Sunday, September 30, 2012

A rural gig as resume builder, in China

That is the gist of this story in today's New York Times about Xi Jinping who is on the cusp of becoming China's supreme leader in November.  Ian Johnson writes in a story titled, "Elite and Deft, Xi Aimed High Early in China":
Thirty years ago, a young government official with a plum job in Beijing made an odd request:  reassignment to a poor rural area.   
At the time, millions of young people were still clawing their way back to China's urban centers after being exiled to the countryside in the Mao era.  But 30-year-old Xi Jinping bucked the trend, giving up a secure post as adviser to a top military leader to navigate the tumultuous village politics of Zhengdiing, in Hebei Province.  
Johnson suggests that this move early in his career reveals the "political savvy" of Mr. Xi, who thereby gained "a measure of credibility to speak for rural Chinese compared with many other well-connected children of the elite."  But several insiders suggest that his powerful family knew the rural stint would be a short one, an "exercise in resume building" that helped achieve its desired purpose.

Johnson reports on how Xi took chances in Zhengding, where he "pushed through market-oriented reforms when they were still considered cutting edge."  Nothing like experimenting in a rural area -- especially one not too far from Beijing.  The story's dateline is Zhengding County, in Hebei province.

What Johnson's story suggests is that rural places still matter somewhat--at least in relation to a politician's image.  I guess the same is true in the U.S., though this seems to be an area in which Obama is not succeeding, despite his grandparents' roots in rural Kansas.  On the other hand, Clinton succeeded in spades in this regard, and George W. Bush did, too, though I don't consider his links any more authentic than Mr. Xi's.  A short stint working in a rural area is barely better preparation to understand rural issues than is owning a gazillion dollar ranch in Crawford, Texas.

Read more about Mr. Xi's links to rural America here.  Read more about the rural-urban divide in China, also in relation to Mr. Xi here.  So, if rural people and places still matter in Chinese politics, I wonder how long that will continue to be the case.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Law and Order in the Ozarks (Part CVI): It must be election season

The evidence that the fall election is quickly approaching is found in a story in the Newton County Times, Sept. 19, 2012 issue:  "Tip leads to two arrests, large marijuana bust."  The story tells of a Sept. 15 execution of a search warrant at a home in the Parthenon area that garnered 43 pounds of marijuana, 21 marijuana plants, 30 guns, and $14,912 in cash.  Tom Bonds, 61, and Peggy Bonds, 60, both of Parthenon, were arrested and charged with possession of controlled substance, manufacture of a controlled substance, possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver, possession of drug paraphernalia, and simultaneous possession of drugs and firearms.

The Newton County Sheriff's office got the warrant after receiving "information of a marijuana grow in Parthenon."  Officials from the 14th Judicial Task Force, Arkansas State Police, Boone County Sheriff's Office and the Jasper Police Dept. assisted the sheriff in executing the warrant.

Why the headline "it must be election season"?  Well, I have noticed over the years that the Newton County Sheriff's office typically gets motivated about its law enforcement mandate the closer it gets to election time.  I note, however, that incumbent Sheriff Keith Slape is not being challenged in the upcoming election.

Interestingly, this story was displaced from front-page news announcing an open house of the new jail, which has been completed. (Read more about the four-year path to this event here).  The jail will be open for public inspection Sept. 17-21 and 24-28 from 8 am to 5 pm.  Voters are being asked to pass a 3/4 cent sales tax in the fall election to finance the maintenance and operation costs of the jail.  No one seems to be talking about the fact that maintenance and operation costs of the prior jail were covered under the county's general budget, which is largely financed through property taxes.  It seems exceptionally regressive to impose this significant sales tax on county residents when they have previously paid for such services via property tax.  There's something perverse about making the poorest people pay disproportionately for a jail which will be used primarily to incarcerate them, that is, the poorest folks in the county.

