is also the author of the bestseller Guns, Germs, and Steel.

            Diamond begins his new book in Montana, a region that he sees as an exemplar case of how societies can go wrong. Diamond’s writing about one county in the Bitterroot Mountain Range exemplifies what might be a paradigm case of bad rural development.

            A symbolic landmark in the Bitterroot Valley’s recent economic transformation took place in 1996, when a 2,600 acre farm called the Bitterroot Stock Farm […] was acquired by the wealthy brokerage house owner Charles Schwab. He began to develop [the] estate for very rich out-of-staters who wanted a second (or even third or fourth) home in the valley to visit for fishing, hunting, horseback riding, and golfing a couple of times a year.

            The Stock Farm includes an 18-hole championship gold course and about 125 sites for what are called either houses or cabins, “cabin” being a euphemism for a structure of up to six bedrooms and 6,000 square feet selling for $800,000 or more. Buyers of Stock Farm lots must be able to prove that they meet high standards of net worth and income, the least of which is the ability to afford a club membership initiation fee of $125,000, which is more than seven times the average annual income of Ravalli County Residents.

            The whole Stock Farm is fenced, and the entrance gate bares a sign, MEMBERS AND GUESTS ONLY. Many of the owners arrive by private jet and rarely shop or set foot in Hamilton, but prefer to eat at the Stock Farm club or else have their groceries picked up from Hamilton by club employees.

            Ironically, Ravalli County remains one of the poorest in Montana, which in turn is one of the poorest in the nation.

            The book has not been without detractors, but nonetheless as long as you keep Diamond’s idiosyncrasies in mind as you read I think that the book will offer a rich narrative on an important topic.

            If you don’t want to buy the book, you can read the much much briefer NY Times op-ed by Diamond that accompanied the release of the book.

            School Bus Stock Truck

            Tuesday, June 28th, 2005

            School officials and rural activists in New Zealand get it.

            Schools on Tuesday stepped up their campaign against planned funding cuts for bus services in rural areas.

            High school students in Canterbury boarded a stock truck as a protest against changes they say will halve government subsidies in some regions.

            “We’re very concerned that if we have to try and run buses at this sort of loss then we’re going to end up putting kids in cattle truck situations,” says Mike Wilson from the Canterbury Rural Schools Transport group.

            Paging the Napa Valley Unified School District.

            Some Children Left Behind

            Sunday, June 26th, 2005

            Add school bus service to that list of things that rural communities need to provide if they want to arrest population decline.

            School buses may not reach rural stops

            Fewer kids who live on rural roads will be able to take the school bus next year, but their parents can get mileage reimbursement for the hassle.

            Trustees of Napa Valley Unified School District on Thursday canceled 10 bus routes to rural parts of Napa, a move that could save more than $275,000 a year. Four dozen students will feel the effects.

            “It would be cheaper to hire a taxi cab to pick them up,” said Don Evans, director of general services and maintenance for NVUSD.

            No one said they had to run full size buses on these routes. Students from far-flung areas of the district where I went to school were transported in minivans. While part of the problem seems to be a lack of imaginative answers, not nearly all of the blame belongs to the district.

            The district — facing the third year of reduced state funding — has been looking for more ways to pinch pennies.

            I’m not certain about the school funding system in California, but in many states school funding is tied to local sales and property taxes. This has created controversy in some states in recent years. Most recently a consortium of rural schools in Georgia has filed suit in that state. They are arguing that by shifting the burden of school funding to local taxes the state is failing to meet its requirements to students in rural areas.

            The Napa Valley School District should consider the same. Leaving children waiting at the end of their driveway is unacceptable.

            A Firehouse with no Firefighters

            Friday, June 24th, 2005

            Earlier this week I wrote about rural fire departments getting free equipment from military surplus. I lamented at the end of the post that there were likely more efficient ways to assist rural fire departments. This story sheds light on what rural fire departments might need, other than free equipment.

            LAWRENCE, Kan. - When a call comes to respond to a fire or traffic accident, they go.

            It doesn’t matter what they are doing at home or at work. It doesn’t matter if they have to drive a 30-year-old fire truck to get there. And it doesn’t matter that they don’t get paid.

            But volunteer firefighters in Douglas County are becoming harder to find.

            Nobody knows that better than LeRoy Boucher, longtime chief of the Lecompton Fire & Rescue Department. He has seen his department in recent years drop from an average of 20 or more volunteer firefighters to about a dozen.

