Saturday, October 31, 2009

Green Revolution 2.0: Designing Global Rurality

Agricultural leaders at the recent World Food Prize conference in Des Moines, Iowa expect that demand for food worldwide will double by 2050. This increased demand presages changes for the rural areas throughout the world that will be tasked with meeting this increase in consumption.

The world has just experienced a doubling of farm productivity. The Green Revolution, arguably led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug who pioneered the development of high yield strains of grain and corn, allowed the world to avoid the Malthusian population crises predicted by Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb.

While agricultural productivity has increased greatly these gains have been accompanied by significant environmental costs. Methods of food production have changed – where the family farm once dominated, now the corporate farmer drives the majority of production.

Al Gore levied a wide-ranging critique in Earth in the Balance:

“Although the Green Revolution produced vast growth in Third World food production, it often relied on environmentally destructive techniques: heavily subsidized fertilizers and pesticides, the extravagant use of water in poorly designed irrigation schemes, the exploitation of the short-term productivity of soils (which sometimes leads to massive soil erosion), monocultured crops (which drove out diverse indigenous strains), and accelerated overall mechanization, which often gave enormous advantages to rich farmers over poor ones.”

This reshaping of agriculture can properly be seen as reshaping the rural world since 38% of the world’s land is dedicated to agricultural production. Recent surveys have shown that 40% of the world’s agricultural land is “seriously degraded.”

This new green revolution promises to bring with it another wave of massive change. Patricia Woertz, chairman, president and CEO of the international agriculture heavyweight Archer Daniels Midland said that up to $83 billion in investment in developing nations would be necessary to “improve transportation, processing and storage facilities to handle tomorrow’s larger harvests.”

The organic and SLO food movements that have gained popularity in the last 30 years may be viewed as a backlash against some of the agricultural practices adopted in the last century. The incredible productivity gains of modern agriculture are undeniable but it is an open question as to whether similar gains might have been achieved at a lower cost to the environment and rural societies.

We again face the collective challenge of engineering a massive increase in agricultural productivity. The solutions that are chosen will have a significant impact on rural places and persons. Will this second green revolution learn the important lessons offered by its predecessor? Given statements by corporate and government leaders at the World Food Prize conference there appears to be some consensus on the need for a different balance moving forward.

Woertz said that, “We would need to continue to develop regionally appropriate practices to improve water utilization. We also need to improve crop nutrients and pest control and getting desired gains with minimal environmental impact.” Gerda Verburg, the agriculture secretary from the Netherlands, agreed, “If we want a second green revolution we need to modernize agriculture by combining the best farm knowledge with the best ... science as well as promoting good land and water stewardship.” Former World Food Prize Winner & current cochair of the UN Millennium Task for on Hunger, Monkombu Sambasivan Swaminathan has called for a merger of economics, ecology, technology & social equity in order to meet the coming challenges; “Our ability to face these challenges… will depend upon our ability to harmonize organic farming and the new genetics.”

Such a merger will be an ongoing challenge. It will require balancing public and private interests in the face of growing corporate involvement (and some would say capture and control) in agriculture. Solutions will have to manage a potentially less resilient world, one that could be on the brink of climate change; as well as ensuring that demand for food is met and the people of the world get fed. Somewhere in that mix the interests of rural persons and rural environments will come in to play.

Farm field trips

In the midst of a recent rash of articles and blog posts on agro-tourism, I was reminded of that phenomenon’s not so distantly related cousin, farm field trips, by a recent New York Times article. As previously reported on this blog, Times contributor Javier C. Hernandez wrote an article on the Harlem Success Academy's student field trip to the Queens County Farm Museum on October 20, 2009. According to the school’s administrators, the charter school students took an excursion to Long Island, where the Farm Museum is located, to raise their scores on New York State’s standardized tests. The trip, repeated annually, is meant to neutralize the effect of what the administrators consider to be a rural bias in some of the test's problems. As Herandez explained, “New York State’s English and math exams include several questions each year about livestock, crops and the other staples of the rural experience that some educators say flummox city children, whose knowledge of nature might begin and end at Central Park.” Through exposing the students to rural life, even briefly, the school hopes to take advantage of what "[e]ducators have long known [-] that prior knowledge of a subject can significantly improve a child’s performance on tests."

