Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Some musings on the market for votes

I've thought about vote buying a lot over the course of my life. I'm not talking about how corporations and other affluent actors donate money to campaigns in hopes of swaying legislators' votes, or even lower-scale political patronage type activity. I'm talking about the phenomenon at the individual level in what is arguably its most base and disturbing form: The payment and acceptance of cold hard cash for one's vote in a particular political race or slate of races. (Photo of polling place in Murray, Arkansas, (c) Lisa R. Pruitt 2010).

I've been thinking about vote buying again lately because I discussed it a bit in this recent essay and because a friend from Kentucky mentioned that, in the wake of the state's May 18 primary, federal investigations into vote buying are underway in several counties in the Eastern part of the state. (Read some news coverage of those investigations here and here. Also, here's another interesting Kentucky story from earlier this decade.)

My interest in vote buying goes back to my childhood. My father was involved in vote buying in the rural Arkansas county where I grew up, and he was quite open it. I recall rather vividly one election night when he and other local men gathered at our kitchen table with the paper ballots cast that day. If memory serves me well, they were checking to see if various people had, in fact, voted as they had been paid to do. This was in the 1970s and 1980s in rural Arkansas, where people still cast paper ballots; in fact, I think they still do in Newton County. My father was a life-long Democrat who bought votes on behalf of the party's local candidates, but the local Republicans engaged in the practice, too. Indeed, the Newton County Judge (in Arkansas, the county judge is the chief elected administrative officer) was convicted of vote buying in the late 1980s and spent some time in federal prison. U.S. v. Campbell, 845 F.2d 782 (8th Cir. 1988).

I recall questioning my mother about the hows and whys of this practice in the same way that my son now questions me about the hows and whys of things like why people don't fall out of roller coasters and what the sky is made of. She couldn't answer all of my questions any more satisfactorily than I can answer those of my child, but some of the questions and answers included these:

  • Where did my father and his cronies get the money to buy the votes? I knew none of the people dong the buying were wealthy, and most--like my family--lived pretty much hand to mouth. Were they spending their own money? If so, what benefit did they get from electing the county judge or sheriff of their choice? Getting the nearest dirt road graded came up a lot in my mom's answers to this one, which suggests that vote buying is, in part, an exercise in political patronage. It simply bypasses campaign finance.
  • How could the vote buyer be certain that the vote seller actually delivered his or her vote? I later understood the paper ballot system and its numbering better. This wikipedia entry suggests other ways in which votes were and are verified. So much for the secret ballot! In the Campbell case, the voter simply turned her absentee ballot over to the buyer.
  • How many votes did you have to buy to sway an election? In a county where only a few thousand votes are cast in county-wide elections, not that many. As far as I could tell, most vote buying was focused on local races, as for sheriff, assessor.
  • How much did a vote cost? Not much, apparently. I recall my mom telling me that it was as little as $5 or $10. According to the report in the Campbell case, the defendant bought various citizens' votes for as little as $30 each. Some folks held out for as much as $50. This story suggests a range of $10-$50 in eastern Kentucky, sometimes accompanied by whiskey or beer.
  • Why would anyone ever sell his or her vote? As a young person, I was capable of great righteous indignation about various things, and vote buying was one of them. I must have taken civics class very seriously because I was truly outraged that anyone would sell his or her constitutionally endowed right to have a say in our great democracy. And yes, I also condemned the vote buyers.

Now that I've been studying rural poverty for several years--especially the sort of persistent poverty that marks counties like the one in which I was raised (see a map of all persistent poverty counties in the U.S. here and note that 340 of the 386 of them are nonmetro)--I'm starting to see that the answer isn't (or isn't only) that those selling their votes (or for that matter buying them) don't share my vision of citizenship and democracy. It may well be that those selling their votes actually need the money--I mean, really need the money. Yes, even $10--never mind $50--may make a big difference in their lives, at least for that month.

A recent visit to my mom in Arkansas and seeing the film "Winter's Bone" have both served to remind me of the value of a $20 bill in the rural Ozarks.

All of this leaves me wondering: Is even democracy a luxury for the poor?