            As more and more young people move away from rural areas there are fewer volunteers to fight the blazes. Young people that remain are facing longer commutes, and more family pressures then before.

            And it’s not only fires these volunteers fight. In many rural communities the same volunteers are trained as emergency medical technicians and first responders.

            This is just one of a host of problems faced by an aging rural population.

            “If I could get somebody to take over the chief’s job, I’d be willing to step out of this,” he said. “I’m going to be 67 pretty quick, and that’s too old for this.”

            The rural United States needs much more than free firefighting equipment. This is the type of problem that won’t go away on its own, and if ignored it will further exasperate itself. No one wants to move their young family to a community that lacks such basic resources.

            The good news is that by redirecting resources to rural development this trend should be easily reversed. People do want to live in these communities (more on that later today). They just need to be assured that they will have jobs, schools, and fire departments.

            Nebraska Ahead of the Curve

            Wednesday, June 22nd, 2005

            In Nebraska more rural residents are online than in other rural areas. Nearly 70% of rural Nebraskans are online—about the same as the national average for urban and rural, and well above other rural areas. What are they doing different?

            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.

            Golf Leaves Some Out

            Thursday, June 16th, 2005

            As the U.S. Open golf tournament gets underway in North Carolina today this story from last week deserves some attention.

            MIDWAY, N.C. — If a hard rain falls on the North Carolina Sandhills this week, it could temporarily halt play at the U.S. Open golf tournament at Pinehurst.

            It also might wash away the dirt Randy Thomas has packed in the driveway of his home a couple of miles away, leaving his septic system to leak raw sewage into his front yard.

            Midway is one of five predominantly black communities tucked amid the area’s well-manicured golf course communities, often to the extent that they appear as doughnut holes on maps. They exist in a governmental no-man’s land, without sewer lines, garbage service or sometimes even water lines.

            The people that live in these forgotten enclaves provided much of the manual labor that built the areas multiple golf courses, but they have received little in return. Today the 500 residents of these communities live just minutes from upscale golf communities.

            Follow the rutted roads to the east end of the neighborhood, take a sharp right up a sandy embankment and you’re onto a paved cul-de-sac with $500,000-plus vacation homes that surround a manmade lake and members-only Pinehurst Beach Club.

            And this from the NY Times.

            The 500 residents of these unincorporated enclaves are close enough to point out sewer lines that run past their properties en route to new developments, or to watch garbage trucks trundle past without stopping.

            Activists are working this week to bring attention to this despicable situation.

            School Consolidation

            Thursday, June 16th, 2005

            At the same time as rural residents are reiterating the importance of education, rural schools continue to consolidate.

            The elementary school will not reopen in the fall because of declining enrollment and budget constraints in the Central Community School District. The story is the same for the Whiteside County river town of Albany, Ill., which lost its small Albany Grade School for the same reasons.

            They join the list of 17 Quad-City region schools that have closed since 2000–seven this year alone.

            Education officials in Illinois say 401 public schools have closed since 2000. In Iowa, about 90 public schools have closed since 2000, with rural communities hit the hardest because of declining population and enrollment, aging buildings, increasing costs and shrinking budgets.

            While such moves might be necessary for districts faced with shrinking budgets, there is sufficient evidence that it does little to improve the quality of education, and may in fact do just the opposite.

            I say the move only might be necessitated by district budget problems because I believe that there are other more creative solution.

            The most obvious of these is to return to the funding source, in most cases the state governments, and demand adequate money. It’s a strategy that would likely pay off in the end for the state anyway. With higher graduation rates for rural schools, and the increased economic activity generated in rural communities that have schools, it is easy to imagine how a positive return on investing in rural schools might be generated.

            Other options that school boards should consider before shuttering the doors include consolidating administrators and offering distance learning classes to high school students.

            The rural school that I graduated from in northwest Iowa had its own share of poor teachers, but I don’t imagine it’s too much better in larger schools. I graduated with 31 classmates, quite small by most standards.

            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.

            Better is Better than Bigger

            Sunday, June 12th, 2005

            Sometimes I just don’t know what to say. This story appeared in several papers today.

            For decades, experts have insisted that new jobs, housing and highways were the keys to building prosperity among the nation’s 60 million rural Americans.

            But a report scheduled for presentation today in Point Clear suggests that residents of the rural South are tired of the “more” mantra, and say that bigger isn’t always better. Instead, many want to enhance and preserve small-town character, not accumulate urban amenities as if they were Mardi Gras beads.

