Monday, February 28, 2011

You can take the rural out of the farm, but...

Despite the fact that studies have all conclusively proved that only a very small minority of rural people are involved in agriculture or farming (7%, according to the W.K. Kellogg Foundation), it appears that not only do non-rural people still equate the rural with agriculture, but the United States government still structures itself so that "rural" is equated with "farm" as well. Although not surprising, the so-called Department of Rural Development is located as a subsidiary of the US Department of Agriculture.

What are its goals, you may ask? According to its website, the DRD is dedicated to "helping improve the economy and quality of life in rural America."

Our financial programs support such essential public facilities and services as water and sewer systems, housing, health clinics, emergency service facilities and electric and telephone service. We promote economic development by supporting loans to businesses through banks , credit unions and community-managed lending pools. We offer technical assistance and information to help agricultural producers and cooperatives get started and improve the effectiveness of their operations. We provide technical assistance to help communities undertake community empowerment programs.

The Department of Rural Development not only has a national secretary and under secretaries, but it also has a director appointed for almost every state in the union--thankfully, there is no director for the state of Rhode Island, which, I can assure you, is so densely populated that not a single inch of it could be classified as rural.

Perhaps the federal government does not want to waste money re-structuring its programs just because populations have shifted, or technology has enabled farming to become something that is less labor-intensive, but placing its Department of Rural Development squarely under the USDA, which monitors, among other things, the country's food and nutrition, seems like it might largely be ignoring the true needs for adequate social programming for rural families and children-- such as education, job opportunities, and access to holistic medical care.

Of course, I'm sure entire courses are taught in Political Science discussing the origins and functions of government bureaucracy, so the process of changing which Department administers the Rural Development Department may just be more work, time, and effort than would be deemed necessary or appropriate. However, it seems perfectly clear that the general publics' assumptions about rurality being overwhelmingly linked to agriculture may be reinforced by the federal government's continued insistence that the two go hand-in-hand.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Lessons from North Africa

North Africa is in a turmoil. Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution started it, achieving regime change via civil resistance and political protest demonstrations. Cairo's Tahrir Square protests followed in Egypt, toppling Mubarak's U.S.-backed administration. But so far, few of the media circling this hot spot of news material has pointed out the significance of these two countries' rural poverty at the root of their initial discontent.

This report on NPR (and only a few others, such as Al Jazeera) stated the obvious: rural Tunisians fared worse than their urban counterparts. As this blog post already stated, to a large extent, Ben Ali's regional neglect and cronyism caused investments from the West (U.S. and E.U., mostly) to flow to the cities, with little or not trickle down to the rural central and southern regions. Maybe it was just that trickle down economics does not really work. Or maybe the neglect of the countryside stemmed from a rather sinister motivation. As NPR said:
Ben Ali came from the Tunisian coast, so there was an added sense in the rural areas that the ousted dictator favored the coastal resort towns while people here got nothing.
Reuters reported similar sentiments from rural Egypt:
The protests may have begun with an educated youth and liberal, urban elite, but a tour of the Nile Delta suggests discontent is more widespread. ... The capital and its central Tahrir Square has been the epicentre of protests, but cities across the Delta north of Cairo, those far to the south and others to the east have also had streets filled with demonstrators demanding Mubarak go. ... Two-thirds of Egypt's population is under 30. That age group accounts for 90 percent of the jobless. Protesters want wealth from economic liberalisation, promoted by the former cabinet, to spread beyond a business elite linked to the ruling party.
To further complicate the picture, not only is the Egyptian population, but as this blog post points it out, it is also increasingly rural.  Young, rural, and unemployed.  These reports seem to indicate that the rural-urban divide in North Africa is also a class-based divide, a disparity of opportunity, of the presence of diverse businesses and supportive institutions. Sound familiar?

We discussed earlier that even though the rural U.S. is discontent, an increasing amount of that discontent is aimed at policies that have little to do with economic opportunity. Thomas Frank argues in What's the Matter with Kansas? that the formerly progressive population of Midwestern, agrarian and rural states, such as Kansas, were "won" over by the Conservatives, who succeeded in mis-educating the working classes there, and managed to transfer their discontent to unobtainable, culture-war issues.

I tend to agree with this view. Even if one disagrees, however, it is hard not to realize that the economic discontent over the loss of rural opportunity may, one day, fuel a revolt here in our own country. Are we, Americans of the coastal regions, resolved to ignoring our own good people for decades? In other words: are we like Ben Ali?

On the skin of the Earth: dirt.

Dirt! The Movie

Doubtless the most significant benefit to being married to a science teacher is that I can watch all the science documentaries I want without feeling the least bit guilty.  A couple of nights ago, we watched Dirt! The Movie with our four-year-old daughter.  She was paying attention closely, a considerable feat for her age, and became very much distressed that by living in suburbia, consuming imported goods, and driving everywhere we are potentially destroying dirt.

The movie talked about how ages ago the people populating Earth understood that dirt (that is, soil: fertile, sweet-smelling, crumbling dirt) is a treasure to be cherished, as it is the sole source of our nutrition.  But we became increasingly urbanized, industrialized, and removed from the dirt. By being removed from the dirt, we become uninterested in maintaining it.  By moving farther away from the dirt, we need to move things that grow in dirt closer to us, on paved roads, by trucks, on railroads... and we make now things from oil, manufacturing plastic, putting things in plastic, and sometimes even eating plastic... And we are using huge ships to lug containers after containers full of plastic STUFF... Instead of using materials that grow from the dirt, close to our home.

I get it, I do.  And so does my four-year-old.  She wants now wooden toys, cotton stuffed rag dolls. ("Down with the Barbies!" I say, the feminist in me rejoicing. I just can't imagine a rag doll with 36DDD boobs.) And she understands why I scout the shelves at the grocery store for organic produce and products, and why I grow lettuce in my backyard, instead of, say, tulips.  

