Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Opening Day of UN's Commission on the Status of Women: Focus on rural women

The following post was written by Lauren McIntosh, a third-year law student at Pace University. Lauren and I are two of the observers designated by the American Society of International Law to attend the United Nation's 56th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women. Rural women are a focus of the 56th Session, which means that agriculture is, too.

Monday marked the beginning of the 56th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW56) at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City. This year’s priority theme is the empowerment of rural women and their role in poverty and hunger eradication, development, and other current challenges. This theme seems more relevant than ever now that the world’s population has exceeded 7 billion (expected to reach 9 billion by the year 2050), with rural women making up one-fourth of the population.
The Honorable Marjon V. Kamara of Liberia, the Chair of CSW56, opened the session in the General Assembly Hall with the delegates from the Member States of the United Nations and representatives and observers from national, regional, and local organizations in attendance. During her opening statement, Kamara emphasized that much normative work on gender equality remains to be done in the political realm at the international level, and actual implementation at the national level is also a major task. This includes bridging the gap between the promises made at the international level and their implementation at the national level; thus, the real work begins after CSW56 when the delegates return to their home countries. Furthermore, she stated that the goal of gender equality is not a task to be undertaken only by women, but it is the responsibility of society as a whole to work towards achieving this goal.
We also had the honor of hearing from Michelle Bachelet, the first Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of U.N. Women and the former President of Chile (photo above). She stressed that the session’s priority theme is pressing as it includes issues relating to human rights, equality, and justice for a quarter of the world’s population; furthermore, empowering rural women is not just good for women, but advances the interests of all members of society. Although they are often overlooked, rural women are actually on the front lines of many pressing global issues, such as climate change and its effects on agriculture. The Arab Spring and other such movements have also shown us that we must open up the political process to all members of society, especially rural women. Strides have been made, and more women now work and participate in politics at the international, national, and local level, but this is not enough, as rural women also need economic independence. In this realm, Bachelet noted, rural women have seen less progress. For example, women farmers receive only five percent of agricultural extension services. She also quoted a rural woman who expressed another challenge:
When the land is in my husband’s name, I’m only a worker. When it is in my name, I have some position in society.
One especially interesting point raised by Bachelet was the important role a cell phone can play in the life of a rural woman, as it is a means to acquire services and carry out business. A recent study showed that 41 percent of women reported an increase in income and professional opportunities because of their cell phones. Ultimately, in order to achieve economic independence, rural women need better access to basic infrastructure and technology. Bachelet concluded by stating:
I know that equality is possible. It will take time. It will take our concerted and collective effort. But I am convinced that if we put our energies into empowering women and advancing gender equality, we will create a new and better future.
As both Kamara and Bachelet emphasized in launching CSW56, much work lies ahead. After this encouraging start, the delegations, observers, and attendees moved on to smaller group discussions, roundtables, and panels to get on with that important work.

Cross posted to Agricultural Law and IntLawGrrls.

My publications about CEDAW's Article 14, which is entirely about the rights of rural women, are here, here, and here.

U.S. District Judge rejects organic farmers' suit against Monsanto

U.S. District Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald, Southern District of New York, last week dismissed a lawsuit that a group of organic farmers, seed companies and food safety groups had filed in March, 2011, against agribusiness giant Monsanto Corporation. The plaintiffs acted preemptively, essentially seeking protection against lawsuits by Monsanto should the corporation sue for patent infringement based on the anticipated but unintended (and, indeed, undesirable) presence of genetically modified crops among their yields. The plaintiffs sought a ruling that that Monsanto's patent were invalid because they are "injurious." The plaintiffs claimed that Monsanto's practice was to "aggressively assert[]" patent claims against U.S. farmers. They plaintiffs alleged that Monsanto engages in "baseless litigation to intimidate farmers and restrict competition with its transgenic seed."

Buchwald rejected these arguments, writing:

There is no evidence that plaintiffs are infringing defendants' patents, nor have plaintiffs suggested when, if ever, such infringement will occur.

Indeed, Judge Buchwald found the plaintiffs' claims "unsubstantiated ... given that not one single plaintiff claims to have been so threatened." Judge Buchwald also found that the plaintiffs had "overstate[d] the magnitude of [the defendant's] patent enforcement." Monsanto brings an average of 13 patent-enforcement lawsuits each year. Judge Buchwald found this "hardly significant when compared to he number of farms in the United States, approximately two million."