Responses in the comments to the article were largely skeptical of the purported rural bias in the exam questions, insisting that even the most city-centric children would be familiar with cows and chickens from television shows and books. A quote in the article from Howard T. Everson, chairman of a committee that advises New York State on testing, makes a compelling argument for why urban students’ lack of familiarity with rural life may hurt them on the test, however. He reviewed a “question [that] asked students to calculate how many cornstalks were in a field that had 46 rows of 32 stalks each. ‘Most kids in New York City would know corn, but they wouldn’t know stalk,’ he said. ‘You have to know the unit you are working in to do the mathematical manipulation.’”

In spite of the naysayers, the Harlem Success Academy’s yearly trip is likely to be continued. As one commenter noted, with the students’ scores ranking them in the “99th percentile overall, compared with other schools (private and public) throughout the state,” the results speak for themselves. As for those who persist to doubt the existence of the rural bias in New York's standardized tests, the Hernadez article links to a sampling of the allegedly biased exam questions, so that readers may judge for themselves.

Apart from the skepticism about the underlying justification for the trip, the reader response to the article in the posted comments reflected overwhelming support for the idea of field trips to expose students to rural realities. As readers pointed out, the concept is not a new one. Schools have long recognized the educational value of such trips and have been taking students to view animals and unfamiliar habitats for decades. I myself went on a field trip to a farm in the summer of 2002, after my junior year in high school. The trip took place in the middle of a week-long program on environmental conservation. Today, trips to zoos and farms continue to be a part of school curricula throughout the United States.

Increasingly, the focus of farm field trips is on educating students about where their food comes from and promoting local and organic farming. Many such trips are tied in with “Farm to School” initiatives like the one in Oklahoma that seeks to instill healthy eating habits in children at a young age. According to the Oklahoma “Farm to School” website, such programs currently exist in 39 of the 50 states. This appears to be the latest trend in psuedo-agro-tourism. And if schools cannot afford to pile the kids into buses and spend the day in the fields, then teachers can take the students on a virtual farm field trip.

Clearly, there are many different reasons for students to go on farm field trips, whether it be for test prep, to encourage healthy life choices or, as another commenter on the Hernandez article theorized, as an excuse for teachers and students to get out of the classroom for the day and to enjoy the sunshine and fresh air. Whatever the underlying justification, American children are gaining exposure to rural America. This is important now, more than ever before, because, as one guide to farm field trips points out, “[c]hildren today are one generation removed from agriculture and their connection to agriculture is through their grandparents, if at all.” These trips ensure that students maintain a bare minimum of cultural literacy. Whether or not state exams contain rural-biases or students' food choices are influenced by trips to see where their vegetables are grown, increasing their base of knowledge beyond what they can see and experience in their own backyards will benefit their education.

California's dairy industry: global markets, local effects

For the much of the past year, dairy farmers in California have been feeling the effects of a world-wide depression in milk prices. The dip--and the extended, continuing depression in the milk prices paid to dairy farmers that followed--have forced many farms under and driven many of those that remain deep into debt.

Dairy is the largest single product sector in California's $40 billion agricultural industry, and California has long been the country's largest dairy producer. Over 1600 dairies, down from 1750 as recently as last year, produce milk which is shipped to processors who then make different types of dairy based products. Most of these dairies are based in the Central Valley.

For example, in Shasta and Tehama counties, the two northern-most counties of the Central Valley, dairy farmers have been hit hard by falling prices and the increasing cost of doing business in the face of new state environmental regulations. Shasta county's last remaining commercial dairy shut down a few years ago, and dairy producers in Tehama county are struggling to stay in business.

