Bacteria Plumes

In the latest issue of the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene there is an article on bacterial plumes that emanate from the air surrounding swine confinement operations (no link yet). The researchers measured bacteria in the air plume at upwind and downwind locations around confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs).

The data show a marked increase in bacterial CFUs/m3 inside the facility (18,132 CFU/m3 average) versus upwind (63 CFU/m3 average) and a steady downwind decrease out to approximately 150 m. Staphylococcus aureus was found to account for 76% of the organisms recovered.

Attempts to litigate against CAFOs based on the nuisance of unpleasant odors have had mixed success in the courts. Perhaps cases based on excess bacterial loads in the air would be more successful.

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Tough Row to Hoe

It is going to be a long time before things start to look up in the agriculture and rural communities affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. This story from the Christian Science Monitor provides a sketch that illustrates the much larger problems.

This is the time of year when Emmett Fowler would be pulling bright navel oranges, sweet satsumas, and juicy grapefruit from his citrus trees. Instead, Mr. Fowler expects he will be plowing under his 2,000 lifeless fruit trees.

“The state will have to test the soil for salt and crude oil,” says Fowler as he looks out at his groves […] and talks about whether he will be able to recover. “Most of the trees were under 14 feet of water.”

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have left similar scenes of devastation across the state. State economists now estimate the losses to Louisiana’s farm economy at $1.6 billion – ranging from strawberry fields that were washed away to entire forests that had 10 to 15 years’ worth of timber destroyed. And, because of the salt-water flooding, agriculture experts say the damage could stretch on for years. […]

“There was nothing that we grow that was not impacted.”

And in a particularly ironic turn, some farmers are faced with losses from a lack of rain since the storms.

[S]ome farmers whose crops withstood the wind and floods watched their produce wither after weeks without electricity meant they couldn’t irrigate. “We’re still in a drought situation,” says Professor Bracy. “We’ve had no significant rain since Katrina or Rita.”

For farmers, the problems seem never-ending. After the hurricanes, there were shortages of diesel. This prevented farmers from using their generators, which could have powered their irrigation pumps. Dairy farmers, also without electricity, lost milk sales.

Crunch Time

It’s end of the semester crunch time. Activity here will be sparse this week. Regular posting will resume later next week.

No Power

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Big is Your Town’s Endowment?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

But We Wired Our House For It…

I am generally supportive of efforts to bring high speed internet to rural areas, but I can’t generate too much sympathy for the couple profiled by the New York Times yesterday.

Daniel and Linda Hawkins expected to lose some amenities when they moved to this small farming town, population 1,759, from a slightly larger city nearby. But they were so sure they would have high-speed Internet access that they had high-capacity wiring installed in every room in the house. […]

But to the couple’s dismay, their new house, complete with a fishing pond in the back, lies in a wireless dead zone […]

Follow the link above to see a picture of the couple’s new “farm” house. Sounds and looks like exurban sprawl to me.

The rest of the story actually touches on some important points regarding federal support to bring broadband to rural areas. I just wish the writer had chosen a different lead-in for the story. I suggest a community like rural Scottsburg, Indiana where city officials undertook their own high speed internet project last year (in an effort to prevent two businesses from leaving town) after their requests for broadband were turned down by commercial interests.

Remnants of Rural Past

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

Someday they’ll all be gone.

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

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

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


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

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

Tieton Drive

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

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

Highway 97

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

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

Hanford High School

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

Highway 24

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

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

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

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

Outsourcing to Rural

Could rural sourcing help bring jobs to rural communities?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This all comes with the caveat I offered here.

Hunger in the Country

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rural Recruiting

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

New recruits are still coming disproportionately from rural areas.

This from North Branch, Michigan.

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

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

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

The pattern is similar nationwide. […]

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

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

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

Rural Philanthropy

From a recent editorial by Thomas Rowley at RUPRI.

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

Rural Air Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food and Class Status

There’s a good post and accompanying discussion in the comments section over at Gristmill where Tom Philpott has written a post about the sustainable food movement’s “class problem.”

Food and class

The sustainable-food movement has a class problem.

Slow Food, for example, is an essential organization, with its declaration of a universal “right to taste” and its mandate to …

“… oppose the standardisation of taste, defend the need for consumer information, protect cultural identities tied to food and gastronomic traditions, safeguard foods and cultivation and processing techniques inherited from tradition and defend domestic and wild animal and vegetable species.”

The group has undeniably done important work internationally toward those goals; yet its U.S. branch tends to throw pricey events accessible only to an economic elite.

The rest is here.

Say What?

From the Brownfield Ag Network.

Vertical integration protecting against bird flu

Because nearly all commercial poultry production in the United States is company-managed — a system known as vertical integration — production processes are safer and more efficient, said Todd Applegate, Purdue Extension poultry specialist. […]

“The poultry industry is the most vertically integrated of all of our livestock industries,” Applegate said. “As we try to reduce the risk of bird flu in this country, having full control over the entire production process is probably a good thing.” […]

While wild fowl carrying the virus could enter the U.S., it is unlikely those birds could come in contact with chickens and other commercially raised poultry, Applegate said. In vertically integrated companies, poultry are carefully monitored to ensure optimum health and production quality, he said. Biosecurity measures are tight throughout the production process, especially on the parent farms and hatcheries, Applegate said. […]

Ops. He forgot to mention that the reason these operations are so “carefully monitored” and require such “tight biosecurity” is that if a bird flu outbreak did occur within the U.S. poultry industry the extreme confinement of animals will contribute significantly to the challenge of reigning the disease in.

In fact the high level of concentration (just four companies control over 50% of US poultry production) is in part to blame for the emergence of this new strain of bird flu.

Emergence of variant strains of both infectious bursal disease and avian bronchitis viruses add to the problems of selecting appropriate vaccines and programs for administration. It is evident that a high concentration of poultry in close proximity allows dissemination of variants. Within three years of the emergence of the Delaware variants of IBDV, virtually the entire industry east of the Mississippi was affected with these strains. There was evidence that the Delaware IBD viruses are now the predominant serotypes in Central America, requiring adjustment of both parent and broiler vaccination programs.

The Washington Post wrote as early as February of this year that the growing concentration in South East Asia poultry production is contributing to the spread of bird flu.

[With] chickens now packed into farmyards alongside other livestock, international health experts warn that conditions are set for a bird flu pandemic that could kill millions worldwide if the virus developed into a form capable of spreading among humans.

Writing in response to the Post, Applied Anthropologist Robert Nigh wrote the following for the Effect Measure blog.

The picture that is emerging, though, is that the rapid development of the confined poultry industry and associated technological changes and export trade has resulted in the appearance and rapid propagation of new, highly virulent strains of poultry diseases, some of which affect humans. These new strains not only represent a major threat to the future of poultry production but have resulted in serious potential threats to human health with very high costs for society.