In other news--indeed the top headline of the week--Deer-Mt. Judea School District reports a total enrollment of 363, above the 350 minimum Average Daily Membership (ADM) that has caused the district to be on a list of Arkansas schools threatened with imminent consolidation.  Read more here and here.  The district superintendent is quoted as saying, "We're blessed." He credited "the patrons of the school district for the increased enrollment by not transferring students to other schools and by promoting the school district and attracting new students.  In some cases families agreed to host international exchange students.  Mt. Judea has six exchange students, while Deer has two.  When the Deer and Mt. Judea schools consolidated in 2005, the district had an ADM of 478 students, a figure that has slowly declined and, along with it, "foundation aid from the state and in turn the flexibility the boar had to give salary increases."  The state board of education is not permitting the district to add to its debt, which means a millage (tax) increase it had placed on the November ballot will not have the desired effect of raising money to initiate and complete some construction projects on the two campuses.  Instead, if the millage increase passes, funds raised would be used to service existing debts.   The Jasper School District, which includes three campuses, reports a 2012-2013 enrollment of 934, up from an ADM of 904 yesterday.

Meanwhile, the Arkansas National Guard has been delivering potable water to the Deer community because of a break in the water line serving that about 1000 customers, including the school, which was closed for a day in mid-September because of the lack of water.

County residents celebrated the grand re-opening of the Buffalo Theatre on Sept. 21.  On the square in Jasper, the theatre was built and initially opened in 1916.  Since that time, the building has served as a cinema, a mercantile and a bakery.  I recall its time as a cinema and a bakery--indeed, I worked at the cinema as a teenager, in the concession stand.  The refurbishment and re-opening of the cinema is attributable to a group of county women who call themselves the Buffalo Theatre Committee.  They have renovated it so that it may serve as a community center, a community resource.  The grand re-opening features local entertainment and a pasta buffet, all for $5.  "Visitors will also have the opportunity to see the newly added big screen and state-of-the-art movie projector, a radio broadcasting room, a rear exit fire ramp, and an updated marquee on the front of the theatre."

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A (digital) scourge on the (rural) land

James Glanz reported in the New York Times a few days ago on the local impact that server farms are having in a nonmetropolitan county in eastern Washington State.  Microsoft, Yahoo and Dell all have huge server installments in Quincy, in nonmetropolitan Grant County.  The high tech companies were attracted to the area by the cheap land, but even more attractive is the cheap electricity available from nearby hydroelectric installations on the Columbia River.

Glanz describes Quincy, population 6,750, as having "two hardware stores, two supermarkets, no movie theatre and a main drag, State Route 28, whose largest buildings are mostly food packers and processors."  The city's tallest building, he notes, is a grain elevator.  Warren Morgan, President of Double Diamond Fruit, which is one of Quincy's agricultural processing enterprises, calls the city "a farming community in the middle of a desert."

When Microsoft came to town in 2006, opening its huge operation with a grand ribbon-cutting complete with speeches by local officials, residents of Quincy were excited.  "We thought that Microsoft would bring a certain air of class to our town," a retired teacher commented.  But just three days after the ribbon-cutting, Microsoft began flexing its corporate muscle, complaining that a new substation was not being built fast enough to meet its needs and asking the local utility if Microsoft could expect reimbursements if the problem was not quickly resolved.

This excerpt from Glanz's story summarizes some of the other events that followed:
First, a citizens group initiated a legal challenge over pollution from some of the nearly 40 giant diesel generators that Microsoft's facility--near an elementary school--is allowed to use for backup power.  
Then came a showdown late last year between the utility and Microsoft, whose hardball tactics shocked some local officials.  
In an attempt to erase a $210,000 penalty the utility said the company owed for overestimating its power use, Microsoft proceeded to simply waste millions of watts of electricity, records show.  Then it threatened to continue burning power in what it acknowledged was an "unnecessarily wasteful" way until the fine was substantially cut.  
Glanz makes the point that server farms like the ones in Quincy have often previously been operated in more populous areas (and, indeed, continue to operate there, too).  In places like Santa Clara, in California's Silicon Valley, these vast data installations have encountered greater regulation of the pollution their generators create.  Companies running such installments may thus be hoping for less oversight in more rural locales.