The recent dip in dairy prices can largely be attributed to the fall in global demand for dairy that followed in wake of the general economic turmoil of 2008-2009. The depressive effect of the global fall in demand was compounded by higher prices for feed and other basic inputs. Although feed prices have returned to ordinary levels, the continuing surplus in milk supply is largely the result of the larger dairy herds that farmers amassed when prices are good.

The situation presently facing dairy farmers in California and beyond reflects a conundrum which is central to dairy production. When prices are good, many dairy farmers have every incentive to expand their herds. This is because they're able to expand their production capacity (the number of cows) in ways that crop farmers and beef cattle producers--who are more limited by the constraint of available land--are not. When prices dip, however, dairy farmers are uniquely vulnerable to the cost pressures of hungry herds and the necessity of continual investment in the equipment and technology required to make a modern dairy operation cost competitive.

A number of measures have been proposed to help temporarily prop up milk prices and support dairy farmers. Many of the proposals advanced mirror common agricultural support programs such as subsidies and price guarantees, and are described in further detail here. Some California dairy producers, however, were the beneficiaries of a unique effort to help elevate prices and allow for a graceful exit for some farmers. Cooperatives Working Together (CWT), a national organization representing dairy farmers, has funded and implemented a "herd retirement" program that pays dairy farmers to take cows out of production. Since December 2008, the CWT program has taken over 250,000 cows, with a production capacity of over 5 billion pounds of milk, and sent them to slaughter. The introduction of over 250,000 head of former dairy cows into beef markets subsequently depressed beef cattle prices, and increased tensions between dairy and beef producers.

In spite of the buyouts, price supports, and other measures employed to help assist dairy operations remain viable in the face of the lowest milk prices in decades, the situation facing dairy farmers remains dire. The continuing price crisis confronted by California dairy farmers illustrates the unique opportunities and draw-backs associated with local food producers' integration into global markets. Roger Hoskin, a dairy analyst at the U.S. Agriculture Department's Economic Research,
aptly described the economic environment facing dairy farmers, saying: "Call it globalization...When the export market is strong, they do well; when the export market is weak, domestic use is not enough."

(photo by the author)

Forrest Gump and the rural ideal

This blog post isn't based on an article or news piece. Rather, it will be regarding my recent re-viewing of the movie Forrest Gump. As many know, this 1994 blockbuster won Tom Hanks his second Oscar in a row (having previously won for Philadelphia), playing the slow but genuine title character. What struck me when seeing it again was that I started to see it through the eyes of "rural realism" or to put it less succinctly, how director Robert Zemeckis saw the rural and Gump's personification of it.

First is the place and the location of Green Bow, Alabama. Obviously a fictional town, Green Bow seems to personify the bucolic rural Southern town, with its tall trees, meandering rivers, and small-town charm (for example, the town barbershop is the location continuously returned to whenever Forrest is running through the town). Gump's home is set back from the road, among willows and ponds and always appears white and pristine, like something from a postcard. The location is not entirely eden-nistic though, for we still see the rundown shack of both Jenny's family (made to evince the thought that Jenny's family were sharecroppers) and Bubba's mom's home.

While these visual components are a surface reminder of all that is wonderful about the rural South, what was more interesting to me was the sound that accompanied each location. When characters (especially Jenny) were somewhere besides a rural place, there was a cacophony of, cars, voices, the aural detritus of urban living. However, Green Bow is always quiet, save the occasional lawn mower or dog bark. When Forrest is running across the country he is never seen running through a city but always through some pristine rural place (the movie shows Forrest running through the Santa Monica pier but even shows that rather loud place as filled with nothing more than the sounds of the Pacific). It is also a place of redemption, when Jenny needs to rediscover herself she returns to Green Bow and Forrest. When Lt. Dan decides he wants to live, he goes to the South and makes peace with his demons. Zemeckis seems to be treating the rural South and rural places in general as a panacea for whatever ails you.