The solution to this problem is not more of the same, i.e. more high tech solutions, drugs, “biosecurity ” and ” best practices ” applied to confined poultry operations, but rather to reverse the trend, back up from this dead end, abandon large chicken confinements and return to decentralized production in small flocks widely distributed in the countryside. This also implies that long-distance, ” global ” trade in poultry products would be largely abandoned.

Such conclusions may fall outside of Purdue Extension poultry specialist’s preview, but these conclusions are likely more palatable in the long run than any increased biosecurity measures can ever be.

Mad Cow Disease & Milk

I’ve written before about the USDA and FDA’s seeming inability to enforce their own regulations aimed at stemming the spread of mad cow disease.

Now this.

A new study in Canada suggests that the prions that cause mad cow disease can be passed through milk.

New research into prions, the infectious agents that cause mad cow-like diseases, has found them in the mammary glands of some sheep, raising questions about whether milk and milk products from infected animals could transmit the pathogens.

Prion experts were quick to insist the current potential risk to human health is low and may even be nil.

But they suggested the findings are a warning that if prion diseases in livestock aren’t rigorously hunted for and rooted out, milk and products like cheeses and yogurt could be a potential route of transmission of prions to humans.

In humans, prions — highly infectious misfolded proteins — cause the brain wasting variant-Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease or CJD.

The story broke two days ago, but has been carried primarily in the foreign press so far. I can’t find it in any major U.S. papers yet. There is a growing concern over food safety in this country, and I think this could be potentially explosive if picked up by major U.S. media outlets.

Budget Reconciliation

My friends in D.C. tell me it could have been worse. From the National Farmers Union.

House Budget Plan Wrong for Rural America

National Farmers Union President Dave Frederickson made the following statement following the U.S. House of Representative’s passage of its budget reconciliation legislation late last night:

“The House’s passage of nearly $4 billion in cuts to programs that benefit rural America is the wrong move at the wrong time. The representatives’ plan will make a bad situation out on the farm even worse.

“These cuts will place a further burden on our farmers and ranchers who are already struggling due to low commodity prices, skyrocketing energy costs, and devastating weather conditions. Now is not the time to cut programs beneficial to our nation’s producers and rural communities.

“The House reconciliation legislation cuts $1.033 billion from the farm safety net for 2006 through 2010. It also makes $734 million in reductions in conservation spending. Farm spending makes up less than 1 percent of the federal budget, yet farmers and ranchers are required to take more than 9 percent of all federal spending reductions. Policymakers are placing a disproportionate share of the burden on rural America while proposing tax cuts for the nation’s wealthy.”

The bill is headed for committee where it will get melded with the Senate’s version from last week.

Judge Supports Small Schools

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Playing Politics”

Being on the Iowa State University Campus, Drew Miller is in a good position to have casual conversation about the Leopold Center with folks in-the-know.

I talked to someone close to the Ag College at ISU, who said that Dewitt and Wintersteen are close friends, and that Wintersteen likes to play politics. She’s apparently done it before – when a search committee had decided on a candidate, she overruled them and forced them to ask one of her friends first.

The rest is here.

One More

This week’s Cityview (Des Monies, Iowa Alternative Weekly) also has a story.

Mother Earth

Imagine you’re an administrator and you’ve got this employee who’s catching a lot of attention. A guy who left a family legacy to move across state lines and take on your institution’s mission as nothing less than a personal crusade. An employee who travels so tirelessly for his job that you simply say the word “Iowa” anywhere across the country and folks in the field recite his name with a certain reverence. A director who members of your own board call “a world and national leader,” who constituents say “symbolized strength and hope.”

What do you do with an employee like that? Demote him. And do it with a 48-hour ultimatum. […]

And thanks to such potential conflicts of interest, there have been calls from the grassroots to “break the Leopold Center free” from Iowa State, a concern Kirschenmann had openly addressed with administration, asking “pointblank, is this a center of the university or a Center at the university.” So concerned about the power dynamics, he’s even gone to Paul Johnson, who helped craft the original legislation, and discovered that there were fears from the start that locating the center at Iowa State “would eventually corrupt it.”

According to a protest letter addressed to university officials circulating among activists last week, concern is mounting that Kirschenmann’s demotion is clear evidence of such corruption: “By removing Dr. Kirschenmann from this position, Iowa State University is allowing outside business interests to effectively control the agenda of a prominent American university, thereby further eroding the once unique independent status of academic institutions in American life.” And to be perfectly honest, Kirschenmann can’t say he entirely disagrees.

“This issue is not just about me or the Leopold Center,” he says. “It’s an issue about whether or not public institutions can still have intellectual pursuits without being hampered by outside pressure.”

Again, the link is good for a week. The entire story is copied below the fold.

Continue reading “One More”

Farm News Story

A couple of more news stories tonight for anyone who hasn’t seen them. First from the Farm News in Iowa.

Leopold leader asked to step down
By RANDY MUDGETT- Managing Editor

AMES — Fred Kirschenmann is no longer the director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Ames. Last week, Wendy Wintersteen, interim dean of Iowa State University’s College of Agriculture, asked Kirschenmann to either resign his post or accept a position as a distinguished fellow for the Leopold Center.

The above link will only work for a week. The entire story is coppied below the fold.

Continue reading “Farm News Story”

It’s Time to Act

No new posts tonight. We know enough to act.

Instead of you reading what I have to say I want the administration at Iowa State to read what you have to say. If you haven’t yet written a letter please do so now.

Send your letter to all of the following people:

Wendy Wintersteen
Interim Dean, College of Agriculture, Iowa State University
138 Curtiss Hall, Ames, Iowa 50011-1050
Phone (515) 294-2518, Fax (515) 268-9995

Benjamin J. Allen
Provost, Iowa State University
1550 Beardshear Hall, Ames, Iowa 50011-2021
Phone (515) 294-9591, Fax (515) 294-8844

Gregory L. Geoffroy
President, Iowa State University
1750 Beardshear Hall, Ames, Iowa 50011-2035
Phone (515) 294-2042, Fax (515) 294-0565

Click for “more” below to see some talking points and the letter I am sending. Modify these to reflect your personal position. Tell them what perspective you are coming from, what troubles you about the situation and what you would like to see done to remedy it.

Oh, and expect to get a whitewashing response from Wintersteen. She sends the same damn response to every single person—identical down to the formatting errors.

Update: After you have written your own letter please send this link to others and encourage them to write a letter as well.

Continue reading “It’s Time to Act”

A Distinguished Fellow

A nice column by Alan Guebert in today’s Lincoln Journal Star.

Farm and Food: A distinguished fellow

In the big, slow move from the big, painted house in town this past summer my worn copy of Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac went missing.

Truth be told, the lovely little book of simple, powerful essays explaining mankind’s deep connections to the land never made the move with Emerson, Thoreau, McPhee and the rest of my literary family.

The most likely explanation of its disappearance is that I lent it out years ago and, unlike the waterfowl, songbirds or wildflowers Leopold wrote so powerfully and poetically about on his Wisconsin farm, the book that pioneered “the land ethic” never returned.