Meanwhile, the rural locales have hoped to gain economically from these data installations, and Washington state has given the industry "lucrative tax breaks, ostensibly to promote growth in rural areas."  Glanz notes that Quincy's revenue from property taxes, which these companies do pay, has risen from $815,250 in 2005 to $3.6 million this year, funding  many infrastructure investments, including a library.  What Quincy has not gained is a lot of private wealth, which some had hoped would come from land sales and housing developments.  This is presumably because these server farms don't employ many people, a point made in this post.

Glanz closes his story with this quote from Morgan, the Double Diamond Fruit executive.  Referring to the national demand for the services that these data centers provide, Morgan commented.
I understand that it's a necessary situation for us as a society and the way we want to live.  But I don't think it's benefiting Quincy. ... I think we're taking one for the team, to tell you the truth.
And that, it seems, is the perennial story of many rural development efforts--efforts that ship the outcasts of urban economies to the country, and let the chips fall where they may.  

I guess an alternative title for this post might be: "Are server farms the 21st century equivalent of the rural prison-building boom?"

Monday, September 24, 2012

Rural voters (and issues) in the news

The National Rural Assembly released this morning the results of a bi-partisan poll that shows Romney leading President Obama among rural voters in swing states by a margin of 14 points, with 54% of the vote. The results are covered thoroughly in The Daily Yonder and were featured in an NPR story this morning. An excerpt from the NPR story follows:
The nation's smallest and most remote places are providing Mitt Romney's biggest margins in battleground states as the 2012 presidential race enters its final weeks. 
In fact, rural counties are keeping Romney competitive in the states that are now up for grabs. That's what a new bipartisan survey indicates. The poll also finds that President Obama's rural support has plunged since 2008.
Only 2% of voters surveyed indicated they were undecided or noncommittal. The survey shows Obama with far less rural support than he had in 2008, and it appears to make Romney more competitive than other recent indicators have suggested in these key states.   

The telephone survey of 600 voters in nonmetropolitan counties "in nine battleground states" was conducted in mid-September.  A bipartisan polling team produced the survey for the Center for Rural Strategies of Whitesburg, Kentucky, a "group trying to attract attention to rural issues," for which The Daily Yonder is a news service.  

Another NPR story this morning discussed the significance of smaller media markets in swing states such as Colorado.

Gail Collins also makes quite a few references to rural voters --or more precisely, what are perceived as rural issues, e.g., the farm bill, hunting, and the U.S. Postal Service--in this column over the week-end.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Pulling out all the stops to save a rural school (Part X): Deer-Mt. Judea not permitted to raise taxes

It's been a while since I posted under this series, but as I review the summer's issues of the Newton County Times that have been piling up, I see quite a few stories about the county's four schools.  Many of them are about personnel changes.  For example, one front-page story from May is headlined "Board approves raises for cooks" and reports that the Jasper School Board granted school cooks a raise--up 94 cents to $10/hour.  The superintendent said the raise was appropriate because staffing levels had been cut and because the staff now provide greater services, including "Breakfast in the classroom," grab'n'go breakfast, and daily fruit and vegetable snacks every afternoon.

Other stories are weightier, however, discussing the survival of the Deer-Mt. Judea School District, which has been under threat of imminent consolidation because its enrollment has been hovering around the 350 student minimum for several years.

One thing the school district has done is seek foreign exchange students to bolster its enrollment, and a late July story makes a call for host families for the students, noting that students need to be settled two weeks before school starts.

The school district also moved this year to pass a tax increase which would permit it to undertake the construction of several new buildings valued at $1.3 million.  I wrote about this matter here, and how it might be a strategy aimed at preventing consolidation.  The Arkansas Department of Education (ADE) may have thought so, too, because the August 22, 2012 paper indicates that ADE "has denied it permission allowing the school district to seek the millage and additional debt service."  The report does not specify the reason for the denial.  That same issue of the paper indicates that the Deer-Mt. Judea school board has denied requests by students to transfer out of the school district but that it has accepted three requests for students to transfer in.  Some of these transfer requests complied with Arkansas's School Choice legislation, but others did not.  Read more about the School Choice law here.

