home

Alert: Family Farm Pork Producers, Take Action Today

December 16th, 2008

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Pollan on Agribusiness Populism

October 25th, 2008

This is a near quote of Michael Pollan on NPR’s Fresh Air this week:

There is a real issue of perception of elitism, and it is one of ironies of our society that junk food being sold by multinational corporations like McDonalds and Kraft appears to be populist, and food grown by struggling, scrupulous farmers is regarded as elitist. And I think there is something wrong with this picture, that those agribusiness companies have seized the populist high ground. When you look at how that supposedly cheap, populist food is produced, it’s dependent on government handouts, it’s dependent on the brutalizing of workers and brutalizing of animals, and it suddenly appears in a very, very different light.

The discussion occurs at about 31:00 minutes into the interview.

Pollan’s comments notwithstanding, it remains the case that much of the sustainable and local food system in the U.S. supports those with solidly middle to upper-class paychecks. This has bothered me for years.

We have seen renewed food systems that we cheer come into existence in recent years, but we too often fail to acknowledge that the growing gap between the rich and the poor is precisely what has made this possible.

Who doesn’t love a Niman Ranch hog farmer? But these farmers that we love to love produce meat for high-end markets on the coasts. Certainly, this is better than producing hogs in confinement for export or growing corn for unmitigated biofuels production. But a local food system that caters to and relies upon a growing wealth disparity leaves too many of the social ills that we set out to address untouched.

That being said, Pollan, as he is apt to do, offers a concise and effective rebuttal to the “local food as elitist” argument. In fact, it is best rebuttal I ever recall having heard.

Depew Family Farm

April 8th, 2008

My little brother sent me the below photo of our family farm this evening. He found it online at an aerial map service.

I remember the aerial photo of my family’s farm that my grandparents used to have hanging on their wall. They paid an aerial photographer for it. Apparently such expensive endeavors are no longer necessary. The photo below is not as high quality as the photo that used to hang on my grandparents wall, but this one was free.

Depew Family Farm near Laurens, Iowa

The pictures is oriented as you would a map. The greenest square in the southwest corner is the yard and house. To the north and west is the machine shed. Directly north of the house is the barn where my grandpa milked cows and where my family has raised sheep, pigs and beef cattle. To the north of that yet is a feed yard and the old silo, unused for decades. To the east of the silo are a couple of open front livestock sheds. North of the silo and those sheds is the grove of trees planted to protect the farmstead from cold north winds.

To the east of the yard and house is the shop and the corn crib that we shelled ear corn out of until I was in high school. The larger white building to the north of the corn crib and to the east of the silo is the insulated winter farrowing building what we bought second hand and moved on site while I was in college.

To the east of the farmstead sits four hoop houses for hogs. We built all four from the ground up with little or no hired labor, completing the first and west-most one in the fall of 1998. I still distinctly remember finishing it on crisp fall days while listening to market reports on the radio as the price of hogs crashed. We poured a shorter concrete slab in the front of that building and used plywood for the walls. Who could justify more expensive concrete and tongue and groove sidewalls with hogs at eight dollars a hundred weight?

I think we took one year off before building the next three hoop houses in three consecutive years. The third and fourth were purchased used. Their previous owner tore them down, opting instead to build more confinement facilities. I remember talking to him as he told me that the hoop house “just didn’t fit with his business model.” I think he had tried to pack hogs into them as dense as he did in his confinement buildings, and was disappointed with the results.

Soon there is a good chance there will be no more hogs in those hoop buildings. That’s a story for another blog post though.

As We Sow

April 6th, 2008

Part 1



Part 2


Part 3

Horribly depressing. Film credit.

Livestock pollution turns off young Iowans

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

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

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

September 10th, 2007

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

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

Brasher: Harkin prepares push for rural development

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bush Dog: Earl Pomeroy

September 9th, 2007

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

Earl Pomeroy - North Dakota Representative At Large

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Farm Aid: Live from the Big City

September 8th, 2007

Why is Farm Aid in Manhattan this year?