I know that’s what happened to some of my other great possessions—a drywall T-square, an expensive gear-puller, my pruning saw. The last time I looked they were there to be employed and enjoyed; the next time I looked they were sadly, madly, gone.

I hope that’s not the case with Fred Kirschenmann who, until Oct. 28, was the director of the Leopold Center, Iowa State University’s globally-recognized research and education center for sustainable agriculture.

Officially, Kirschenmann was promoted from his administrative post, a position he held since 2000, to “a new leadership role as a distinguished fellow of the center” where, according to the ISU press release, he “will devote his time to national sustainable agriculture priorities affecting broad segments of U.S. agriculture.”

Unofficially, say many of his peers, he was shuffled off to the academic gulag by powerful farm and commodity groups in Iowa who worried the Kirschenmann-led Center’s authoritative research and growing reputation undermined their agribiz-or-bust approach to farming.

The way the Kirschenmann coup occurred, they suggest, confirms it.

The rest is worth a read.

Former-Former Director Speaks Out

Yesterday a letter from Dennis Keeney (Leopold Center Director prior to Kirschenmann) began circulating online. Here are the highlights.

In a way, I am probably closer to the Center than anyone, because I was the first director in 1988 and the one who set it on course. […]

As we know, the Center is now in the midst of change, more rapid than usually happens in academia where leadership change occurs normally with slow transition from retirement or job change. […]

Much of the activist farm and environmental community are viewing this change with alarm. Are there ulterior motives in Dr. Kirschenmann’s removal? I am convinced that this is not the case. The situation in the Center had reached a point where change was needed. […]

The past two years it was obvious to me that the Iowa agricultural community was not being engaged by the Center. These are the obvious groups; the chemical and other input providers, main line agricultural organizations such as Farm Bureau, and the important commodity groups. […]

The change will be good for the Center and for the state. Dr. Jerry DeWitt is one of the most qualified persons nationwide to step in and lead the Center. […]

I wish that the leadership change had not been a necessary action. I want more than anyone to see the Center succeed over the long run. It was my life for 12 years. […]

Dennis Keeney
Former Director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture
Iowa State University

The very first email about this matter named the Farm Bureau as a group potentially behind the ouster of Kirschenmann. Keeney also names the Farm Bureau. Now both an opponent and a supporter of the ouster cite the Farm Bureau.

Draw your own conclusions.

Update: For anyone unaware, the Farm Bureau isn’t much of a farmer’s organization, and it certainly isn’t a supporter of sustainable agriculture. Rather it is an insurance company and rather large lobbying machine for financial and corporate agribusiness interests.

Divergent Views of Sustainability

There was likely more than one reason why Interim Dean Wintersteen took the action that resulted in Kirschenmann’s resignation as Director of the Leopold Center one week ago today.

I can’t yet put my finger on each of the seperate reasons, but one factor is certain to be diverging views on just what “sustainable” agriculture is.

Wintersteen herself trumpets soil and water conservation.

“There was a significant number of folks who felt like they didn’t have significant connection to the center,” she said.

Among those who complained of Kirschenmann’s performance are corn and soybean producers who wanted more research on issues the center had historically dealt with, such as water quality and conservation research, Wintersteen said.

Others agree.

Hamilton said the center needs to do more on environmental issues, both for smaller and larger farmers. DeWitt, he said, will have a positive impact there.

Kirschenmann has a deeper understanding of what sustainability is. Our food system needs to be environmentally sustainable, but is also (and just as importantly) needs to be socially and economically sustainable. This notion is reflected in Kirschenmann’s Ag of the Middle work.

Some of the board members that Wintersteen left out of her decision agree with Kirschenmann’s approach.

Marvin Shirley, the former chair of the advisory board, said he believed Kirschenmann was doing a good job carrying out the center’s mission. “A lot of the problems and solutions to agriculture are beyond Iowa’s borders,” said Shirley, who represents the Iowa Farmers Union on the advisory board. “You can’t lose focus of Iowa, but to solve those problems, you have to be involved in a larger area than just Iowa.”

This debate is being played out as an “Iowa focus” versus a “national focus” disagreement. Wintersteen and folk are arguing that the Center needs to be more Iowa focused. This discussion of increasing the Center’s “Iowa focus” appears in tandem nearly every time with discussion of increasing the Center’s “soil and water conservation” research, and reaching out to a more diverse set of stakeholder groups.

As if to reassure those of us who might be catching on Wintersteen follows up with this:

Wintersteen said that as a distinguished fellow, Kirschenmann will work on national sustainable agriculture issues, the decreasing number of medium-sized family farms, and niche-marketing opportunities.

I don’t doubt that this is true, but he won’t be doing it as the Director of the Leopold Center any more. These things, unfortunately, do make a difference.

Iowa Farmers Union Steps Up

Iowa Farmers Union (IFU) came out swinging in a press release sent out earlier today.


AMES–Iowa State University’s administration is moving in a questionable direction by removing renowned sustainable agriculture champion Frederick Kirschenmann from the position of director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, says Chris Petersen, president of Iowa Farmers Union. […]

“Taking Fred Kirschenmann out as director of the Leopold Center sends a questionable message,” says Petersen. “Is it that ISU’s administration is not comfortable with the strong stance Fred has taken for years opposing the economic and environmental abuses of corporate agriculture in Iowa and across the country?” […]

Dr. Kirschenmann’s efforts have evidently angered agri-business interests, who for more than a year have lobbied the dean’s office in the College of Agriculture to stop his work on sustainable agriculture and other projects that benefit family farmers and the land, Petersen said.

“Fred’s tenure brought hope and opportunity for Iowa’s farmers,” Petersen said. […]

In keeping with the principles of academic freedom, Dr. Kirschenmann was originally hired through a legally mandated search committee, Petersen said. “We are concerned that this process was not followed in naming the Center’s interim director,” he said, “and we urge that the Leopold Center be allowed to operate without strings attached, as the Legislature intended. We have great respect for Jerry DeWitt and hope he can keep the Center focused on its mission without administrative or corporate interference.”

Interim Dean Wintersteen has said that part the motivation behind her action was that some of the stakeholder groups in Iowa were not happy with Kirschenmann. IFU is obviously not one of these dissatisfied groups. Perhaps Wintersteen would like to clarify who these unhappy groups are.

More News Stories

From the Ames Tribune we get Director’s removal shocks board members.

Several advisory board members to the Leopold Center at Iowa State University said they were shocked to hear of the removal of the center’s director, noting they were not aware of any problems with his leadership.

“As far as I could tell, everything seemed to be pretty even-keeled,” said Kelly Donham, a farmer and representative on the board of the University of Iowa. “I didn’t have any inkling or suggestions there were some concerns or problems at that time.”

Marvin Shirley, the former chair of the advisory board, said he believed Kirschenmann was doing a good job carrying out the center’s mission.