In addition to fearing patent infringement claims by Monsanto, the organic farmers and other plaintiffs note that genetically modified organism (GMO) material also lowers the value of their product. Because of unavoidable cross-pollination, most organic corn in the U.S. contains between half a percent and two percent GMOs. Read more here.

The case is Organic Seed Growers & Trade Association v. Monsanto Co., 11-02163, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).

Read NPR's coverage of the matter here. The Sacramento Bee ran this Monsanto Press Release.

Cross-posted to Agricultural Law.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Spatial isolation, spatial disparities in American Indian justice

"Higher Crime, Fewer Charges on Indian Land" is the headline for Timothy Williams's recent story in the New York Times. Here's the lede:
Indian reservations across the United States have grappled for years with chronic rates of crime higher than all but a handful of the nation's most violent crimes. But the Justice Department, which is responsible for prosecuting the most serious crimes on reservations, file charges in only about half of Indian country murder investigations and turns down nearly two-thirds of sexual assault cases, according to federal data.
Under federal law, tribal courts have the authority to prosecute tribal members for crimes committed on reservations, but cannot sentence those convicted to more than three years in prison. As a result, tribes usually seek federal prosecution for serious crimes.
Indeed, some tribal members have sued the federal government for deciding not to prosecute--and for what they allege is shoddy police work.

One part of the story that intrigued me was an explanation that one former tribal judge offered for the federal government's efficacy and engagement. He focused on literal material spatiality, noting that "federal prosecutors typically live, work and try cases hundreds of miles from Indian country."

It sounds a little bit like "out of sight, out of mind." But, as Williams notes, there is also the challenge of limited resources--and competition for which cases are going to garner them.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Getting into farming (and staying there)

That's the topic of several recent stories out of California.

A few days ago, the San Francisco Chronicle ran this front-page story about the diminished profitability of cattle ranching, particularly in California where land prices are so high. The story features Tim Koopman of Sunol. It's no wonder his land is so pricey: Sunol is an unincorporated Census Designated Place... happens to be in metropolitan Alameda County, home to City of Oakland and part of the Bay Area bubble. Koopman is the first of four generations of ranchers in his family to work off the ranch. His two sons also ranch--and they also earn their livings with careers off the ranch.
[A] number of American cattle families are throwing in their branding irons, either selling off their land or planting crops. While the price of beef is at record highs, the cost of doing business for some is impossible.

The shrinking beef supply is affecting consumers, who on average paid 10 percent more per pound for meat in 2011 than they did the year before, said Steve Kay, editor and publisher of Cattle Buyers Weekly, a trade publication based in Petaluma."
Kay added that consumer prices could rise another 10% in 2012. Still, demand has remained strong, with 14% of the U.S. beef supply exported in 2011.
Ranchers, agricultural experts and theUSDA cite a number of reasons for the beef decline: loss of grazing land to development or other farming purposes, the high cost of feed and energy and the fact that the average age of a rancher has crept up to 59 and their children don't necessarily want to take the reins.
Development of farm land, the resulting high cost of land, and aging farmers are also themes of this January story from the Sacramento Bee. It tells of a match-making scheme--matching, that is, farmers looking for land with plots to be farmed. Here's an excerpt from Carlos Alcala's story:
Putting farmers onto underused land was once a matter of creating homesteads.

Now it has entered the computer age, with nonprofits using the Internet to match farmland with growers.
[M]any landowners are hoping to preserve the land for agriculture, not development, and want to help young farmers--not large agribusiness.

It led to a dating service of sorts for farms.
Farm Link has online listings of about 80 land opportunities in the Central Valley and connections to around 800 would-be farmers.

Land opportunities can be as small as half-acre or as big as 800 acres.

There is an urban parcel in West Sacramento that the owner wanted productive, and orchard acreage in Apple Hill looking for someone new to take it over.
And that takes us to this story, which ran in the Bee a few days earlier. It focuses on a well-known Sacramento-area organic farm, Good Hummus, in neighboring Yolo County. Jeff and Annie Main, who own Good Hummus, are 61 and 59 years of age, respectively, and their children are pursing other careers. The Mains know they could sell their 20-acre farm for more than it's worth for agricultural purposes, but they don't want it to be developed. They specifically want it to be farmed. Edwin Ortiz's story explains the solution being pursued to keep the land for farming:
Enter the Davis and Sacramento natural food cooperates with "One Farm at a Time" solution.

Both stores are helping to raise funds to purchase an easement, through the oversight of the Yolo Land Trust, that would stipulate the Mains' property would remain a farm, in perpetuity. Such efforts are not common in California, since most easements demand only that land remains open space.