1491 by Charles C. Mann
But what really struck me in the movie was how we are depleting the dirt, then wonder about the methods to revive it.  Peoples of the agricultural ages had this knowledge: the Mesoamerican milpa was not a monoculture: a milpa was growing maize, squash, and beans together in one plot, so the squash and the beans could climb onto the corn stalk.  It reduced the need for fertilizer, weeding, and provided a complete nutrients package: grains, oil, fiber, protein, all vitamin-loaded.  Jared Diamond has written extensively about the benefits of Mayan and Aztec agriculture, especially compared with the now-prevalent monocultures, which originated in the fertile crescent. (Note here how the once fertile crescent is by now a decidedly unfertile piece of real estate.)  And Charles C. Mann describes in 1491 all the knowledge that was lost when European settlers, "accidentally" interfered with, and destroyed, the Native American systems of agriculture.  By encouraging monocultures, we are endorsing an agriculture that is headed towards disaster.  

And that got me thinking about how the rural-to-urban migration destroys not only the dirt, but the knowledge that is necessary to restore the balance of it. By enacting policies that force rural residents to abandon agriculture as a lifestyle, and adopt an urban, or suburban lifestyle, we are destroying the knowledge base that was passed down generation to generation, for over may thousands of years.  Knowing how to work with the land, not just work on the land is the quintessential problem of agriculture as an art.  And I am worried that this art is going to be lost for future generations.

Dirt! The Movie features roof-gardens as a probable solution to the droughts in Southern California's urban desert.  It also shows us a group of urbanites who settled in up-state New York after scouring the literature for sustainable farming methods, and starting accumulating this knowledge anew.  Before you scoff and discount them as boutique-farmers, consider this: they did what pretty much we all should be doing.  Sustainable growth is a global issue, as population of the planet approaches 7 billion mouths to feed.  And the more urbanites and suburbanites realize how important it is to save the dirt, the faster we get to sustainable living on the planet.  I can already contribute my four-year-old suburbanite to the converted.

Humanity's greatest accomplishment? the city!?!

A new book, "Triumph of the City" by urban economist Edward Glaeser, proclaims just that. The book is just out from Penguin Press, and here's how the publisher is promoting it:

America is an urban nation. More than two thirds of us live on the 3 percent of land that contains our cities. Yet cities get a bad rap: they’re dirty, poor, unhealthy, crime ridden, expensive, environmentally unfriendly… Or are they?

As Edward Glaeser proves in this myth-shattering book, cities are actually the healthiest, greenest, and richest (in cultural and economic terms) places to live. New Yorkers, for instance, live longer than other Americans; heart disease and cancer rates are lower in Gotham than in the nation as a whole. More than half of America’s income is earned in twenty-two metropolitan areas. And city dwellers use, on average, 40 percent less energy than suburbanites.

Glaeser also calls the city our "best hope for the future."

I'm looking forward to reading Glaeser's book. Meanwhile, I can't help wonder how much better rural dwellers would fare vis a vis their urban counterparts if governments actually invested in rural livelihoods--with services and infrastructure--in a more equitable fashion.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

When an entire county goes to pot

I grew up in the Marijuana capital of the world: Humboldt County (“Humboldt”). Humboldt, which is part of the “Emerald Triangle,” is a region in Northern California consisting of three counties (hence the triangle reference): Humboldt, Mendocino, and Trinity. The Emerald Triangle has been world famous for its pot since the early 1980’s. That’s when it became one of the first places in America to grow marijuana that could compete with pot grown in places like Mexico, South America, and the Caribbean Islands.

The Pot industry in Humboldt was began by Hippy refugees who cultivated huge fields of marijuana in the most rural parts of the County. The majority of the county’s families who did not grow pot made their living by working for the thriving timber and fishing industries of the North Coast. However around the early 1990’s both of those legitimate industries had all but dried up. Now the economies in the Emerald Triangle, especially those in Humboldt and Mendocino counties revolve almost completely upon the revenue derived from exporting Marijuana.

It is no longer only the fringe elements of the region who grow enough pot to support their families. Thanks to sophisticated advancements in pot growing techniques it is now possible to grow thousands of dollars worth of pot indoors, and not just in warehouses. Now, much like in the Showtime series “Weeds” even Susie homemaker types can raise her family entirely on the money she makes by converting one of the three bedrooms in her house into an “indoor grow scene.”

Families who’s breadwinners who traditionally worked as loggers, truck drivers, and mill workers often turn to growing pot in order to get by. Much of the younger generation of Humboldt locals have grown up seeing this as one of their only options for making money. Take for example Tony Sasso now 42 and serving a 14-year sentence at the federal penitentiary in Atwater: He'd begun growing pot as a teenager in the mid-1980s, when police helicopters forced growers to hide their plants indoors.

His harvests paid for expensive trucks, skydiving in Maui, boogie-boarding in Chile and a five-bedroom home with a four-car garage. He eventually owned five ranches, including two in Oregon, and says he took in as much as $11 million a year.

"I grew up believing that the only way to make money was to grow marijuana, and I was good at it," said Sasso, Now with the production of marijuana skyrocketing in California thanks to the legalization of medical marijuana, profitability has declined sharply, and cases like Sasso’s are the minority. Now it is the average college student; high school drop-out; the single mother; the video game playing bachelor; and the young couple who all grow pot to make a living. It is conservatively estimated that one in seven homes now contains an indoor grow scene.

In urban parts of Humboldt County for example, electrical use per household has leaped 50% since 1996, when voters approved the state's medical-marijuana initiative, according to a study by the Schatz Energy Research Center at Humboldt State University.