Second are the people, Gump is the epitome of the wise simpleton. Genuine and without an ounce of guile, the protagonist is the vessel through which many of the other characters find peace and happiness. Zemeckis and Hanks make Gump the bastion of what is solid and good in the American soul; love of country, of family, respect, hard work, and dedication that the movie seems to tie to the Southern rural mystique. After all, they could have placed the movie in Iowa or Nebraska but they chose the deep, rural South.

But again, they also show our collective representations of the 'bad' South: Jenny's alcoholic, abusive father, the racism throughout the white population, the abuse that Forrest receives at the hands of classmates simply because he is different (an "other").

So, Zemeckis and Hanks do show us differing portraits of the rural South but the dominant one is that rural places are wholesome and good, places where the simple life can fix the twisting of urban living and self-destruction. This leads to the question, is this the representation that is normally seen in movies?

Hoes Down - should we celebrate "rural living"?

(Photo courtesy of Marcy Coburn)
I've been meaning to post this ever since I first saw the flier for this event way back at the end of September.

What: Hoes Down Harvest Festival

Where: Full Belly Farm, Capay Valley

When: Saturday, October 3, 2009, 11a.m.-11p.m.

Why: Celebrate Rural Living "22 Years of Kickin' It Up"

Admission was $20 ($5 for kids 2-12 yrs old) and the event was sponsored by the Davis Food Co-op, Nugget Markets, Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation and CLIF bar.

These fliers were posted all over Davis and every time I walked by and saw one with its invitation to 'celebrate rural living,' I had to think about what that meant. Was it a good thing or a bad thing?

The flier says that all proceeds go to the Ecological Farming Association and local community groups (good). On the schedule for the day was: tasty organic food and drinks, live music and dancing, farm workshops, children's hand-on fun, farm tours, farmers' market and crafts (good).

Nothing totally stereotypical yet. Then I read through some of the workshop titles, including learning about organic fruit trees, grassfed beef, cow milking, herbs and flowers, pest control, sheep shearing, small farm equipment and more...canning and preserving; soil building: compost/cover crops/crop rotation; farm stories: writing workshop; premium olives and oil; chickens and their eggs; what’s your beef?; farming by land and sea; glorious grand grapes; soil nutrient balancing; native plant walk; blacksmith; seed saving; biodynamic compost making; leap of faith: starting a farm; and transitioning to an organic landscape.

Objectively, celebrating rural living is a good thing, a nice idea. Why not celebrate the traditions and ways of life on a farm? Drawing people in to learn about and participate in these various events helps foster appreciation and alliance with farmers and their needs/views. Perhaps. But then again, is this playing into a stereotype? Hay bales and tractor rides, canning and preserving, blacksmithing, sheep shearing, cow-milking...did they churn butter too?

Seems like these are all the things that you typically think of when you think of "farm." But is that ok? Because in a lot of cases it is true. That IS what a farm is. A cow milking, sheep shearing, tractor working, hay-bailing operation. So there shouldn't be a problem with celebrating this place and its function. It is important I guess to make sure that you don't equate all 'rural' with 'farm' -because this vision on Full Belly Farm is not what most of rural America or rural living is - but is merely one definition of it, one manifestation of how those in a rural place live.

So, on the whole, I think Hoes Down was a good thing. Celebrating this type of rural living brings good things to people doing important work and raises awareness in part of the population who might not otherwise be exposed to it.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Is the new generation of farmers rural?

There has been a lot of talk in the media in recent years about people re-connecting with their food sources by growing their own food and otherwise attempting to eat locally. My friend Jen is one of the people I know who is taking that talk seriously. Jen has not had a particularly rural life. She grew up in Santa Barbara, California and went to college in Chicago, Illinois. Now in her mid-twenties, she’s back in Santa Barbara running an organic farm.