Next Up: Senator Tom Harkin

September 8th, 2007

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

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

The Value of Rural

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

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.

Daily Yonder

July 15th, 2007

The Daily Yonder is a new online (blogish-style) newspaper on rural issues. Backed by the Center for Rural Strategies, and actual paid staff, the site is generating original news and commentary on issues of interest to rural communities at pace that makes the site worth checking in on at least a couple of times each week.

You can also drop in on an interesting conversation I started in the comments on one of their regular features. Editor, Bill Bishop, picks up on the comment in a more recent post, and promises to continue to conversation.

I’ve added Daily Yonder to the blogroll on the right.

Whole Foods, Empty Promises

July 14th, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hat tip: Tom Philpott at Gristmill

Let There Be No Doubt

July 11th, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Town I Grew Up In

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

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?

July 7th, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it gets even more interesting.

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

Sirius, XM and American values

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

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

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

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

[snip]

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

[snip]

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

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

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

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

Water Wars Creep Eastward

July 7th, 2007

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

Amendment to farm bill would help pay for small irrigation reservoirs

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

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

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

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

Lies The Economist Told Natasha

June 11th, 2007

Natasha over at Pacific Views has a great post up on the Economist and the business of agriculture. She starts with a quote from the Economist article:

… This special report will examine how climate change is affecting business, and how business can affect climate change. It will concentrate on industrial emissions rather than on agriculture and deforestation (which produce lots of carbon dioxide without involving business much) but will leave out air travel, on which this newspaper will publish a special report in two weeks’ time.

Then the fun begins for Natasha:

Pardon? Agriculture … doesn’t involve business much? My cranial hamster wheel wobbles on its very axis; it threatens a total derailment. Are these people stupid, lying, deranged, or merely hard toking the hash that’s been flooding Europe since the US invasion of Afghanistan? Maybe they decided to write the preface to this special report during their annual editorial off-site in Amsterdam. I am not qualified to say with certainty which explanation is correct, but as you can see, my suspicions in this regard run towards the lurid.

Read the full post over at Pacific Views. Natasha is right. Agriculture today is increasingly, and in many countries solely, about business.

Natasha offers somewhat regular agriculture commentary. She should write about agriculture more often though.

Satellite Radio Merger: Differing Rural Perspectives

June 10th, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

Huh?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ag Education: A Different Way

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.

Farm Labor Movement

May 29th, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that brings us to today.

Read the rest at Ethicurean

Bill Moyers: “If I had been a farmer…”

April 29th, 2007

Journalist Bill Moyers in an interview with the Christian Century on being a populist:

You seem to have a very strong populist perspective. Where does that come from?

If I had been an embattled farmer exploited by the railroads and bankers back in the 19th century, I hope I would have shown up at that amazing convention in Omaha that adopted the platform beginning: “We meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin.” Those folks were aroused by Christian outrage over injustice. They made the prairie rumble. If I had lived a few years later, I would hope to have worked for McClure’s, the great magazine that probed the institutional corruption of the day and prompted progressive agitation.

The Great Depression was the tsunami of my experience, and my perspective was shaped by Main Street, not Wall Street. My parents were laid low by the Depression. When I was born my father was making $2 a day working on the highway, and he never brought home more than $100 a week in his working life. He didn’t even earn that much until he joined the union on his last job. Like Franklin Roosevelt, I came to think that government by organized money should be feared as much as government by organized mob. I’d rather not have either, thank you.

I am a democrat (notice the small d) who believes that the soul of democracy is representative government. It’s our best, although certainly imperfect, protection against predatory forces, whether unfettered markets, unscrupulous neighbors or fantastical ideologies, foreign or domestic. Our best chance at governing ourselves lies in obtaining the considered judgments of those we elect to weigh the competing interests and decide to the best of their ability what is right for the country. Anything that corrupts their judgment, whether rigged elections or bribery masked as campaign contributions, is the devil’s work.

Here is that populist party platform in full.

Biofuels: Boon or Bust?

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.

