Monday, November 30, 2009

Mexican pot gangs infiltrate Indian reservations in U.S.

In keeping with a recent theme to the blog posts, I offer a second chapter to my earlier post regarding crime on Native American reservations, this Wall Street Journal article on how Mexican marijuana growers have taken up shop on the more rural Native American reservations. According to the article, tighter border control has lead Mexican drug dealers to move closer to their prospective customers. Until recently, their favorite hiding places were national park lands and national forests. While this is still a growing trend (the article states that officials raided pot “grows” in 61 national forests in 2009 up from 49 in 2008), drug enforcement is finding an alarming increase in major marijuana operations on Indian land. In Washington State, more than 225,000 pot plants were seized on Indian land in 2008, a ten-fold increase from 2006.

The Mexican drug cartels are picking Indian land for a few simple reasons: it’s closer and cheaper to produce their product and get it to market, many reservations have a sizeable itinerant population that includes migrant agricultural workers, and reservation economies are so bad many Indians, as well as illegal migrant workers, are getting paid to tend the crops. The police chief of the Warm Springs Indian Reservation (located in central Oregon, the reservation is 1,000 sq. miles over half of which is forested, with a population of around 3,700), stated that the cartel operating on the reservation was paying its "tenders" up to $2,000 a month. As the article points out, these payments have created an economy in these rural areas where few employment opportunities exist. Last year, Warm Springs law enforcement confiscated 12,000 pot plants, with an estimated value of $10 million dollars. Given the median annual salary of most rural Native Americans is $6,667, the drug jobs could be considered extremely desirable employment.

Photo: pot “grow” on tribal land in Washington

Perhaps the most important aspect for the cartels is the extreme rural nature of many reservations accompanied by a dearth of law enforcement. For example, the Colville reservation in north central Washington covers 1.4 million acres, has a population of around 5,000, but only 19 tribal police officers. On the Yakima reservation in south central Washington (2,185 square miles with a population of around 31,000), drug runners are believed to have planted hundreds of acres of marijuana and have even begun running weapons back to Mexico. The gunrunning from tribal lands in Washington has become so prevalent, Washington now ranks fourth in the Nation behind Texas, California, and Arizona, respectively.

Photo: Tribal lands are often so rural, helicopters must be used to get to the “grows.”

The article offers no answers. Answers may be more difficult to find than the marijuana. Is more federal involvement needed? This could create serious problems with jurisdiction and tribal sovereignty. Is the answer simply more money? More money for tribal law enforcement and better tribal economies would certainly help but these reservations are so vast and so rural, the cost of enforcement may exceed the benefits of that enforcement. Would legalizing marijuana perhaps be the answer? It may bring these cartels out into the open, or perhaps the legal market would destroy the need for these illicit operations much the same way the end of prohibition was the death knell of the rumrunners.

Bad basketball and rurality

A rather odd article in The New York Times, entitled "In Rural Indiana, Even Basketball Suffers," discusses the challenges that face a high school basketball team in Medora, Indiana, population 538. The challenges the article discusses really run the gamut - everything from rural poverty, low school and town morale, drug use, crime, low levels of education, broken families, female-headed households, to the dying economy.

The article focuses on the Medora Hornets, Medora High School's basketball team, and its first year coach Marty Young, who at 23, is the youngest head coach in the state. No other high school basketball team has as dire a record as the Hornets do. Last season, the Hornets were 0-22 and the school has won only one championship in its whole history - 1949. What I found so strange about this article was that it is not at all what I expected. In just the first few paragraphs, the article has all the ingredients for the "uplifting" sports success story: a group of "misfits," flagging morale, and a history of failure, etc. Add the unconventional young coach who motivates and supports the kids and you have the formula inspirational success story right?

Wrong. Just as I thought this article was going in the vein of The Mighty Ducks or The Benchwarmers, I got to the part of the article that reports that the young coach is not expecting "many, if any, on-court victories" this season either (emphasis mine). Even if the team's prospects are bleak, that's a very negative thing for a coach to say. I was a little taken aback at this point, but then Young redeemed himself with the next line of the article: "But he counts wins and losses differently from most. 'If they're in the gym these two hours, then I know they're not in trouble,' Young said."

Reassured by that quote, I was ready for the rest of the "inspirational" story, but the article just continued to be what I felt was unnecessarily negative and very subtly condescending. For example:
"In these depressed times, there is little to cheer but the high school basketball team. Except that it does not win."
"Medora, about 65 miles west of Milan, could be this generation's anti-Hoosiers." (Referring to the 1986 film Hoosiers, which was based on Milan's 1954 small-town team winning the state championship.)
"A few had natural ball-handling ability and smooth shooting touches. Most looked like extras from gym class."
The article also rather incoherently highlights some odd facts. It says that Medora HS is a small school (its senior class has only 16 members) and that the town's economy has been declining since the late 1980's when many of its largest employers began closing. It then goes on to quote Penny England, one of the students' mothers, as saying, "That's when, basically, Medora started falling apart." This quote is immediately followed by another block of strangely thrown-together facts:
"Now, Powell said, she is leery to be alone downtown where boys loiter. ('There ain't much to do in this small town,' Wes Ray, a senior basketball player, said.) She lives 'out in the boonies,' she said, where a neighbor was a 'meth head.' The home's three children (born to three fathers) sometimes ran over the hill to her house to escape his abuse. They are now in foster care. One is on the basketball team."
This strange hodgepodge of facts left me with a lot of questions. Is the author saying that the team's performance suffers because of its school's small size? Is it because the town has a poor economy? If it's the poor economy, which began declining in the late 1980s when the town started to "fall apart," why was the state championship just as elusive between 1949 and the late 1980s? What is the relationship between a poor economy and a high school basketball team's poor performance? Not enough funds for a good coaching staff? Good equipment? An adequate practice space? The article never really says.