The goal is to raise between $300,000 and $400,000 from 40,000 customers who shop both stores, said Paul Cultera, general manager of the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-Op.

"This is a test model ... The idea is to do this and then move onto the next farm," Cultera said.
I am heartened to know of these grassroots efforts to save California farm land and to get and keep Californians farming. Only time will tell whether they succeed.

Cross-posted to Agricultural Law.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Upper Big Branch mine manager charged with conspiracy to thwart safety laws

The U.S. Attorney for West Virginia today filed criminal charges against the manager of the Upper Big Branch Mine, site of the worst mining accident in forty years when 29 miners died there in an April, 2010 explosion. The mine was owned and operated by Massey Energy, and the person charged, Gary May, was the superintendent of the mine at the time of the accident. May is charged with conspiring "with others known and unknown" to "hamper, hinder, impede, and obstruct the lawful enforcement of mine health and safety laws" at the mine. May had been the superintendent there for five months when the explosion occurred, and he was responsible for its day-to-day operation.

Here's an excerpt from the NPR report:

The conspiracy charges reach into the management ranks of Massey Energy and signal an effort to seek evidence against higher-level executives. 
The conspiracy charges are part of a rare if not unprecedented strategy to seek charges against higher level managers and executives at Massey Energy. 
Using a "criminal information" document for charges bypasses a federal grand jury and indicates the defendant has accepted a plea agreement and is ready to testify against others.
Interestingly, the criminal information does not seek to link the alleged conspiracy directly to the April, 2010 explosion.

NPR reporter Howard Berkes notes that Massey CEO Don Blankenship and other senior executives were known to micro-manage the mine, particularly in relation to its coal production, which was tracked "minute by minute and foot by foot."

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The rural-urban divide in China

This divide was frequently referenced during a discussion of China's internal politics on first half hour of Talk of the Nation on NPR today.

Here's a paragraph describing the hour-long conversation between host Neal Conan and Rob Gifford, China editor for The Economist:
Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping visited the United States last week, a few months before he is expected to take control of China behind current president Hu Jintao. Many considered his visit a test of his diplomatic abilities, but for some, the question of Xi's diplomatic performance was trumped by questions of internal Chinese politics — from human rights to technological development — and how the country will be governed in the future.
Gifford also made many references to class--especially the new middle class and the poor, specifically referring to the disenfranchisement of the latter in both rural and urban contexts. A link to the discussion is here.

Monday, February 20, 2012

From moonshiner to micro distiller, as hooch goes legal

This feature in today's New York Times tells of "Popcorn" Sutton's transition from moonshiner to micro-distiller--if he had lived to see this day, when home-made brew has been legalized in Cocke County, Tennessee, population 35,662.  Here's an excerpt from Campbell Robertson's story.
Until his death in 2009 at the age of 62, Marvin Sutton, known as Popcorn, was a moonshiner.  He was not quite the last, as he often claimed, but he was probably the most famous ever to work out of Cocke County, which long had a claim as the nation's moonshining capital. 
Robertson's story provides further context, calling Cocke County a "moonshine center" for as long as anyone can recall.  Though moonshine production ultimately gave way to growing marijuana, the county was also notorious for "chop shops, cockfighting rings, prostitution and corrupt officials," though "lawless elements" were "corralled" over the decades.    

Now that micro distilleries are legal in Cocke County, "at the head of the line is a distillery making Mr. Sutton's recipe."

Sutton killed himself in 2009, after he was sentenced to 18 months in federal prison for selling an undercover agent nearly 1000 gallons of moonshine.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Good blue collar jobs back in mining country, for now

NPR reported yesterday from the Silver Valley in northern Idaho, a place like some others in the West where the rising value of precious metals has mines reopening--and hiring. The same is happening in mining regions of Alaska, Montana, and Nevada. Jessica Robinson's story, which is headlined, "Big Bucks Attract High School Grads to Mining," features an interview with the shop teacher at the high school in Mullan, Idaho, population 692. The teacher, Don Kotschevar, is also the assistant principal and the school's basketball coach, but he notes the salaries being paid by the mines "in the first six, with months ... absolutely crush mine." Entry-level mine jobs can pay $50,000 a year. Indeed, "the average mine worker in the Silver Valley now makes $70,000" while some earn six-figure salaries. Meanwhile, "[m]any people's paychecks have remained stagnant--or disappeared--in this area over the past few years."

One reason the jobs pay so well is because of the risks associated with them. The Lucky Friday Mine in Mullan was closed temporarily in January because of safety concerns. Two miners were killed there last year.