In Arcata and unincorporated areas of the county, average electrical use rose 60% during that time -- while California's overall use remained virtually flat. This trend is only becoming more common. Unfortunately for many however, something will eventually have to give, whether that something is outright legalization; stricter county regulations; or landlords refusing to rent to anyone suspected of looking for a spot for their indoor grow or a combination of all three. What will happen to those who have no plan B? What will the economy of Humboldt County look like in twenty years? It remains to bee seen, but the trend is towards increased regulation, and decreased revenue.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Rural King - where every trip is an adventure

Sometimes the internet is a beautiful thing - today I discovered, the website of Rural King Supply, self-described as "America's Farm and Home Store." Rural King is based in Mattoon, Illinois and has been open for over fifty years. While the flagship remains in Mattoon, there are 46 other stores in seven states.

There are a number of striking things about Rural King. First, the variety of things one can purchase at Rural King rivals Wal-Mart. You can purchase everything from livestock feed to fashion clothing and toys. As the website points out, "you never know what you will find at your local Rural King and that's why every trip is an adventure." My favorite item was the "rural mailbox." I'm not sure what makes it rural, but I'd probably buy it for $12.99.

Second, the store espouses so many of the stereotypes we have studied thus far in class. Rural King is currently soliciting photos for a 2012 Calendar - in case people need inspiration for subject matter, Rural King provides a number of suggestions: "Possible subjects include; [sic] farm scenery, county fair [sic], pets and farm animals, or any unique photos related to rural life, and or [sic] Rural King." Third, Rural King is featured on Wikipedia and has over 7,000 fans on Facebook.

One of my assumptions regarding rurality is a sense of disconnectedness, yet Rural King Supply is a direct challenge to that assumption. Other recent posts on the blog discuss the closing of post offices and lack of broadband internet, but Rural King is banking on the fact that people not only have access to, but are reliant on, such services. Using the internet since 1997 to feature its line of products throughout the country, leveraging social media websites, and capitalizing on niche markets throughout the United States, Rural King has thus far been able to compete alongside the Wal-Marts of the world. I hope they keep it up and open a store in California - I'm in need of a good adventure.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Overlooking Appalachia and devaluing Appalachians

That's a dominant theme of Silas House's op-ed in today's New York Times. In "My Polluted Kentucky Home," House writes of the invisibility of Appalachia, but also what might be considered discrimination against Appalachians.

House recalls various environmental and human disasters in the region, many related to coal-mining and its toxic effects on both people and place. He asserts that most of us know little if anything about these events because "as it does in many other impoverished quarters of America, the news too often avoids covering Appalachia as if it were a no man’s land." Among the examples he gives are these:

When a 3-year-old Virginia boy was crushed to death in his crib after a half-ton boulder was accidentally (and illegally) dislodged by a mining company, it barely made the national news. Many people around here believe the omission reflected that the child lived in a trailer home in the heart of coal country.

In 2000, 306 million gallons of sludge — 30 times more than the volume of oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez — buried parts of Martin County, Ky., as deep as 5 feet. Yet hardly anyone outside the region remembers the disaster, if they ever heard about it.

As part of his argument that "coal is king" and that we have overlooked the human costs of extracting it, House contends that our nation--including the government--places a lower value on Appalachian lives than on the lives of others. House provides some very personal anecdotes, including one only marginally related to the rest of the column:
When I was little, teachers would stand over my desk and tell me that I had to change my accent if I wanted to get ahead in the world. Never mind that I had nearly perfect grammar and spelling.
This, it seems to me, is less about invisibility than it is about cultural imperialism, regional and class-based bias, and metronormativity. Still, it reflects a type of bias only slightly different to that which is at the heart of House's column. I am reminded of a comment by Dee Davis of the Center for Rural Strategies when the phrase "bridge to nowhere" was getting so much airtime in the run up to the 2008 election and following it: "When people think of rural as 'nowwhere,' [they're] saying the people who live in those places aren't worth working with, they're not worth helping." They are suggesting that rural Americans aren't full citizens, a less worthy underclass. This, in turn, reminds me of Angela Harris's discussion of how institutions and practices can "diminish the personhood of certain individuals and groups." (Angela P. Harris, Theorizing Class, Gender, and the Law: Three Approaches, 72 Law and Contemporary Problems 37 (2009)). House's argument, as I understand it, is that Appalachians are such a group.

Read another post here about how environmental disasters in rural America--and the flyover states in particular--tend to get overlooked.

Friday, February 18, 2011

What language do you speak?

It is an inescapable fact that English has become the dominant language in India. After all, in a country that houses call centers for British catalog companies or the IT department for Apple Computer, English has become a necessity to function in the Indian economy. While everyone in India can agree that independence from the British was a victory, the other side of that double edge sword is that the British made such economic expansion possible.

Nonetheless, despite India’s efforts to ensure protection over its 432 national languages through nationalist movements, English has taken over as the de facto national language. The real question to be asked then is what effect does this have upon the rural Indian population, and are they being afforded the opportunities that come with the infiltration of English?

In this New York Times article, a company executive explicitly states, “A villager has more respect for a brand that is written in English.” The real issue, however, is whether the rural villages in India are being left behind in a country where English has become the dominant language.

Several attempts have been made to help empower these areas to ensure that they are on the same level as the urban English speaking regions of India. For example, Carnegie Mellon started a program in 2004, which designs learning games on cell-phones that are modeled after traditional village games that are familiar to rural children. The reason the program used cell-phones are because the device is a good mechanism for out-of-school language learning. Most importantly, the program is tailored to local practices to ensure that the rural culture and rural life is taken into account for children.

Additionally, the Indian government has recently built several English medium schools in several areas across the subcontinent. English medium schools are specifically tailored to teach the curriculum in English to the students. Unfortunately, these schools do cost money, and despite their recent availability to rural areas in Punjab, Maharashtra, and Kerala, these schools may still not provide the necessary English education to rural children.

