Wednesday, September 30, 2009

New sitcoms set in the heartland

After years of programming focused on urban centers, two sitcoms are moving television viewers back into the heartland, reports the Los Angeles Times.
In recent years, fashionistas and other urban sophisticates have been the stars of prime-time TV. Inspired by the success of "Friends," which revolved around a circle of hip thirtysomethings and their affluent lives, the networks let loose a bull market in shows celebrating money, sex and power. Two seasons ago, just as the stock market was coming off its peak, shows such as "Cashmere Mafia," "Lipstick Jungle," "Big Shots" and "Dirty Sexy Money" were as prevalent as subprime mortgage brokers in Florida.
Advertiser preferences and demographic information provided by the Nielsen TV ratings company were critical in the movement to predominately urban-set shows. Angelo Pizzo, a former Warner Bros. executive adds:
"The feeling was that family-based shows, those set in the rural areas or the Midwest, were 'soft' and that was the last thing that advertisers would be interested in," he said.

Also working against the heartland has been the long-held Hollywood bias that anyone who lives outside of Los Angeles or New York is somehow out of fashion and a subject for satire.
Actress Patricia Heaton, who stars in one of the new sitcoms, believes that Hollywood's neglect of the heartland "borders on arrogance."

So why the renewed interest in the Midwest? In part, hard economic times:
[As] the nation sank into a recession and the unemployment rate climbed, such glamorous shows came across as phony and out of sync with the somber reality. Tougher times have inspired the networks to take another look at Midwestern sensibilities, and ABC's return to family comedies reflects the industry's shift.
The two programs, The Middle and Parks and Recreation, air on ABC and NBC, respectively.

Coming out in rural America.

The LGBT community has definitely made some strides over the last couple of decades.  Domestic partner policies, the proposed expansion of the Hate Crimes Prevention Act to include violence based on actual or perceived sexual preference, portrayals (though not all positive) in television and movies, and the legalization of same sex marriage in a few states all point to a culture that is accepting people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender.  

Unfortunately, violence against people in the LGBT community is still pervasive, and there is evidence that it may be a bigger problem in rural areas than in metropolitan areas.  Despite reports of  violence in places like Manhattan and Detroit, the majority of reports seem to be coming from towns that I have never heard of, like Grant Town, West Virginia and Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania.  Although this distinction is by no means proven, it makes sense that liberal metropolitan areas are less likely to see instances of violence then rural communities, where traditionally less tolerant religious conservatives reside.  It may also be that violence against LGBT identified people in rural areas is less likely to be categorized as a hate crime.  

Of course, there are some glaring exceptions to this general rule.  California residents recently passed Prop 13, which proposes a constitutional amendment that would keep marriage strictly between a man and a women, whereas in Iowa same sex couples can legally marry as of April, 2009.  San Francisco, California is home to one of the most famously gay neighborhoods in the country (the Castro), while Iowa is still perceived (by me at least) to be mostly farm country.  

There is some hope on the horizon, however, as the New York Times reported recently that teens are "Coming out in middle school" with more frequency, and fewer stigmas.  Although terms like "faggot" are still pervasive, educators, families, and communities are banding together to support LGBT teens, encourage tolerance, and hopefully decrease violence and verbal abuse directed at teens who don't fit perfectly into heteronormative roles.  The story focuses on a young gay teen from Sand Springs, Oklahoma, a suburb of Tulsa with a population of 17,000.   According to the article the Openarms Youth Project puts on a weekly dance in Tulsa for LGBT identified kids, and over 120 middle schools in the country have formed gay-straight alliance (G.S.A.) groups.  But, the article also points out that "gay kids in the South and in rural areas tend to have a harder time than those on the coasts", though it goes on to say that stereotypes like this are not absolute, and plenty of LGBT teens in progressive cities are still afraid to come out.  

This examination of perceptions of gay people in rural versus urban areas is supported by my own experience.  I went to high school in a town of about 4,000 people.  There were no openly gay kids at my high school, and the terms "gay" and "lesbian" were meant as an insult if they were used at all.  When I moved to Seattle for college I lived in a neighborhood where gender norms were not the norm, where gay and lesbian couples could hold hands and kiss on the street without being targeted, and where the yearly gay pride parade drew huge crowds of supporters and only a few fanatical hecklers.  

The study of rural livelihoods seems to focus on the rural stereotype: white, poor, undereducated, and heterosexual.  It is important to remember, however, that there are individuals in every community that do not fit this stereotype, who may suffer especially negative consequences if they choose to openly identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.  

Proyecto Poderoso

Proyecto Poderoso, or Project Powerful, is a special initiative created by a partnership between California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA) and the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) to address the particular legal issues of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in rural California, especially LGBT farm workers. I first heard of this project last year when I attended the 2008 Lavender Law Conference (the National LGBT Bar Association's annual conference). The attorney who was there presenting it, Lisa Cisneros, is the Project Coordinator and she knows firsthand what it's like to be gay in a rural community (rural, at least, in that it has a predominantly agricultural economy). She stated,

"Proyecto Poderoso is based in my hometown, Salinas, California. I came out as a teenager in Salinas, and I understand that one can feel isolated as an LGBT person in a small town... While the limelight of public attention and services shines on places like Los Angeles, Silicon Valley, and San Francisco, I am familiar with living in a mostly ignored place, Salinas.”

According to the CRLA website, Proyecto Poderoso was created as a response to the increasing visibility of LGBT people in rural areas. CRLA and NCLR cite a Williams Institute study revealing that about 136,000 self-identified LGB people(the study did not include transgendered people) live in the counties served by CRLA. Of course, keep in mind that there are a number of problems with collecting data on LGB people, the most obvious of which are that (1) many people are often reluctant to divulge identifying with a minority sexual orientation and (2) that sexual orientation is also difficult to break down into definitive categories. Because of these problems, the number of self-identified LGB people in a particular area might be significantly lower than the actual number of LGB people.