And then there was that bizarre transition to Ms. Powell reporting that she is afraid to be downtown alone and the parenthetical quote from Wes Ray that there's not a lot to do in small towns. Is the implication that because there's not a lot to do in Medora, high school boys somehow prey on lone women in the downtown area for lack of something better to do? What does this have to do with basketball?

The author uses the reference to the "meth head" and the child in foster care as an opportunity to discuss the epidemic of broken families among the basketball players. He notes that several of the students see their coach as a father figure. Is the implication here that lack of a father figure results in poor sports performance? Or crime and drug use and lack of motivation? Perhaps not, but I found even that subtle suggestion offensive. Throughout the article, the author just seems to lay out facts and then fails to draw any connections between them.

Furthermore, the article casts Coach Young as a minor hero among a town of drug addicts, criminals, young hoodlums, and lazy adults - the author is sure to differentiate him from the rest of the Medora residents. Though Young himself grew up on a farm, the article notes that he did so "comfortably," attended a much larger high school, and even attended college. Here are a couple more excerpts that very clearly differentiate Young from the poor, uneducated Medora crowd:
"'I've been to college,' Young said. 'I've seen a lot of stuff. But these kids that I'm teaching in sixth grade know more about what goes on in the street than I ever thought of. This small, rural town.'"
"Young thought his best player last year, a senior who scored nearly half the team's points, was good enough to play in college. He used connection to get him tryouts. The boy did not show up for them, and now works at a nearby logging mill. 'It's a struggle when they're given a chance and don't take it,' Young said."
Nevermind trying to figure out what that student's reasoning for skipping the tryouts was - no money for college? Family to support? Who cares, right? At least the articles doesn't seem to. And whatever the connection is between having "been to college" and knowing "what goes on in the street" is beyond me. The only purpose I see in that quote is just another opportunity to highlight the coach's college education.

Perhaps I'm being overly sensitive about rural bias after having taken this class, but the article really seems to be unnecessarily and unfairly negative, not just about the basketball team, but about rural Medora as well.

Rural California going to pot

Hayfork, California's 1,900 residents are located in Northern California, 60 miles West of Redding in Trinity County. The Los Angeles Times describes it as a town with no stoplights, no home delivery of mail, and few jobs--but lots of marijuana.California's 1996 Compassionate Use Act permits marijuana use with a doctor’s recommendation for patients with cancer, AIDS, “or any other illness for which marijuana provides relief.” The breadth of this law has been said to effectively legalize the growing, distribution and use of marijuana in California. State law also permits large-scale operations to exist by pooling individual growing rights within cultivation cooperatives.

These cooperatives have taken root throughout rural California. Favorable weather, lax law enforcement, persistent poverty and high unemployment have brought a particularly virulent strain of the medical marijuana boom to Hayfork. In Hayfork the decline of the logging industry left a vacuum in the local economy. Marijuana entrepreneurs bought up parcels of land for just $3,500 and now there are tens of thousands of plants being grown throughout the town. These lots now change hands for upwards of $50,000 – marijuana is now everywhere."Kids stroll much of the year past pungent plants flourishing in gardens and alleys. The red-and-black clad Timberjacks football team moved its halftime huddle on a recent Friday night to avoid the odor of marijuana smoke wafting over the gridiron from nearby houses. Some students talk openly of farming pot after graduation, about the only opportunity in this depressed timber town.” The town of Hayfork is just one example of rural California going to pot in our continuing statewide experiment with quasi-legal marijuana. A similar storyline is playing out throughout Trinity County. “Growers have flocked to Northern California's ‘Emerald Triangle’ of Trinity, Mendocino and Humboldt counties for cheap land, a good climate and loose oversight.” Trinity County consists of 3,200 square miles and just 14,000 residents, a density of just 4 residents per mile. That’s 160 acres per person.

Until Burger King arrived in 1999 Trinity County did not have a single chain store or restaurant. Trinity County, all 3,200 square miles of it, has no incorporated cities, no freeways, no parking meters, and no stoplights. Per capita income comes in at $16,868, with 18.7% of residents living below the poverty line. Unemployment is just shy of 16%.

Trinity County’s 15 police officers are responsible for enforcing law throughout all 3,200 square miles. Rural communities fear that growers will be encouraged by U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr.’s recent statement that the federal government will halt raids on legal dispensaries.Marijuana cultivation is resulting in massive changes to rural culture, "It's just torn the fabric of our society," said Judy Stewart, a 69-year-old retiree who has lived in Trinity County for more than 50 years. "It's pitted people against one another." Arcata, another northern California town consumed by marijuana, has seen entire sections of houses turned into permanent grow operations – blighting neighborhoods and increasing fires and break-ins. All this change has also resulted in a considerable influx of cash. "The only thing that keeps this economy going is the growers," said Dennis Cooney, owner of the Northern Delights coffee shop in downtown Hayfork.

As explored earlier on Legal Ruralism many rural areas have seen increased violence due to illegal growing on federal lands. Perhaps a quasi-legal approach, with lower violence and positive economic impact, is actually an acceptable outcome.

Too fat to graduate?

No longer are the requirements for graduation purely academic. A recent story in The New York Times (and a related blog) reports on a university policy which requires students with a body mass index (BMI) over 30 to take a "Fitness for Life" exercise, health and nutrition course in order to receive a diploma. A normal BMI range is 18.5-24.9; over 30 is considered obese. As of this fall, 16 percent of the senior class had not had their BMI tested (or taken the fitness class).

Lincoln University, a primarily black college in rural Oxford, Pennsylvania, (population 4,300) instituted this rule as a way to combat obesity among its students and to encourage healthy lifestyle habits that will continue post graduation. The 3-hour/week course involves walking, aerobics, weight training and other physical activities, as well as information on nutrition, stress and sleep. Black populations in the U.S. tend to have the highest percentages of obesity in the country (36%), with Pennsylvania one of the highest ranked states.

So it seems college administrators have a genuine interest in helping a target population. But, is this legal?