Cross-posted to UC Davis Faculty Blog and SALTLaw Blog.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Australia's mining boom consumes a small town

Norimitsu Onishi writes in today's New York Times about the impact that Australia's mining boom is having on some inland farm towns. Here's an excerpt about the story, dateline Ackland, Queensland., of Glenn Beutel, a resident of the town who five years ago expressed his lack of interest in selling his land to a mining company official with the comment, “I told him it was part of my soul. He ran away.”
But over the next five years, officials of New Hope Coal would meet with Mr. Beutel’s neighbors, buying up their homes and land one by one. Some sold happily; others said they felt coerced. Either way, Mr. Beutel now finds himself the last homeowner here, this 120-year-old town vanishing rapidly around him, huge deposits of coal lying under him and lawyers for the coal company threatening to come down on him.
The story reflects several rural themes, including community and attachment to place. Here's a quote from Mr. Beutel, who says, "he had become Ackland’s last homeowner for the simple reason that he had always had trouble making decisions and was still very attached to this place, which his mother had helped endow with parks, a war memorial and other beautification projects."

This quote from Michael Roche, chief executive of the Queensland Resources Council, the industry group for mining interests in the state of Queensland, mocks what he sees as rural nostalgia:
Now, there’s one resident left there. You will always find a few individuals who grieve for the way things were. I think you’ll find most people have moved on, got on with life and have been well looked after by the company.
There you have it, rural residents. There's the message (from capitalism and the state?): Just move to the city and get on with life.

Remembering Robert Byrd, U.S. Senator from West Virginia

Byrd died early Monday morning in a Washington area hospital. He was 92 and had served in the U.S. Senate for 51 years, well over half of his life. His New York Times obituary, which is available in full here, highlights the "pork" he brought home to West Virginia. The lede, for example, refers to his "building, always with canny political skills, a modern West Virginia with vast amounts of federal money." Byrd referred to his home state as "one of the rock bottomest of states." When asked his proudest Senate achievement in 2005, he said it was bringing federal money to West Virginia, adding "I’m proud I gave hope to my people."

John D. Rockefeller IV, the junior Senator from West Virginia is quoted as saying that Byrd knew, “before you can make life better, you have to have a road to get in there, and you have to have a sewerage system.”

The obituary uses the word "rural" only once, to refer to how he "played the fiddle at one rural stop after another," campaigning for public office in the 1940s and 1950s. But it provides this information about Byrd's indisputably rural, hardscrabble upbringing:
As a boy, living on a small farm, he helped slaughter hogs, learned to play the fiddle and became a prize-winning Sunday school student after the manager of the local coal company store gave him two pairs of socks so that he could attend without embarrassment.
Byrd was the valedictorian of his high school class but unable to attend college. Later, in his 30s and 40s, he took college courses. He ultimately earned a law degree, cum laude from American University in 1963, after 10 years of taking night courses.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Efficient farming and Jamaican tomatoes

Listen to the NPR story, "Jamaica's tomato mystery," here. An excerpt about limitations on small farmers' ability to expand their operations follows:
Ms. ROSE MARY GARCIA (Nathan Associates): Typically, it is the lack of ability to get loans from the banking system.

BLUMBERG: This is Rose Mary Garcia, with the economic consulting firm Nathan Associates. She says you see farmers like Gabby a lot in the developing world. They know exactly what they need to buy to be more productive, but they can't get the money, often for a pretty simple reason.

Ms. GARCIA: They may not have titles to their lands. If they don't have the right paperwork, then therefore they can't provide their land as collateral, and therefore, the banks are not willing to take that risk.

BLUMBERG: Garcia says this leads to the situation you have in Jamaica, where there are two types of farms: large-scale, technologically intensive farms, like the kind they have in America, and then small-scale, near-subsistence farms like Gabby's. Garcia says the goal is to improve the credit system so that you get a new kind of farm, one that's somewhere in the middle.

Also read listener comments here.

Law and Order in the Ozarks (Part LIX): Fire Association funds missing

The June 2 issue of the Newton County Times reports that "an investigation report of the Compton Fire Association for Jan 1, 2005, through Dec. 31, 2008, conduced by the Division of Legislative Audit (DLA), has been submitted to Ron Kincade, prosecuting attorney for the 14th Judicial District." The report shows "unauthorized and undocumented disbursements of $5,026. State representative Roy Ragland had requested a review of the Fire Association's transactions. Irregularities appear to relate to the Fire Association's former bookkeeper, who was also the bookkeeper for the area Water Association, where irregularities were also found.