As the New York Times article discusses, the push to educate the rural areas of India in English is to liberate the poorest segment of the population. The history of India, considering the culture of the Caste system, reinforces the distinction between those who speak English and those who do not. By ensuring that all Indians attain the ability to speak English, the result most likely would be empowerment – not only economically, but also culturally and politically.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

When the digital divide aligns with the rural-urban axis

A story in today's New York Times, dateline Coffeeville, Alabama, population 563, reports on the relative lack of progress in getting broadband to rural places like Coffeeville and surrounding nonmetropolitan Clarke County. The story focuses on Clarke County in relation to the Obama Administration's effort to extend broadband into under-served areas.

Just about half of Clarke County residents have access to highspeed internet, while the figure for rural residents nationwide is 60%, still about 10% less than that enjoyed by urban populations. The story includes some interesting anecdotes about life for Clarke County residents who don't have broadband.

“Ninety-five percent of the people in this county who want public water can have it, but people can’t even talk to each other around here,” said Sharon Jones, 60, who owns a small logging company with her husband and lives just outside Coffeeville.

It took her three days to try to arrange a meeting with the governor 150 miles away in Montgomery because such inquiries cannot be made over the phone and she had to drive 45 minutes to her daughter’s house to use e-mail.

Among the things that many Clarke County residents cannot do online are errands and opportunities that many of us (especially in metropolitan areas) now take for granted: engage in e-commerce, utilize Facebook, pay bills, visits doctors, and further our educations. The story also quotes an official at the Center for Rural Affairs analogizing rural broadband to rural electrification, in which the federal government invested heavily nearly a century ago. He characterizes both as "critical" utilities.


Clarke County has a population of 26,042 (of whom about 43% are African American and about 55% are white) and a poverty rate just over 20%. See a full demographic and economic profile here.

Immigration detention and the rural

Many immigrants who have been placed in removal proceedings in the U.S. the past few years have been asking themselves the same question: why was I sent to a detention facility in the middle of nowhere?

In California, for example, immigrants who live all over the state, including large, metropolitan areas such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, have been increasingly sent to a detention center in Eloy, Arizona, population 10,855, where they are unlikely to have any family members or contacts. Immigration attorneys and other experts have wondered whether this is merely a problem of overcrowding in urban detention facilities, or whether it is a tactic by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to isolate immigrants pending their removal proceedings, perhaps in hopes they will choose to return to their countries of origin instead of fighting deportation.

In 2009, Human Rights Watch released a report entitled "Locked Up Far Away: The Transfer of Immigrants to Remote Detention Centers in the United States," which found that immigrants all over the country were often taken, without notice, from detention centers in the cities they lived in and transported to detention centers in remote areas of states such as Texas, California, and Louisiana. The report also found that immigrants in these rural facilities were less likely to fight their deportation cases and, when they did proceed in immigration court, they were so far away from their lawyers, evidence, and witnesses that "their ability to defend themselves in deportation proceedings [was] severely curtailed."

Furthermore, according to a recent Constitution Project report, there have been many complaints about ICE’s oversight of these facilities, including its "failure to ensure adequate medical care, provide safe living conditions, address overcrowding, and provide education and recreation to detained children." The report suggests that because of the relative lack of oversight of detention conditions in rural areas, the living conditions in remote facilities are sub-standard, and often deplorable.

In light of these findings, and the fact that on any given day there are typically over 300,000 people in detention for immigration-related issues, over 6,000 of whom are children, the continued use of remote facilities to detain immigrants is cause for concern. Whether or not detaining immigrants in rural detention centers was an intentional tactic by ICE to decrease its caseload and increase deportations, reports show that rural detention centers lead to poorer access to counsel for immigrants, and increase the physical and psychological stresses of detention in general.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Moving beyond doctors, and creative loan repayment programs: Alleviating medical and legal shortages in rural areas

Maybe doctors and other health professionals aren't necessary to solve health care deficiencies in rural communities. This is what Tina Rosenberg suggests in a recent New York Times opinion piece, "Villages Without Doctors," part of a series of columns focusing on global and local health care challenges and possible solutions. With certified nurses and doctors gravitating towards work in the cities, villages are embracing alternate ways to care for their communities.

The idea that local residents without formal medical training can substitute for doctors and nurses is gaining hold in the districts of Gadchiroli and Jamkhed in the state of Maharashtra, India. Here, a couple of programs, SEARCH and the Comprehensive Rural Health Project, are training community members to take care of their villages' health. Training seems to focus primarily on women's health -- delivering babies, conducting follow-up visits, educating new mothers about breast feeding and how to treat mild illnesses. The model has proven to be successful, with lower rates of infant mortality, higher birth weights and an overall improvement in health. A similar government-run program in Pakistan is training "lady health workers," as Pakistan calls them, to go into rural areas and care for women before, during and after birth. A recent study by the Aga Khan University in Karachi, shows that the health and education program is helping to save the lives of newborns.

Shifting focus to the United States, similar reasons lead to a shortage of doctors in rural communities, namely the movement of medical professional to urban settings. There is also the additional factor of a lack of health care for many Americans, which exacerbates the situation. While there doesn't seem to be a movement to veer from professionally trained doctors and nurses, there are programs focused on this problem. Some states in the U.S. are tackling the shortage of doctors by using loan repayment assistance to entice recent medical school graduates to work in rural communities. A Minnesota program, for example, offers up to $100,000 in loan forgiveness to students who work in a designated rural area.

Bringing the discussion to the legal field, I thought about loan repayment assistance programs (LRAPs) for attorneys. Many young attorneys have just as much, if not more debt than new doctors, and often face a job market with less likelihood of earning a substantial paycheck to help pay off that debt. This is especially true for public interest attorneys who often work for free throughout school and face fierce competition to secure a job before taking the Bar Exam. While there are school-specific LRAP programs, and federal government programs, I am not aware of programs like those in the medical field that target rural communities specifically. This said, perhaps a similar program be a good way to help alleviate the rural-lawyer shortage that some states face, while also providing law students with more options to climb out of debt. As far as training non-lawyers to handle legal disputes, I suppose that is another option as well.