New Contributor

April 15th, 2007

Steph Larsen, a Policy Organizer with the Community Food Security Coalition, is joining Rural Populist as a new contributor. Larsen will write occasional posts on agricultural policy, the current farm bill debate, and whatever else strikes her as thought-provoking.

Hillary’s Wal-Mart History

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

April 6th, 2007

From the Washington Post:

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

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

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

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

Fired for Doing His Job

April 4th, 2007

From today’s Des Moines Register:

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s see that shirt:

Fired for Protecting the Environment Shirt

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

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

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

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

[snip]

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

[snip]

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

[snip]

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

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

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

Montana Democrats

March 26th, 2007

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

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

Left in the West has more.

Payment Limits

March 22nd, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you, Senator Tester.

The Battle of the Map

January 7th, 2007

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

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

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

Last Year in Review

January 5th, 2007

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

Rural Roundup

January 2nd, 2007

  • On Dec. 1, 2006 Iowa farms had 17.2 million hogs, the most ever counted in a December inventory and the largest number of hogs on Iowa farms since September 1955.
  • One year after the Sago Mine disaster miners are still working with subpar safety equipment.
  • Proposed legislation in Arizona would tax businesses that located in rural areas at a lower rate.
  • Seeking to close the “information gap” between urban and rural, China will launch an effort to open 200,000 libraries in rural parts of the country by 2010.
  • DTN network has purchased The Progressive Farmer from Time Warner Inc, thus expanding their presence in agriculture and rural media.

    Rural Pharmacies in Trouble

    January 1st, 2007

    An important story from The Rural Blog.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

    The Year of Food

    December 29th, 2006

    Was 2006 the year food went political?

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Rural Roundup

    December 27th, 2006

  • Niel Ritchie argues that unregulated VOIP (voice over internet protocol) could be the key to driving commercial providers into the rural broadband internet business.
  • The water wars move east.
  • The FDA is poised to approve meat from cloned animals for human consumption.
  • Montana joins efforts to solidify a Western Primary early in the presidential primary calender.
  • Domestic organic production is exploding. Or is it?

    Map No More

    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

    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.

    The Other Owner

    December 11th, 2006

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

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

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

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

    Rural Roundup

    December 10th, 2006

    • Gristmill is running a series on all aspects of biofuels.
      • In a somewhat ironic move the USDA is poised to approve the “organic” label for farmed fish, but not for wild fish.
        • Fruit and vegetable producers in the U.S. don’t get much in the way of agricultural subsidies, but that could change with the next farm bill.
          • In Idaho, State House Democrats walked out of the chambers this week when Republicans refused to give up a key committee assignment to Democrats. Democrats won six additional seats in the State House in the November election.
            • In Florida there may be no such thing as “rural” within 50 years.
              • Renew Rural Iowa Initiative

                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

                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.

                Rural Roundup

                November 21st, 2006

                • Watch out! Iowa is going to run out of corn. No really. Well, ok, not really. But they might. Really. I could write a book in response to this Sunday, front page Des Moines Register article, so I won’t even start.
                  • I recently discovered the New West site with lots of news (and photographs) from the rural west.
                    • What’s this guy doing raising grapes for wine in Iowa? Doesn’t he know Iowa is going to run out of corn?
                      • Kos fills us in on some numbers: Democrats gained in the Mountain West. Democrats gained in North Dakota. Democrats gained in Alaska.
                        • This Land Not for Sale to the Army

                          November 21st, 2006

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

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

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

                          Democrats Take Control: Push Biotech

                          November 20th, 2006

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

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

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

                          The outgoing chairs were also signatories to the letter.

                          Slaughterhouse Employees Walk Out

                          November 20th, 2006

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

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

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

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

                          Rural Roundup

                          November 16th, 2006

                          • Wal Mart sells organic. Except it’s not organic.
                            • Twenty-one year old college student runs for state legislature (special election) in rural northwest Iowa.
                              • The Rural School and Community Trust has a new blog about rural schools and rural education policy.
                                • Tom Philpott at GristMill notes that agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland’s stock rose on last week’s news that Democrats will control agriculture policy in Washington. Look for status quo on ag policy.
                                  • In key House races across the country last week, rural voters put Democrats over the top.
                                    • Rural Outreach and Senate Dems

                                      November 15th, 2006

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

                                      Blanche L. Lincoln, Chair of Rural Outreach

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

                                      The good:

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

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

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

                                      The not so good:

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

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

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

                                      Farmers in the Senate

                                      November 14th, 2006

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

                                      Farmer-Senators Since 1900

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                      Hi-ho, The derry-o

                                      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.