After earning a degree in sociology, I don’t think she ever envisioned herself working in the fields or tending to the chickens in the coop. Her story is however not as uncommon as it sounds. Many young people are returning to farming as a source of livelihood and way of life in the face of concerns about global warming, food security, and environmental sustainability. See, for example, this story from Mother Nature Network--a source for environmental news and information--entitled, “40 farmers under 40: Meet the new crop of American farmers—young and energetic idealists who are bringing local, sustainable food back to the table. The hip list is topped by pop artist Jason Mraz who owns and runs a 5 acre avocado farm in the San Diego area. What is particularly striking to me about the list of young farmers is that many of them are doing their farming in major urban areas such as Brooklyn, San Francisco, and Atlanta. For visual convincing, check out this map of young farmers put together by the “The Greenhorns,” a documentary film that explores the lives of the young farming community. The urban nature of young farmers leads me to wonder: does the growing number of young farmers mean anything for rural America, or is the new farming movement an urban phenomenon?

Urban farming has been the subject of prior blog posts, in particular this one discussing a New York Times article on vertical farming. The article advocates urban farming in high-rise buildings as a solution to many of the environmental problems American farmers are facing or are likely to face in the future, as well as the threat of population growth. The article argues that vertical farming could solve such environmental concerns as: increased flooding due to global warming, which leads to lost crops and topsoil, increased pressures on the supply of fresh water, the level of greenhouse gas emissions that come from traditional farm equipment and transporting food long distances, and agricultural runoff, which constitutes a major source of water pollution. As the article praises the sustainability of vertical farming, it also argues that if vertical farming were instituted, “[n]ew employment opportunities for vertical farm managers and workers would abound, and abandoned city properties would become productive once again.” Additionally, the article suggests that “[v]ertical farms would also make cities more pleasant places to live.” While the article lays out the potential benefits of vertical farming for urban populations, it seems to give no thought to the future of rural America. What, for example, of abandoned land and lost jobs in rural areas?

With rural populations on the decline and environmental concerns occupying a prominent position in many people’s minds, is the future of farming being redefined? Will the age-old association between rurality and farming become less accurate in this generation? The answers to these questions will likely depend upon how concerns about global warming and environmental sustainability play out, coupled with the direction that young farmers like my friend Jen take with their passions for sustainable food.

Country roads, take me home (safely)

--> --> With the occasional exception of an irredeemably stupid undergraduate whose social life is apparently so packed that stop signs and being on a bicycle are poor excuses to ignore a text message, bicycling in Davis is a fairly safe endeavor. However, the current prosecution of a Los Angeles ER doctor for assault with a deadly weapon proves this is not always the case. The trial stems from an incident this 4th of July where the defendant pulled in front of two cyclists, started a verbal altercation with them, and then slammed on his brakes, which caused one of the cyclists to go through the defendant’s windshield at 30 miles an hour. What makes this case rare is that the authorities actually pressed serious charges against the driver, as opposed to minor traffic infractions. In an urban setting, such as LA, cyclists are not that much of an aberration. However, many cyclists seek out rural roads for longer rides, where they may run into people, some behind a wheel and some wearing a badge who don’t think cyclists have a right to the road.

US Olympic cyclist turned lawyer Bob Mionske explains some of this phenomena in his book, Bicycling and the Law: Your Rights as a Cyclist. Mionske has found that statistically a cyclist is more likely to crash because of a driver in an urban area, which makes logical sense because there are more drivers on urban streets. However, he finds that, proportionate to the number of riders on rural versus urban roads, the injuries sustained by riders in rural areas are more likely to be serious and to be caused by the negligence or intent of the driver. Furthermore, in a case where a negligent or intending driver injures a cyclist, charges are less likely to be filed by rural authorities.