In any case, poor LGBT people of color in rural areas may be one of the most vulnerable populations as they face not only class and poverty barriers, but race and sexual orientation/gender identity barriers as well. And as rural communities are supposedly homogeneous bastions of intolerance for difference, a concern for this population makes sense, as does the corresponding provision of LGBT-specific legal services. Proyecto Poderoso's program overview asserts that a third of the rural LGBT community members struggle with poverty and suffer from higher rates of unemployment, disability, and psychological stress than their heterosexual peers.

Go here for some more interesting comparative statistical analysis done by the Williams Institute, a national think tank at UCLA School of Law working to advance sexual orientation law and public policy.

To address the particular legal issues of low-income LGBT people in rural counties, Proyecto Poderoso advances a three pronged approach: 1) providing community education about LGBT rights, 2) training other legal advocates in the area of LGBT rights, and 3) providing direct legal services. Proyecto Poderoso also strives to identify and cultivate potential LGBT leaders in rural areas. While prongs #2 and #3 seem like nothing special or unique and are pretty standard practice for legal aid organizations, I particularly like the strategy of providing community education and cultivating local leaders in small communities.

On March 27, 2009, Proyecto Poderoso was featured on National Public Radio's "California Report." Here is the story's blurb from the California Report website:

"Many California farmworkers are so desperate to keep their jobs that they rarely complain when there's a problem at work. When those farmworkers are gay, lesbian or transgender, they may face harassment or even earn less pay because of their sexual orientation. Now, a new project is helping them learn about their rights under California law. "

Click here to listen to the audio clip and click here to see the accompanying photo slideshow. The piece profiles LGBT discrimination in rural counties, Proyecto Poderoso, and features the employment discrimination case of a transgendered farmworker named Sandra. Before transitioning, Sandra had previously worked as a foreman named Juan on an asparagus packing line for eight years. She was eventually promoted to the position of supervisor on the night shift, but after she began taking hormones, she was met with hostility at work. She was frequently verbally harassed for being transgender, and her boyfriend (also an employee at the packing house) was violently attacked by another supervisor. After the attack, Sandra was demoted and received a pay cut. Proyecto Poderoso filed an employment discrimination claim based on sexual orientation on Sandra's behalf and Sandra and the packing company eventually entered a settlement agreement.

I'm glad that non-profits and legal aid organizations are considering the particular needs of specific target populations – in this case, rural LGBT people. Proyecto Poderoso is a recognition that LGBT people in rural communities have unique needs and require unique services. LGBT people in rural counties do not face the same issues or have the same vulnerabilities as do LGBT people in urban areas. That's not to say that their needs are radically different; employment discrimination obviously affects LGBT people in urban areas too. But I think the delivery of services does need to take geographical circumstances into account. I guess in the "should there be a legal distinction between urban and rural areas or should these areas be dealt with in the same manner" debate, though I realize the difficulties and complications of doing so, I'm inclined to favor the side that takes location-specific factors (such as urban vs. rural) into account, and I applaud NCLR and CRLA for doing so. I wish other programs like Medi-Cal, CalWORKS, and Food Stamps would do so as well.

What struck me most about Proyecto Poderoso, however, was not just that there was a program out there offering such specific services for such a needy population, but that its creation was a purported reaction to the "increasing visibility" of LGBT people in rural areas. Where is this increased visibility coming from? I don't know that I necessarily agree that LGBT people in rural areas are increasingly visible. I think LGBT issues generally have become more familiar to people in the last few years, but, at least in my mind, rural LGBT people hadn't been receiving specific attention. The only two things I can think of are movies: Boys Don't Cry (and Hilary Swank's subsequent Academy Award win for her role) and Brokeback Mountain, which were released in 1999 and 2005, respectively (Proyecto Poderoso was created in 2007). Those two films are the only major media items I can think of specifcally regarding LGBT people in small communities, but both admittedly were highly publicized and won a lot of awards. Maybe those two films were enough.

The "increased visibility" that supposedly spurred Proyecto Poderoso made me curious about the division of LGBT people between rural and urban areas, so I looked up this statistic on the Human Rights Campaign website by state. It seems to make sense that LGBT people in isolated rural areas would move to more urban areas where homophobia is (supposedly) less prevalent and where they can receive more appropriate services such as healthcare. I was pretty shocked to find that almost across the national board, the percentage of LGB households living in rural areas (versus urban areas) increased and, in many cases, increased in a dramatic fashion.

Between 1990 and 2000, of the 49 states (there was no data for Iowa), only 9 states showed a decrease in the percentage of all LGB households that reside in rural areas. Again, these statistics are constrained by the same problems noted above, but the numbers were pretty surprising nonetheless. Three states showed no change in its rural-urban division of LGB households, and the remaining 37 states showed an increase. For example, in 1990, only 5% of Utah's LGB households resided in rural areas (while the other 95% resided in urban areas). By 2000, however, 19% of Utah's LGB households resided in rural areas. The next biggest increases, in terms of percent change, included:

1. Nebraska - 11% in 1990, to 38% in 2000
2. Oklahoma - 11% in 1990, to 33% in 2000

24 states showed a 50% or greater increase in their percentages of LGB households residing rural areas vs. urban areas!

So I don't know about increased visibility, but it does seem that the urban-rural division of the LGBT population is getting less stark and I'm curious as to why. Are rural areas becoming less dangerous for LGBT people? Is access to appropriate services improving? Are gay people moving into rural areas?? Or are fewer gay people leaving rural areas? Maybe nothing has really changed, and the numbers just reflect greater comfort among the gay community with coming out.

The face of rural homelessness

Homelessness if often associated with urban places, perhaps due to the fact that urban homeless populations are often geographically concentrated and highly visible. However, a recent study by the National Alliance to End Homelessness (here) found that homelessness is not just an urban problem.