In other news, Carroll Electric Cooperative's annual membership meeting was the scene of conflict as about 60 members appeared to protest the cooperative's "recent change from cutting its rights of way with machines to using herbicides." Although protesters were told at least year's meeting that they could request that their property not be sprayed, many such requests have not been respected. Speakers at the annual meeting were stopped mid-sentence if they went over the 2-minute limit for making comments, and the total speaking time was limited to just 20 minutes. No end to the 2-year-old conflict is in sight.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Sorry, Huntsville. You look great but you're just not big enough

Ian Austen reports in today's New York Times from Huntsville, Ontario, population 18,280. Huntsville was to have been the site of the Group of 8 summit this week-end, a decision that "set off a spending spree that now totals nearly $48 million by the government’s last estimate, or nearly $93 million by the calculations of the opposition Liberal Party." The expenditures were for infrastructure--buildings, roads, gazebos, toilets--to support the summit.

Last fall, however, when the Group of 8 decided to meet as a Group of 20 instead, Huntsville was deemed too small, and Toronto became the summit venue. As Austen expresses it, "what was supposed to be Huntsville’s moment of glory is increasingly becoming a minor national scandal."

Now, however, "Huntsville’s consolation prize is a brief meeting of the Group of 8 leaders at a resort here before they helicopter off for their real work in Toronto." Sadly for all Canadians, the time in Huntsville will be so brief as not to justify the past few years' investment in Huntsville, at least not for purposes of the summit.

So much for the political nod to rural Canada ...

Wal-Mart goes urban, with better wages and smaller stores

America's quintessential small-town, big box retailer, having saturated nonmetropolitan areas and suburbs, is going to the city. Here's the story from today's New York Times.

The retailing behemoth has been negotiating with the Chicago City Council over a site on the city's South side six years. Now, after apparently agreeing to pay entry level workers $.50/hour better than the minimum wage, Wal-Mart is making some progress with the local authorities. It's a reminder of how much more desperate for jobs--and how much less organized--small towns are when it comes to dealing with Wal-Mart and a prospective store. An excerpt from the Times story follows:

What would it take for urban areas to welcome Wal-Mart?

The answer seems to be a terrible job market and stores that do not look much like traditional big boxes.

* * *

If Wal-Mart can succeed in the urban market, that could mean several hundred stores just in major cities like New York, Chicago and Detroit, bringing several hundred million dollars in additional earnings, analysts said.

In addition to paying better wages, Wal-Mart is looking at placing much smaller stores in urban markets. Indeed, the stores would be as small as 8,000 square feet, about 4% of the size of a new Supercenter.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

FCC attending to broadband for American Indians

I've written many posts about the dearth of broadband in rural America, such as the ones here and here, but a story on NPR's All Things Considered yesterday indicates that the FCC is particularly concerned about serving American Indians--most of whom live in rural communities--who are without broadband. Here's the story, "FCC Eyes Broadband for Indian Reservations," dateline Orleans, California, in Humboldt County, population 128,897. Orleans itself is not even a Census Designated Place. It lies near the Siskiyou County line, across which broadband is more plentiful (even though Siskiyou County's population is about a third of that of Humboldt County).

Here's an excerpt from the story:
[T]he cost of building compared with the return is one of the reasons American Indian communities have a long history of neglect when it comes to basic infrastructure. To help change that, at least for broadband, the FCC announced the appointment of Geoffrey Blackwell to lead its initiatives on American Indian affairs. Unfortunately, Blackwell says, the situation in Orleans is typical of American Indian country.

"We're not just talking about rural America; we're talking about remote America," he says. "We're talking about challenging terrain. We're talking about places that, by their design, where tribes were placed, didn't necessarily benefit from certain eras of federal infrastructure development like the Eisenhower interstate system."

Blackwell's appointment is part of the FCC's National Broadband Plan, which emphasizes rural connectivity — in particular for the more than 1.4 million American Indians who live in remote areas.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Update on Fremont, Nebraska ordinance

Following up on yesterday's post about a special election regarding an anti-immigrant ordinance in Fremont, Nebraska, voters approved the referendum with 57% of the vote. Read more here under the headline, "Nebraska Town Votes to Banish Illegal Immigrants." An excerpt follows:

Opponents of the new law, including some business and church leaders, had argued that the City of Fremont simply could not afford the new law, which is all but certain to be challenged in court. In a flurry of television commercials and presentations by opponents in the final days before Monday’s vote, opponents said paying to defend such a local law would require a significant cut in Fremont city services or a stiff tax increase — or some combination of the two.
Here is an interesting quote from an opponent of the referendum. Like those supporting it, she invoked "small-town values":

There were a lot of tears in this room tonight. Unfortunately, people have voted for an ordinance that’s going to cost millions of dollars, and that says to the Hispanic community that the Anglo community is saying they are not welcome here. They thought they were coming to a small-town community with small-town values.