Some young people will find those risks acceptable; others won't.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Rural values, agriculture front and center for Iowa residents welcoming back Xi Jinping

The story of Xi Jinping's visit to Muscatine, Iowa, has been in the news for the past few days. Xi, now the heir apparent to the Chinese presidency, was a mid-level Community party official on an agricultural trade mission in 1985 when he stayed with a family in Muscatine, population 22, 886.

With a population of 42,745, Muscatine County, is micropolitan, but reports of Xi's visit tend to present the place as representative of the American heartland, focusing on agriculture and what might be considered rural culture. Here are some representative lines from the New York Times story by Kirk Johnson.
Chinese officials have said the trip flowed from Mr. Xi's desire to relive a pleasant period form his past and to reconnect with Iowa farmers and other residents he came to know a quarter-century ago. It was also clearly a propaganda event at a time of heightened tensions between the United States and China over a raft of issues...

The tightly choreographed moment was intended to show audiences in the United States and in China the deep connection that presumed future Chinese president, now 58, feels with the people of the American heartland.
The visit also draws attention to Chinese dependence on U.S. food exports. Iowa is the nation's top exporter of soybeans.

Johnson had a heyday with rural culture angles on the story, including this quote from Mark Twain, who once lived in Muscatine and wrote for the Muscatine Journal: "When opportunity knocks, shake it by the lapels until the coins fall out."

Comments from Muscatine's mayor and others who hosted Xi's visit acknowledged that the visit creates economic opportunity--and certain bragging rights grounded in what might be thought of as rural culture--for the city. Mayor DeWayne Hopkins stated:
We've displayed to this world leader our work ethic, No. 1, and our value for friendship; that's No. 2. If that message can be disseminated into the rest of the United States in encouragement for people to be interested in Muscatine and perhaps relocate here--and I mean people all the way from households up to retail and manufacturing--then that's a plus.
The mayor took the opportunity of an interview on NPR to make a similar pitch about Muscatine, depicting it as featuring "a lot of manufacturing." Interesting that in this age of midwest population loss, Mayor Hopkins spoke not only of attracting business, but also of attracting people.

Johnson offered this summary of the musings of other Muscatine residents on Xi's visit:
Some of the people who played host to Mr. Xi in the 1980s, sounding like polished diplomats, said the lasting value of the visit was the relationship that would be built for Iowa's sake or Muscatine's or maybe for rural America in general.
Of course, bolstering rural America in any sustained way is a lot to put on any individual's shoulders, even those of the next premier of China.

The story also refers to Xi's background and rural China, with this reference to Eleanor Dvorchak, whose family hosted Xi 27 years ago.
[Dvorchak] had grown up reading Pearl S. Buck novels about the travails in rural China, and now here was a visitor, perhaps from that same hard place.
More coverage of Xi's visit to Iowa is here and here.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Rural-urban interdependence re: medical marijuana; who's getting the short end of the stick?

As a self-proclaimed ruralist, I think a lot about how to garner attention, credibility, prestige and resources to rural people and places. This leaves me thinking about how rural and urban are inter-dependent. After all, everyone knows that cities matter, the urban is interesting, and mets (metropolitan areas, that is) are downright miraculous. It seems, then, that if we could convince urbanites that they need the rural, that the rural brings value to their lives and they thus have a stake in rural success (or at least rural survival!), we could get policymakers to take rural people more seriously.

It was with this in mind that I clicked over to read a New York Times story this morning under the headline, "Struggling Cities Turn to a Cash Crop." I thought it might be another urban ag story, a story signaling that urban areas don't need rural agriculture because they are now self-sufficient, in the business of growing their own (usually in a plot no bigger than a city block, or perhaps in a skyscraper).

Well, this turns out not to be an urban ag story, but rather a story of the urban benefitting fiscally from the fruits of rural labors. (What's new, you might ask?) As you've guessed by now, the "cash crop" is marijuana, and I wrote about its changing regulation in California a few weeks ago, here and here. Today, though, we have the New York Times focusing on what is at stake economically for urban places in the federal crackdown on medical marijuana. The New York Times story is primarily about the taxation benefits associated with medical marijuana dispensaries, which are principally in cities. Here's an excerpt:
Sometimes lost in the discussion of medical marijuana is the extent to which it has become small but growing source of new tax collections for cities and states that have been struggling to balance their budgets for more than four years now.
Oakland, California collected $1.4 million in taxes on marijuana last year, which represented 3% of all business taxes collected. Denver collected in excess of $3.4 million in sales tax and application and license fees last year, while Colorado Springs collected $700,000. Meanwhile the State of Colorado collected $5 million in sales tax from medical marijuana last year, more than double what is collected the prior year.