Meanwhile, Mt. Judea is among area schools that have been place on the state's Needs Improvement Focus (NIF) list.  A lengthy story about Oark High School, part of the Jasper School District, having been placed on the NIF list explains (partially) what this means.  The July 18, 2012 story suggests that Oark was placed on the list because of poor student test scores, although the district has not been "told yet why we've been flagged."  The U.S. Dept. of Education requires each state to designate at least 10% of its schools as NIF, and the schools are identified "based on the size of the achievement gap between subgroups of students rather than the performance of all student groups."   Specifically, students are designated "Targeted Achievement Gap Group" (TAGG), meaning they are at risk based on "economic disadvantage, English learner status, or disabilities."  The size of achievement gaps between TAGG and non-TAGG students is what causes schools to be designated NFI.  Schools on the NIF list have achievement gaps ranging from 28.5% to 47.7%, but the Arkansas Dept. of Education (ADE) has not told Oark or the other schools how great their gaps are.  ADE also has not told these schools what to expect, but it has indicated that it will "distribute resources to help persistently struggling schools."  The USDE has granted ADE a waiver from No Child Left Behind so that schools are no longer expected to meet 100% proficiency; instead schools will be assessed base on progress from year to year.

The principal of the Oark school, in presenting students' test data to the local Board of Education, noted that "small numbers skew percentages" and vowed to break the data down to "show teacher how important individual instruction is rather than teaching to a whole group."  He also commented:
There are some areas that I am really embarrassed bout and I promise you when we're looking at test scores next year you won't see this.
At the other end of the TAGG spectrum is Kingston School, also part of the Jasper District but in neighboring Madison County.  Kingston recently received a commendation as one of 19 "Exemplary schools" in Arkansas.  It apparently qualified under the category of "schools with large populations of at-risk students with high progress," though the story did not make that clear, simply listing it as one of the four categories of schools honored.  TAGG was used to measure the size of the population of at risk students.  Schools were considered to have high TAGG populations if 2/3 of students are economically disadvantaged, English as a second language, or disabled.  I wrote here about an earlier commendation for the Kingston School a few years ago.

In other news, the Mt. Judea Area Alliance offered a Summer Learning Camp at the school for one week of mornings in June.  Subjects included reading, math, art, music and science.  Students were required to provide their own transportation.  The camp was not affiliated with the school but was staffed principally by the district's teachers.

The Newton County Resource Council received a $1000 mini grant from Blue and You Foundation for a Healthier Arkansas.  The grant was used to help fund a daily summer youth camp for children aged 6 to 14 at Jasper's Bradley Park.  The camp ran for four weeks and was called Camp Fit-n-Fun.  Breakfast and lunch were provided to children every day.  The Arkansas Workforce Program provided counselors.  The Newton County grant was one of 23 awarded by Blue and You Foundation to health improvement programs throughout the state.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Amish sect convicted of federal crimes

Erik Eckholm reports in the New York Times yesterday that members of an Amish sect living in an isolated valley in Ohio were convicted on Thursday of federal conspiracy and hate crimes committed last fall against other Amish in eastern Ohio.  This is an update on the story covered earlier hereherehere, herehere, here, and here.  Prosecutors had argued that because the crimes were motivated by religious differences, they were hate crimes, while some of the defendants had admitted to committing the act but characterized them as a "family feud."  None of the defendants called any witnesses in their defense.  

In this latest report, Eckholm describes Samuel Mullett, Sr., as the "domineering leader of a renegade Amish sect."  A Cleveland jury decided the fate of Mullett, along with 15 of his followers also charged in the attacks.  An excerpt from Eckholm's story follows:
The verdicts were a vindication for federal prosecutors, who made a risky decision to apply a 2009 federal hate-crimes law to the sect's violent efforts to humiliate Amish rivals. 
Defense lawyers in the case and an independent legal expert had argued that the government was overreaching by turning a personal vendetta within the Amish community, and related attacks, into a federal hate-crimes case.  But the jury accepted the prosecutors' description of the attacks as an effort to suppress the victims' practice of religion, finding Mr. Mullet and other defendants guilty on nearly all the charges they faced of conspiracy, hate crimes and obstruction of justice.  
Sentencing of the 16 defendants is scheduled for January, 2013; they could face lengthy prison terms.