As reported on NPR, the policy has caused an uproar among some on campus and in the community. Students want to know what BMI has to do with their ability to successfully complete their college education. They feel that health statistics have no place in assessing their academic abilities. In fact, they claim it is outright discrimination. If the university is so concerned about health, why single out only the overweight? Why not encourage universal health and require all students to take the class? Dr. James DeBoy, Chair of the university's Health, Physical Education and Recreation department responds, saying the BMI policy is just a test, which, like any other college test, assesses, and therefore, discriminates by its nature, but that it serves a rightful purpose. University officials believe they have an obligation to educate their students about the risks of obesity and promote healthy lifestyles. In their view, a college degree is not worth very much if these overweight students are highly likely to experience a major health crisis once graduated.

So why students? Poor eating habits and lack of sleep are familiar to college students and also happen to be factors that lead to obesity (see an earlier blog post on sleep's relation to health and rurality). In fact, students think the university's contradictory policies bear some responsibility as a cause of the obesity problem. The administration imposes this health requirement on their students, yet continues to offer unhealthy foods in the cafeteria (think: hamburgers, fries, pizza). The response? Isolation and lack of funding. Officials say the school's remote, rural location makes it difficult to provide fresh, healthy food options for its students. That, on top of the school's designation as an HBCU (historically black college and universities), which tend to be underfunded, prohibits it from offering healthier options.

According to Dr. DeBoy, "How do you keep costs in line? Unfortunately, one way to cut is that you have food that is going to probably be less costly. Healthy foods cost more; that's a reality . . . [w]e are who we are. We live where we live. Yes, there are certain things that you cannot control, absolutely, but some of the things you can, and they're the ones we're trying to, you know, embark upon as far as changing."

But is Lincoln U. really isolated? The university is only 45 miles southwest of Philadelphia and about 25 miles west of Wilmington, Delaware. It seems that if there was a will, there'd be a way to get fresh food in from the cities, that is, if there were no local supplying farms closer to the campus. Funding is a bigger issue, perhaps. But it still seems unfortunate that a college can't offer fresh, healthy food options to its students, even if on federal funding. You would think the government would want to encourage healthy eating, especially in the nation's schools. Aren't there other areas that could be cut back first, before fresh food? Vending machines? Landscaping budgets?

It seems that the university, while perhaps well-intentioned, is not quite pulling its own weight in the solution to this problem.

[The policy comes up for review by staff members at a meeting on Dec. 4].

Shotgun stimulus: the economics of hunting

While the markets may be mulling over Black Friday returns for signs of life in the American consumer, a different sort of economic indicator makes its yearly debut today. Deer gun-hunting season opened up in Ohio this morning. Much like the first snow a ski resort, the opening week of deer season represents an influx of money into the region. Much of the money spent by hunters often ends up in rural business that may not get the benefit of other economic boosts, such as Christmas shopping rush or a federal stimulus package. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources expect about half a million hunters to spend just shy of $900 million dollars in the state during this hunting season. The Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that hunting as an activity generates about $76.6 billion dollars a year nationally, with a relatively high proportion of that spending going to small, rural businesses in the form of gas, supplies, food, and lodging. For instance, back in Ohio many small convenience stores in rural areas that get infrequent traffic during the remainder of the year double as sign-in stations for the hunters and benefit from their business after the hunt. The goal every year in Ohio is to attract as many out of state hunters as possible, because out-of-staters are more likely to patronize hotels and restaurants and out-of-state tags cost more for the hunter. In turn, the revenue from these tags are used by Ohio for biological conservation projects, protecting some of the very same land the hunters use every year. This process sounds suspiciously like how the multiplier effect is explained in the context of a broader economic stimulus.

However, if Black Friday returns were a little less robust than expected this year, Cross-hairs Monday could be even worse for rural Ohio. Wisconsin, whose deer gun season ended on Sunday the 29th, reported a 10% decrease in tag sales. A 10% decrease in tag sales equates to a much larger drop for the surrounding economy in reduced traffic and sales. Many hunters guessed that harsh weather had reduced the size of herd during the past winter, leading to less robust deer (which are less appealing to the hunter) and less deer overall. Weather is being blamed for slow hunting in Pennsylvania as well, but for its effects on the hunters themselves, not their quarry. Cold, rainy weather may be keeping hunters in bed, instead of outside and spending on tags, beer, and bags. Just like Black Friday sales, the rural hunting economy is tied to the quality of the product and the conditions of the day.

Hunting regulations are also an excellent example of local incentives at work. There is always a greater demand than supply for tags and permits, giving the wildlife departments great leeway and convenience in determining how best to manage their herds. For instance, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources reduced the price of antler-less deer tags this year. Shooting bucks does very little to control population, which the ODNR's stated goal for the hunt. Therefore, by redirecting hunters' attentions toward does, the ODNR hopes to increase the actual number of hunters while at the same time stabilizing the deer population in the state. In Wisconsin this year, the state Department of Natural Resources decided to kill two birds with one stone. With the issuance of a small game permit, hunters in the state were licensed to shoot at will at feral pigs, deemed a pest species that carry diseases which may affect livestock. Out West in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming, the debate centers around the appropriate number of tags and appropriate length of season to distribute for the recently un-endangered gray wolf. Some have speculated that, because anti-wolf sentiment runs so high among locals, the price of permits could be set extremely high and the permits would still sell out. One plan calls to set permit prices at a level to completely cover compensation costs to the farmers for livestock allegedly killed by wolves. Whatever else may be said about hunting, at a time when the whole country is undergoing a crash course in macroeconomics, the effects of and issues surrounding hunting in rural areas serve as a reminder that all economies, like politics, are truly local.

Make that 60 million and one...