Of course, rural areas get some economic benefits from marijuana production, be it authorized or not. Read related posts here and here. Still, this focus on the public coffer boost that cities are getting from this particular "cash crop" got me wishing local governments in rural areas also reaped more of the fiscal rewards associated with pot. This, in turn, gave me the idea of an "extraction tax" on marijuana--something akin to what local governments sometimes levy on mining.

An NPR story, also from today, focuses on the federal crackdown on medical marijuana, and the impact of that on rural counties that are major producers.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The geography of "the dole" (and perhaps some hypocrisy around the need for it)

A story in today's New York Times, "Even Critics of Safety Net Increasingly Depend on It," discusses the extent to which Americans depend on government programs such as Social Security, Medicare, unemployment benefits, income supports and veteran's benefits--even as many of the same Americans decry the welfare state and call for smaller government. Whereas the "share of Americans' income ... from government benefit programs" was just 8% in 1969, it has more than doubled in the four decades since and now stands at nearly 18%. Here's an excerpt from the Times front-page story:
The government safety net was created to keep Americans from abject poverty, but the poorest households no longer receive a majority of government benefits. A secondary mission has gradually become primary: maintaining the middle class from childhood through retirement. The share of benefits flowing to the least affluent households, the bottom fifth, has declined from 54% in 1979 to 36 percent in 2007, according to a Congressional Budget Office analysis published last year.
The dateline for the story is Lindstrom, Minnesota, population 4,442, the largest city in Chisago County. Chisago County has a population of just over 50,000, making it nonmetropolitan based solely on population. However, it is part of the Minneapolis-St.Paul-Bloomington Metropolitan area. The NYT story suggests it is now largely a commuter community of the Twin Cities, having mostly abandoned its agricultural roots.

Journalists Benyamin Appelbaum and Robert Gebeloff conducted numerous interviews for this lengthy feature, and it is accompanied by a number of video clips of conversations with Lindstrom residents. Several acknowledge the extent of their receipt of government assistance, even as some also articulate political opposition to public benefits and advocate complete self-reliance. Many in the town supported Tea Party candidate for U.S. Congress, Chip Cravaack, who in 2010 defeated Democrat Jim Oberstar who had held the seat for 36 years. Also indicative of local politics is the fact that Rick Santorum garnered 57% of the votes cast in the Republican caucuses this past week.

Indeed, the journalists quote a Dartmouth professor who has studied the correlation between politics and receipt of public benefits. The political science professor, Dean P. Lacy, found that "[s]upport for Republican candidates, who generally promise to cut governmental spending, has increased since 1980 in states where the federal government spends more than it collects. The greater the dependance, the greater the support for Republican candidates."

I am on the record, of course, as objecting to the labeling of entire states as "rural" (read more here, here and here), but even casual observers will realize that states popularly thought of as rural --and with large numbers of rural voters--are among the "reddest" states.

To some extent, this trend is reflected in an interactive map that accompanies the NYT story. It shows county-level data regarding the average amount of government benefits received in each county, as a percentage of total income. The counties that stand out as having especially high rates of receipt of government benefits --those constituting more than 40% of all income--are nearly all nonmetropolitan. They include the following (when provided, the percentage shown in parentheses is the county's 2010 poverty rate):
  • Searcy (22.7%) and Stone counties in Arkansas
  • Apache County (34.4%), Arizona
  • Sierra (22.5%), Guadalupe, and Mora (11.9%) counties in New Mexico
  • Hickory (15.4%), Wayne, Reynolds, Oregon (24%) and Benton (18%) counties in Missouri
  • Shannon (53.5%) and Buffalo (49.3%) counties in South Dakota
  • Sioux County (47.2%), North Dakota
  • Wilcox and Perry (28.8%) counties in Alabama
  • Jefferson (39%), Sharkey, Humphreys (42.9%), Holmes, Quitman, and Webster (25.4%) counties in Mississippi
  • San Augustine (21.7%), Starr, Zavala, Dickens, and Brooks (34%) counties in Texas
  • Fentress, Scott, Grundy and Perry (24.2%) counties in Tennessee
  • Lewis, Clay, Lee (31.6%), Whitley, Cumberland, Wayne, and Bell (29.4%) counties in Kentucky
  • Cherokee County (13.2%), North Carolina
  • Telfair County (31.3%), Georgia
  • Wade Hampton Census Area, Alaska
  • Webster, Roane, and Summers (21.6%) counties in West Virginia
  • A number of counties in northern Michigan, including Ontonagon County (12.7%), in the Upper Penninsula
A few of these I recognize as both persistent poverty counties and as counties in which the economy is highly dependent on government employment, e.g., Sioux County, South Dakota and Apache County, Arizona. Others, however, fall into neither category, though it is not surprising that the vast majority of these are high poverty counties.