I wonder if a Cleveland jury was effectively a "jury of one's peers" for purposes of deciding this matter, though I certainly have no quarrel with the outcome.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Weathering a drought, with a little help from the gov

Over the summer, I noticed a number of stories about the drought in my hometown paper, the Newton County Times.  Many seemed based on USDA press releases about services available and tips for farmers as the drought unfolded.  I thought I would catalog them here, in part to provide an opportunity to consider the extent to which government programs have much relevance to a persistent poverty county where most farming is done on a small scale.
  • Drought management meeting set for August 16.  "Cattle producers struggling with intensifying drought learn about management and tax options August 16 at North Arkansas College.  This year's drought it really forcing cattle producers to seek out alternative sources of feed, while trying to keep an eye on the bottom line to survive in to the another season," said Mike McClintock, Boone County extension agent for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture.  "We want them to be able to show producers the options available to them." 
  • Beebe calls hay emergency.  "Gov. Mike Beebe declared a state of emergency to assist ranchers who are having trouble with feed supplies.  A release from the administration said that the order was "intended to help Arkansas ranchers whose feed supplies are running critically low.  It allows temporary authorization of special permits to transport hay bales.  The load must not exceed 12 feet in width, and the AHTB will have jurisdiction in picking routes.  The order is in effect for 30 days, depending on conditions."  
  • Various local water associations called public meetings in August and Sept. to discuss water shortages associated with the drought and with a change over in water supplies to nearby Bull Shoals Lake.  The Mockingbird Hill Water Association has been in dire straits for the past two summers, trucking in water in "water buffalo" trucks.  Over Memorial Day weekend this year I dined at a restaurant in the Mockingbird Hill area that had absolutely no water, even for serving guests.  I can't imagine what was going on the kitchen on that busy Sunday or what the clean up was going to look like later, presumably with water trucked in to clear the mess.  Meanwhile, the Nail/Swain Water Association issued a boil order in mid July because of the possibility that unsafe water entered the lines due to a water pressure loss.  The National Guard delivered water to the community during a period when the association's well was broken.  Deer Water Association users are among those being urged to conserve.
  • Conservation program for farmers, ranchers.  "Due to a lack of moisture, over an extended period of time, producers in Boone and Newton counties have suffered from the effects of severe drought conditions.  Farms and ranches experiencing sever drought conditions may be eligible for cost-share assistance under the Emergency Conservation Program (ECP).  This disaster program is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Farm Service Agency (FSA), which provides cost-share assistance if the damage is so severe that water availability for livestock or orchards has been reduced below normal to the extent that neighbor can survive without additional water.  A producer qualifying for ECP assistance may receive cost shares not to exceed 75 percent of the cost of installing eligible temporary measures.  Cost sharing for permanent measures is based on 50 percent of the total eligible cost.  Cost-share assistance is limited to $200,000 per person or legal entity per natural disaster.  Approved practices may include:
    • Constructing and deepening wells for livestock water
    • Developing springs or seeps for livestock water
    • Seeding annuals, wheat, ryegrass, rye, triticale for temporary pastures
    • Installing pipeline or other facilities for livestock water or existing irrigation systems for orchards. 
  • Finally, the August 29, 2012 issue of the paper holds out some "good news"--the approach of Hurricane Isaac and the prospect of rain, although the headline is "Residents urged to prepare for visit from 'Isaac.'"  Another story in that issue is headlined "Weather pattern change detected" and it reports:
Tiny green strands of grass--and some hope--are reappearing in spots around Arkansas as the most intense level of drought retreats slightly in the U.S. Drought Monitor Map released Thursday.  Rain has fallen--a hint that Arkansas' weather pattern is becoming more fall-like--and at least one place, Little Rock Air Force Base, saw a record low of 61 [degrees] on Wednesday.  Exceptional drought declined to 45.3%, down from last weeks 53.6%, its broadest reach so far this year.  The exceptional drought area includes all the counties on the Missouri border, with its southern boundary making a big "U," running through Washington, Crawford, Franklin, Scott, Yell, Garland, Saline, Pulaski, Lonoke, Prairie, Woodruff, Cross, Poinsett, Craighead, and a piece of Mississippi counties.  
That area certainly includes Newton County, one county south of the Missouri line.

