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Let There Be No Doubt

July 11th, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Town I Grew Up In

July 10th, 2007

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

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

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

[snip]

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

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

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

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

Restoring Rural Roots

July 9th, 2007

by Steph Larsen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 7th, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it gets even more interesting.

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

Sirius, XM and American values

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

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

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

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

[snip]

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

[snip]

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

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

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

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

Water Wars Creep Eastward

July 7th, 2007

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

Amendment to farm bill would help pay for small irrigation reservoirs

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

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

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

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

Lies The Economist Told Natasha

June 11th, 2007

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

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

Then the fun begins for Natasha:

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

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

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

Satellite Radio Merger: Differing Rural Perspectives

June 10th, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

Huh?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ag Education: A Different Way

June 2nd, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Farm Labor Movement

May 29th, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that brings us to today.

Read the rest at Ethicurean

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

April 29th, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

Here is that populist party platform in full.

Biofuels: Boon or Bust?

April 15th, 2007

by Steph Larsen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Contributor

April 15th, 2007

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

Hillary’s Wal-Mart History

April 7th, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is no way to revitalize rural America.

Rural Development Goes Urban

April 6th, 2007

From the Washington Post:

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

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

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

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

Fired for Doing His Job

April 4th, 2007

From today’s Des Moines Register:

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s see that shirt:

Fired for Protecting the Environment Shirt

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

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

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

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

[snip]

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

[snip]

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

[snip]

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

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

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

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