Why would this be? In his column for Velonews Magazine, Mionske published a letter he received from an assistant DA explaining why another DA did not file homicide charges against a drunk driver who, in attempting to run through a railroad crossing in time to beat the train, struck and killed a 19-year-old cyclist outside of Lebanon, Pennsylvania (population 24,446). The reader explained that the state legislature, when writing the penal code, essentially treated any object outside of the car as distraction to the driver, and therefore, a DA trying to prove a drunk driver committed vehicular manslaughter has to prove alcohol was the sole cause was the wreck. In the Lebanon case, the very fact the victim was in the road ironically gets her murderer off the hook.

I believe that this goes to a pro-car paradigm in this country which is especially virulent in rural areas. There have been a rash of radio DJs, the most egregious of which were in rural Missouri and Georgia, telling listeners to run cyclists off the road wherever possible. A softer version of this sentiment also appeals to the political leaders and law enforcement officials. For instance, the governor of Texas recently vetoed a provision that would have required drivers to give three feet clearance when passing a cyclist. Governor Perry stated:
While I am in favor of measures that make our roads safer for everyone, this bill contradicts much of the current statute and places the liability and responsibility on the operator of a motor vehicle when encountering one of these vulnerable road users.
A former European pro-racer spoke of his experience riding in rural Colorado on the forums by saying:
When a truck pulls along side of you in the country in America, it’s trouble. Best case scenario, he’s going to yell at you for using the road. Worst case scenario, he’s got a gun. In Europe, if a truck pulls along side of you, he’s going to ask you if you need a tow into town.
Drivers do have valid concerns. When large groups of cyclists take to narrow, country roads and do not ride in single file, they create a safety hazard all of their own making. The Sac Bee reported on a popular local ride near Folsom, where a group of weekend warriors that sometimes number as high as 80 were notorious for running stop signs and riding 3 or 4 abreast on narrow Placer and Sacramento County roads. Drivers quoted were irate that it could take up to 15 minutes to find a safe opportunity to pass, and the sheriff’s department was considering writing tickets to the cyclists.

So, where does this leave us? Of course, there are cyclists as stupid as our Davis undergrad, blowing through stop signs, disregarding anyone else on the road. And, as Mionske says in his book, 99 out of 100 drivers you meet on rural roads are safe, courteous drivers. Unfortunately, one bad driver and you end up in a ditch: literally if you’re lucky; figuratively if you’re not so lucky. I think the solution lies in amending our traffic laws, even in these rural states that have frequently resisted tougher speed limits and seat belt regulations. Put the legal burden on the driver who hits a cyclist to prove he or she was driving safely, not upon the victim to prove that the driver was the one at fault.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The uninsured and underinsured of rural America

A story from AARP's Bulletin Today is entitled "The Doctor Is In - in the Heart of Appalachia." It details the latest efforts of a wonderful program called Remote Area Medical to provide desperately needed medical and dental services to the many needy uninsured and underinsured people in rural areas. Scroll down or click here to watch AARP's video clip about one of the program's recent health fairs in Wise, Virginia, population 3,255.

Remote Area Medical (RAM), based in Knoxville, Tennessee, began as a program intended to provide emergency medical services to the world's remote areas. RAM's founder, Stan Brock, created the program after spending 15 years in the Amazon rain forest with the Wapishana Indians, where he personally witnessed the devastation caused by the inaccessibility of medical services to people residing in spatially isolated areas.

The program's focus has shifted, however, and most of RAM's efforts are now focused in rural America because so many rural Americans lack health insurance or are spatially isolated from medical facilities. As founder Stan Brock says in the video, "What's sad about it really, of course, is that it's required in the first place - but the situation in the United States for many, many years now has been requiring us to concentrate our efforts here in America..."

These efforts include large-scale organized health "expeditions," which usually provide free vision, dental, and health services in a field-hospital type setting. In conjunction with a local organization from the host community, RAM coordinates local logistics and recruits as many volunteers and health professionals as possible to provide services usually over 2-3 days. The day before the expedition starts, RAM brings in all the necessary medical equipment and sets up camp.