“A lot of the problems and solutions to agriculture are beyond Iowa’s borders,” said Shirley, who represents the Iowa Farmers Union on the advisory board. “You can’t lose focus of Iowa, but to solve those problems, you have to be involved in a larger area than just Iowa.”

From the Des Moines Register we get ISU ag director: I was forced to resign.

Fred Kirschenmann said he was forced to resign as director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture because of differences over how much the Iowa State University center should focus on Iowa. […]

Advocates of sustainable agriculture are protesting Wintersteen’s decision and have started a letter-writing campaign.

Weisenbach said sustainable agricultural advocates like and respect DeWitt and the work he has done, but she said there are a lot of questions about why Kirschenmann was removed as director.

“There is a lot of shock and concern, a lot of mystery and suspicions about why Fred was replaced,” she said.

And this interesting comment from Board Member Neil Hamilton

Neil Hamilton, director of Drake University’s Agricultural Law Center, has been on the Leopold Center’s advisory board since it began in 1987. If some farm groups pressured Wintersteen to remove Kirschenmann, Hamilton said, he wasn’t aware of it.

“This is not a question of big agribusiness trying to undo what the center was trying to do,” Hamilton said. “The center needs to focus on Iowa farming and sustainable agriculture and this is a positive development for Fred, sustainable agriculture and the state of Iowa.”

Hamilton said the center needs to do more on environmental issues, both for smaller and larger farmers. DeWitt, he said, will have a positive impact there.

More commentary later.

Others Chime In

The folks over at Grist have a post up.

The highlights

Seedy business: A sustainable-ag champion gets plowed under at Iowa State

Plunked down in the land of huge, chemical-addicted grain farms and the nation’s greatest concentration of hog feedlots, Iowa State University’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture has always had a tough row to hoe. […]

Now, however, a sudden purge at the top has called the Center’s much-prized independence from industrial agriculture into question. […]

Last Friday, the college issued a press release announcing that the Leopold Center’s director of five years, Fred Kirschenmann, had “accepted a new leadership role as a distinguished fellow of the center.” […]

Kirschenmann himself, however, tells a more interesting tale than what’s contained in the press release’s bland prose. He says his move from director to “distinguished fellow” came suddenly and without his own input.

“On Wednesday [Oct. 26] I received a letter from the interim dean asking me to resign by Friday and decide by then if I would accept the position of distinguished fellow at the center,” Kirschenmann told me yesterday.

“I wrote her [the interim dean] back telling her I thought she was moving too fast, that there wouldn’t be time for a smooth transition. She wrote back that it was a done deal — she had already named a new director.”

Kirschenmann says the interim dean, Wendy Wintersteen, had been on Leopold’s advisory board for years and had served on the search committee that hired him in 2000. “She was always very supportive of what we were doing,” Kirschenmann says. “Until about two years ago. Then she became very critical.”

Her critique centered on the idea that in its work the Leopold Center was neglecting “key stakeholders,” Kirschenmann adds. “But she never really clarified who those stakeholders were.”

Might she have been refering to agribusiness interests? “You can draw your own conclusions,” Kirschenmann says. […]

Read the whole post over at Grist.

Questions to Ask

In the Iowa State Daily story Interim Dean Wendy Wintersteen stated that there was a “significant number of people who felt they did not have a significant connection to the center.” Her following statement suggests that this might include some of the large commodity groups. What groups and/or individuals complained that they did not have adequate communication with the Leopold Center?

The Ames Tribune story reveals that Wintersteen made the “executive” decision to give Kirschenmann 48 hours to resign or take a new position within the Center. Wintersteen is currently four months into a six month stint as Interim Dean of the College of Agriculture. Interim deans don’t often take it upon themselves to topple nationally known scholars. If anything this sort of thing occurs after a permanent dean is appointed. Did Wintersteen act on her sole discretion in making her decision? Was she subject to directive, pressure or demands from others in the College, University or ag community?

Iowa Code, Section 266.39, dictates that the Leopold Center Board of Directors is to assist in the selection of the Center’s Director. When will the board convene to begin this process? Two years from now is not an acceptable answer.

Add your questions in the comments.

Too Big for His Britches

It is becoming clear why some people wanted Kirschenmann out of his leadership post. I started to see hints of it yesterday in statements from Interim Dean Wintersteen. From yesterday’s Ames Tribune story

Wintersteen stressed the Leopold Center is an Iowa center.

“As such, it is critically important that there are very clear projects and programs here in the state,” she said.

Wintersteen said projects and programs that begin in Iowa could then be used to solve similar issues across the country in such areas as water quality and soil conservation.

With his move into issues of national policy, and work like his ag in the middle project, Kirschenmann was becoming a voice to be reckoned with. Kirschenmann’s powerful ideas ran up against powerful politics and the latter walked away the winner.

This morning’s Iowa State Daily has a story that all but confirms my worst suspicions.

Frederick Kirschenmann, who has held the position since July 2000, was removed from his position Tuesday concerning complaints from Iowa agriculture groups accusing Kirschenmann of not communicating with them, Wintersteen said.

“There was a significant number of folks who felt like they didn’t have significant connection to the center,” she said.

Among those who complained of Kirschenmann’s performance are corn and soybean producers who wanted more research on issues the center had historically dealt with, such as water quality and conservation research, Wintersteen said.

Kirschenmann was fired demoted because he didn’t placate the big commodity groups with feel-good “water quality” research. Everyone is for water quality and soil conservation. Kirschenmann outgrew his britches when he tried to move the conversation from water quality to more systemic socio-economic issues that underlay the most significant problems faced by our farm and food systems.

Other Recent Changes

I had forgotten about this.

In July of this year Mike Duffy, Associate Director of the Leopold Center, left the Center to “pursue teaching and research opportunities in the ISU Department of Economics on a full-time basis.”

Duffy had been with the Center for 13 years.

Administration Duties

If there is a hint of legitimacy in asking for Kirschenmann’s resignation as director of the Leopold Center it swirls around the issue of administrative duties.

From an email sent to graduate students in the sustainable ag program at Iowa State by Interim Dean Wintersteen

The new arrangement is meant to allow Dr. Kirschenmann to focus his excellent work and service, while placing the main administrative duties in the hands of another nationally recognized authority in sustainable agriculture, Dr. DeWitt.

This is just a snippet of a longer, very carefully crafted email. It is the only statement in the email that seems like it could be a hint at the possibility of a real story.

That being said, even if this is true a whole series of questions regarding the abrupt nature of the move, the involvement of an interim dean, the lack of involvement of the board, the appointment of an interim director for a two year term, and so on remain unanswered.

If you have a good (and well liked) visionary who isn’t up to par as a manager there are much better ways of dealing with the situation than sending the interim dean to fire them on short notice.

I remain agnostic on the matter for the time being.

Update: In a forthcoming post I will make an argument that Kirschenmann’s forced resignation is not related to this point, but rather appears to be politically motivated.

Interim Director….?