An editorial in the July 18, 2012 issue of the paper is headlined "Drought conditions bring out the best in people," and it notes that the USDA had just declared 69 of Arkansas's 75 counties a disaster area because of the drought.  Newton County, the editorial notes, has received only 20 inches of rainfall in 2012, with just  five inches in June and less than an inch to date in July.  The editorial observes the "significant impact' this is having on "farm water wells and also on the rural water associations.  Most rural water users are conserving their water for drinking and fire protection."  Noting that the average Arkansan uses more than 80 gallons of water a day, it continues with this suggestion of an old-timer/newcomer dichotomy:
Many longtime residents of Newton County know the true value of water.  Those who have become accustomed to unlimited flow from a household tap and take it for granted may have to learn the hard way. 
In his regular column, the Ag Extension agent advises early evaluation of pastures to determine how many animals they will support.  In addition, he suggests early weaning of calves, lambs and kids to help lower the nutritional needs of their mothers; culling "unproductive or non pregnant females"; estimating feed needs and securing feed early; rotational grazing to force livestock to consume more and waste less.  The advice, offered in mid-July, was based on the assumption of no additional rain until September.

In other federal food news,  
  • Ozark Opportunities, Inc., announced distribution of USDA foods hat may include canned apricot halves, mixed fruit, cream style corn, spinach, sliced potatoes, tomato sauce and beef stew to low-income households of Newton County beginning Tuesday, August 14 and continuing until food supplies are exhausted.  The distribution site is 506 W. Court Street in Jasper.  Foster children, households receiving food stamps or who meet income eligible guidelines are eligible.  The story notes that "Registration for Commodity Foods may be completed on the date(s) of distribution and is required by all clients to receive commodities."
The paper has also reported various Newton County Fair events throughout the month of August, including the donation of a dozen benches by a young man who made them for his Eagle Scout project.  Impressive to know that there are any Eagle Scouts in Newton County--indeed, that the county has a troop.  
In other weather and water related news:
  • Wildfire battled near Boxley.  "About 7 1/2 acres were burned in a wildfire last week that endangered National park Service Land in Newton County, according to a press release from the National Park Service.  The fire started on Tuesday, July 24.  National Park Service helicopters were dispatched to help fight the fire.  
  • Water rates doubled at Compton.  Past expenses have caused Compton water users' bills to practically double.  Compton Water Association Board vice President Wanda Roudabush said her average monthly bill had jumped from $27 per month to $47.  Roudabush blamed the jump in water rates on expenses gong back before the current board took office in 2010.  Specifically, she said the board is paying off legal expenses stemming from a past-due wholesale water bill that originally totaled $97,000.  That amount has been paid down to $13,000.  The money is also going to pay for major repairs and maintenance on the water system, including the water storage tank.  
Meanwhile, Weldon Fowler, who appears to be in his 70s, is pictured on the front page of the Newton County Times August 1, 2012 edition, with two Cherokee heirloom tomatoes he grew this summer that boast a total weight of 5 lbs.  The caption says Fowler "has been able to grow produce this summer when others might have given up.  ... He was able to can about 50 quarts of peaches and make 14 quarts of apple sauce." 

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Feds take over child welfare system at Spirit Lake Reservation

Timothy Williams reports today in the New York Times on the latest chapter of the saga of children at the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation in North Dakota.  I wrote this earlier post about the matter based onWilliams's reporting earlier this summer.  Below is an excerpt from today's story:
Federal officials are now moving to take over the tribe's social service programs, according to members of the tribe, government officials and documents.  The action comes after years of failure by government and tribal law enforcement officials to conduct proper investigations of dozens of cases of child sexual abuse, including rape.  
While members of the tribe say that sexual violence against children on the reservation is common and barely concealed, the reasons for the abuse here are poorly understood, though poverty and alcohol are thought to be factors.  The crimes are rarely prosecuted, few arrests are made, and people say that because of safety fears and law enforcement's lack of interest, they no longer report even the most sadistic violence against children.  
Williams quotes one former social worker for the tribe who had a case load of 131 children, 100 more than the state's average.  Williams story is principally a catalog of shocking and egregious failures of child welfare officials to protect the children of Spirit Lake, including from even public sexual assaults.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Grieving a nation's rural past, through literature