In July, RAM's health expedition took place in Wise, Virginia. Approximately 1,000 medical professionals came to volunteer their time. Volunteers spent the day before the expedition setting up equipment under tents at the Kentucky-Virginia Fairgrounds. Thousands of people needing services came from all over (one woman came from New Jersey, a 10+ hour drive!) and waited in line for days before the expedition began providing services on Friday, July 24, 2009. The patient who nabbed the first spot in line had been camped out since Tuesday. Others, many with young children, slept in their cars to get a spot in line.

The expedition provided a wide array of services: dental services such as treating tooth decay and making dentures, minor surgeries such as tumor removal, complete eye exams, x-rays, pap smears, and just about everything in between. Patients who needed more complicated surgeries were taken to local medical facilities. No payment or identification was necessary to receive services.

I highly recommend watching the video - it is truly awe-inspiring to see such a large-scale coordination of so many dedicated and compassionate people volunteering their time, expertise, hard work, and long hours to provide such desperately needed services. The video also briefly and tangentially touches on some other issues we've discussed in class so far, such as how many people who leave rural areas for education tend to not return to settle in their hometowns. One dentist in the video, Dr. Scott Miller explains his reasoning for volunteering with RAM:

"I'm from this area so, these are people I'd see at a family reunion, some of them. My dad was a coal miner, a hard worker, and I have a lot in common with these people. I just went to dental school and they didn't."
I think this program is particularly interesting to learn about in light of the big national debate on universal health care that's currently going on. Of course, if we move to a universal health care type of system, a lot of RAM's services would no longer be needed. But the article and video clip mostly focus on the problem of uninsured and underinsured people in rural areas - they don't really discuss the problems created by spatial isolation, which was the founder's original concern. Mr. Brock created RAM because the Wapishana Indians were spatially isolated from medical facilities/services, not because they lacked health insurance. And yet the article and video clip fixate on the health insurance issue, which is a problem that plagues the urban poor as well as the rural poor. Spatial isolation, on the other hand, is a problem that's particular to rural communities. Recognizing that the health insurance issue is a problem in urban communities as well, RAM actually recently held their very first urban health expedition in Los Angeles, where they saw approximately 6,000 patients over one week and unfortunately had to turn many people away.

Incidentally, each University of California medical school includes a "Programs in Medical Education" (PRIME) curriculum, which is a combined degree program meant to "produce physician leaders who are trained in and committed to helping California's underserved communities." Each school selects different emphases for their PRIME curriculum and the UC Davis School of Medicine's PRIME curriculum, called Rural-PRIME, just so happens to focus on training its students for careers in rural communities.

Getting enough sleep? they aren't in West Virginia

In this Associated Press story, Getting Enough Sleep? They Aren’t In West Virginia, reporter Mike Stobbee writes about the recent Center for Disease Control’s (“CDC”) study showing that among the 50 states, West Virginians have the greatest average of sleepless nights in the Nation. Nearly 1 in 5 West Virginians stated they had not had a single “good night’s sleep” in the previous month. This is nearly double the national average.

What is interesting is the other states which showed higher than average sleepiness were Tennessee, Kentucky and Oklahoma; all of which, along with West Virginia, are usually considered “rural” states. As for what causes this Mountain State insomnia? The article speculates a cycle of bad eating habits, which leads to poor sleep, which then leads to bad eating habits and higher levels of disease...a vicious cycle indeed. According to another CDC study West Virginia also ranks near the top for obesity at 31.2% of its population. Unsurprisingly, Tennessee and Oklahoma are also near the top (30.6% and 30.3%, respectively). These states are three of six states, along with Alabama, Mississippi and South Carolina (also generally considered "rural"), which have over 30% of their populations listed as “obese,” which is defined by the CDC as having a Body Mass Index over 30.