Read my more academic analysis of these issues in the context of nonmetropolitan areas of the South here.

Read more analysis of what happened in Fremont here.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Law and Order in the Ozarks (Part LVIII): Deadbeat parents targeted

The June 9 and June 16 issues of the Newton County Times recently arrived, and one interesting front-page story is about a new alternative sentencing program for those who fail to pay child support. Rather than be incarcerated, the individual may do community service while wearing a pink T-shirt with "Deadbeat Parent" in large letters on both front and back. The story is accompanied by a photo of a youngish man in a baseball cap and hot pink t-shirt washing a county law enforcement vehicle.

Also, the Quorum Court (like Board of Supervisors) adopted an ordinance that will raise funding for the Sheriff's Office by imposing a 10% surcharge on the fees associated with certain warrants and charges. "The money will help defray the sheriff's office's booking and administrative costs," the Sheriff explained. This is similar to what many counties and other local jurisdictions are doing around the country to generate additional revenue in these tough economic times, when property tax revenue tends to fall shorter than ever.

In other law enforcement news, the paper reports that the county paid $5,425 to other counties for use of their detention facilities to house 14 inmates for a total of 155 "inmate days" in May. Such fees are making the county anxious to get started on the new county jail, and officials now expect a ground-breaking for the new facility in mid-August. It will be a 6,000 square foot building with a capacity for 24 inmates.

Here are the sheriff office's statistics for the month:

Total miles patrolled: 14,688
Money turned over to circuit court: $1,331.49
Money turned over to district court: $7,838
Citations issued: 99
Warrants served: 16
Number of outstanding warrants: 270

A back-page story reports that a 33-year-old Mt Judea man was arrested in Boone County for conspiracy to deliver marijuana. A press release indicated that investigators had been tracking shipments of narcotics from California to Arkansas for about four months, and several of these were delivered to the man's home in Mt. Judea.

In other news, two brothers, aged 8 and 11, drowned in the Buffalo National River above the Ponca bridge. The National Park Service noted that the river was quite low given the time of year and that river conditions were such that "they are not believed to have contributed to this tragic incident."

Also, ground was broken for a new business plaza in Jasper. A Subway sandwich franchise will be among the businesses housed there.

The Quorum court voted to distribute $2768.50 in fine money the county received from the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission to the three county schools that have archery teams.

Special election today on immigration ordinance in small Nebraska city

A special election today in Fremont, Nebraska, population 25,576, will decide the fate of an ordinance that would

ban businesses from hiring illegal immigrants and bar landlords from renting to them. Residents demanded the vote, fighting off challenges by some of their elected leaders all the way to the State Supreme Court.
The Hispanic population, while growing, still makes up less than 10 percent of Fremont, yet some say they blame illegal immigrants for what they see as a rise in crime here, the loss of good jobs for local residents and a shift in the culture.
Read more coverage in the New York Times here.

Fremont is the county seat of Dodge County, population 35,880, and it is part of the Fremont Micropolitan area, although it is only about 35 miles from Omaha.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Obama administration steps up enforcement against child agricultural labor

Erik Eckholm reports in today's New York Times here. The dateline is White Lake, North Carolina, population 529, in Bladen County, population 32,278, a high poverty county (21% in the 2000 Census, though the 2006-2008 estimates show that rate has fallen to 13.2%) where blueberry farmers have long been reliant on migrant labor. Federal law prohibits children under 12 from working in the fields, and the Department of Labor last year began substantially increasing fines on farmers who use child labor. Recently fines as high as $11,000 per child--up from $1000--were announced.

As a consequence, some farms are now playing it safe by banning all those under 16 from the fields, but this has hurt women migrant workers who have no child care. One Migrant Head Start program in Bladen County is helping to respond to this need with a free program serving 138 children, yet the need still exceeds the supply. One migrant worker from neighboring Wayne County is quoted complaining about the stricter rules on children in the fields: “With the kids, the farms are very strict now. It was better before, because if you didn’t have someone to take care of the kids, you could take them along.” Some of these families also rely on the money their teenage children earn in the fields.

Meanwhile, Congress is considering changes to the 1938 law that exempts agriculture from the child-labor rules that apply to other types of employers. The law currently permits children aged 12 and up to work on an unlimited basis except during school hours. That would change if the so-called Care Act is passed. That law would ban 12- and 13-year-old workers and limit the working hours of 14- and 15-year-olds. It would also bar teenagers from doing hazardous jobs.