Well, it finally happened. I accepted an invitation to start farming on Facebook. FarmVille is Facebook's number one application, with 60 million users and counting. Farmville allows the user to plant and harvest crops for virtual cash that you can then use to... well... buy more crops, of course. Commentator Ivor Tossell pretty accurately described the gameplay as "diversions for the mildly concussed" (read his blog about Farmville here). I'd be insulted if it wasn't so true. I spent the holiday weekend with my pre-teen nieces who are both fans of Farmville, so I felt less guilty about partaking in what is absolutely a silly waste of time. But, I have to admit I enjoyed designing my own plot of land and choosing my crops, and was disappointed when crops went bad because I didn't harvest them in time. Naturally, I began to wonder whether I was responding to some deep-rooted connection to land, human history, and biology, or if I had just fallen pray to a superbly sneaky web application.

The big irony over the past week was that I was spending time with family members who actually farm, albeit on a very small scale. At my sister's house there is a chicken coup, three chickens, two cats, a white picket fence, a wheelbarrow, fruit trees, seasonal crops, a shed; all items that I either have or want on my virtual farm. My sister lives in a suburb on less than an acre. Needless to say, while I weeded plenty of my friend's virtual farms over the weekend, I didn't pull a single weed on my sister's property. I did go out to the actual chicken coup to collect eggs, but the chickens were loud and a little scary, and in the end I sent my niece in to do the task (they are her chickens, after all...).

My sister wasn't very sympathetic to my need to log on and check my crops. But, neither did I have any desire to go out in the freezing Northwest rain and get my hands dirty. Which makes me wonder how much the farming aspect really matters to the games success. A recent Washington Times article quotes the vice president of Zynga (creator of the game) saying, "there's something fundamentally human about planting and growing, especially food." Even if there is some truth in that statement, however, I'm inclined to agree with the article's other commentator, who argues that the game is popular because it's easy - it requires no skill, and you're constantly rewarded for even the smallest success.

There may be another explanation, too, and Stephanie Smith, who writes an entire blog devoted to Learning from Farmville, argues that critics shouldn't be so quick to disregard the potential benefits of this online community. According to Smith, FarmVille and other similar applications can help people learn about community. She describes it as "values-based edu-tainment", saying it is feeding people's need for more knowledge and practice in "communal culture". Maybe Smith is right; there is something wholesome about fertilizing your friends crops for points, and who knows, maybe 60 million neighbors down on the farm will spread good-will beyond the confines of their virtual world.

Well, I'm equal parts hopeful and skeptical on that one. All I know for sure about FarmVille is that I am going to have to let my land go fallow for the next couple of weeks. But I'll be back in time to plant some mistletoe for Christmas.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The irony of food poverty in California's agriculturally rich Central Valley

A September 2009 Wall Street Journal article aptly summarized an ironic recent turn of events in California's Central Valley: As a result of “the combined punch of drought, water restrictions and recession... officials are handing out tons of food in the heart of one of the nation's most productive agricultural regions.”

The article briefly described the blights that have fallen upon the area in the past few years and the steps the state has taken to try to remedy the crisis:

The Central Valley… has suffered in the recession amid low demand for products like milk and almonds as well as a collapse in its once-booming housing market. At the same time, the region is grappling with drought and federal environmental rulings that have reduced water shipments to local farmers to as little as 10% of their normal allotments. Some farmers have sidelined much of their acreage, throwing packers and field pickers out of work.

In response, Governor Schwarzenegger declared a state of emergency in Fresno County in July 2009. At the same time, he approved four million dollars in food aid to alleviate the problems of hunger and unemployment in the region.

But the last food give-away was completed in mid-November and hunger in Fresno County is far from eradicated. The well intentioned assistance from the state seems to have merely highlighted the paradox of food poverty in California. And a 2008 report from the California Institute of Rural Studies (“CIRS”) adds another layer of irony: “[f]arm workers [and their families] are disproportionately impacted by the food problem.” The CIRS measured food security, “define[d] as access at all times to enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle,” amongst Central Valley farm workers. As reporter Pauline Bartolone states in a radio program on the same topic, “in Fresno many people don’t know what that’s like.”

An image Bartolone described in the broadcast, “When Food Gets Trucked into a Breadbasket,” captures the apparent injustice. She watched the last day of the dispersal of food aid in Huron, California, as the farm workers who put fruits and vegetables on our tables lined up to receive canned food which they could not afford to buy themselves. The unfortunate realities of the drought and the recession notwithstanding, the question still begs, why are people starving in a region of so much natural bounty?

Bartolone’s report for the National Radio Project illuminates many of the underlying causes of the predicament. First, she points out that farm work is seasonal and low paying, with farm workers earning between “$800 a month at best, and $500 at worst.” With such limited resources, healthy food choices are beyond the budgets of most farm workers supporting families. In past years, workers could augment their regular earnings by taking home produce from the fields. This used to be an easy and convenient source of fresh foods. After the recession hit, however, farmers changed their policies. Workers are no longer allowed to take any of the fruits and vegetables that they pick, according to Nayamin Martinez, of the Binational Center for the Development of Oaxacan Indigenous Communities, who is quoted in the broadcast. Farmers “say they are losing money” because of the practice, she states.

Furthermore, farm workers have limited access to fresh food because of where they live. Ms. Martinez explained that, “[i]f they live in the rural areas, the grocery stores… do not sell those products or if they sell them they are not good…. So if they want to consume those products they need to travel all the way to Fresno.” For many, the cost of gas for that drive is prohibitive.

The problem of food insecurity among farm workers is compounded now as more and more people who lost other jobs in the recession seek to enter the occupation. Ms. Martinez estimated that there are now ten times more farm workers “looking for the same job and less land being harvested.” With shortened harvest seasons due to drought further cutting into farm workers’ earnings, the need in California’s Central Valley has grown to epic proportions. Dana Wilkie, chief executive of the Fresno food bank, reported in the Wall Street Journal article that her volunteers are now serving up to 80 percent of the residents in Fresno County.