I could not help note that residents in Nye County, Nevada, the subject of this post which suggested it is "Ron Paul country," had a very high rate of receipt of government benefits, at 28.78% of all income. Nye County's poverty rate is 18.9%.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Using arts to bridge the rural-urban divide in California

This NPR story about the recently opened "Real Rural" exhibition in San Francisco goes behind the scenes with Lisa Hamilton, the author and photographer who created the exhibit.  The following excerpts reflect on Hamilton's motivation:
Hamilton's fear:  Urban Californians have become too far estranged from rural life.  Her solution:  show them what the rest of the state looks like.   
* * *
Rural life is a topic of deep concern for Hamilton.  She's been writing about food and agriculture for years, including her 2009 book, Deeply Rooted:  Unconventional Farmers in the Age of Agribusiness.   
"I started thinking about food," a popular topic in San Francisco, she explains, "and more about rural communities.  I realized that with all the attention California gets, no one was talking about the communities that support people."  
* * * 
"Having a human involved in agriculture means that human is bringing these elements that only a human can--things like caring about history and caring about the future and being able to quantify value beyond dollars and bottom line." 
* * *  
Hamilton's notion is that if San Franciscans won't travel to the countryside, she can bring the countryside to San Francisco.
Photos from the project are on display throughout the San Francisco public transport system and will later be displayed at the California Historical Museum.  Hamilton's work was funded in part by the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Do rural places transcend class?

That seems to be one assertion of Charles Murray, whose book, Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010, has just been published. Actually, I've not yet read the book, but judging by this story about it in the New York Times, Murray believes that rural places have a leveling effect--class wise--in comparison to urban ones.

Murray moved his family from Washington, DC, to Burkittsville, Maryland, "a historic rural town of about 170 people"about two decades ago. He did so, he says, because he "did not want [his] children to grow up only knowing other upper-middle-class kids like themselves," which was what he believed would happen if he stayed in DC.
"Life in Burkittsville, as [Murray] described it, approximates the small-town virtues he enjoyed growing up in Newton, Iowa, where, as the son of a manager at Maytag, he could mingle easily with the children of assembly-line workers.

In Burkittsville, [Murray] said, he and his wife attend Quaker meetings and enjoy friendships with both other professionals and blue-collar tradespeople, whose travails he cited to counter the suggestion that the problems described in Coming Apart might have something to do with the disappearance of working-class jobs.

Until the recession hit, Mr. Murray insisted, his blue-collar friends were eager to hire apprentices at good wages but struggled to find anyone willing to do the work. "They are looking at a marked deterioration in industriousness that is real and palpable," [Murray] said.
Leaving aside for a moment the more controversial aspects of Murray's book--such as the argument that the white working class have succumbed to moral decay and that the state of affairs he describes has nothing to do with the loss of good working class jobs--I want to consider whether Murray is correct that rural areas are more level class-wise than urban ones.

Certainly myth holds that rural places are without class divisions--even more so than the rest of America, which as a whole--by some accounts (increasingly outdated and discounted)--is unstratified by class. But some authors have challenged this myth with empirical, longitudinal studies, particularly in relation to rural locales marked by significant poverty.

I haven't been able to find a lot of information about Burkittsville, in particular, but the photo of it on wikipedia looks awfully salubrious. I note that surrounding Frederick County, Maryland has a poverty rate of just 4.8%, about a third of the national rate. Plus, Frederick County is part of the Washington, Arlington, Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV Metro area. It may thus be a more level place than, oh, say, Kalorama or Georgetown, in the District of Columbia, but it is hardly a place where Murray and his family are likely to have many (or any) encounters with real poverty. Plus, it isn't actually rural by many measures.