                                      Other Goings On

                                      October 31st, 2006

                                      Continuing the proliferation of third party certification in the natural meat market, Whole Foods plans to launch their own line of “Animal Compassionate” labeled meat. As long as the standards remain meaningful (a serious concern), niche labels provide a way for small producers to break back into the corporate dominated livestock market.

                                      Rural homelessness is on the rise, and new funding sources targeted at ending chronic homelessness flow straight to the big cities.

                                      Rural homelessness has always taken a back seat to the more glaring problems in cities. Most studies estimate homeless people in small towns account for about 9 percent of the 600,000 or so homeless nationwide. But local officials and advocates for the homeless in small towns say that economic distress in recent years, including closing plants, failing farms, rising housing costs and other troubles, has left more people without homes and in greater need of help.

                                      Real numbers are hard to come by because most rural areas, where homeless services often means ad-hoc help from church groups or volunteers, are far behind a parade of cities taking head counts.

                                      Remember Ord, Nebraska? Read this post How Big is Your Town’s Endowment? and then this update from the NYT Philanthropy From the Heart of America. More rural towns and rural school districts should take up the conversation of building endowments to secure their future.

                                      Election: Rural Roundup

                                      October 30th, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                      Wal Mart Done Destroying Rural Communities:

                                      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

                                      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…

                                      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

                                              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

                                              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.”

                                              The Symbolism

                                              August 16th, 2006

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

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

                                              Put the Pick Up in Park, and Enjoy Idle Conversation

                                              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?

                                              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

                                              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.

                                              Debating Farm Policy…

                                              July 9th, 2006

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

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

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

                                              From the challenge letter.

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

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

                                              Rural Out-Migration

                                              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.

                                              Blog Link Added

                                              July 4th, 2006

                                              I’ve added a link to the Iowa Underground blog. They’ve done a better job than I blogging about agriculture issues over the last month. Check out the post about Smithfield Food and their abuse of fair labor practices, and this post on the Myth of Ag Exports as a solutions to low commodity prices. There are four or five additional posts on the front page that should be of interest to readers of this blog.

                                              Out of Town

                                              June 1st, 2006

                                              I am traveling for the next week and a half. I probably won’t blog until I return.

                                              Iowa Ag Sec Race

                                              May 31st, 2006

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

                                              Join the Network

                                              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?

                                              80/55 Rural News Delivery

                                              May 26th, 2006

                                              Once a week the Center for Rural Strategies compiles an email of rural related news stories for the 80/55 Coalition email list. This week’s email is coppied below, and you can sign up to recieve the updates yourself by following the directions in the posting.


                                              Rural News Delivery - May 24, 2006

                                              We’re pleased to offer you this compilation of articles that appeared in the national media this week on the subject of rural.

                                              The information from these weekly updates is to be used for educational purposes only. Recipients may not repurpose the contents without permission from the source. Please note that links to newspapers may require registration. Thank you!

                                              If you would like to receive the full copy of an article, please email your request to Shawn Poynter at memsvcs@ruralstrategies.org. Join the 80-55 Coalition at http://www.8055.org/indiv_join.asp

                                              Courier-Journal (Louisville, KY), May 20, 2006
                                              5 dead in E. Ky. coal mine explosion
                                              by Mark Pitsch and James R. Carroll

                                              Five miners were killed early Saturday when an explosion about 5,000 feet underground ripped through an Eastern Kentucky coal mine. One miner was rescued. The explosion at the Darby Mine No. 1 in Harlan County occurred near an area that was sealed to prevent the escape of combustible methane, which escapes when coal is mined. The accident was the deadliest in a Kentucky mine since 10 miners were killed in a 1989 explosion at a mine near Wheatcroft. That tragedy led to tougher federal rules governing the ventilation of coal mines. According to MSHA, the mine where Saturday’s explosion occurred, owned by Kentucky Darby LLC, has had 265 citations and orders and $27,651 in penalties since April 2001. Read the story.