Although I am still seeking final confirmation on the matter I have heard from at least two people in a position to know that Interim Dean Wendy Wintersteen has appointed Jerry DeWitt as Interim Director of the Leopold Center for a two year term.

That seems like a pretty long “interim” appointment to me (especially considering that Wintersteen herself is only Interim Dean).

In fact, this may be construed as an attempt to circumvent the legally mandated process for selecting a new director for the Center.

Iowa Code, Section 266.39 which deals with the Leopold Center states

The board shall provide the president of Iowa state university of science and technology with a list of three candidates from which the director shall be selected. The board shall provide an additional list of three candidates if requested by the president. The board shall advise the director in the development of a budget, on the policies and procedures of the center, in the funding of research grant proposals, and regarding program planning and review.

While the code does not say anything about the appropriate length of time that interim directors should be appointed, I think it can be safely said that two years is longer than usual. Whether or not there is a real legal issue I’ll have to leave to a lawyer.

“Iowa Focus”

The first mainstream story comes from the Ames Tribune.

Leopold director told to resign

After leading Iowa State University’s Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture for five years, Fred Kirschenmann was told to resign his position as director last week to clear the way for a leader who would be more focused on Iowa issues and provide a stronger Iowa presence.

The Leopold Center is indeed a state funded initiative. What this does or should mean about their research “focus” deserves a bit more fleshing out. The cynic in me suggests that perhaps this is another way of saying that Kirschenmann had become too powerful of a national voice.

After receiving notice on Wednesday morning, the surprised Kirschenmann was given 48 hours to decide whether to accept a distinguished fellow role to remain with the center.

Wendy Wintersteen, the interim dean of ISU’s College of Agriculture who made the executive decision, has appointed ISU professor Jerry DeWitt as interim director of the center. DeWitt previously served as coordinator of the university Extension’s sustainable agricultural program.

Why is the interim dean making executive decisions and implementing 48 hour deadlines just two months before her term is over? Aren’t matters of this nature typically left to an incoming dean? Why was the Board of Directors not involved?

“We wanted to find a mechanism to take advantage of Fred’s leadership, but have somebody in the position of interim director that could manage the day-to-day affairs of the center and provide a clear Iowa focus for the center,” said Wintersteen, who took over interim duties as dean of the College of Agriculture on Aug. 1. “What better way than to bring these two folks together to serve the center’s mission.”

I would humbly suggest that a better way might not involve executive decisions by an interim dean and surprise 48 hour deadlines.

Kirschenmann said he is uncertain whether the new structure will work.

“If I can continue to fulfill the center’s mission, I will work hard to do that,” he said. “If it turns out I am not given that freedom, I will probably move on to something else.”

The center, formed in 1987 through the Groundwater Protection Act, works to research the negative impacts of agricultural practices, assist in developing alternative practices and works with ISU Extension to inform the public of the center’s findings, according to its Web site.

Kirschenmann, who has long been a national and international leader in sustainable agriculture, said the reasons why he was told to resign were never made specific to him. He added that Wintersteen had been “somewhat unhappy” with his performance during the past couple years because he was not sufficiently engaged with Iowa’s stakeholder groups.

The rest is below the fold. Continue reading ““Iowa Focus””

More Later

I’ll post some more significant commentary on Fred Kirschenmann and the Leopold Center later this afternoon. I have other commitments to attend to first.

More on Kirschenmann

Following up on the previous post.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fred Kirschenmann Removed as Director of Leopold Center

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

I received the following email late today.


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

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


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

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

Letters can be sent to:

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

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


xxx xxxxxxx

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

700 Sq Miles of WiFi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Starbucks Goes Rural

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

Rural Prisons and Political Clout

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

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

Overton writes

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

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

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

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

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

(Former) Rural State Senator for President

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

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

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

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

Long Drives + High Gas Prices = Rural Crunch

In many major national stories (Katrina, Iraq, etc) there is an untold rural angle. The national jump in gas prices is no different. In fact, for many rural families the problem is compounded by longer than typical drives and lower than typical incomes.

The Christian Science Monitor picks up the story of doctor visits forgone, meals skipped and presents unbought as a result of rising gas prices in the rural United States.

Cheryl Murphy used to drive her Dodge Caravan as often as necessary to see her doctor in Lincoln [NH], 25 miles south of her home here in the sparsely populated “North Country.”

But that was before gas prices spiked, making fuel costs feel like a second co-pay for this single mother of two. Now that gas takes a 20 percent bite out of her monthly $243 check from Social Security, doctor visits have become a luxury out of reach.

“I don’t monitor my health condition as well as I should because I just can’t afford to get there,” Ms. Murphy says. Meanwhile, she’s cut down to one meal per day and has warned her children to expect nothing under the Christmas tree this year.

Ms. Murphy’s quiet struggle plays out far from the public eye. Yet her story is hardly unique in rural America, where wages languish 25 percent below those in urban areas and private transportation is more central to daily life. And with winter just around the corner, costly trade-offs are fast becoming a way of life in places where schools, jobs, and the nearest stores all require a lengthy trip behind the wheel.

A recently released study (pdf) by the Consumer Federation of America reports that households earning less than $15,000 are now spending in excess of 10% of their income on gasoline. Add to that the fact that rural households already spend 50% more on gasoline than their uban counterparts (due to longer drives), and it becomes easy to see that the millions of rural households living in poverty end up significantly more disatvantaged than others.

Montana, Iowa, and Our Future

This recent story in the Des Moines Register reported the following.

In Iowa, we’ve always been able to take for granted that the land will provide.

But think about this: Almost half of the state’s farmland is owned by people older than 65. A quarter belongs to people over 74.

As much as 50 percent of the state’s farmland must be sold or passed on in the next 10 to 15 years.

“What is occurring in Iowa is occurring across much of the country,” said Michael Duffy, an economist who tallied the figures for a 2002 survey of farmland ownership at Iowa State University.

Iowa and other Midwestern states will be forever changed by the transference of that much farmland. An unprecedented proportion of farmland owners won’t live in rural areas anymore; thousands, in fact, won’t live within the state.

More than nostalgia is at stake.

A couple of things made this report hit home for me. First, I grew up on a relatively small family farm in northwest Iowa. Second, I just returned from driving home across the great plains of Montana, and in particular the golden (wheat) triangle.

Montana’s wheat belt appears to have undergone significant change in recent years. As I drove aimlessly down mile after mile of gravel road southeast of Shelby only a few houses broke the proverbial amber waves of grain. About three fourths of these houses were abandoned. Now, I am used to seeing abandoned houses in rural areas, but what struck me about Montana’s wheat country was that a large percentage of the abandoned houses seemed to have been abandoned in just the last 10-15 years. Abandoned farmsteads in other parts of the country have been empty much longer.