Read additional commentary on Murray's book here.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Hugo Chavez and Venezuela's rural vote

Read Francisco Toro's Latitude column in the New York Times on line here. The gist of it is that villages are Hugo Chavez's "electoral trump card" in upcoming Venezuelan elections. Here's why:
Venezuela is one of Latin America's most urban countries. But with urban politics becoming more competitive, the government's structural advantages in the countryside are looming larger and larger. In rural settings, the politics of ideology give way to the politics of patronage: the huge profits that the government reaps from the oil industry get channeled right back into the business of staying in power. While cities retain enough private industry for some to make an independent living, a huge proportion of rural livelihoods are dirtily backed by the government.
Toro goes on to explain that, under Chavez, rigid price controls on agricultural products have led to "mass disinvestment from the private rural economy over the past ten years." Fear that the government will take over farms also deters investment, and the impact on rural economies has been devastating, leaving rural residents to rely on the state--and on Chavez's goodwill.

Read more here.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Food sovereignty movement spawns struggle for local control

Recent events in El Dorado County, California highlight emerging tensions between state and local laws related to agriculture. These tensions arise in the context of a burgeoning food sovereignty movement, as consumers seek more choices about what they eat and its provenance. The Sacramento Bee reported a few weeks ago that the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors voted to support "the grass-roots (and grass-fed) agriculture revolution," and--in particular--local farmers who are bucking state regulations by selling directly to consumers.
At their January 24, 2012, meeting, the Board of Supervisors lent verbal support to a "Local Food and Community Self-Governance" ordinance.

The ordinance is being pushed by Patty Chelseth, a smalltime dairy woman (we're talking two cows) who wants to provide raw milk to customers. Chelseth started selling shares in her cows because California law permits a cow's owner to drink the cow's milk filtered, but unpasteurized. It's her attempt to workaround the prohibition on selling raw milk.

This July, 2011, Sac Bee story provides some background for the Supervisors' decision. It tells of Chelseth's initial dust up with the state over a cease-and-desist letter the California Department of Agriculture sent her regarding her sales of shares of her cows. That July story included the language of Chelseth's proposed ordinance. As journalist Carlos Alcala observes, it reads something like a Declaration of Independence:
We the People of the County of El Dorado, California, have the right to produce, process, sell, purchase and consume local foods, thus promoting self-reliance, the preservation of family farms and local food traditions.
Indeed, "freedom v. oppression" was a theme among the 20 or so pro-ordinance speakers at the meeting. According to the Bee, another hundred or so supporters overflowed from the meeting room.

While El Dorado County Supervisors did not adopt that ordinance at their January meeting, but they did appoint two members to draft a resolution in support of local food governance. This watered-down action came in spite of highly supportive comments one supervisor made about local agriculture and his own family's involvement in it. Supervisor Ray Nutting is quoted:

I am personally appalled that they will come onto my ranch and tell me I can't share my cow or I can't share my chickens.
After some references to his own "homesteading, cow-milking ... and chicken-decapitating grandmother," Nutting concluded: "Whatever we need to do, I'm in full support." El Dorado County Sheriff John D'Agostini commented that his office is "not going to be the milk police" and voiced support for the ordinance.

Despite widespread sentiment in favor of small farmers and direct sales, the Board of Supervisors was surely influenced to take only tepid action by the county's lawyer, who advised that Chelseth's proposed ordinance runs afoul of the California Constitution, which reserves for the state the prerogative to regulate food for public safety.

Indeed, state regulators say they "won't kowtow to the movement when it comes to changing policy." A California Dept. of Agriculture spokesperson said the Department would be guided by the state legislature. He added that the only proposed changes in the pipeline are aimed at achieving greater clarity regarding the regulation of very small dairy herds. The spokesperson did not indicate whether such changes would affect producers like Chelseth, who seek to sell raw mailk directly to consumers.

Lest this state-local power struggle appear to be an isolated event, I note that both Bee stories indicate that similar tensions are playing out elsewhere, both within California and across the nation. An official from the Sonoma Valley (California) Grange who attended the El Dorado County meeting commented that the California State Grange supports such ordinances and is "searching for an alpha dog to lead the way, and we're encouraging your county to be the leader."

The earlier Bee story compares what is happening in El Dorado County to a similar movement in Maine. There, the state agriculture agency has told municipalities that their food-related ordinances do not supplant state laws.

Shermain Hardesty of the UC Davis Small Farms Program thinks some middle ground may be possible. She is researching different standards that would ensure the safety of food that is not widely distributed and sees small meat-processing plants as one solution. But even Hardesty says "raw milk is a different question," presumably because of serious concerns about its safety. Get more information here, from Real Raw Milk Facts.