                                              Lowell Sun (Lowell, MA), May 23, 2006
                                              Little guy vs. the ‘Big Box’
                                              by Matt Murphy

                                              The imagined new Billerica Mall, with Home Depot as the main attraction, has drawn the ire of scores of Billerica, Massachusetts, residents. But as the neighborhood opposition group Billerica First prepares to mount a challenge against the home-improvement mega-retailer, leaders are hardly swimming in unexplored waters. From the coast of Maine to the desert in Arizona, citizen activists have risen up to keep out so-called “big box” retail chains. “I think these big corporations are trashing small-town America,” said Al Norman, who runs the website www.sprawl-busters.com. “They’re destroying the feel and character of many of these communities.” Read the story.

                                              New York Times (New York, NY), May 21, 2006
                                              For many West Virginians, leaving is first step home
                                              by Ian Urbina

                                              For West Virginians, the tension between the economic push to leave and the emotional pull to return plays a central role in the state’s cultural identity. Ranked behind South Dakota as having the second smallest population growth of any state, West Virginia has struggled to hold on to residents since the early 1950’s, when layoffs in the coal industry sent people elsewhere looking for work. “They say that brown-haired people cross the border going one way and white-haired people cross it the other,” said Bob Henry Baber, the mayor of Richwood, WV. “But the truth is that most West Virginians of all ages come back continually because they don’t feel right anywhere else.” Read the story.

                                              Concord Monitor (Concord, NH), May 21, 2006
                                              Rural areas facing EMT shortage
                                              by Jenny Michael

                                              Busy lifestyles, an exodus of young people from small towns, and burnout are problems that threaten the existence of rural volunteer ambulance squads. In the past year, three ambulance services have shuttered in North Dakota, a state where about 90 percent of EMTs are volunteers. About one-third of the state’s 141 ambulance services are at risk of the same fate. EMTs and officials worry the shortage could hurt the quality of health care, forcing people to wait longer before an ambulance arrives. Read the story.

                                              Chillicothe News (Chillicothe, MO), May 18, 2006
                                              Small-town symphony thrives in Missouri musical Mecca
                                              by Alan Scher Zagier

                                              They come from Chillicothe, Carrollton, Trenton and other central Missouri towns better known for their hog farms and meat packing plants than as a fertile spawning ground for musical virtuosos. Doctors, lawyers, teachers, housewives, retirees or third-shift workers, they share a singular bond: a commitment to orchestral and symphonic performance that has made Marshall, with just over 12,000 residents, a classical musical Mecca. Read the story.

                                              This email was sent by:
                                              Center for Rural Strategies
                                              46 East Main Street
                                              Whitesburg, Kentucky 41858
                                              United States

                                              School Buildings for Sale

                                              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.

                                              American Dreamer

                                              May 23rd, 2006

                                              I’m not blogging because I am reading this book.

                                              H.A. Wallace was, of course, a native Iowan, former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Vice President and third party presidential candidate (among other things).

                                              The book is 600 pages long. It might take me a few days.

                                              Rural Bus Rides

                                              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.

                                              A Poem and A Photograph

                                              May 19th, 2006

                                              A poem by U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser from Flying at Night.

                                              Abandoned Farmhouse

                                              He was a big man, says the size of his shoes
                                              on a pile of broken dishes by the house;
                                              a tall man too, says the length of the bed
                                              in an upstairs room; and a good, God-fearing man,
                                              says the Bible with a broken back
                                              on the floor below the window, dusty with sun;
                                              but not a man for farming, say the fields
                                              cluttered with boulders and the leaky barn.