Using 2007 homelessness counts and Census data to examine the prevalence of homelessness in rural and urban places, the study reports that homelessness is, as expected, more prevalent in urban areas on average. In urban places, 29 out of every 10,000 persons are homeless, while the rate is 19 in mostly urban areas. In rural areas, the rate is 14 persons out of every 10,000 persons. The homeless rate in mixed rural/mostly rural places is 12 per 10,000 persons and eight per 10,000 persons in mostly rural areas.

While some may be surprised that the rate of homelessness in rural places is not higher in light of the higher rates of unemployment and poverty in many rural counties, the study goes on to note that the prevalence of homelessness in rural America may be higher than the report concludes. First, the rate of homelessness in the rural areas examined varies more dramatically than the urban areas studied, with rural areas registering some of the highest and lowest homelessness rates. Second, rural homelessness differs from urban homelessness in significant respects. The study notes that:
many extremely poor people in rural areas do not stay in shelters but rather double-up with family or friends or live in substandard housing, and many leave rural areas in search of increased employment opportunities and homeless services.
So what, in addition to a lack of services and employment opportunities and the likelihood of turning to family or friends for assistance, differentiates rural homelessness from urban homelessness?

News reports from local newspapers across rural America are bringing this often-unseen population into focus — and providing some answers to this question in the process. For example, a recent series in the Flathead Beacon sheds light on rural Montana’s growing homeless population. Montana’s homeless rate has been on the rise statewide since the beginning of the recession, increasing by 23 percent between 2007 and 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s 2008 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress. Families represent a disproportionately high percentage of the homeless population in rural Montana. Part two of the Flathead Beacon series, entitled "The Rapid Spread of Rural Homelessness," focuses on homeless families:
The nation’s rural homeless rate is soaring. In Montana, it has really grown wings. But it’s not bums begging for your change on the corner. It’s the kid sitting next to your child in third grade. It’s your co-worker. Montana’s homeless are disproportionately working families. And they’re crowding shelters from Billings to Kalispell.
Nationwide, families represent around 30 percent of the homeless population. This figure is doubled in some of Montana’s rural counties. Interestingly, the article notes that members of many of Montana’s rural homeless families work — sometimes more than one job — but have found it difficult to support themselves as rural economies have been increasingly hampered by the recession. Single women with children are more often the ones who lose their homes. Startlingly, reports may understate the extent of the problem:
It’s not always easy for organizations to find homeless families, as they tend to be more ashamed than individuals and try to remain hidden, said Gloria Edwards, executive director of Bozeman’s Family Promise: ‘They’re not very visible – they’re not the ones standing on street corners.’
This fact also makes it more difficult for local service providers, such as churches and shelters, to provide assistance.

The Flathead Beacon series confirms that, at least in some important respects, rural homelessness differs from urban homelessness. These differences necessitate localized responses to homelessness at the community level. To the extent that law and policymakers at higher scales, such as the state and federal level, view homelessness as an urban phenomenon that primarily affects individuals, they are mistaken. The article mentions that more family-oriented housing facilities are needed to shelter Montana’s homeless families in rural places. But what else can be done to help this unseen population?

In particular, how can rural communities help those who are living out of cars or precariously housed by family and friends, since these populations may be difficult to track and are often not visible? Since rural families are disproportionately represented in many rural areas’ homeless populations, what steps should be taken to ensure that homeless children are adequately cared for? Does the embarrassment associated with losing a home and the stigma of receiving government assistance make it less likely that the rural homeless will seek help? Do these types of programs run counter to the pervasive sense of self-reliance in many of America's most rural places?

While the rates of urban homelessness outpace those of rural homelessness, the current recession is likely aggravating the situation on both sides of the rural-urban divide. More importantly, it is clear that the rural homeless face unique challenges not commonly associated with urban homelessness — and that the special demands of place need to be taken into account when formulating a response.

Energy self-sufficiency in rural Denmark

I rarely think of any place in Western Europe as rural, but this story about Samso, Denmark has me reconsidering that presumption. John Tagliabue writes in today's New York Times about this island which he describes as "dim" and smelling "vaguely of straw." The headline is, "From Turbines and Straw, Danish Self Sufficiency," and the story's focus is how this tiny island (about the size of the Bronx) off the Jutland of Denmark has become energy self sufficient following a decade of investment and ingenuity aimed at that goal. Here's a description of the place:
With no traffic lights on the island and few street lights, driving its roads on a cloudless night is like piercing a black cloud. There is one movie theater, few cars and even fewer buses, except for summer, when thousands of tourists multiply the population.
About ten years ago, the island's 4,000 residents "busily set themselves about erecting wind turbines, installing nonpolluting straw-burning furnaces to heat their sturdy brick houses and placing panels here and there to create electricity from the island’s sparse sunshine."

Apparently they have succeeded, and it makes me wonder to what extent rural (or relatively rural places) are better situated than urban places to become energy self-sufficient simply by virtue of low population and sometimes easy access to natural resources. Will a/the Green Revolution be based in rural places?

Is hunting no longer a boys' club? Young female hunters increase by 50%

Hunting is popular in rural America – for both food and for sport. However, the number of male hunters has slowly decreased for nearly two decades. To revive interest in hunting, some states are running campaigns focused on drawing women into the sport. These campaigns are producing results, as evinced by a 2007 Fish and Wildlife Service survey. The survey shows that the number of women hunters in the United States has remained steady for the past 10 years, despite a drop in the number of male hunters. The survey also revealed a surprising discovery – the number of young female hunters, ages 6 to 15, has doubled since 1991. The increase in young female hunters represents a fundamental change in the perception of women as delicate, feminine beings.

As shown by the map above, the rural areas of America have the highest hunting participation rates. On a state level, Montana had the highest participation at 19%, followed closely by North Dakota, South Dakota and Arkansas, Maine, and West Virginia. The lowest level of hunting participation rates was in California, Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Jersey, which all had a 1% hunting participation rate. According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, the participation rates for hunters were the lowest among residents of large metropolitan areas and highest among non-metropolitan areas. Metropolitan areas with a population of 1 million or more had a hunting participation rate of only 3%, compared to 12% of non-metropolitan areas.