Given these connections, must we add ‘fat’ to our definition of “rural”? Perhaps not, because the states with the least degrees of sleepiness are Oregon, California, Wisconsin and North Dakota. All of which, save for North Dakota, also have some of the lower obesity rates in the Country. North Dakota, Oregon and Wisconsin, however, also rank in the bottom half of states in terms of population density.

Is the connection poverty then? According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the six states marked as having poor sleeping habits and poor health are also among those with the highest poverty rates (Mississippi being the highest at 21.1%). While the four best sleepers have among the lowest poverty rates.

So perhaps money can’t buy happiness but it sure seems to give you a good night sleep.

Recanting in a rural town

In 2007, CNN and the mass media covered a story of a 20-year-old disabled African American woman, Megan Williams (pictured above), who reported her captivity and abuse at the hands of six white individuals. These offenders consisted of a woman and her son (both pictured below), another woman and her daughter, and two unrelated men. The abuse was shocking. She had been raped, stabbed, forced to eat feces, and subjected to a racial slur. The six defendants pleaded guilty and were sentenced to prison terms of up to 40 years. All defendants remain in prison as of the publication of the story.

Both CNN and the New York Times are now covering the latest development in the story. On October 21, 2009, Megan Williams came forward and recanted her entire story. Williams claims she concocted the story to get even with her boyfriend. The Defendant’s lawyer, Byron Potts described Williams' feelings as “total remorse; that’s why she’s coming forward. She is remorseful for having these people spend time in jail.”

Now the media and local authorities are questioning whether to believe her 2007 claim accusing the six individuals of various crimes or her claim today that she fabricated the story. In either case, there are serious questions as to how ruralism affected and continues to affect the investigation into this crime.

Law enforcement officials are currently considering the possibility that she was lying back in 2007 when she reported the crime. Considering the nature of criminal proceedings, this seems like an impossibility. First, one would think evidence of the crimes was present and collected and the District Attorney used that evidence to negotiate guilty pleas with the defendants. Secondly, the chances six individuals would plead guilty in spite of their innocence is low. One or two guilty pleas seems possible but not six.

If her original story was fabricated, how did the rurality of the area contribute to this lie? Doesn’t her lie perpetuate urban stereotypes of rural people as bigoted and uncivilized? Reverend Jesse Jackson called for these crimes to be charged as hate crimes due to both the racial slur and the fact that six white individuals conspired in an attack on an African American woman. Since 2007, this case has generally been regarded as such.

If her original claims were correct, why lie now? Of course, the woman is disabled which lends itself to discussions of mental infirmity.

However, pressure placed on her by the rural community is also a possibility. But, asked if she was being pressured to recant, her attorney said, “No, she's not being pressured into this.” However, it seems that pressure could be high in a rural area where everyone knows everyone. There is a documented phenomenon that a lack of anonymity can often prevent the accomplishment of justice when the rural community sympathizes with or fraternizes with the offender or offenders in question.

One rural prosecutor explained an occurrence in his hometown of Cottonwood County, Minnesota, population of 11, 283, as measured in the 2008 census. The prosecutor “filed charges against a twenty-two year-old man for the sexual abuse of six children. The man eventually pled guilty to abusing all six of these children. Prior to the sentencing, the court received a petition signed by more than fifty members of the community proclaiming the man's innocence. According to the petitioners, the man ‘plea-bargained to save more stress on his family.’” (See Victor Vieth, In My Neighbor’s House: A Proposal to Address Child Abuse in Rural America, 22 Hamline L. Rev. 143, 151 (1998)). The prosecutor then further expressed great concern that “the tendency of communities to discount allegations of child abuse and accept perpetrators' pseudo-pronouncements of innocence may coerce children revealing abuse to recant.” Thus, rural prosecutors are not strangers to either withdrawals of pleas or witness statements.

Regardless of any hypotheses, it seems that there are serious gaps in this story that need filling in. Hopefully, the truth will be uncovered in the months to come and the accomplishment of justice will occur.