El Dorado County lies due east of Sacramento County, and it stretches many miles from exurban El Dorado Hills, a posh planned community abutting Sacramento County, though the Mother Lode and historic gold rush towns and hundreds of acres of El Dorado National Forest, to Lake Tahoe. It is part of the Sacramento-Roseville Metropolitan Area, but it is relatively sparsely populated as metro counties go, at just 106 persons per square mile.

I travel to El Dorado County frequently, in part because I particularly enjoy its viticultural offerings. More on that, perhaps, in another post. Photos are of some farm scenes in El Dorado County, including my favorite farm stand, run by a Hmong family, on Pleasant Valley Road. Of course, regulations around selling vegetables are far less strict than those regarding meat and milk products. The sign proclaiming availability of eggs was taken yesterday, also on Pleasant Valley Road, which is south of Placerville (a/k/a "Hangtown"), the county seat. The top photo, from a farm on Bucks Bar Road, illustrates a workaround for selling directly to the consumer--selling the entire live cow! (This practice, too, may run afoul of the law, as Bee journalist Carlos Alcala reported here). El Dorado County Farm Trails signs are numerous, with many of them designating the county's dozens of wineries and hundreds (maybe thousands?) of acres of wine grapes.

Cross-posted to Agricultural Law Blog.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Crime persists, in face of law enforcement "surge," in Indian Country

One headline for this story in yesterday's New York Times refers to the Wind River Indian Reservation as a place where "brutality is banal." Wind River is in Central Wyoming. Here's an excerpt from Timothy Williams story in the Times:
The Obama administration, which has made reducing crime a priority in its attempt to improve the quality of life at dozens of Indian reservations plagued by violence, recently ended a two-year crime-fighting initiative at Wind River and three other reservations deemed to be among the country's most dangerous.
The enhanced presence of law enforcement officers, mostly from the National Park Service and other federal agencies, was called "the surge," after the strategy used during the Iraq war. It put about 10 extra officers on the Wind River Reservation. The result, however, was a 7% rise in violent crime. For other other reservations, the surge led to a drop in crime. The Mescalero Apache in New Mexico saw a 68% decline.

The crime statistics are not the only sobering ones out of Wind River, where the high school drop out rate is a devastating 40%, and the suicide rate among teens that is more than twice that in the rest of Wyoming. The story continues:
Some blame Wind River's geographic isolation and a general apathy on the reservation, while others point to the numerous troubled children being raised by grandparents unable to keep track of them.

During a recent Friday night patrol on the reservation, Michael Shockley, a Wind River police officer whose department lacks even the basic ability to track crimes, said he was surprised to learn that the surge had not reduced violent crime.

Even with 10 fewer officers than it had during the surge, Officer Shockley said, the Police Department responds to all calls, not just the most serious ones. Crime, he said, has appeared to ebb, especially when compared with what he referred to as the bad old days, when on a single night about a year ago, he drove a total of 400 miles, logged 42 calls and arrested 19 people.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs oversees the Wind River Police Department, and it believes the rise in violent crime is a consequence of people more often reporting violent crime during the surge, crime they might have ignored previously. The Bureau reports that the crime rate has fallen since the "surge" ended in October, though it did not provide details of the drop. In a statement that reflects low expectations of officers' ability to respond in a timely fashion, one resident reportedly told the Wind River police chief during the surge, "If I knew you were going to come immediately, I'd have called you later."

The Wind River Reservation straddles Fremont and Hot Springs counties in Wyoming, an area that was the subject of this recent post about fracking.

Friday, February 3, 2012

From the heart of "Ron Paul country"

A story in today's New York Times, dateline Pahrump, Nevada, population 36,441, features this description of the place.
This is a town--unincorporated, to be sure--where many folks have little need for much government, whether manifested by permits, stop signs, gun regulations or anything that would threaten Pahrump's brothels. That goes for surrounding Nye County as well, which is more than twice the size of New Jersey but is home to only 44,000 residents, mostly in Pahrump.


This is also a place where many people come to be left alone.
Journalist Richard Oppel, Jr., makes the point that many residents of Pahrump own and carry guns not out of concern for their safety, but because they can, to make a statement about their right to do so. Being home to lots of libertarians, it is perhaps not surprising that Nye County is the only Nevada county Ron Paul carried in his 2008 bid for the Republican nomination for president. This quote from former Nevada governor Robert List comments on the links some in Nye have to the city:
"There are many libertarians out there, and many of them came from urban areas an sought relative isolation. And they found it. ... They don't come to Las Vegas unless they have to."
The picture is one of rurality--and relative absence of government--as sanctuary, albeit a gun-friendly sanctuary.