In 2006, 12.5 million Americans hunted. In all, 10% of American males and 1% of females hunt. Males account for 91% of the hunters in America, while females account for only 9%. However, each year the number of male hunters has declined, culminating in an 11% decline from 1991 to 2006. In 2006 in the U.S., 1% of females hunted.

As the numbers decline, some states have looked for ways to keep hunting alive. The Idaho Fish and Game Department has begun to hold women-only hunter workshops. Yesterday, NPR’s Morning Edition reported on the rise of women hunters and focused on women attending on of the Idaho Fish and Game workshops. At these workshops, the women are taught to shoot, navigate in the woods and how to prepare animal carcasses to bring home.

The fact that the number of women hunters remains steady is surprising enough given the decline in the rate of men hunters, but the rise in young female hunters is even more astonishing. As shown by the chart on the left (property of Legal Ruralism Blog, data from the Fish and Wildlife Service 2007 Survey), the number of young female hunters ages 6 to 15 has increased from 153, 000 million in 2001 to 299,000 million in 2006.

According to this 2007 New York Times article first discussing women hunters, most women cite the desire to spend time with the families as the reason why they want to hunt. NPR's Morning Edition also cited need for food and togetherness as the reason more women are hunting. However, this does not explain the increase in young female hunters. Adult female hunters hypothesize that more fathers and husbands are bringing their wives, girlfriends, and daughters hunting with them. This is certainly a switch from the days when only boys went hunting with their fathers.

The fact that more fathers are willing to bring along their daughters hunting represents a fundamental change in the way rural men view their daughters. Women, especially in rural areas, are historically viewed as domestic and feminine. Beyond this, there is the assumption that females would not be interested in the barbaric, brutal sport of hunting. Hunting is not for the faint of heart - one has to take another animal's life, and then there are the processes of gutting the animal, skinning it, and carving it into meat should the hunter use their catch as food. This drastic increase in the number of such young women involved in hunting shows that women are no longer seen as dainty beings who cannot stomach hunting. The stereotypes of women are being broken down with every gunshot!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Norman Borlaug, RIP (Part II)

Recipient of the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize, Norman Borlaug, died September 12, 2009, at age 95. Borlaug was an agricultural scientist known as a champion of high-yield crop varieties and other science and agricultural innovations. He used these innovations to help fight hunger in underdeveloped Pakistan, India, and Mexico. His own family farm in Iowa also employs innovative organic, sustainable farming methods.

TIME Magazine called Borlaug a "quintessential American success story." This got me thinking about rurality and rural stereotypes that tend to plague not only the law (as we've learned) but also public perception about what it means to be "rural." Why was his success story so "quintessential"? Further exploration seemed to shed some light on the matter. He was a success not only for his agricultural innovations, but because of his rural roots. The suggestion is that he was able to "overcome" his underprivileged beginnings.

Borlaug was born in the small Norwegian-American community of Saude, Iowa, and worked on his family farm west of Protivin, Iowa. He attended the one-teacher, one-room New Oregon rural school in Howard County up through eighth grade. Borlaug was the personification of the "American Dream," a truly self-made man. Close friends even lauded him for laboring on his childhood farm, work that in their opinion, instilled an unparalleled work ethic in his psyche. Reflecting the closeness of his community and the homogeneity, the children in his school would stand and sing “The Iowa Corn Song,” celebrating their identity and the bond they shared as Iowans. Borlaug was also the first person in his family to seek a university education.

The media loves this "rags to riches" story, and it's fascinating to me that even his story can be angled in such a way to play into so many rural stereotypes. Rural places are simple, agricultural communities where few people are college educated or even seek college educations. Well, right off the bat we know that only 2% of rural dwellers are employed in agriculture. Moreover, while many rural people may be uneducated in the academic sense, not all rural knowledge = stupid knowledge like Lisa Heldke might suggest. And why is "success" always measured by urban norms and standards?

In a different vein, I also find it interesting how rural people continue value their rural backgrounds even after flight from their rural place. People want to be connected to their cultural background and past. Borlaug's research directly impacted rural people, both in the United States and abroad. Aided by the use of fertilizer and irrigation, Borlaug’s new wheat varieties enabled poverty-stricken Mexico to achieve self-sufficiency in 1956. Borlaug was also an innovator of rural roads, which helped farmers bring their crops to market. The network of roads built all over his home state not only facilitated agricultural production, but also the transport of children to school and access to medical care. The roads dramatically improved the lives of an entire generation of rural Iowans.

In sum, the death of an accomplished, former rural dweller highlights some interesting issues with regard to place, knowledge, and rural stereotypes. While it appears that rural people and places are studied now more than ever before, urban ideals continue to rule, and stereotypes persist.

A rural angle on Ramadan

That headline may be a bit misleading because the New York Times story that prompted it is more about rural-urban migration in Indonesia and largess among the nation's elite than it is about Ramadan. The lede follows for Norimitsu Onishi's story, "Nannies Get Holiday. Rich Families Get a Suite."
Every year at the end of Ramadan, millions of maids, nannies and chauffeurs make their annual pilgrimages to their hometowns across Indonesia, leaving their pampered employers to fend for themselves.
The rural angle lies in the fact that many nannies' hometowns are in rural places. Here's a related quote:
In one of the world’s largest annual exoduses, tens of millions of Indonesians leave Jakarta and other cities to celebrate Id al-Fitr, the Muslim holiday at the end of Ramadan, with relatives in villages and towns across rural Indonesia. More than 27 million are believed to have made the trip home this year, according to the authorities.

* * *
For many, compounding the holiday stress was the common fear that their maids — after getting their Id al-Fitr bonuses — would stay in their villages or look for better jobs elsewhere.
The wealthy urbanites' responses are off-putting, to say the least. One commented: “This is the most tiring time of the year.”

Monday, September 28, 2009

Norman Borlaug, RIP

On September 12, agricultural innovator and Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug died at age 95. Mr. Borlaug is best known as the primary force behind the "Green Revolution," a series of innovations that allowed for the greatest increase in agricultural productivity in human history.