Back to basics

When I think of rural landscapes, images of bucolic farms with happy animals often come to mind. Cows grazing on lush fields of green grass, chickens dust-bathing in the shadow of a barn, pigs rooting around in dark soil- pleasant enough to make even the most cosmopolitan of us yearn for the countryside. But does the idealization match reality?

Modern farming entails the use of industrial techniques to increase efficiency, a process pejoratively referred to as "factory farming." Estimates of how much of our animal products come from factory farms vary, but it is unquestionably a significant amount. The specific practices used vary depending on the animal. For example, egg-laying hens are housed in cages "about the size of an open newspaper, six or seven to a cage." Dairy cows are commonly injected with hormones such as rBGH that increase milk production, and beef cattle are slaughtered as quickly as possible, which often leads to violations of USDA regulations and increased animal suffering. More animals in smaller spaces, bred to grow or produce as much as they can, killed and brought to market as quickly as possible- it's all about minimizing costs.

But the factory farming model of efficiency doesn't take all the relevant costs into account. The price paid by the animals is clearly high, but the surrounding communities also bear a heavy burden. Factory farms pose a danger to drinking water, air quality, and our physical and mental health. Even producers of "organic" products sometimes use labor practices that are less than fair.

Beyond all the more quantifiable costs, I think factory farming has also severed the cultural connection to our food sources. Animal products today are often seen as just another item at the grocery store, without any real appreciation of where they came from. Recent pop culture examples of people bridging the gap between the farm and their dinner table, such as this New York Times article about killing your own Thanksgiving turkey, or the show "Kill It, Cook It, Eat It" on Current TV, highlight just how far removed we are from the food we eat.

Although rurality and farming are not synonymous, farming is quintessentially a rural activity. When politicians and pundits mention the importance of the "heartland," they are trading on the connection between rural places and food production, which is the most basic human activity. Ideally, farming encompasses values that are ironically even more important in the high-technology driven 21st century than ever before: conservation, sustainability, respect, and community. Factory farming however, is a complete rejection of these values in the name of efficiency.

If we can purchase food without having to give a thought to the animal that was killed, the resources expended, and the farmers and packers who brought it to the supermarket, we certainly won't think about the cultural costs either. Reconnecting with our food sources is not just a yuppie fad, it facilitates honest reflection on modern farming practices and the loss of its core values. If more consumers knew the path that their hamburger patty, egg, or gallon of milk traveled to reach their refrigerator, maybe they would be more concerned about not only the environment and the animals, but the loss of what makes farming so special. I believe our respect for rural life in general would increase as a result.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

For better or worse, Mubarak's Egypt resisted the urban juggernaut

This story from the New York Times reports that Egypt is the only "large country to have become less urban" during the past three decades. The headline is "For Egypt, a Fresh Start, with Cities." An excerpt follows:

When Hosni Mubarak took power in 1981, Egypt was indeed more urban than the rest of the world. About 44 percent of its population lived in cities. In East Asia, by comparison, only 26 percent of people lived in cities.

Since then, the cities of Asia have expanded rapidly, drawing in millions of peasant farmers looking for a better life — and, more often than not, finding it.
Journalist David Leonhardt informs us that while nearly half of East Asians live in cities, only 43% of Egyptians do.

More interesting than these statistics is Leonhardt's discussion of the apparent benefits of urbanization--especially in the developing world--because cities "make us smarter" and are--according to those he quotes--important engines for economic growth. Read more here.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Post Offices as community lifelines

In response to Marta's observations concerning how catalog shopping can benefit rural communities, I was shocked to see an article written today in USA Today concerning the loss of post offices in rural communities due, in large part, to advancements made in the digital age, particularly the widespread use of the internet to purchase postage.
The prospect of losing a post office is alarming people in small towns everywhere. The post office gives area residents a reason to come to town — and patronize other businesses there — and provides a service they count on and believe their government owes them.

"Rural life has taken quite a beating, and losing the post office would probably be the nail in the coffin," says Jack Hutchinson, chairman of the Iroquois Farmers State Bank based here.

He'd rather pay more for postage or do without Saturday delivery than lose the red brick post office on Main Street, where the bank drops off or picks up 40 or 50 pieces of mail daily. Here and in many small towns, there is no door-to-door delivery.
It is true that while many of us might gripe about long lines at post offices, the occasional damaged package, or increased postage fees, most people living in urban America take for granted that a post office is within the town limits of the place we live. Door-to-door postal service makes it easier for us to forget that post offices can be places that carry much more significance to people in places like Iroquois, Illinois [Population: 207], the town featured in the article mentioned above.

Without a central meeting place, or door-to-door delivery service, post offices become much more of a hub in rural communities than any other kind of place. While people anywhere differ in culture, religion, or class, everyone in American society needs a postal address. Without a postal address, for example, one cannot receive electricity, mortgage, or telephone bills--which are essential to living in adequate housing conditions. And although social clubs--like Elks and Kiwanis-- or churches provide a strong cultural center to many rural communities, they are far from universally attended or accepting of all people.
Susan Allen, 51, is postmaster in Woodland, Ill., population 301. She slides mail into 150 boxes, listens as patrons talk about their problems, tragedies and joys, weighs the occasional infant on her mail scale and stocks a mailbox-shaped dish with candy.
Generally, we need to check our mail at least several times a week. Without a post office in one's community, one must resort to traveling farther and farther away in order to have access to this necessary element. Given difficulties faced by rural people in obtaining affordable, convenient transportation, the loss of a post office within a community becomes much more of a real tragedy than even most reading about it in USA Today can imagine.