It was harvest time, and wheat fields hosted trios of large combines moving across them. In one particular case each of three combines was buttressed by a grain truck or wagon. Campers sat at the edge of some of the fields, and fuel trucks delivered petroleum to the fields. It took me a bit to put it all together. The fuel trucks were required because the nearest farmsteads were much too far away to fetch fuel from, and the campers provided a place for these laborers to sleep.

Back on the interstate headed for Wyoming we repeatedly passed harvester crews headed for the field. A crew typically consisted of two or three grain trucks, three combines being pulled on flatbeds, and often a camper all traveling as a group down the road. These crews (presumably custom operators and not just local farmers) can move across wheat country harvesting thousands of acres at a time, and leaving little reason for anyone to occupy the remaining farm houses.

Wheat country has always been more well suited to this type of industrialization, but corn and soybean territory, like my home state of Iowa, is by no means immune to the trend.

With nearly half of all farmland in Iowa owned by people over 65, and no clear new generation of farmers there is reason for grave concern.

I return not with renewed hope, but at least with a renewed sense of urgency for the battle that must be fought if the future of our farm and rural communities is to be anything but dim.

Indeed, “More than nostalgia is at stake.”

House Keeping

I’m back from my trip to Montana and Wyoming, but am now working on moving from Colorado to Michigan. Posting will resume, but will be irregular for at least another week.

Also, I browse the web with Opera, and I recommend it highly. Opera is far superior to Internet Explorer, and while Mozilla’a Firefox is catching up, Opera still seems to lead in functionality and integration ability. But really this all just an introduction to an apology to those viewing the site in Firefox and IE. I just checked the site in those two browsers, and there are some serious display problems–not the least of which has to do with the placement of the news feed side bar.

I’ll work on these issues, but likely not until after the move. If anyone one has any pointers, or wants to help fix these issues, send me an email.

Next Two Weeks

I’m signing off for two weeks. Yesterday I defended my thesis, and today I leave for a two week backpacking trip to Wyoming and Montana. I’ll be hiking, driving and wondering about many of the rural parts of those two states. I’ll log my impressions here once I return. If you are one of my few regular readers, take a break for a couple of weeks, but be sure to check in again at the beginning of August.

You can also check in for new content on the new food and rural news feed on the left-hand side of the page.


Today I defend my thesis for my Master of Arts degree in philosophy from Colorado State University. The thesis is titled “There is a Moral Obligation to Save the Family Farm.”

Some readers might recall a book by a similar title from the late 1980s. That would be Gary Comstock’s 1987 book “Is There a Moral Obligation to Save the Family Farm?” You can read Comstock’s book cover to cover and you won’t really find an answer to the question that he poses in the title. Comstock’s conclusion is ambiguous at best.

The goal in writing my thesis was to offer a contribution to the field of agricultural ethics that sought to establish an unambiguous answer to Comstock’s important question. By 4:00 PM today I should know whether my committee deems my project successful.

For those who might be interested, the brief abstract to my thesis appears below the fold.

Continue reading “Thesis”

News Feed Added

As you can see (left-hand side of page) I have added a news feed to the site. The feed is provided by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and will carry food and rural related news. Just click on any story headline to open it in a new window.

I hope that readers find this service useful. Thanks to the Kellogg foundation for providing the feed. Also if you are so inclined you can sign up for the RSS feed yourself at their site.

Conservation Security Program

National Public Radio had an excellent report on the Conservation Security Program (CSP) on Morning Edition this morning. Check out the web extra and listen to the report later today here.

The federal government is expected to pay $24 billion in farm subsidies this year. Critics, including quite a few farmers, say taxpayers shouldn’t pay for corn or cotton surpluses. Instead, they say the funds should go toward things that benefit the public, such as cleaner water and a healthier environment.

The CSP is a new initiative. It pays farmers to give the environment a helping hand. Farmers can qualify for payments if they can show that they’ve done a good job protecting the environment in the past. They must also show that they’re preventing manure or other fertilizer from running into streams, and that they’re conserving soil and minimizing pesticide use.

Once they qualify, farmers can get extra points — and higher payments — for doing additional things that provide habitat for wildlife or protect streams and groundwater. They include cutting back on fertilizer or pesticides, converting crop land into permanent pasture, or building windmills to supply the farm with energy.

The CSP—if fully enacted—would go a long way toward needed reforms in U.S. farm subsidies. This includes the current debate over cotton subsidies.

A Mining Boom

A common misconception among urbanites is that rural is synonymous with agriculture. While some rural communities are affected by the structure and trends of agriculture, other rural communities rely on mining, forestry and manufacturing.

Rural communities that have ties to mining are currently witnessing rapid changes in the industry. Coal mining in particular is being driven to expand by increased foreign demand and high oil prices. This expansion is resulting in high wages and significant labor shortages.

Coal industry and union executives are concerned that Pennsylvania soon could face shortages of skilled coal miners that already are cropping up elsewhere in the other Appalachian Basin states of Ohio, West Virginia, Maryland, Virginia and Kentucky.

Mining employment grew briefly in the 1970s, but collapsed again in the 1980s and has remained depressed until recently.

The lack of hiring in the past two decades — exacerbated by new technology that eliminated many mining jobs and increased the skills needed to be a miner — has left the industry with outright labor shortages in some industry strongholds, such as southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky, and a rapidly aging work force in others, including Pennsylvania.

Most of the people in the available labor pool aren’t trained to be miners, and universities and trade schools have scaled back or eliminated mining programs in recent years. To combat the labor shortage mining companies have increased salaries by $10,000 in recent years, but even that is not helping.

Average salaries of from $68,000 to $87,000 (for coal miners), health benefits, life insurance and vacations are not enough to lure people to this grime-and-dirt work. […]

The job is not sexy, to say the least. Women are reluctant to move to remote mining towns despite high salaries, making it a predominantly male profession. And, it is an instable industry. Today’s boom is tomorrow’s bust.

Despite the current labor shortages more mines are slated to open and other previously shuttered mines will reopen in the coming year.

Additional mine openings will bring additional jobs to often depressed rural economies, but whether these jobs bring more benefit or harm in the long-term remains an open question. Many rural communities today are facing clean-up bills from an environmental mess left behind by the last round of mines to go bust.

Few can blame those looking for a job, but I would argue that we would be better off investing tax dollars today in sustainable rural development, rather than tomorrow cleaning up after another round of busted mines.

Doctor Doctor

Nevada Congressman Jim Gibbons (R-NV) has proposed providing a $20,000 federal tax credit to encourage doctors to practice in rural areas.

In defense of the potential expense to the federal government Gibbons said

“Yes, it’s going to be expensive, but having no doctors in a critical time of need will be far more expensive.”

An impressive realization from a member of the Republican Party, but Democratic Party officials claim that the move is politically motivated.

Gibbons is expected to run for Nevada governor next year, but has yet to announce his candidacy. […] A state Democratic Party official suggested Gibbons’ news conference Thursday in the state’s second-largest city was politically motivated.

“This is supposed to be about rural doctors,” party spokesman Jon Summers said.