Mr. Borlaug's single greatest innovation was the development of hardy, high-yielding strains of wheat in Mexico in the early 1950's. By carefully selecting and breeding wheat varieties, Borlaug was able to shrink the size of the wheat plant without reducing the size of the seed head that produces grain. These compact plants increased yields by allowing more plants to be grown per acre, while their stocky, durable structure also proved more resistant to the elements.

Borlaug's contributions to agriculture, however far exceeded the development of superior wheat varieties. By studying farming practices and their shortcomings in the developing world, Borlaug was able to help develop a comprehensive set of agricultural practices that laid the foundation for what would come to be known as the Green Revolution. By demonstrating how a combination of hardier plant varieties, irrigation, and pesticide and fertilizer use could be adapted to and utilized in agriculture in the developing world, Borlaug enabled historic gains in agricultural productivity. His success was later replicated with the development of new, more productive rice varieties.

Borlaug's efforts paid enormous dividends by virtually eliminating large-scale famine in South Asia and Mexico through increased crop yields within those regions, and by enabling already productive regions to produce greater amounts of food for persons and places without. Estimates of the number of lives saved by Borlaug's innovations range from hundreds of millions into the billions--a truly staggering and unparalleled contribution to human welfare, all made possible by a dedicated plant scientist from Cresco, Iowa.

Borlaug's legacy, and the Green Revolution generally, have come under criticism for promoting unsustainable agricultural practices. Critics point to the Green Revolution's emphasis on:
-Crop monocultures, and the concomitant loss of biodiversity;
-Irrigation, which can lead to groundwater overdraft and other water shortage problems; and finally,
-Pesticide and Fertilizer use, and the related ecological and health effects.
General criticism is also directed at the idea that the green revolution encourages unsustainable population growth and hasn't proven adaptable to all regions.

In spite of this criticism, Borlaug's contribution to the way humans produce and consume food unquestionably ranks among the most significant achievements in human history--his work continues to provide us with reliable, plentiful food, and has allowed hundreds of millions of stomachs that would otherwise have sat empty to be filled.

Most of the criticism leveled at the Green Revolution generally, and at Borlaug in particular, is best understood as a recognition of the limits of the methods and innovations advanced in the Green Revolution, and of the ever-present need to consider the environmental and human context into which the methods must be placed. Overuse of pesticides, for example, can have negative ecological and health effects. The solution to overuse, however, doesn't necessarily have to involve a Luddite-like rejection of pesticide use; instead, we should seek to make use of Borlaug's methods in conjunction with our developing understanding of their potential downsides.

When he was a young man, Borlaug was encouraged to continue his education by his grandfather, who told him, "You're wiser to fill your head now if you want to fill your belly later on." Grandpa Borlaug's advice rings equally true today--we should continue the process of researching and developing how food grows, so that we might be able to do so in a manner that produces enough for all in an environmentally and socially sustainable manner. This work, so essential to human life, will undoubtedly proceed from the foundation that was laid by Norman Borlaug over the course of a truly remarkable and significant life.

A rural perspective on California's marijuana debate

Rural people are often depicted as facing various “threats” to their way of life as their numbers decrease. In northern California, there are increasingly reports that rural people are facing a new threat: pot growers poaching on their land. Marijuana gardens on public grounds, with the environmental degradation and safety concerns they cause, have long been a problem. Pot gardens on private land however pose additional problems. A recent news story on the issue began: “Juliette Brown once roamed freely among the buffalo on her family’s sprawling ranch in the rolling pine and oak-studded hills.” The report went on to recount how the 11-year old is now forbidden from riding her pony alone on her family’s ranch for fear of coming into contact with booby-trapped marijuana gardens on their land.

Lake County Major Crimes Unit supervisor Sgt. Jim Samples related that his unit “usually hear[s] from land owners on a weekly basis that are afraid to use their land for fear of running into armed illegal growers.” On top of safety concerns, rural landowners feel that pot growers are tapping their water supplies, polluting streams with chemicals, and poaching wildlife.

The threats felt by run-ins with pot growers have landowners taking extra precautions. Larry Mailliard, who owns about 15,000 acres near Yorkville, stated: “I’m aware of it all the time. So when I’m going someplace, I usually am armed.” He also told reporters that most rural landowners he knows have had similar problems. Given that the allure of freedom to roam open spaces and escape from urban social problems often draws people to rural areas or keeps them situated there, it is easy to understand how the presence of pot poachers is viewed as a threat to the rural way of life.

The movement to legalize marijuana has long been present in California (think of reggae’s well-known battle cry “Legalize it, Don’t criticize it, Legalize it, yeah, yeah, and I will advertise it”). That push however recently gained momentum in the California legislature. The BBC reported that State Assemblyman Tom Ammiano introduced a bill earlier this year that proposed to grant marijuana the same legal status as alcohol and tobacco.

The arguments for legalization of marijuana focus on the increased tax revenue from regulating the industry (which California state authorities estimate would bring in close to $1.5bn a year) and the effect it could have on curbing problems with international drug cartels. Legalization, it seems, could also aid rural Californians who are confronting pot poachers. With the legalization of marijuana, pot poaching in rural, clandestine locations would become less prevalent, and rural landowners would be free to roam their land with at least one less fear.

Save(d) Rural Yolo County

Last October, when I was driving along CA-16 west of Woodland, I came across this sign. (2009, Carla Phillips, posted with owner’s permission). This August, when making the same drive, I noticed the sign was gone. Rural Yolo County had been saved. But from what? And how? It’s a story worth telling, especially to those who rarely venture far from I-80.

On September 9th, 2008, the Yolo County Board of Supervisors in a 3-1-1 vote, approved a site in Madison, a community of about 300 at the junction of I-505 and CA-16, for placement of a re-entry facility (jump to 1:32:15). According to California Assembly Bill 900 passed by the 2007 state legislature, reentry facilities:

….provide a mechanism to provide [soon-to-be released prisoners] life skills, job-seeking, and medical, mental health and addiction treatment, etc. prior to release.