Comments on the article magnify the issue even more. In this economy, people are much more concerned with the bottom line than about rural communities' wellbeing. Commenter jreppoh, for example, writes
We have a small post office and I live close enought[(sic)] to it to know how not very busy they are. Point is it has been in this small town for many years so why did the postal service build another one 4 miles into the very very small town next to ours that never had one. ... Put the money into giving more people the internet,that is a win win. ...
Will bringing broadband internet into rural communities solve the USPS funding disparities while still providing adequate postal service? Or will the loss of a community hub further break down rural communities into places where the poor get poorer and the rich get richer?

Rural hunger in Yolo County

These are trying economic times everywhere, including right here in our own backyard. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for Yolo County stood at 12.4% for the period November 2009 to December 2010. To put this in perspective, the current national unemployment rate is estimated to be 9.0%. Further, while Yolo County does contain significant urban centers like West Sacramento, Davis, and Woodland, a considerable proportion of the county’s population lives in rural communities like Esparto and the town of Yolo.

I was therefore curious about the steps being taken to meet the needs of our struggling rural neighbors. As it happens, my wife, Frances, is the director of programs at the Food Bank of Yolo County, so I decided that hunger was the logical issue on which to focus my inquiry. While my relationship with Frances means that I have a certain familiarity with this issue simply through osmosis, the bulk of this blog is the product of a more detailed “interview” I had with her regarding the Food Bank’s outreach to rural populations.

I should begin with a general note about the nature of food banking. While Frances’ organization occasionally provides food directly to the people who need it, its principal function is as a clearinghouse – a nexus between donators and the local agencies that conduct the vast majority of food distribution (i.e. food pantries, soup kitchens, etc). The problem for rural communities is that these local agencies are overwhelmingly located in urban centers. For the 14.2% of rural households who qualify as food insecure, then, any efforts at obtaining assistance are hampered by the spatial issues we’ve discussed in class. When you’re already in a position where you have to choose between food on your table or gasoline in your car, a fifteen or twenty mile drive to your nearest food pantry can be prohibitive. This is to say nothing about the travel limits for people who don’t even own a car.

One response to this problem is the Food Bank’s Rural Food Delivery program. Under this program, the Food Bank begins by packing individual bags or boxes with approximately twenty-five pounds of food each. Volunteers then set up temporary distribution sites in rural communities, usually at a church, community center, or fire department. The response to this program has been considerable, with the Food Bank averaging 700 bags/boxes per distribution.

But has the lagging economy affected the Food Bank’s ability to conduct these programs? In other words, with charitable donations declining in general as people worry about saving more of their money, does the campaign against hunger find itself with fewer resources to combat a swelling enemy? Thankfully, the answer is no. First, the Food Bank receives no state funding, so California’s budget crisis has had no real effect. Further, while food donations have declined over the last five years, and demand for services is up, the Food Bank has actually enjoyed an increase in financial donations as a result of the Great Recession.

This certainly does not mean that the Food Bank is not in need of constant and continued support, but perhaps it does mean something about the issue of hunger. As Frances mentioned during our discussion, it’s at the very base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, so maybe it has a particular resonance during difficult times. If people are going to donate, then, they’re more likely to focus on hunger than, say, their local symphony. For the unemployed and hungry in our community, this is at least something.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Law and Order in the Ozarks (Part LXXV): Catching up

It's been a very long time since I did a "law and order" post, and lots of news has accumulated while I've been grading exams, meeting manuscript deadlines, and launching a new semester of my Law and Rural Livelihoods course. Sadly, lots of crime news has accumulated, so I'll merely attempt to summarize:

Dec. 15, 2010: A 22-year-old man was sentenced to 10 years in prison after being found guilty of breaking into the Jasper Pharmacy and a storage building in March. He took 120 bottles of medication valued at almost $8,000, as well as several flat-screen computer monitors. The news report does not indicate what type of drugs he took. I wonder if they included oxycodone.

A 28-year-old woman, Constance Stephens, was sentenced to two years in prison for her mistreatment of a four-year-old boy. Stephens was apparently keeping the boy temporarily when the events occurred.

January 5, 2011: Arkansas Game & Fish Commission officers arrested two persons for elk and deer season violations. Linda Morgan of Fairview and Lewis Weeks of Marble Falls were arrested after officers located the carcasses of an elk and four deer on Weeks's property. Total bond for Weeks was set at $8,130. He was charged with "elk hunting violation, no hunting license, four counts of failure to tag deer, possession of a controlled substance, possession of an instrument of a crime, and driving on a suspended license" as well a "raptor violation" and "dog deer prohibitions." (Officers found a dead hawk in an outbuilding). Morgan, who was charged with aiding and abetting in a violation and for hunting without a license, had bond set at $500.

January 12, 2011: Billy W. Victory, age 36, was found guilty of non-support, a Class C felony, and ordered to pay restitution of nearly $24,0000. Payments of $100/month must be made until the obligation is satisfied. The defendant was ordered to pay $368 cash in child support before he could be released.

Judge Gordon Webb dropped drug charges against 56-year-old Jolene Stanbrough, due to insufficient evidence to support the prosecution. No details of the lack of evidence are provided, but Stanbrough had allegedly possessed three bags of methamphetamine weighting 4.5 ounces, along with .5 ounces of marijuana, a glass smoking pipe, and digital scales.

January 19, 2011: The sheriff arrested a 30-year-old Conway man for possession of child pornography on his computer. Apparently, the man had been engaged to a Newton County woman who had discovered the pornography The man is being held in the Boone County jail.

Josh Blanton, 23, was arrested for alleged theft of a vehicle and fleeing while law officers were in hot pursuit of him in the stole vehicle.

Jackie Len Campbell, 48 of Vendor, was scheduled for a January trial on charges of capital murder in the death of Alice Lloyd in June, 2010. The public defender has raised "mental disease or defect" as a defense, so the proceedings were stayed until the defendant can be evaluated. The original entry about the death is here.