Unfortunately, finding solutions is as complicated as the problem itself. Food aid from the Governor cannot be depended upon indefinitely given the current fiscal crisis facing the State of California. Schwarzenegger asked President Obama in June to declare Fresno County a federal disaster area, hopeful that federal funds would “help finance food shipments to the county. But officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency rejected the request, saying state and local entities had adequate resources.”

Solutions at the grassroots level are just as elusive.
Martinez says her organization is working on a community garden project in Farmersville, but they have run into obstacles. ‘First, there are not a lot of people who… let you borrow the land. Community organizations or even the people don’t have money to buy land so they must rely either on the government or a private person willing to let you use the land. So just getting started is hard.’
Martinez also cited legal problems such as difficulty drawing up contracts for use of the land without professional help as another challenge. Another appealing avenue for change, unionization of the farm workers to fight for issues such as higher wages, is not a viable option either given the National Labor Relations Act does not protect the rights of agricultural workers to bargain collectively.

Hopefully the national news coverage garnered by the irony of the situation will not be all for naught and someone will come to the rescue of farm workers in these troubled times. Perhaps this story can be used the jumping off point for the expansion of domestic Fair Food projects such as the one reported on by this blog earlier this week. Fair Food asks consumers to pay more for their food to ensure fair wages and working conditions for farm workers. Although the economy is not what it once was, the recession should not be an excuse to ignore the plight of farm workers so provocatively dramatized by this story.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

What about the rural children and families?

This story in today's New York Times is about the dramatic increase in receipt of food stamps--now formally known as Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP)--during the recession. According to the story, SNAP is now feeding (or helping to feed) one in eight Americans and a full quarter of U.S. children. Here's an excerpt that ignores the rural aspect of this phenomenon:
It has grown so rapidly in places so diverse that it is becoming nearly as ordinary as the groceries it buys. More than 36 million people use inconspicuous plastic cards for staples like milk, bread and cheese, swiping them at counters in blighted cities and in suburbs pocked with foreclosure signs.
A subhead of the story is "Suburbs are Hit Hard." Later, however, rural residents and a few rural places do get mentioned, as here:
From the ailing resorts of the Florida Keys to Alaskan villages along the Bering Sea, the program is now expanding at a pace of about 20,000 people a day.

* * *

The counties [where at least a quarter of the population receive food stamps] are as big as the Bronx and Philadelphia and as small as Owsley County in Kentucky, a patch of Appalachian distress where half of the 4,600 residents receive food stamps.

Many of the report's anecdotes are from the six-county area outside Cincinnati, which the story describes as "small towns and rolling farmland." At least one of those counties, Clinton County, is nonmetropolitan, with fewer than 50,000 residents.

In spite of the increase in receipt of SNAP benefits, the story tells us that, nationwide, food stamps are reaching only about two-thirds of those who are eligible. Approximately 15 million eligible individuals do not receive food stamps according to the undersecretary of agriculture who oversees the program.

A slide show and this interactive map accompany the story. You can click "All recipients," "Children," "Whites," "Blacks," or "Change since 2007" to see very detailed county-level data for each category. The last of these--Change since 2007--is very interesting to me because it depicts places (including my home county) where poverty has long been so high that the recession has not changed the rate of receipt of SNAP. I note that the same is true for some other persistent poverty counties. And, in fact, the authors also implicitly acknowledge this trend in noting that the rates of receipt are growing fastest in some of the nation's richest counties, albeit from small bases.

Universal health care in rural New Hampshire town

NPR’s Morning Edition broadcasted a story earlier this month about a rural New Hampshire town that provides free health care to all of its residents. Tamworth, situated in Carroll County, is home to the Tamworth Community Nurse Association, an organization with more than 80 years of providing nursing services to the town’s 2,510 residents.

TCNA’s services are available to all of Tamworth’s residents irrespective of ability to pay and access to health care. These services include everything from home visits for treatment or emotional support, making a nurse available to the public and running a meals on wheels program. TCNA represents a unique response to an all too familiar problem in rural America: inadequate access to health care. According to the broadcast:

Like many rural communities, Tamworth has more than the average share of elderly, many who find it hard to get around. And then there's that other rural problem, not enough doctors. There's one doctor in Tamworth. He's so busy that he can't take walk-in patients. The town nurses do. Last year, [Joanne Rainville, the Director of TCNA,] and two part-time nurses fielded 7,000 visits, many in their clinic at the back of town hall.

Rural residents face many challenges to affordable and accessible health care. First, many rural residents must travel considerable distances to visit a qualifying service provider, especially when specialized treatment is necessary. Second, rural households tend to have fewer financial resources than their urban counterparts, which places health insurance beyond the reach of many.

Moreover, the “health status” of rural America is lagging behind the general population, according the U.S. Department of Agriculture. For instance, rural residents are more likely to be age 65 or older. Disability, chronic disease and mortality rates are also higher in rural places than in urban ones, even after controlling for age.

Residents of Tamworth are no exception to the broader trends seen across rural America. So, how is TCNA able to continue providing its own version of “universal health care” to the townspeople of Tamworth?

It's not easy. Rainville writes grants and begs donors for gifts. But she can almost always count on taxpayers for close to a third of her budget. This year, at town meeting, voters said no to cost of living raises for town employees, but they funded the nurses, this time to the tune of $40,000.

With the issue of health care reform creating heated debate and much disagreement, it is interesting to think that one rural town has been offering some form of health care to all of its residents for more than 80 years. It remains to be seen whether TCNA can be viewed as a model for other community's to replicate or if such a program can only exist in this extraordinary community. Nevertheless, TCNA demonstrates the possibility of translating the strong sense of community that characterizes many rural places into a potentially lifesaving service and underscores the ability of rural places to develop solutions to problems that confound policymakers across the country.