In exchange for the land for the reentry facility, the state would give the county $30 million for the renovation of the Yolo County Jail in Woodland, CA. The county contended in its press release about the deal that the county jail was sorely overcrowded and the reentry facility could create local jobs.

Informational meetings before the vote had shown there was strong public sentiment against the proposed location of the reentry facility. Supervisors heard much of the usual NIMBY sentiment that would go along with the construction of any large, undesirable facility. However, some of the arguments against the facility are unique to a rural, California community: the prison would sit on land used by alfalfa farmers; the prison would be situation right next to a day care center run for the migrant workers; the prison, designed to release inmates, would lure development into the area to provide jobs, housing, and retail to the recently paroled.

After the vote, opponents of the prison created the grassroots (appropriate for trying to save an alfalfa field) group Save Rural Yolo County. The group turned out quite an impressive coalition. Community figures from Madison and Esparato were joined with concerned citizens of Davis and Woodland, the Wintum Indians (located around Tancred), and the California Farm Bureau Federation. Over the next few months, Save Rural Yolo’s members engaged in about every and any grassroots activity under the Central Valley sun. They wrote letters to the editor, letters the state representation, letters to senators, and letters to the Office of the Inspector General. They testified at every official hearing about the prison. They retained counsel and filed two separate lawsuits in Yolo Superior Court in October, alleging that the county violated state law by performing an environmental review before entering in the contract to give the land to the state and violated its own planning ordinances that protect rural farmland. And of course, they put up the signs all around the county, like the one that first caught my attention.

At their May 5, 2009 meeting, the Yolo County supervisors voted unanimously not to go ahead with construction of the facility. Many reasons were given for scrapping the plans: the budget crisis put the $30 million grant from the state in doubt; the Madison site raised flood control issues; Madison wasn’t big enough to support the facility or in influx of residents. A supervisor explicitly denied that the efforts of Save Rural Yolo County influenced the decision, but given the similarities between the reasoning of the Board and the complaints of the residents, one has to wonder. Whatever the case, there will be a no new prison in Madison. After the vote was taken, members of Save Rural Yolo County cheered out loud.

The Save Rural Yolo movement provides a nice foil for a grassroots movement of sorts which followed shortly thereafter: the health care town hall protests. Given the disregard for civility that defined the meetings and made for oh-so-entertaining Youtube clips all summer, it’s not surprising that much of the media coverage of these events was negative. There was the lingering accusation that the people who were speaking out simply didn’t know the facts, especially the angrier, more rural town hall goers. Any discussions of elitism versus ruralism are way too long for this post and for the most part over my head. However, at a time when all grassroots organizations are accused of being “astroturf,” and a political movement by mostly white, mostly poor, mostly country people might be viewed with suspicion, I like to think the Save Rural Yolo story is a good one to recount.

New study of rural brain drain

A high-profile story in last week's Chronicle of Higher Education features the headline, "The Rural Brain Drain." It is written by Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas, and it promotes their forthcoming book. Carr and Kefalas received support from the MacArthur Foundation's Network to document "how 21st century Iowans were trying to survive in the postindustrialized, global era." They did so by moving to "Ellis," in northeastern Iowa, which they call "a typical small town." There they conducted numerous interviews, while also observing what they could as residents.

Many of their findings, including those related to adolescent and young adult residents, are pretty depressing.

Our year and a half spent interviewing the more than 200 young people who had attended the town's high school in the late 1980s and early 1990s led us to categorize our young Iowans according to the defining traits of where their lives had taken them by their 20s and 30s. The largest group, approximately 40 percent, consisted of the working-class "stayers," struggling in the region's dying agro-industrial economy; about one in five became the collegebound "achievers," who often left for good; just 10 percent included the "seekers" who join the military to see what the world beyond offers; and the rest were the "returners," who eventually circled back to their hometowns, only a small number of whom were professionals we call "high fliers." What surprised us most was that adults in the community were playing a pivotal part in the town's decline by pushing the best and brightest young people to leave, and by underinvesting in those who chose to stay, even though it was the latter that were the towns' best chance for a future.

The paradox was summed up for us early during our time in Ellis by the local high school's guidance counselor, who informed us that "the best kids go while the ones with the biggest problems stay, and then we have to deal with their kids in the schools in the next generation." These "best kids" are the high-achieving, most-likely-to-succeed students destined for college—the achievers. The ones with the biggest problems, the stayers, get trapped in the region's fading economy. So as achievers are pushed, prodded, and cultivated to leave, and credit their teachers for being integral to their success, the stayers view school as an alienating experience and zoom into the labor force because few people are invested in keeping them on the postsecondary track, and the lure of a regular paycheck is hard to resist.

Also of interest to me were the authors' reasons for why we should care about what they call the "hollowing out" of rural America--this loss of the most talented:

We believe that it would be a mistake to abandon the region, because hollowing out has repercussions far beyond the boundaries of the small towns it affects. The health of the heartland is vital to the country as a whole. This is the place where most of our food comes from; it can be ground zero for the green economy and sustainable agriculture; it is the place that helps elect our presidents, and it sends more than its fair share of young men and women to fight for this country.

I hope they are right that the health of the heartland is vital to the entire country, but if it is, it seems to me that most metropolitan residents don't realize that. As for the potential to be "ground zero for the green economy and sustainable agriculture," I have to ask if we really need rural places for that. Can't the green economy and sustainable agriculture be conducted at the urban fringe, if not in urban areas themselves? (Read posts here, here, here and here). Finally--and I hate to be so pessimistic--if rural America dries up and blows away (to use what I consider to be a rural expression--or at least one from my own rural childhood), won't poor urban kids pick up the slack to fight our wars? And won't urban dwellers be relieved finally to be free of the tyranny of the Iowa caucuses!