Ninety-one members of Congress support the Care Act, and Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa is reportedly planning to introduce a similar bill in the Senate.

The largest farm lobbying organizations, the American Farm Bureau, opposes the bill, however, saying it "could imperil the tradition of children working in farm communities." Sure, rural youth have long provided labor for farms in their communities--usually for their own families. But that situation is far different from the abusive practices of agricultural enterprises taking advantage of migrant children. Invoking such a homegrown, all-American image seems disingenuous on the part of the Farm Bureau when it comes to potential protection of those with so much to gain from the Care Act.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Some interesting assumptions about rurality

I've just finished grading my spring semester torts exams, and I found significant numbers of students (perhaps a tenth) making some interesting assumptions about the people and places in the essay exam question, who I assume they took to be rural. The fact pattern involved some teenage boys who stole beer from a bootlegger (which, I explained in the exam question, is someone who sells alcohol in a "dry county," one in which it is illegal to sell alcohol). The teenagers got drunk with the beer and went canoeing down a river where, in their inebriated condition, they decided to play a one-sided game of "bumper canoes" with a family who were canoeing on the river that day. The family's canoe overturned when the teens hit it, and their young daughter drowned, in part due to a faulty life vest (products liability issue!). The jurisdiction was Alabama, which had no particular legal relevance. I suspect, however, that it was my situating the hypothetical in Alabama that got the students to thinking "rural," or maybe Southern. (Of course, the idea of a dry county is also quite alien to most of them, as they are mostly Californians).

Here's where the unusual interpretations/assumptions came in:

First, many students revised the scenario and the terms I used--presumably unwittingly--to convert the bootlegger to a moonshiner. In their legal analysis of the fact pattern, they invoked both the terms "moonshine" and "moonshiner," which I used nowhere in the exam question. They also referred to his manufacture and production of liquor and alcohol, so I know what they took moonshine to mean.

Second, many students (not necessarily the same ones who blurred the distinction between bootlegging and moonshine) assumed that the private outfitter who rented the plaintiff family their canoe controlled the river, even owned it, so that the outfitter could have prevented the teens from being on the river that day.

As for the first error, I suppose it reflects reasonably widespread knowledge of what moonshine is--and an association between moonshine and rurality (or the South) that caused some students to make this substitution of "moonshiner" for "bootlegger."

As for the second, well, I guess those students who assumed the river was privately owned haven't spent much time doing outdoor activities in and around rivers. (They also may not have paid much attention in property class). Nevertheless, it seems odd that students would assume a river would be privately owned when they presumably would not assume most land thoroughfares (highways) to be privately owned. Hmmmm.

Monday, June 14, 2010

The pros and cons of being remote--and disconnected

Since learning Friday morning about the devastating flash floods that claimed 20 lives at an Arkansas campground (read more here and here), I've thought several times about how the remoteness of the location--an aspect of its rurality--may have influenced what happened and the ultimate outcomes in terms of death and injury. The New York Times reports on that issue today, focusing on the lack of communications service in the area. Here's the lede:
For many visitors and residents of this heavily forested region, the appeal is in the disconnect. Without so much as a cellphone tower near these vast campgrounds, some come here happy to leave behind their ties to the urban world, preferring a soundtrack of tweeting birds over a chirping BlackBerry.

But the absence of a modern communication network made it virtually impossible last week to quickly warn campers of an approaching downpour, which led to flash floods that tore through the Albert Pike campground, killing at least 19. Now, some have begun to rethink the value of being unplugged in this remote area about 75 miles west of Little Rock.

On a somewhat different note, tales of community are also emerging in media coverage of the disaster. Here's an excerpt from one of the New York Times stories, quoting Graig Cowart, minister of a church near the camp ground:

Mr. Cowart and Forest Service officials praised local residents and companies for providing more food and supplies than the families could possibly use. Wal-Mart, he said, had sent a truck with ice and bottled water. An appliance store delivered portable freezers.

“We’ve had local people here drive up with checks they’d signed blank,” Mr. Cowart said.

Friday, June 11, 2010

All the hype about "Winter's Bone" has me a bit worried . . .

Not to mention the content of three reviews I read or heard today about the film. "Winter's Bone," directed by Debra Granik, won the Grand Jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Granik wrote the screenplay, based on Daniel Woodrell's book by the same name. Woodrell is a native of the Missouri Ozarks, where the book and movie are set.