            Such results were not what researchers had expected, according to Jim Clinton, executive director of the Southern Growth Policies Board, which sponsored the “2005 Report on the Future of the South.”

            “They don’t really like it when people or organizations try to tie the success of a community to whether it’s getting big or not,” Clinton said. “They want it to get better, not necessarily a lot larger. They don’t want it to get urban.”

            The story goes on to report that residents told researchers that they wanted better schools, and improvements in water, sewer and health care.

            “They told us over and over again how important education is to rural revitalization,” Clinton said.

            But remember, ”Such results were not what research had expected.” I suppose they were too busy trying to figure out how to bring a Wal Mart to every community.

            Last Chance for Last Chance

            Thursday, June 9th, 2005

            Nuclear waste—coming soon to a rural area near you.

            Last Chance, Colorado (photo here) is an unincorporated town on the eastern plains of Colorado. Located in Washington County, population 5,000 (or a very low 1.95 people per square mile), Last Chance is so named because it was once the last chance to fuel up before a long drive across the barren plains of Colorado.

            Yesterday Clean Harbors Environmental Services received clearance from the Rocky Mountain Low-Level Radioactive Waste Board to begin shipments of radioactive waste from a tri-state region to the Last Chance area. The site will begin by accepting waste from a Superfund site in the Denver area, but the company has expressed hope that they will ultimately be able to bring in waste from other areas and industries as well.

            As I see it there are two ways that these sorts of waste dumps end up in rural areas.

            In some cases these rural communities have suffered repeated economic setbacks. Out of desperation they court landfills, radio active waste, jails and other generally undesirable industries. This brings jobs to otherwise desolate communities and allows residents to pay the bills. The situation presents a double edged sward to say the least.

            In other cases politicians from urban/affluent areas push these industries into low income and rural areas. Neither scenario is acceptable, but the latter seems worse.

            This from the Associate Press.

            Pam Whelden, a rancher who lives two miles north of the site and worries about water and soil contamination. She said residents were told when the dump opened in the 1980s that no radioactive waste would be stored there.

            “It is a bogus and arrogant move by the Colorado Department of Health and Clean Harbors,” said Whelden, a member of Concerned Citizens of Eastern Colorado, which opposes the radioactive-waste permit.

            She said state and Clean Harbors officials failed to take residents’ concerns into consideration.

            “We have to become watchdogs in our area to keep us safe,” Whelden said. “They don’t listen.”

            The site still has to receive approval from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, but approval is expected.

            TennCare

            Friday, June 3rd, 2005

            Tennessee’s ongoing budget problem (the state levies virtually no income tax) has resulted in a plan to cut over 200,000 state residents from the Medicaid rolls.

            These cuts are posed to hit some rural areas of Tennessee particularly hard.

            In rural Fentress County nearly half of the county’s 17,000 people are on TennCare. This marks the highest percentage for any county in the state. Close to 3,000 people in the county could be dropped from TennCare’s rolls by the end of the summer.

            Certainly other residents share the untenable position of Terry Sheilds

            Terry Shields [is] a 36-year-old long-haul trucker who can no longer drive professionally because of a debilitating combination of chronic pain and shortness of breath, high blood pressure, allergies and diabetes.

            Shields stares at the collection of pills and inhalers spread across the table in his home and worries about the future.

            “There is no way I can pay for my medicines. No way,” he said. “If the cuts go through like they are being proposed, it’s pretty much like the governor is saying, ‘Which disease do you want to die from?’” said Shields, who faces drug bills far exceeding the $1,600 he receives in Social Security each month to support himself, his wife and two children.

            TennCare is administered by the state and funded with both federal and state funds.

            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.

            (more…)

            Rural Sourcing

            Thursday, March 10th, 2005

            In an effort to counter the rural brain drain some rural communities are fighting back against overseas outsourcing.

            NPR recently reported on a joint project of Southern Arkansas University and Rural Sourcing Inc.

            Project proponents hope that the current backlash against overseas outsourcing will make rural sourcing an attractive alternative for companies looking to cut operating costs. Rural Sourcing Inc., who helps high-tech firms find rural partners, touts cost savings of 30-50% over domestic competitors. These savings are less than those possible with overseas outsourcing. Nonetheless some companies are choosing rural sourcing for both political and practical reasons.

            This sounds promising as long as cost savings are the result of the lower costs of living in rural areas. As soon as the savings become the result of the exploitation of rural communities the practice will be only marginally better than overseas outsourcing.

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