Read the entire Chronicle story here.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Homelessness in the Sierra-Nevada foothills

Two recent news items, one on KXJZ's Insight and one in today's Sacramento Bee, have focused on the issue of homelessness in or near Placerville, California, population 9,610. Placerville is the county seat of El Dorado County and is just east of Sacramento County and part of the Sacramento Metropolitan area. Still, the KXJZ feature referred to it as "rural," and many in El Dorado County think of it as rural. See an earlier post here. I personally see Placerville as exurban, but other parts of the county are far more rural in character, by various measures. It is a vast county that stretches all the way to Lake Tahoe and the Nevada state line, and it features a great deal of public land.

Today's Bee story didn't play up the rural angle as much as it did a personal angle, by focusing on one homeless man. The story, "Homeless horseman moseys through Gold Country" features Frank Jack Fletcher Turpen, who lives in the woods near Placerville, where he keeps and manages to feed and care for a number of horses. Here's an excerpt from Peter Hecht's story that highlights Turpen's relationship with local law enforcement officials:

"He is the only homeless person I have ever seen riding a horse," said El Dorado County Sheriff's Sgt. Jim Byers. "My impression is that he isn't there by circumstances. He is there by choice. He is comfortable with who he is."

Last year, California Highway Patrol officers stopped him on an eastbound ramp of Highway 50 on a mustang named Shiner he bought in Angels Camp for $400.

The CHP report said he was riding while intoxicated. It listed his "vehicle" as a "domestic white horse – female." He got three years' probation for public drunkenness.

Turpen faces trial in October for misdemeanor trespassing, allegedly as part of an encampment near an El Dorado Irrigation District reservoir. He says he wasn't there.

Byers said authorities also received calls from residents concerned about the horses Turpen ties up when stopping for a cup of coffee or tobacco at local businesses.

But deputies found his animals watered, fed and content in the woods. "All our checks showed us they are very well cared for," Byers said.

Quandary in the quarries: the Marcellus Shale formation

The Marcellus Shale formation has been the focus of countless headlines and the fodder of endless conversation for residents of central New York and Pennsylvania and parts of West Virginia since 2007. The layer of rock which lies underneath much of northern Appalachia and which contains large quantities of valuable natural gas is now gaining national attention as well as its importance as a potential energy source for surrounding areas becomes clear. According to this New York Times article, geologists have known for more than a century that the shale contained gas. Recovering the gas did not become economical until the introduction of the new technologies of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing in the last few years, however. Combined with rising energy prices and a national push to reduce American dependence on foreign oil, the new found feasibility of extracting the gas has transformed the Marcellus Shale formation into a proverbial gold mine.

Following the discovery of the new technology, gas companies quickly moved in and began going door to door and making phone calls to landowners with the mineral rights to the shale, the majority of who are rural dwellers. Just as quickly, community groups began forming on both sides of the debate over whether and how to allow the drilling to commence. Environmental groups sprouted to fight the drilling. Landowners banded together in certain areas to negotiate optimal leases. Lawyers rushed in to write the terms of the contracts and to advise both the gas companies and the residents on how to proceed.

Now the drilling has officially commenced in Pennsylvania, altering the rural countryside and the lives of the residents in the area of the Marcellus Shale formation alike. Massive rigs tower over the gas wells all throughout the green hills and valleys of the Endless Mountain region of Northeastern Pennsylvania, working throughout the day and night. As the rigs pump gas out of the wells, they simultaneously pump huge amounts of money into this economically depressed area. As reported in an article in the Press & Sun Bulletin, my hometown newspaper in Upstate New York, the royalties that many residents are already receiving are seen as blessings from God. The money allowed one 63-year old farmer and auctioneer to retire. Others have been able to repair dilapidated farm houses and barns and make new purchases, such as flat-screen televisions.

Of course, not all the news is good. The constant activity at the site of the drilling creates significant amounts of noise and light pollution with negative effects on the quality of life of many residents. On a trip home to visit family in August of this year, I saw one of the newly installed rigs lit up against a dark sky, initially mistaking the bright, colorful lights and the loud clamor for a carnival. I cannot imagine living within a few hundred feet from one of the sites. In addition, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection blames the drilling for contaminating the water supply in areas surrounding the drilling wells with Methane, rendering it undrinkable.

The risks of pollution from the new hydraulic fracturing technology led New York to “suspend[] permitting for Marcellus wells while the state Department of Environmental Conservation reviews its impact on the environment.” The State’s focus is on preserving water quality, as Upstate New York reservoirs near the Marcellus Shale formation supply New York City’s drinking water. According to this website:
"New York is one of just four major cities in the United States with a special permit allowing its drinking water to go unfiltered…. If the special permit was revoked, the city would have to build a treatment facility that could cost nearly $10 billion, said Walter Mugden, a senior official at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency."

In spite of the real dangers and the costs, owners of the mineral rights clamor for the drilling, and the royalty checks, to begin.

I am incredibly ambivalent in my feelings towards this entire phenomenon. Cynically, I look at this scenario playing out in New York State and see the classic marginalization of rural Upstater’s interests by Downstate urbanites. On the other hand, I am thankful that the State is protecting the environment, regardless of the motivation.

Continuing in this vein of ambivalence, I see that the money that is flooding into to Pennsylvania is an obvious boon. There could not have been a better time for the discovery of a new way to extract the gas then in this recession when so many in this already depressed area were already teetering on the edge of financial disaster. Furthermore, my family members in the Northeast of the State- from my grandfather to my aunts and uncles, and even my parents- will directly benefit. All have all already signed leases with gas companies.

At the same time, however, I have the sad sense that I am watching history repeat itself. Appalachia was home to the coal mining boom in the last century and the countryside throughout the entire region is still visibly scarred. The residents lived hard lives in the mines and received little in the way of remuneration. Once the coal companies got as much as they could from the region, they left, all the richer, leaving the area in its current state of economic depression, with little hope in the way of recovery in the near future. I think with trepidation of the worst example of the type of devastation visited on the region- Centralia, Pennsylvania- a ghost town where a mine fire has been burning since 1962, resulting in the total abandonment of the town.