The film, which will be opening in cinemas across the country in the coming week, enjoyed a very high-powered media blitz today. The first of the three reviews greeted me on this morning; the second I heard on Public Radio's Fresh Air; and the third I heard on NPR's All Things Considered this evening. Reviewers are referring to the film varying as "Ozark Gothic" and "Ozark Noir." Watch the movie's trailer here. Some clips can be accessed here.

What's got me worried is how the film, set in the region where I grew up, will portray the area and its people--to some extent, my people. Is this "Deliverance" redux? Clearly this is a film about a particular stratum of Ozarks society--meth producing ne'er do wells, the type who would draw the "white trash" label. Residents from the Ozarks seem fairly positive about the film, while city folks seem more critical. Interestingly, in particular, it is the non locals who tend to challenge the authenticity of the film's depiction of the Ozarks. Several comments from different readers of the New York Times review are illustrative.

Here's one from a commenter in Harrison, Arkansas, in the Arkansas Ozarks, who defends the film's accuracy and authenticity:
I was born and raised in Taney County Missouri. My family has been there for generations. I saw the film in Springfield, Mo. a few weeks ago, very much afraid that it would be offensive to me. But I know people like those depicted in "Winter's Bone". The accents are accurate,(we are not southerners) the sale barn scene was perfect..everything in the movie has some basis in reality. I probably would not have gone had I read the book and known of one horrifying scene near the end of the movie, but it's for real and not the awful "Deliverance" type dissing of hillbillies I thought it would be. Not all Ozark natives are like the family in the movie----they are definitely the underclass around here---but even in the Ozarks underclass there are noble people, as well as evil people too.

One more point: The scene where the children are taught to dress a squirrel, and to shoot, is very realistic. Although I was fortunate to come from a family with more resources and education , and I am female, I was taught those life skills as a matter of course.
From my perspective, her point about the noble--as well as the evil--can hardly be overstated. Read related posts here and here.

Here's another commenter with a local perspective:
My parents were born and raised in Southwestern Missouri; they got out of there so that my sister and I didn't have to be raised there, but went not so far away as to make it difficult to visit. I grew up in another state, 400 miles away. There are many, many people in that area who are average, salt-of-the-earth, good people, like you'd expect anywhere; I'm probably related to 30% of them and cherish them all. But when I was just out of college, in the late '70's, I moved there to work as a reporter, and was surprised to also find the kind of people described in the movie review. It was, at times, like traveling back in time, 50 to 75 years. I don't say that critically, it's just a fact. My relatives will (currently) speak of rural areas they're afraid to go near, yet only a day's drive away, in the area near my home, the rural areas are populated with people you'd never be afraid of. It's a stark difference that was a real education for me.
One commenter from Toronto, Ontario drew several very interesting responses from Ozarks residents. The writer from Toronto, identified as AE Rose, said:
I couldn't tell that the filmmakers knew what people they was making a film about: impoverished, mountain people, plagued by high unemployment, and drug use, living surround by bush, and steep terrain. And so when the filmmakers introduce references to farms - and thriving farm economy - that we don't see, they lost me. The central character's charges - her younger siblings - play around large hay bales which required large fields of hay, expensive equipment, income and capital; the central character tracks her most powerful relative down at a cattle auction where he is clearly a man of importance, but there are no feed lots or large cattle pastures in this film; no sign that this man buys and sells cattle on any scale that would give him status at that place. There's also no sign that he is peripheral at that auction, a poor man wanting something that's out of reach. Who did the filmmaker thing these people were? What community was she revealing? It bothered me a lot because belonging is the central theme of the film, and yet she didn't know what did and didn't belong.
And the responses:
My family lives on a farm of 22 acres near the ozarks and I am anxiously waiting for the film. It is possible to have "large round hay bales" put up from small amounts of land and from really, really old equipment...I know because we do it every year. And believe me, we don't own any expensive equipment or have capital. People just make do.
And this one:
AE Rose has the reasonable questions that people who don't farm are likely to. It's a different universe, with practices and protocols that can't be intuited from urban corporate perspectives. Attend an ag auction of any scale, and an outsider will have no idea who the heavyweights are. If they're not in the field, land-rich cash-poor farmers spend most of their time keeping their grandfathers' equipment in working order. Woodrell probably has a better handle on this than Granik. If these scenarios seem unbelievable, it points up the gap that stories like this need to bridge.
Both of those comments certainly resonate with my own experience of the Ozarks, subsistence farms, and cattle auctions!