An Alaska twist on the rural school funding quandary

William Yardley reported in the New York Times a few days ago about rural school closures in Alaska. The print edition headline speaks volumes: "Saddest math for a Rural Alaska School: 10-1=0." The reference is to the requirement that a school have 10 students--that's right, just 10--in order to receive state funding. But the tiny school Nikolski, Alaska, population 39, in the Aleutian Islands, has just fallen short of that magic number. The Nikolski school, built in 1939 by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, has just closed, but as Yardley points out, it is hardly alone. Four other rural Alaska schools have recently closed, and dozens of others are at risk for closure.

Here's an excerpt from the story, this part focusing on the quandary facing Alaska, where--as in the rest of the United States--about 20% of the population (and falling) live in rural places.
Concerns over the cost and quality of education in rural areas have long generated tension: can preserving village life be balanced with preparing students for a broader world? A court settlement in the 1970s required the state to build high schools in most villages, prompting an expensive construction boom. But by 1998, with oil revenues no longer soaring, the State Legislature decided that schools with fewer than 10 students would face severe cuts in financing. With some parents leaving villages in pursuit of better education anyway, some lawmakers said saving schools was missing the point.
One particularly interesting aspect of this story for me is what rural schools and parents have done in order to try to remain open: They have advertised for students! For one school in southeast Alaska, the strategy worked. Two families moved to Tenakee Springs, population 104, after the district advertised on Craigslist for families with school-age children.

But Tenakee Springs is only 2.9% "American Indian or Alaska Native," whereas that ethnic group make up 70% of Nikolski's population. As Yardley notes, in Alaska, rural schools are "at the heart of a broader debate ... over the treatment of native communities" which comprise the vast majority of the state's rural population.

The story is accompanied by some terrific audio-visual tools. A map here shows the schools most at risk of closure, and it also reflects population gain and loss for various regions. There is also a video, as well as a slide show here.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Can giant agribusinesses shrink while true organic farms grow?

That's a line from Maira Kalman's Thanksgiving piece in the New York Times. The title is "Back to the Land," and there's a lot in it about democracy, food and the democracy of food.

Here's another great line:
Can the elitism of a farmers' market shift so that the organic farms can be subsidized and that prices are reasonable for all people? That would be a democracy of healthy eating.
Don't miss her photos and missive here. It is the second-most emailed story on on the Friday evening after Thanksgiving.

A terrible autumn for America's farms closes a difficult 2009

On Tuesday, Professor Pruitt linked to and commented on an article that ran in the New York Times that details the hardship facing farmers in and around the Mississippi Delta region as the result of an unseasonably wet fall.

As the article makes clear, these farmers truly have reason to be concerned, noting that Lester Spell Jr., the Mississippi commissioner of agriculture and commerce, "cited losses of more than 40 percent of the state’s soybean crop, almost 50 percent of the cotton and more than 60 percent of the sweet potatoes."

A quick look at the most recent USDA Census of Agriculture figures for Mississippi, released in 2007, reveal the full economic impact that the projected failures for these crops alone is likely to have. Assuming that crop revenues haven't varied considerably since 2007, and that Commissioner Spell's estimates of crop failure totals are correct, the losses in each sector are considerable. For example, the estimated loss of 40%
of the state's soybean crop would result in a loss of somewhere around $400 million in farm revenue, while the 50% of the cotton crop lost to the weather would be worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $300 million. These figures are highly speculative as myriad factors--including commodity prices, input prices, crop failure figures from 2007, etc--are difficult to integrate into this analysis. I do think, however, that they provide a good sense of the magnitude of the hardship facing these farmers.

Moreover, the impact of the wet autumn experienced in many parts of the country has extended to effect farmers across America. Another New York Times article examines the disastrous impact that the wet fall had on farmers in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut (and yes, there are in fact farmers in all three of these states). The article notes that many of these farmers also experienced crop losses well above 40%. As the ar
ticle notes, "It takes a 30 percent loss of any single crop in a county to trigger a disaster request from the federal Farm Service Agency office in an affected state."

The proliferation of "agricultural disaster areas" across the country this fall is bad news for all Americans, producers and consumers alike. Farmers, however, bear the brunt of the blows associated with vicious vagaries of their industry. According to the USDA's 2009 Farm Income Forecast , farm incomes in 2009 fell by an astounding 34.5% when compared to 2008.

(Source: 2009 Farm Income Forecast, USDA ERS)

The 2000s were an unusually bountiful time for farmers. This year's crash in farm income can be partially explained away as a natural market correction, and lower input prices have helped to make up for some of the difference in farmer's budgets. For a capital and planning intensive industry like farming, however, reducing average income by a third is certain to have significant lasting impacts.

I'm concerned that the full effects of what's been a terrible season for many of America's farmers will have a number of unexpected consequences for producers, consumers, and many rural American communities.

Law and Order in the Ozarks (Part XLI): A sheriff on both sides of the law

A front-page headline in the November 19, 2009 issue of the Newton County Times reads, "Former sheriff sentenced," and it reports that 60-year-old Jerry Lynn Jones, formerly the county sheriff, will serve eight months in a federal prison for receiving disability benefits while failing to disclose earnings from self-employment between 1997 and 2007. The federal judge handling the matter also ordered Jones to pay restitution of almost $109,000, as well as a $3,000 fine. The story does not indicate whether the period during which the fraud was committed coincided with the time that Jones was Newton County Sheriff, though it presumably did not given Jones's receipt of disability payments. It would be interesting to know whether Jones's position as sheriff or former sheriff had anything to do with bringing this fraud to the attention of federal authorities.

In other law enforcement news, a story on the back page reports that a big rig stolen in Missouri wound up in Newton County after the man who stole it led law enforcement officers on a chase that ended there. Even after the truck became disabled, the driver fled on foot but was soon apprehended.