The New York Times Saturday profile on September 8 featured South Korean writer, Shin Kyung-Sook.  Journalist Choe Sang-Hun discusses Shin's life, including her migration with her mother from rural Korea to Seoul at age 15 in 1978.  Choe also notes parallels between Shin's life and the novelist's poignant fiction, set against the same backdrop of the nation's rapid industrialization and the accompanying rural-to-urban migration in the 1970s and 1980s.  In short, Shin's work often grieves the nation's rural past, and what has been lost in the nation's transition to the world's 13th largest economy.  Choe writes:
Seoul-bound trains at the time, like the one mother and daughter [Shin] boarded that night, picked up many young rural South Koreans along the way--part of the migration that fueled South Korea's industrialization but forever changed its traditional family life.  
It is that social upheaval that Ms. Shin evoked in her most famous novel to date, "Please Look After Mom," which earned her the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize and a commercial success attained by few other Korean writers.
Shin Soo-jeong, a professor of Korean literature at Myongji University in Seoul, is quoted:
In [Shin's] novels, readers have the chance to pause and reflect upon the other side of their society's breakneck race for economic growth, what they have lost in that pursuit and upon people who were left behind in the mad rush.
Choe's feature continues:
In "Please Look After Mom", an elderly woman from the countryside travels to Seoul to visit her children and gets lost in what is quite literally a mad rush:  the scramble to get on a Seoul subway.  Reviewers have called her disappearance a metaphor for the profound sense of loss in a society that hurtled from an agrarian dictatorship to an industrialized democracy within a single and often tumultuous generation.  
As I was searching for the digital version of this story to link to it here, I came across this May, 1971 story that highlights the Korean rural-urban divide of that time.  Indeed, the headline is "In South Korea, Urban Affluence and Rural Poverty."  Takashi Oka's story compared the lives of a skilled worker in a Kia motorcycle factory outside Seoul and a rice farmer in an isolated mountain village in southeastern South Korea.  The latter, working with his father, harvested 70 bags of rice a year with his father, without any power tillers.  The village in which he lived was without electricity though he said he was able to keep in touch with the outside world by radio.  He also noted that the lives of the villagers had been improved by better paths from their homes to the rice paddies, which permitted the use of bicycle carts to bring the harvest in.  Previously, they had accomplished using wooden A frames, strapped on their backs.  In contrast, the factory worker in Seoul owned a three-room house with a kitchen (purchased for $1600), half a mile from his factory.  The city dweller also owned a bicycle, sewing machine, record player and a radio.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Appalachia of the West? another food desert in California's Central Valley

I have written in the past about the critical role that grocery stores play in rural communities, and of the things some places have done to save their grocery store.  Read posts here and here.  Now, Brooks Barnes reports from Mendota, California, population 11,014, about the closing of the city's Westside Grocery, owned by three generations of Riofrios, the most recent being Joseph Riofrio, age 50.
Last month, Mr. Riofrio, a City Council member and former mayor of this Central Valley town, where a street is named after his grandfather, pulled the plug--done in by a 38.7 percent unemployment rate, the foreclosure and credit crises and hoped-for economic help that never came.  "How can a community in the heart of the most abundant farmland on earth suffer this way?"  Mr. Riofrio said, fighting back tears.  
The story tells of how the store's gas pumps went by the wayside in the 1980s, as a consequence of "too much regulation," Barnes reports.  Fresh meat followed in the 1990s because too few could afford it.  Ditto fresh milk.  Most recently, Westside had stopped selling even beer because of the high cost of electricity to keep it cold.

Mendota is the self-proclaimed Canteloupe Center of the World, and now--as Riofrio's sad comment suggests--parts of it look more like a food desert, though a major supermarket and many Bodegas remain.  Plus, as some lament, the closure of Westside Grocery represents a loss in community.

By some measures, the poverty rate in this place is about 50%, and fewer than 31% of the city's residents have a high school diploma.  It's not surprising, then, that Mendota has been called the Detroit of California and the Appalachia of the West.  Arnold Schwarzenegger once held Mendota out as a poster-child for the Central Valley's drought, seeking federal relief that never came.  Like many Central Valley communities and rural places throughout California and the U.S., the city sought to attract prisons.  But when a federal prison opened in 2009, it did little to alleviate the unemployment problem in Mendota because it brought many of its employees from other facilities.