I’ll admit that holding a new conference about rural doctors in the second-largest city in the state doesn’t quite strike me as the brightest political move, but nonetheless the charge that Gibbons’ move is politically motivated is interesting. If by politically motivated they mean that Gibbons is responding to a critical issue in the state because he is running for office, then I hope we see more such “politically motivate” moves from all candidates no matter what their party affiliation.

If Gibbons fails to act on his rhetoric that’s another story.

This Week

Expect light posting this week. I will be spending time preparing for my thesis defense and subsequent trip to Wyoming and Montana.

I’ll let other people do the work for me today.

Rural Caucus

Oregon Democrats are starting a rural caucus.

Our greatest chance for advancing the aims of the Democratic Party now and in the foreseeable future will come by way of electing Democrats from rural areas in Oregon and across the nation. The “Red/Blue” maps have shown an urban/rural split in Oregon and the rest of the nation. As Democrats we need to learn how to obtain more support in what have been “red” areas. In urban areas, we probably have as much support as we ever will, growth for the Democratic Party will have to come from rural areas.

Rural Supreme Court Justices

The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues points out on their blog that O’Connor’s retirement from the Supreme Court leaves the court without a connection to rural areas.

Not only was O’Connor raised on a working ranch in Arizona, she is the only member of the court who has stood for elective office, as a judge in her home state. There are broad and deep virtues to working the land for a living, and working the electorate for an office. You gain a grasp of others’ beliefs, values and daily concerns in ways that urban work and appointive office rarely provide.


Likewise, this country, which is becoming more deeply divided about the role of the judiciary and the social issues it is being asked to decide, would probably feel better about the Supreme Court if at least one justice had the experiences of working the land and asking for votes.

Agriculture Subsidies

President Bush says that the U.S. is willing to end agriculture subsidies.

President George Bush has made an offer as reported by the London Times this morning:

Asked directly if America would drop its subsidy system if the EU abandoned the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), Mr. Bush said: “Absolutely. And I think we have an obligation to work together to do that.

Good luck with that one Mr. Bush.

A Road Runs Through By It

Kiowa, population of 581, is located southeast of Denver, Colorado. Kiowa (map) is also one of the towns likely to be effected by a proposed new road. This isn’t just any road though. Nicknamed the “Superslab,” the proposed private toll road would cut through seven predominately rural counties along Colorado’s Front Range.

Planning for the Superslab has been underway since 1988, but garnered renewed attention during the recently concluded Colorado legislative season. Residents in the path of the proposed road objected to the 660 foot wide and 210 mile long “land grab” facilitated by an 1870’s Colorado law intended to encourage infrastructure development in and around old mining towns. The law facilitates the transfer of land taken by eminent domain by the state to private companies (a principle just recently upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court—though the cases are not completely analogous).

Superslab investors drew a bit of unwanted attention when they approached the state legislature this spring seeking to firm up the legislation that would allow them to set and collect tolls for such a project.

Much of the objection stems from rural residents who have little to gain from the project. With exurban sprawl already threatening the livelihood and way of life in many Front Range, Colorado communities, more roads stand to exacerbate the issue.

Furthermore, the road offers virtually nothing in the way of economic prospects for these communities. The proposed 210 mile road will include just 13 interchanges, intersecting only with major cross roads. In addition all roadside services will be contained within “service pods,” private entities owned by the same investors that will own the road.

Colorado isn’t the only state looking to private toll roads in recent years, and just this week it was reported that the U.S. Congress is set to pass legislation making private investment in large road projects tax free.

In Kiowa, Colorado residents are biding their time. After expressing outrage over the proposed road during the last legislative season, road opponents were able to get legislation favorable to Superslab investors pulled. The newly elected Democratic majority in the State House and Senate also passed legislation expanding public oversight of future private road projects, and even tried to change the law governing the use of eminent domain for private toll roads. Those bills were vetoed however by Colorado’s Republican Governor (also a long time friend of Superslab mastermind Mike Wells).

For the time being plans are on hold, but with nearly 20 years of preparation already behind them, Superslab proponents aren’t likely to give up yet.

You can read more on the proposed road here, here and here. Citizen organizations opposed to the road have websites here, here and here. Opponents even have their own blog.

Idaho Democrats

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

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

Rural (Social Security) Rebellion

From Western Democrat

Another rural rebellion against the GOP

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

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

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

Bad Rural Development

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good Rural Development

Much of the federal money spent on farm and rural programs is directed toward activities that do little to encourage meaningful development at the local level.

That’s a large part of the reason why this is so encouraging.

Woodbury County to consider tax breaks to organic farmers

SIOUX CITY, IA – Woodbury County may provide tax incentives to farmers who switch from conventional production to organic.

Rob Marqusee, the county’s rural economic development director, is scheduled to present the Board of Supervisors with a proposal Tuesday to offer farmers property tax rebates if they go organic.

Bob Scowcroft, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation in Santa Cruz, Calif., said Woodbury County may be the first local government to offer such incentives to farmers.

Marqusee said the goal of the program would be to build on local agriculture to spark economic development. The program would help build a thriving organic farming industry that would attract organic food processors and other businesses to the area, he said.

At a time when demand for organic foods is soaring this is a tax break that has a real chance of paying off in increased economic activity generated by tapping into the booming organic trend.

Generally speaking, we need to look toward local and regional governments for direction on farm and rural policy more often.

School Bus Stock Truck

School officials and rural activists in New Zealand get it.

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

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

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

Paging the Napa Valley Unified School District.

Some Children Left Behind

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

School buses may not reach rural stops

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mad Cow Case Confirmed

As you have probably heard

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

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

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

A Firehouse with no Firefighters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your Tax Dollars at Work

This story from last week just came to my attention.

USDA plants its own pro-CAFTA news

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One radio producer says

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

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

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

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

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

Nebraska Ahead of the Curve

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

Social Security

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

In Ohio

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

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

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

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

Rural Fire Departments

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

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

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

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

So far so good, but then we learn more.

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

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

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

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

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

Cell Phones

Another recent study suggests that there might be a link between cell phone use and brain tumors, especially in rural areas.

June 20, 2005 — Using a mobile phone in rural areas increases the risk of a brain tumors, according to new Swedish research published in Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

Those living in the countryside and using a mobile digital phone for more than three years were more than three times as likely to suffer a brain tumor as those living in urban areas. […]

The team said that for malignant brain tumors – as opposed to benign – the risk in rural areas was eight times that in urban areas.

But they cautioned that the numbers on which the research was based was small.

Others remain skeptical .

At issue is the radiation associated with cellular phones. In rural areas where towers are farther apart more radiation is required to boost the signal. Purchasing an ear piece that keeps the phone away from your head reduced the radiation level by 90%.

Mad Cow

Never mind the most recent case.

Instead think back to last year after the first (documented) case of mad cow disease in the U.S. Remember the sweeping new rules announced by the USDA and FDA that were supposed to further restrict the use of animal byproducts in cattle feed? Well it appears that those rules are passing quietly into the night.