                                              A women lived with him, says the bedroom wall
                                              papered with lilacs and the kitchen shelves
                                              covered with oilcloth, and they had a child,
                                              says the sandbox made from a tractor tire.
                                              Money was scarce, say the jars of plum preserves
                                              and canned tomatoes sealed in the cellar hole.
                                              And the winters cold, say the narrow country road.

                                              Something went wrong, says the empty house
                                              in the weed-choked yard. Stones in the fields
                                              say he was not a farmer; the still-sealed jars
                                              in the cellar say she left in a nervous haste.
                                              And the child? Its toys are strewn in the yard
                                              like branches after a storm–a rubber cow,
                                              a rusty tractor with a broken plow,
                                              a doll in overalls. Something went very wrong, they say.

                                              A picture from Gone: Photographs of Abandonment on the High Plains by Steve Fitch.

                                              A kitchen in an abandoned farm house near Regent, western North Dakota.

                                              Minimal Rural Tax Cut

                                              May 18th, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

                                              California Rural Hospitals

                                              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

                                              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

                                              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.

                                              USDA: “War in Iraq is Going Great.”

                                              May 8th, 2006

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

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

                                              Unfortunately, this is apparently not a joke.

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

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

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

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

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

                                              Suggestion include.

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

                                              Or this

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

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

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

                                              Hat tip to IowaUnderground.

                                              Rural Health Professional Shortage

                                              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.

                                              State GMO Bills

                                              May 7th, 2006

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

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

                                              Arizona Board of Regents

                                              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

                                              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

                                              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.

                                              Nothing Short of Amazing

                                              May 4th, 2006

                                              I just upgraded from Wordpress 1.5 to Wordpress 2.0.2 and changed my layout files. The fact that you can read this is nothing short of amazing given the number of files involved. I’m pleasantly surprised that it seems to have gone off without a hitch. I’ll be tweaking some design things for a couple of days.

                                              (Youth) Renewing the Countryside

                                              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

                                              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.

                                              Blogging to Resume Soon

                                              April 12th, 2006

                                              I will resume blogging here as soon as the academic semester is over. In the meantime, some might find the below list interesting. It is all of the search terms that led people to this website since the first of April.

                                              brian depew
                                              rural area residents of map of quad city iowa
                                              frederick kirschenmann leopold centre news
                                              why do kids run away from home rural communities
                                              curtis w. stofferahn
                                              rural human services essays
                                              homesteader communities
                                              populist blogs
                                              superslab map
                                              rural tourism in great britain
                                              hankins family cherokee
                                              gold discovered at gold creek mt
                                              larimer county farmer
                                              pictures of country roads rural highways etc.
                                              mining labour shortage
                                              decosters chicken
                                              what happens to property value when a hog operation goes up
                                              montana wheat country
                                              political clout
                                              rural sourcing
                                              update colorado superslab proposed route
                                              superslab colorado
                                              populist
                                              ravalli county s aging population
                                              superslab project map
                                              urban hegemony
                                              .org nurse practitioners in rural kansas
                                              robert wisner
                                              rural move trends
                                              population decline in canada rural urbanization 2006
                                              chicken confinements
                                              rural blog
                                              hog shelters

                                              Lots more below the fold.

                                              [more…]

                                              Disabled Comments

                                              March 20th, 2006

                                              I have temporarily disabled comments due to uncontrollable spam that I don’t have time to deal with right now.

                                              Photo Blogging

                                              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

                                              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.

                                              Urban Hegemony

                                              February 15th, 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                              Terrible Idea

                                              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

                                              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.

                                              For Iowa Readers

                                              February 12th, 2006

                                              From the Register’s letters.

                                              Something stinks
                                              February 10, 2006

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

                                              Carol Dupic
                                              Emmetsburg

                                              New RSS Website

                                              February 11th, 2006

                                              The Rural Sociological Society website is newly redesigned. They’ve made nice organizational and aesthetic improvements.

                                              Photo Blogging

                                              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

                                              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.

                                              New Dean at Iowa State

                                              December 21st, 2005

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

                                              Reversing the Rural Decline

                                              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.

                                              Be a Populist

                                              Opera Get Firefox!