Cameron Scott Bolin, 46, pleaded no contest to criminal charges stemming from an altercation at a Mt. Judea residence in October. 2009. Interestingly, the altercation took place the residence of David and Rhonda Middleton, of local crime family fame. Bolin allegedly fired a pistol at the tires of two vehicles in the front yard at the Middleton home. Later that same day, Bolin allegedly made a forced entry into the Middleton home and threatened the Middletons' daughter, Tracy Waits, with his pistol. Bolin was sentenced to three years probation in the plea deal. In addition, he must pay a $2,500 in fines, along with $595 in court costs and fees. Finally, he must make $100 in restitution to the Middletons. Finally, he must have no direct or indirect contact with the Middletons or their children.

February 9, 2011: A 41-year-old man, Jerrimie Brown, who was initially charged with conspiracy to deliver methamphetamine entered a no contest plea to lesser charges and was sentenced to a year on probation. Brown was also fined $500, assessed $150 in court costs, and $70 in fees. He was ordered to pay $720 in restitution. The charges stem from Brown's agreement to sell meth to a confidential informer. That confidential informer was accompanied by David and Rhonda Middleton (see January 19 entry above and many prior entries, such as this one and this one),who purchased the meth from Brown in neighboring Carroll County. The Middletons then returned to Newton County where they sold the meth. According to the affidavit, "Brown participated by directing David Middleton on how to 'deal with the Hispanics.'" This is very interesting in that Carroll County has a significant Latino/a population (14.4%, a phenomenon I wrote about in Latina/os, Locality and Law in the Rural South). But, it sounds as if Brown was Middletons' Carroll County supplier, and if the Middletons were to supply Newton County, they don't need much knowledge of Hispanics because few (less than 1%, just 38) are there.

"Human Rights and Development for India's Rural Remnant : A Capabilities-Based Assessment"

That's the title of my latest law review article, which will be published by the UC Davis Law Review in the next few weeks. The piece was written for a symposium on "The Asian Century?", and in it I use the capabilities framework developed by Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen to assess India's rural development efforts. The data I marshal for my analysis illustrate the dramatic inequality gap across the rural-urban axis, with special attention to water and sanitation infrastructure, health, and education. I also consider the efforts of the Government of India (along with the many states in its federal system) to foster economic development, including a look at its agriculture policies.

That brings me to this article in today's New York Times "Galloping Growth, and Hunger" by Vikas Bajaj. In it, as in many other recent NYT stories with datelines from rural India, Bajaj focuses on the rural sector--while contrasting it with the nation's enormous urban growth. This metrocentric growth is reflected in a national growth rate of nearly 9 percent annually, even as those in rural areas struggle not only with poverty--but with hunger. Here's an excerpt:

Agriculture employs more than half the population, but it accounts for only 15 percent of the economy — and it has grown an average of only about 3 percent in recent years.

Critics say Indian policy makers have failed to follow up on the country’s investments in agricultural technology of the 1960s and ’70s, as they focused on more glamorous, urban industries like information technology, financial services and construction.

* * *

Yet even as India’s farming still depends on manual labor and the age-old vicissitudes of nature, demand for food has continued to rise — because of a growing population and rising incomes, especially in the middle and upper classes.

Bajaj notes that food prices in India are rising more quickly than in any other major economy, which has left the nation importing greater supplies of staples such as beans, lentils and cooking oil. This sad fact supports the argument I advance in my article--that India's government must attend to the current state of grossly uneven development, and it must do so in a way that considers the sustainability of rural development efforts in both the agricultural and non-agricultural sectors.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Catalogs and affordable public transportation

Let me be honest here: I grew up in a big city in Hungary, under the Communist regime, and was, therefore, puzzled by the idea of catalog shopping: Why on earth would I want to buy jeans and shoes from a catalog? Without trying them on? Really? I understand I could return them if they didn't fit, but it still sounded like a weird phenomenon.

But after travelling a bit around California, I must confess, I am reformed. Now I see the immense impact of the possibility of ordering goods to be delivered by the U.S. Postal Service (a government agency that beats all the Communist "planned economy" propaganda by the almost impeccable performance of its duties).  I can now understand how important this lifeline to mainstream urban shopping establishments could serve in a country as vast as the United States.

My epiphany regarding the catalog phenomenon stems from my growing understanding of the importance of spatial context: in the U.S. rural people live in villages or towns much farther away from each other than those in Europe. Also, in Europe, the state subsidizes public transportation, but not the price of gasoline for individual transportation. And thus, in Europe, most women (because, let's face it, women still do most of the shopping) take the bus or train to the nearest town center to shop. In the U.S., one has to either drive her own car (expensive, cumbersome, and very tiring) or shop from catalogs. (Well, now we have the chance to shop online where ever we live, yet online shopping is, substantially, a form of catalog shopping.)

This cautionary tale of my reformation vis-a-vis mail-order catalogs is merely an illustration of what we may term spatial bias (just don't tell it to my economist and med-student friends). I was so enthralled by the urban shopping paradigm, and the type of rural environment present in Europe, that I became myopic in my inability to understand the effect of the American landscape on the importance of direct marketing.  Legal professionals, like myself, have to examine their own vision, their own perception of reality, and check their understanding of how the world works often for similar biases.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Are American veterans a natural fit to be the new American farmers?

As often noted by rural sociologists, depictions of the rural often include allusions to farming. Farming, in turn, is often characterized by both backbreaking labor and pastoral serenity. A recent interest among wealthy Americans in urban farming, Community-Supported Agriculture, organic produce, and the like can be seen throughout the United States. Just this week the Obama administration released new dietary guidelines advocating such things. In addition to the upper class's interest in farming, new programs to draw former Marines and Army reservists back to the land are popping up all across the United States in an effort to transition returning veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq into civilian life.