This story appeared on page 29A of my paper today.

American cattle are eating chicken litter, cattle blood and restaurant leftovers that could help transmit mad cow disease — a gap in the U.S. defense that the Bush administration promised to close nearly 18 months ago.

“Once the cameras were turned off and the media coverage dissipated, then it’s been business as usual, no real reform, just keep feeding slaughterhouse waste,” said John Stauber.

Chicken litter is significant because cattle remains are used in poultry feed, feed that inevitably ends up in the litter.

And what does the FDA have to say for itself?

Today, the FDA still has not done what it promised to do. The agency declined interviews, saying in a statement only that there is no timeline for new restrictions.

There are some short term winners here. Cattle feedlots like their cheap feed supplies, and the slaughter industry garners additional profits from selling rendering for use in other feed products. I don’t think anyone wins long term though.


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

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

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

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

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

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

Cotton Subsidies

Last September (and again this March) the WTO ruled that U.S. cotton subsidies violated international trade agreements and ordered that they be lifted by July 1. As the deadline draws near the fervor around the issue is growing.

Yesterday Brazil threatened to retaliate if Washington doesn’t come forward with a plan.

BRASILIA, Brazil – 06/17/05 – Brazilian lawmakers have said that they are seriously considering removing protections on the intellectual property rights of US companies operating in the South American country if Washington fails to explain how it intends to move on plans to modify the existing US cotton subsidy mechanism.

Brazil isn’t the only country waiting to hear from Washington.

World cotton prices have dropped 30 percent in the past 18 months, increasing rural poverty in many African countries. Even in Egypt, for which cotton is not a crucial commodity, this shift has caused farmers to switch to growing rice, despite the fact that Egyptian long-staple cotton is considered to be one of the best in the world—whereas Egyptian rice has no particular competitive advantage. According to the British-based anti-poverty NGO Oxfam, “This system [of U.S. cotton subsidies] pits a typical Malian producer, farming two hectares of cotton, who is lucky to gross $400 a year, against US farms which receive a subsidy of $250 per hectare.”

“For the past three years, African cotton producers have not been able to make a decent living because of American subsidies,” said Sero Zorobouragui of the African Cotton Producers Organization.

U.S. cotton growers can be relatively assured that they will receive their check this fall, and it’s difficult to imagine that changing drastically in the near future. However, in 2003 the Bush Administration was forced to lift protective legislation aimed at the U.S. steel market after a similar ruling by the WTO.

Withdrawing from such free trade agreements seems to be one solution, though that isn’t likely to happen anytime soon. Shifting more subsidies to the unregulated “green box” category is another. The Conservation Security Program falls into the “green box,” but this program has seen little support in our current political climate.

Whatever happens in coming months the issue of agriculture subsidies will continue to be a growing issue. Any win-win solution will take significant work on the part of multiple players.

Update: The KickASS (Kick all Agricultural Subsidies) blog reports that Paul Wolfowitz, while in Africa, said that key to helping Africa’s poor cotton growers was to cut the subsidies paid to US and agriculture producers.

Golf Leaves Some Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this from the NY Times.

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

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

School Consolidation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Farm Policy Talk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading “Farm Policy Talk”

Rural Broadband

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

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

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

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

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

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

Better is Better than Bigger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last Chance for Last Chance

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

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

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

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

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

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

This from the Associate Press.

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

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

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

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

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

There’s More

This time from Michigan.

Federal cuts pinch rural health care

Darren Seymour held Penny Dick’s arm as she walked cautiously across the living room, her breathing labored and an oxygen tube trailing behind.

Seymour, a physical therapist, visits Dick’s home in rural Gladwin County twice a week to helps the 59-year-old heart patient rebuild her strength. In about two months, Dick has gone from being barely able to walk 10 feet to pacing the length of her home three times.

It’s the kind of help that 20,000 of Michigan’s sick stand to lose in the wake of reductions in how much Medicare pays to treat people in rural areas, where homes are miles apart and the nearest hospital could be an hour away.

Until last month, agencies that provided home health services to rural areas received 5 percent more funding than urban systems because of the time and gas it takes to drive between homes.

Without the money, agencies nationwide are cutting back staff, eliminating programs and scrapping services to rural areas.

The health care crisis is mounting all across the nation, but moves like these exasperate the problem for rural areas already at a disadvantage.

Much of the problem with current rural health care is that rural health policy is by and large a by product of national health policy. A market/price competition based health policy doesn’t work terribly well anywhere, but it works even less well in rural areas where service providers are geographically dispersed if present at all.

Cutting the budget to Medicare support programs in rural areas and expecting them to make up the money somewhere else is less then realistic given the lack of health care professionals in rural areas and a deteriorating health care infrastructure that exists in rural areas.

To add to the problem cuts like this and the TennCare cuts come at a time when rural areas are becoming increasingly elderly.

Update: This story from Oregon tells of a program designed to train nurses for rural areas. Students train remotely from the communities that they will serve after they graduate. More of this sort of thing begins to get at the problem of a failure to distinguish rural health policy from urban health policy.


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

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

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

Certainly other residents share the untenable position of Terry Sheilds

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

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

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

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

Wolfowitz, World Bank President

Last fall in a development theory seminar one of my classmates commented on Robert McNamara’s tenure as the President of the World Bank. “So what,” they said, “first you fuck up a war, and then you get to be president of the World Bank?”

And alas there seems to be a trend developing.

If approved by the bank’s board, Wolfowitz will assume control of the World Bank and its $20 billion a year loan programs. The World Bank often plays an influential role in shaping the policies of developing nations as the result of conditions it attaches to loan money under its control.

Joseph Stiglitz, American Nobel laureate, former chief economist to the World Bank and influential economic thinker, is fighting back.

Continue reading “Wolfowitz, World Bank President”

Bush’s Budget and Rural America

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

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

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

Continue reading “Bush’s Budget and Rural America”

Rural Sourcing

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

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

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

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

Global Warming Comes Home to the Ranch

The Fort Collins Coloradoan reports that rising CO2 levels may threaten grassland, thus cutting into the bottom line of ranchers.

Rising carbon dioxide levels could mean higher feed costs for ranchers and fewer wild ruminants such as antelope and deer, suggest studies by a U.S. Department of Agriculture research team in Fort Collins.

“This has huge implications for grasslands all around the world,” said Jack Morgan, a research leader and plant physiologist with the Agricultural Research Service in Fort Collins.

For ranchers, diluted nitrogen would mean lower-quality forage for livestock and more reliance on feed supplements like hay and alfalfa. But the issue, which could take decades to develop, isn’t on the radar of most ranchers.

Poor forage quality could lead to impacts similar to those that ranchers faced during the drought, when some sold off their herds or turned to hay as pastures deteriorated.

Left leaning blogs in the west have been making the point for some time now that growing environmental concerns in the red-state west should give Democrats a handhold in coming years.