The November 5, 2009, edition of the Newton County paper reports on another alleged criminal's efforts to elude law enforcement. The headline is "Manhunt ends with arrest," and it tells of David Middleton's escape from custody. Apparently Middleton and his wife were both handcuffed and placed in custody while law enforcement officers (a multi-agency effort) executed a search warrant at their residence in Mt. Judea (not even a Census Designated Place). Middleton, who at the time was free on $5,000 bond in connection with previous criminal charges, escaped unnoticed during the search. He was located several hours later. Meanwhile, the search resulted in confiscation of firearms and vehicles with VIN numbers that appear to have been altered. Middleton and his wife are also facing new charges of methamphetamine delivery.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The geography of the Thanksgiving meal

The analysis in this New York Times piece is not along the rural-urban axis, nor is the detail presented sufficient to permit that analysis at a scale lower than that of the state. Nevertheless, this feature by Kim Severson, "Online: A National Thanksgiving Barometer" caught my eye and got me to thinking again about rural-urban difference with respect to food and food culture.

I made quick perusal of the accompanying map to see what recipes residents of my home state and my adopted state were searching for on It showed me that of the five foods featured in Severson's report--corn casserole, cheese ball, apple pie, pecan pie, and pumpkin cheesecake--Arkansans were above average in searching for all recipes except that for apple pie (and the West coast paper copy I receive showed them above average searching for that, too!). Californians, on the other hand, were below average in searching for all five foods except pumpkin cheesecake, where they were just average. Indeed, for the five recipes analyzed, there was relatively little West coast search activity. I suspect that a lot of nouvelle and otherwise untraditional holiday cuisine gets served out here). While New England states tended to be above average in searching for apple pie, those in the southeast searched more for corn casserole and pecan pie.

Here's an excerpt from Severson's story with still more state-by-state tidbits.

The fact that cooks in the Southeast rarely look up crust recipes could mean that they are not interested in pies or that they bake so many that no one needs to be told how to do it. And what of all the searches for “cheese ball” in the Midwest? Do people in Indiana just forget how to make it each year, or are cheese balls winning new converts?

We may never know why cooks in North Carolina show more interest in sweet potatoes, their most-queried side dish, than people in any other state. Or why a broccoli casserole belt extends through Appalachia and ends in Florida.

As Severson observes, it is hard hard to draw firm conclusions from the search trends, but I find them fun to ponder.

With this post, I am adding a "food" label to the blog. It is long overdue because the "agriculture" label no longer suffices. Happy eating.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

"The Urban Deerslayer"

That's one of the headlines the New York Times has been using for this story, in today's Dining and Wine Section. Another headline is "Urbanites Explore the Primal Lure of Hunting." The story, which features a Charlottesville, Virginia dateline, is currently number 8 on's most emailed list. Here's an excerpt:

Jackson Landers, an insurance broker by day, teaches a course here called Deer Hunting for Locavores. Mr. Landers, 31, started the classes earlier this year for largely urban adults who, like him, did not grow up stalking prey but have gravitated to harvesting and cooking their own game.

He tailored his course to food-obsessed city people with lessons on deer biology, habitat and anatomy, and rounded out his students’ education with field trips to a firing range to practice shooting and a session on butchery and cooking.
Journalist Sean Patrick Farrell situates this trend amidst others associated with locavorism and self-provisioning: farmers' markets, back-yard gardens, and "country-fair pursuits" such as scratch baking and canning. (Speaking of baking and canning, read an earlier post about women's increasing interest in hunting here). Farrell also credits the loss of rural population as a cause for the decline in hunting. That means, I guess, that hunting is just one more great American tradition that urbanites are going to save and preserve for all of us.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Small Southern farmers in fiscal peril after wet autumn

Shaila Dewan reports in yesterday's New York Times on failed crops in several southern states, most notably in the Mississippi Delta, and on the financial implications for farmers there. Dewan takes up not only the monetary consequences of the unseasonable weather, she also puts a human face on these events, exploring the social context and consequences, too. Here's an excerpt about John Hart, whose crops were ruined this year by fall rains that devastated agricultural production in the region.

For the thousandth time, Mr. Hart, 61, asked himself why he had come back home more than three decades ago from Chicago, where he was a lathe operator, to farm the family land where he grew up.

Mr. Hart, who is now supported primarily by his wife's salary from nursing is quoted, "You just keep going ... She knows that's all I like to do." The "that," of course, is farming.

While the unseasonably wet fall means most farmers in the region will lose money this year, the fiscal situation of small farmers is especially precarious. Dewan notes that some of these are black farmers, like Mr. Hart, who survived "years of discriminatory policies" by the USDA, which made it more difficult for black farmers to get loans.

Dewan's story touches repeatedly on the rural theme of attachment to place, with phrases such as "farming is in their blood." One farmer is quoted as saying: "You don't want to be the generation that loses the family farm." Another farmer she features is Taylor Flowers Jr., 36, who farms land "lost by his mother’s family and bought by his father’s, all before his parents married." She quotes Flowers:

I’ve got a college education, I’ve got a degree in ag business. ... But I don’t know, if I had to quit, what I’d go do. There’s not many jobs out there right now.

The particular Mississippi locales mentioned in the story include Coahoma County, population 30,622, and Lexington, population 2,025.

Monday, November 23, 2009

National Farm-City Week

Friday, November 20th 2009 saw the following proclamation from the White House:

NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim the week ending on Thanksgiving Day of each year as National Farm-City Week. I call on Americans as they gather with their families and friends to reflect on the accomplishments of all who dedicate their lives to promoting our nation's agricultural abundance and environmental stewardship.

I was immediately confused by this new national week of observance. What does “farm-city” mean and exactly what are we celebrating with this observance? My attempt to parse out the President’s explanation of National Farm-City Week brought the following observations:

“Our Nation's farm and ranch families supply many of the basic necessities of our daily life. They manage a large portion of our country's fertile land base, and they are caretakers of our valuable natural resources and diverse ecosystems. Their connections with urban and suburban communities are critical to our economy and to the nourishment of our people.”