These programs seem to have a two-fold purpose: first, they seek to fill a growing need in the nation's agricultural sector, and second, they hope to provide veterans with stable careers upon their re-entry. As an attempt to woo veterans, these programs are drawing on deeply-held beliefs about agriculture and rurality. Moreover, they are also analogizing life in the military to life on the farm.

Such programs focus on the fact that the farming population is aging out. The Agriculture Department estimates that 50% of today's farming population will retire in the next ten years. As Michael O'Gorman of the nonprofit Farmer-Veteran Coalition points out, "there are eight times as many farmers over age 65 as under." And since 45 percent of the military comes from rural communities (according to the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire), these programs ask, who better to fill these jobs than returning vets who are most likely from rural areas (read: farms) and who have already demonstrated both a sense of duty and an ability to do the jobs no one else wants? Of course, we know that "rural" doesn't equal "agriculture," nonetheless people like the dean of the University of Nebraska's College of Technical Agriculture believe that "rural vets have this wonderful knowledge base about agriculture."

It is also about more than knowledge, it's about a willingness to sacrifice for one's country. Colin Archipley, a decorated Marine who served three tours in Iraq and now runs a "boot camp" at his farm through Camp Pendleton's transition assistance program in Southern California, likens farmers to soldiers because both "are the guys who get dirty, do the work, and are generally underappreciated." A staff member of the transition assistance program believes that veterans are uniquely suited for farm work because other young people haven't "had as much responsibility [whereas veterans] have been tasked with making life-and-death decisions."

Likewise, a new program for veterans at the University of Nebraska's College of Technical Agriculture, dubbed "Combat Boots to Cowboy Boots," operates on the premise that veterans will commit to the lifestyle, whereas "young people with college degrees and trust funds [. . .] won't be farming five years from now [even though] farming has become the cause du jour." O'Gorman agrees: "the military is not for the faint of heart, and farming isn't either." Such statements advocate the notion that veterans have a stronger sense of duty than non-veterans and that the country should continue to exploit that sense of duty to fill vacancies in farm jobs.

Are we really telling veterans "hey, no one else wants these jobs so you should take them"? Probably not. Instead, these programs are not only marketing the fact that soldier skills are transferable to farming, but that farming is uniquely therapeutic for former soldiers. One veteran believes that being outside has provided a source of "comfort" and that agriculture, unlike the military, "allows you to become a creator rather than a destroyer." Another soldier-turned-farmer in Central Florida argues the farm more naturally integrates physical therapy and cognitive therapy: "squeezing a ball gets monotonous and you don't get the mist from the sprinklers or a cool breeze" in a psychologist's or physical therapist's office. A former sergeant now running a Community-Supported Agriculture Farm in Northern California pointed out that the military teaches one how to face death, but in farming "there is life all around."

Whether these veterans stick with farming as a profession or instead use the programs as a stepping stone to other non-agricultural pursuits remains to be seen. What is clear is that the country's interest in returning to its agricultural roots seems to cut across class lines.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Rural Haiti robbed of opportunity to direct its future

High in the mountains above Saint Marc, in a small Haitian community, I sat listening to a budding ecologist solicit socio-economic information from a Haitian farmer who slumped with his wife and five or six kids against the wall of a tilting mud hut. “Kombien bet u genyen?” asked the researcher. (Kreyol for, “how many animals do you own?”) “Pa gen bet – tut bet te morie”, he responded, indicating that all of his animals died shortly after purchase. The young affluent scientist hailing from the Haitian capital of Port au Prince repressed a snigger. Looking around I noted two scrawny chickens scratching in the earth next to the house. On the way up the goat path to the respondents dwelling, I recollected seeing a grown bull tied just to the side of what could only be the family’s maize plot. Hmmm…

Most respondents indicated that their animals died recently. The frustrated surveyors explained that people assumed the questionnaires assessed need for aid programs and the mountain farmers wanted to appear as needy as possible. Looking around, I couldn’t blame them. Each child’s hair grew red at the tips indicating a prolonged period of malnutrition. The parent’s skin sagged around their cheek bones making them appear in their 60s though probably not much over 45. Though admittedly, these people suffered extreme poverty, the mass deception seemed to respond deeper to the character of service in the mountains – service provided without reliable systems or adequate direction from the recipients. In this context, the small lies promulgated by respondents amounted to the only way farmers could direct to outside resources.

As Robert Maguire of USIP explains, Rural Haiti receives none of the regular government services we take for granted. Rural residents have few government roads, water systems, and schools; no electricity, functioning courts, or police. In the government's place, a plethora of international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) provide a hodge-podge of services - a smattering of schools, roads, wells and other infrastructure each built to different standards with different materials. This reality has two effects: first, because there is no functioning representational government, Haitians don’t choose the direction of the majority of resources funneled through NGOs; second, because NGO’s often loose funding due to short and insecure funding cycles, project dry up leaving no maintenance system and in many cases infrastructure that requires prohibitively expensive parts from oversees.

Given this reality, it is easy to imagine how little faith rural Haitians place in service provision and outsiders. People live and die on the fruits of their own labor with aid providing intermittent favors to be taken advantage of when possible. In fact, many Haitians have developed a visible sense of apathy toward to government, intervening NGOs and anyone associated with either.

International aid groups and NGOS, large foreign donor government agencies like USAID, and the central government of Haiti (GOH) acknowledge problems of sustainability and lack of adequate local representation. In the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness (2005) and Accra Agenda for Action (2008) several donor governments agreed to ensure that “official development aid” (ODA) contribute to development with local "ownership." Large NGOs, the GOH, and donor governments all promised to focus on development of sustainable systems and services with a participational approach” during the March 2010 Haiti donors’ conference. At that time, donors pledged billions to rebuild Haiti after the devastating January 2010 earthquake. Despite these promises, Haitian realized little progress in ability to direct their own lives. Instead, donors, the GOH and NGOs alike seem to be repeating past mistakes, delivering short term assistance without respect for farmers ability to define their own futures.