One New Yorker seems indignant on behalf of the locals:
[M]any reviewers comment on the film's "fighting of stereotypes" and "haunting authenticity." I'm left The portrayed impoverished hill people are: dirty, mean, uneducated, violent, misogynistic, strung-out, gun-totin', rabbit-eatin', and dog-infested. Oh, and there's not a yard not littered with defunct old cars.
Another New Yorker responds:
A woman who sings in the film was born and raised in the Ozarks and was present at the MoMA screening. She was not offended by the portrayal of people in the Ozark region, because she said that there ARE people who live there who are impoverished, uneducated, violent, drug-addicted, etc. But they represent only a fraction of people living in the Ozarks. (Remember, many "actors" in the film are not actors at all, but people who live locally and play themselves!). Just because ONE film portrays this fairly SMALL segment of Ozark life does not make it inaccurate or insensitive.
Perhaps this commentator has the right idea:
This is a brillant [sic] work of fiction, and should be enjoyed for artistic merit, not acclaimed for gritty reality.
Granik notes that the response at a recent screening in the Ozarks was mostly positive.

"People were so curious to see what the fruits of the labor were," she says. "People also have a proprietary feeling when they see their own property, their donkey, their dogs, the props, their garments and of course to see themselves or to see their friends and neighbors onscreen."

Maybe this reflects a very basic human need or desire just to be seen, something most rural people don't experience much in our very metrocentric culture.

I'll check in again once I've seen the film. I'll be keeping an eye out for at least a glimpse of the noble ...

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Civil disobedience in northern California (and I don't mean the Bay Area)

Michael Montgomery reported on NPR a few days ago from Humboldt County under the headline, "Pot Radio: Traffic, Weather and Drug Bust Tips." Here's the lede:
For decades, marijuana growers in Northern California have received reports of pending police raids from a local community radio station and citizens wary of the drug war.
* * *
"According to a citizen's observation, at 8:45 a.m., three helicopters were seen heading from Laytonville to Bell Spring Road."

Reports like this one alert the station's listeners — which include both legal and illegal pot growers — to the movements of police and drug agents, on the ground and in the air. Ending the segment, the host said, "To report sightings such as these, you can call the civil liberties monitoring project" at a local phone number.

The radio station is KMUD, and the program director offers this explanation:
We're not broadcasting their whole operations. ... We're just giving the public an awareness that there are 10 trucks heading down a very narrow road with one-lane portions of it, with tight turns. Again, our reports are quite benign.
Now, however, police say the practice must stop, and they cite increased marijuana production and an influx of armed drug traffickers.

Read other posts on marijuana production in northern California here and here.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

"Grasshopper wars" in Wyoming compared to Dust Bowl era infestation

Read Kirk Johnson's report, dateline Lusk, Wyoming, population 1,447, here. An excerpt folllows:
Bug wars have long punctuated life in the nation’s grassy midsection, but this year is an exclamation point. At least $25 million in hay, wheat and alfalfa alone in this corner of Wyoming is up for grabs, state officials say, to be eaten by insects, or saved. Huge areas of Montana and South Dakota are also at risk, especially from sanguinipes, the migrator, one of the most feared of 100 grasshopper species on the plains because of its startling mobility. In Wyoming alone, about 7,800 square miles — an area the size of New Jersey — is infested and scheduled for aerial treatment.
Johnson notes elsewhere that this particular inch-long grasshopper, Melanoplus sanguinipes, can fly hundreds of miles and is the same variety that devastated land during the 1930s Dust Bowl era.

Using telemedicine to provide abortion services

Monica Davey reports today on the use of videoconferencing to consult with patients seeking to terminate a pregnancy. Davey's story, dateline Des Moines, Iowa, tells of a path-breaking program which, to date, is used only by Planned Parenthood of Iowa. The program permits a physician can consult with a patient via videoconferencing. Once the patient gives her consent to a drug-induced abortion, the physician can--with the click of a mouse--open a drawer that contains two abortion drugs, one for ingestion then, one she can take a few days later. An excerpt from Davey's story follows:
Efforts to provide medical services by videoconference, a notion known as telemedicine, are expanding into all sorts of realms, but these clinics in Iowa are the first in the nation, and so far the only ones, experts say, to provide abortions this way.
Advocates say the idea offers an answer to an essential struggle that has long troubled those who favor abortion rights: How to make abortions available in far-flung, rural places and communities where abortion providers are unable or unwilling to travel.
* * *
Though the efforts drew little attention until recently, Planned Parenthood of the Heartland (which recently combined affiliate operations in Nebraska with those in Iowa) has dispensed abortion medication using teleconferencing equipment at 16 Iowa clinics since June 2008; 1,500 such abortions have been performed in this state.
Read my own discussion of rural women's challenges to abortion access here. Telemedicine has limits, of course, when it comes to abortion provision--most obviously in relation to the types of early-term abortions (up to nine weeks) that can be induced by drugs.