President Obama’s focus is distinctly urban. His reference to how farms supply many “necessities of our daily life” assumes that the “our” are urban people, and that urban people constitute his audience of Americans. It’s interesting to note that the value assigned to farm and ranch families by the President is based upon their supposed connection to urban and suburbanites. Why is President Obama addressing urban Americans and at least unconsciously placing farmers in the category of “other”? The 2000 census showed that 8 out of every 10 Americans live in urban areas. What’s more, as husband-and-wife sociologists Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas, authors of Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America report: “The rise of agribusiness has meant that there are hardly any farmers left in America's agricultural regions: Just 2 percent of Americans operate farms now.” So perhaps farmers are the “other” in the President’s prose precisely because they are such a small and peripheral portion of the American population.

Again, why then are we carving out a week of observance directed at American farmers? President Obama’s statement sets out the purported value of farm and ranch families to America at large. It is comprised of: (1) the goods they produce that are necessities to other Americans; (2) the fact that they manage much of the country’s fertile land; (3) the view that they are caretakers of natural resources and ecosystems; and (4) their central role in the U.S. economy and feeding the American people. But how true are these claims?

Surely, much of the nation’s food can be sourced back to rural areas. What of the view that the nation’s farming community manages the country’s fertile land and natural resources? It is certainly the case that most of the nation’s land area is located in rural areas, but it’s not clear to me whether we should be thanking or scolding America’s farmers and ranchers for how they are caring for the land and natural resources. One need only read the headline to this Rolling Stone article to understand the havoc that pig ranches are wreaking on the environment: Pork’s Dirty Secret: The Nation’s Top Hog Producer is also one of America’s Worst Polluters. The article discusses how the waste generated by the nation's top pig producer is destroying rivers, killing fish and poisoning the water table. This kind of environmental degradation is common to most factory ranches. The environmental degradation caused by industrial farming is also cause for serious concern. For example, lack of crop rotation results in soil depletion, heavy use of pesticides poisons not only farmworkers but the water table, and heavy water use depletes the water supply. See, for example, this article discussing the environmental harm caused by farms. The President’s words that “[w]e must ensure that farming is maintained as an economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable way of life for future generations,” should perhaps be read more as a cautionary warning than a reason to celebrate America’s farms.

So it’s not clear that all farmers and ranchers are caretakers of the nation’s fertile land and resources, but are they at least feeding America? While American ranches and farms have a comparatively high volume of output, it’s still the case that much of the food consumed by Americans is imported. For example, between 2000 and 2005, 32% of fruits and nuts consumed by Americans were imported, as well as 13% of vegetables and 12% of grains and products.

While we pause to give thanks this year, the President is asking that we also “reflect on the accomplishments of all who dedicate their lives to promoting our nation’s agricultural abundance and environmental stewardship.” I’m still unsure as to the reasons behind this new week of observance (perhaps the powerful farm lobby?), but I agree nonetheless that Americans have a lot to be thankful for in the way of American bounty. Perhaps, however, as Americans sit down to their Thanksgiving dinners this year, they should also stop to consider where our food comes from and the environmental cost of our abundance. We may also think about adjusting our vision of America's "farm and ranch families" in light of modern industrial farms and ranches.

Photographic journey through America's backroads

Today featured a photo slide show by renowned photographer Ed Ailor. Ailor retraced the steps of William Least Heat-Moon as written in his book, "Blue Highways." Ailor's book, to be called "Blue Highways Revisited," will include pictures from all the places visited and written about by Heat-Moon in his book. For a beautiful slide show that previews several of the photos, click here.

The reporters interviewed Heat-Moon about his traveling adventures. During the interview, Heat-Moon described two positive changes and two negative changes that he'd perceived in rural America throughout his travels. First, he claims that everywhere he travels, he notices an increase in human congestion. Moreover, where towns had "limits" before, now they are beginning to bleed together like "an inoperable cancer." Additionally, he claims that rural food has taken a huge hit. What used to be his greatest joy in traveling (eating regional food) now has become more challenging as corporate franchises are rapidly taking over in rural areas. While it can be beneficial to know what you're getting with big franchises, it's an ultimate disappointment not to visit an area and "get a meal that you will remember for years to come."

On the brighter side, Heat-Moon notes that racial harmony has improved over the last 25 years. Moreover, accommodations have improved so that travelers can visit almost anywhere and be able to find a bed to buy for the night. And, despite the "urban sprawl," Heat-Moon assures readers that, "there are still miles and miles of two-lane roads to take a traveler into recesses of America, where delights and amazements await."

After flipping through Ailor's photographs, I decided to look up some of the towns where the photographs were taken. The areas are extremely beautiful, yet extremely rural, as American Factfinder did not even have statistics on many of the areas. Here are the areas depicted in CNN's slide show:

Bell City, Louisiana - This city was not on the Factfinder, but I googled it and apparently it's a small unincorporated area outside of Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana.
Dime Box, Texas - This city was not on the Factfinder either but I found out Dime Box is in Lee County, a population of 15,657.
Frenchman, Nevada - This city was also not on the Factfinder. I looked this town up and found that it's in Churchill County, Nevada, a population of 23,982.
Lincoln City, Oregon - Population 7,437.
Kremlin, Montana - Population 126 (pictured below).

Tuftonboro, New Hampshire - Population 2,148.
Cape Neddick, Maine - Population 2,997.

Despite the urban sprawl, these beautiful rural areas still exist. Heat-Moon promises there are still areas that are unexplored in the United States. He also talks about how people in "today's" world move too fast. That makes me think that maybe it's not just that urban sprawl has begun to chip away at smaller, rural towns, but that human mentality is so clearly shifting toward a faster-pace lifestyle that we miss these rural gems. Or, perhaps we think they are unimportant. However, it seems that some of the most basic, enjoyable treasures can be found in rural America - good food, independently owned Bed & Breakfasts, small museums, family owned hardware stores, and other "mom and pop" shops. To save these marvels, maybe we all just need to slow down. As Heat-Moon says, "Speed corrupts travel far more than bad Chinese food."