Given this history, I cannot help but think that, even with the royalty checks, residents of the three states atop the Marcellus Shale formation will not be better off in the long term. Once the gas wells dry up, the companies will leave behind gaping holes in the earth and a long list of environmental problems. I asked before in one of my questions to the class what would happen to the other 80 percent of America if the rural migration to cities continued at its current pace. Is the answer that rural America will go on being plundered and forgotten, in the current pattern? I hope I am not being overly sentimental in wishing for better.

I anxiously await the final determination of the future of the drilling in New York, which could come as early as sometime this fall, according to the New York State Department of Environmental Conversation website.

Unemployed hikers tackle the Appalachian Trail

Trailing Indicators: Out of a Job, Some Decide to Take a Hike, a recent Wall Street Journal piece, highlights unemployed Americans who are hiking the 2,200 mile Appalachian Trail. Dan Kearns, a 32-year-old unemployed construction worker, is one of the hikers on the trail, bartering work for food along the way.
"I wouldn't do this if I was employed," the New Jersey native explains. "I couldn't find any work, so I just decided to take a walk."
View a video about the hikers here.

The piece also dredges up the June news story of South Carolina's Governor Mark Sanford, who claimed he was hiking the Appalachian Trail when he was actually having an affair in Argentina. The term "hiking the Appalachian" is now used as a slang term for having an affair, reports The Rural Blog, with the Urban Dictionary even offering suggested uses of the phrase ("Why is Bob's wife angry with him?" "He got caught hiking the Appalachian, if you know what I mean.").

Recession leaves Nebraska town in limbo

In the cover story of today's Sunday Business section of the New York Times, David Segal reports from micropolitan Columbus, Nebraska, population 21,504. Columbus, the county seat of Platte County, has the state's highest per-capita rate of employment in manufacturing and--not coincidentally--is notoriously anti-union. Segal's headline is "Enter the Recession's Waiting Room," and Segal explains why the recession has both employers and employees in limbo, waiting for economic recovery to bring orders flowing back in and--with them--economic revival. A colorful excerpt follows:

A sign about 17 miles outside of town says “Columbus Is Open for Business,” and the more time you spend here, the more literal those words sound.

You can see management’s unfettered hand in the vaguely Dickensian hours that many here work, and you sense an emphasis on unfettered growth in the just-build-it ethos that governs the stretch of strip malls on the road that bisects the town. It’s fast food, a Wal-Mart, a J. C. Penney, check-cashing outlets and dozens of other stores. The traffic to this generic stretch has come at the apparent expense of a fading but picturesque downtown — a Hopper-esque setting, with a railroad station, some gorgeous early 20th century buildings and a former opera house that is now a minimall.

Read more here--about the town, its people, its economy, and its likely future.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Rising gang violence on rural native reservations

Often considered an aspect of urban poverty by the collective conscious, gangs and gang violence have  for more than a decade made increasing inroads into rural Native American Reservations. This recent story in the Oregonian brought the problem to my attention, with gang violence erupting outside of Pendleton, OR between Hispanics and members of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla. However, this problem is not contained to simply to the rural reservations in the West. As this story from Minnesota Public Radio points out, this is a problem nationwide.

Gangs are a big problem on Indian reservations. Authorities estimate that on White Earth, Red Lake and Leech Lake -- the state's three largest reservations -- hundreds of young Native men consider themselves part of a gang.

The recognition of this problem in the media goes back at least to 1995, when the NY Times published an article entitle “New Frontier for Gangs: Indian Reservations” which estimated at that time there were 1,000 gang members in Arizona’s 21 recognized reservations, including the Navajo reservation, the Nation’s largest.

These gangs want the same things as their urban counterparts…control over the often burgeoning reservation drug trade and are willing to utilize the same violent tactics associated with the Crips and Bloods, stabbings, beatings, drive-bys and terror. The major difference is the Native gangs are operating is largely rural areas where access to services can be little or nonexistent, and where police forces are small and overextended. Sometimes dubbed “rural ghettos”, unemployment on some rural reservations can reach upwards of 75% (Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota).
"We need more officers and we need them now," said Hermis John Mousseau, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council at Pine Ridge. "We have 5,000 gang members, but we also have 45,000 scared law abiding people whose lives I have sworn to protect." In South Dakota, Mousseau said his police department of 48 officers — 12 per shift — must patrol a reservation the size of Rhode Island. Many of their police calls are 50 to 60 miles apart, leaving their response time to an hour for even the most violent acts. Many calls go unanswered.”
In comparison, there are 60 sworn officers for the City of Davis.

So what we have are generations of disenfranchised young men with no employment opportunities with the added bonus that most come from a warrior culture. Many of these young men float in and out of their native culture, either rejecting it, as suggested here:
“Certainly Gee Mony's group of young followers who gathered in the lot here the other day seemed to know or care little about their heritage as sons of the Navajo Nation. They proudly displayed the tattoos and hand signs that identified them as Insane Young Cobras, but when a visitor asked 15-year-old Ricardo Montalvo what a Navajo is, he replied, "Just the skin." (NY Times article)
Or embracing it as a path to leaving the gang life, as suggested here:
"Now it's time to just walk the Red Road, go down that path," Fisherman said. "It's going to be a struggle, but I'm going to do it, you know. I just gotta do it." (Minnesota Public Radio article)
The problem has gotten so bad that it was brought to the attention of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, which held hearings on S. 797, the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2009 in June of 2009. S.797 is an attempt to strengthen the ability of Tribal Police to enforce Tribal laws, extends jurisdictional control over crimes committed on Tribal land, and allows for stiffer Tribal sentences.

So how do we fight this problem? Are the policing aspects of S.797 enough or with the socio-economic realities of rural Reservations, is this simply a problem of no jobs, no services, and no way to get either? For a pictorial view of Reservation gang life, I highly recommend visiting Huey’s depictions are stark and haunting.