Of course, regardless of these limitations, litigation initiated by abortion foes is on the way ...

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Feds aim to clean up Amish farming practices

Sindya Bhanoo reports in today's New York Times on enhanced federal scrutiny of how Amish farmers manage agricultural runoff, including that from cattle. Here's an excerpt that explains how the practices of Amish farmers in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, are contributing to the pollution of Chesapeake Bay--and what the federal government is doing about it:
Runoff from manure and synthetic fertilizers has polluted the Chesapeake Bay for years, reducing oxygen rates, killing fish and creating a dead zone that has persisted since the 1970s despite off-and-on cleanup efforts. But of the dozens of counties that contribute to the deadly runoff of nitrogen and phosphorus, Lancaster ranks at the top.
* * *
The challenge for the environmental agency is to steer the farmers toward new practices without stirring resentment that might cause a backlash.
Banhoo goes on to discuss the link between these farmers' religious history and beliefs and their long-standing distrust of government.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Two very different ways to bolster rural economies

Today's New York Times features these stories side by side: "School Turned Strip Club Bothers the Alumni" and "Alamosa Journal: Going Solar is Harder than it Looks, a Valley Finds." The dateline for the first is Neoga, Illinois, population 1,854, in the east central part of the state. The dateline for the second is Alamosa, Colorado, population 7,960, in the south central part of that state. The first story, by Malcolm Gay, reports on a former school just outside the town of Neoga that two men have turned into a strip club, the only one in a 60-mile radius. The second tells of Alamosa's struggle to become a center of solar power. Ultimately--to some extent--both are about rural economies and very different strategies for improving them.

Here's an excerpt from the Illinois story:
But near the entrance to the cafeteria, where generations from this central Illinois farming community took their school lunches, one sign reveals just how dramatically the yellow brick building’s role has shifted: “Our dancers are entertainers not prostitutes so don’t ask!!!”

* * *
“We don’t want this kind of filth in our county,” said Bill Moran, 70, who lives across the road. “What you get out of a place like this is rape, venereal diseases and a lot of divorces.”

Others, including the owners, say it is a legitimate business that has benefited the community by creating jobs.

“I really don’t think it’s that bad a place if it’s helping money-wise,” said Danny Reed, 25, an electrician who said he had never been to the club. “It’s a small town. If you don’t work at a gas station you pretty much don’t have a job.”

And here's one from the Colorado story, which reports on obstacles in the way of the solar power farm:
Meanwhile, complications of self interest, aesthetics and politics continue to swirl. Some farmers are negotiating to sell land for solar development, or eyeing their neighbors who already have. Mr. Kirkpatrick [a third-generation farmer in the valley, aged 52] sold 320 acres to the SunPower Corporation, based in California, which is building the project near his home — the $880,000 from the sale, he said, provided his mother with a retirement plan.
* * *
But the crosswinds are still twisting the lives of people like Debbie and Sean Canada. The Canadas are not farmers, and so have no land to sell. Their neighbor, though, is selling land where he currently cultivates carrots, yards away from their back porch. This could reduce the value of their home by as much as 50 percent, according to a recent appraisal, Ms. Canada said.
This reminds me of other natural energy resources that are pitting neighbor against neighbor, in the northeast. Read more here.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Shooting rampage shatters bucolic corner of rural Britain

A 52-year-old taxi driver went on a shooting spree in England's Lake District yesterday, killing 12 and wounding 25. Read John Burns' report in the New York Times here.

I'm struck by two ways in which rurality is related to this story, as reported. First, these events occurred in a bucolic--even idyllic--corner of rural England, on the Scottish border. The New York Times described it as "one of the country's most celebrated beauty spots." Second, as Britain's gun laws have been described, they primarily accommodate rural needs and interests: farming and hunting. Here is an excerpt from Burns' story:

Britain claims to have the strongest gun control laws of any country in Europe, adopted after two other mass killings in the past 25 years.

But the Home Office, which maintains a registry of licensed weapons, said Wednesday that there were about 1.8 million legal weapons in private hands, including about 1.4 million shotguns and about 400,000 rifles and air guns. Most of the shotguns are owned by farmers and other rural people, and used for hunting.

We don't know much yet about the circumstances of Bird's gun ownership, only that he used several in his shooting spree.