Brooks notes that the fate of Central Valley towns often rests on the availability of water and the crop that needs picking.  Previously an area where corn, bell peppers, tomatoes and melons were grown, Mendota has been especially hard hit by California's water wars, with thousands of acres left fallow because water supplies have been limited by efforts to preserve fish habitats, presumably in the Delta.  Salt buildup from flawed irrigation and drainage systems is another problem.

Rick Wartzman, an expert on the Central Valley and director of the Drucker Institute at Claremont Graduate Institute, is quoted:
There is more than one root problem, which is what makes Mendota so tricky to deal with.  ...  Immigration, water politics, labor patterns, the tendency for California to forget its middle, farm legislation--it all contributes to the downward spiral.
It strikes me that the same could be said of so many rural communities in the United States, whether farming dependent or not.  Just as California forgets its middle, so seemingly does the nation.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Bill Clinton as a bridge to the enigmatic rural and working class white voters

I've been trying to get caught up on reading the stack of New York Times that has been accumulating as I get into the groove of the new semester.  In doing so, I came across this story about Bill Clinton, as philanthropist and "other, on September 5, the day he spoke at the Democratic National Convention and nominated Barack Obama for a second term.  The story twice mentions the DNC and Obama's need for Clinton as a bridge to "rural and white working-class voters."  Here are the relevant passages:
For many Democrats, Mr. Clinton's renewed stature and his appeal to rural and white working-class voters, a vital group that Mr. Obama has struggled to connect with, make him both an ally of the current administration and a constant reminder of its political shortcomings.
A few paragraphs deeper in the story, journalist Amy Chozick returns to that same phrasing:
[Clinton] likes to use the Zulu greeting sawubona ("I see you") when he is traveling in parts of southern Africa, and he often received the response ngikhona ("I am here").  It is that sort of personal connection that helped him lure rural and working-class voters back to the Democratic Party in 1992, and is that touch that many political analysis say Mr. Obama lacks, a perceived gap that Mr. Clinton said he had tried to help with. 
For the record, the word "rural" appears two other times in the story, which is also about Mr. Clinton's philanthropic work in Africa.  Chozick refers to two places Clinton visited on a July swing through four African nations:  "an off-the-schedule stop at a model village called Nyagatovu in rural Rwanda" and "a rural brick-making area a half hour outside Kampala."

It seems unusual for a journalist to use a descriptor like "rural" in reference to places in the developing world--even when they are rural--perhaps because "rural" is the default in the developing world.  Maybe Chozick was more mindful than usual of the rural-urban divide even in Africa, having focused on it for the other purpose in this story.  On the other hand, I caught at least one other recent headline using "rural" in a similar way:  "Series of Deadly Earthquakes Rattle 2 Rural Chinese Provinces."

Friday, September 14, 2012

A call to re-think the farm bill, with climate change in mind

This op-ed, published today in the New York Times, calls on Congress and the Senate to pass a one-year farm bill to essentially tide farmers over while these legislative bodies go back to the drawing board to come up with a new farm bill strategy, one that adequately accounts for intensive production agriculture's role in environmental degradation, including climate change.  Written by Mark Herstgaard, a fellow of the New America Foundation and author of Hot:  Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth, the piece hits hard on industrial agriculture's contributions to global warming:
[B]y some estimates, [industrial agriculture] accounts for roughly a third of emissions globally.  the industrialized, meat-heavy food system of the United States, takes a heavy toll on the atmosphere; it takes an enormous amount of fossil fuel to run farm equipment and harvest the mountain of corn that fatten livestock.  And most fertilizers contain nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 298 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a century.
Herstgaard also offers science-based critiques of monocultures and the heavy use of chemical fertilizers that kill microorganisms that ventilate the soil and help keep it healthy.  He blasts both the Senate and House versions of the bill, both of which create perverse incentives to plant fence-row to fence-row, exhaust the land, and cause greater water run off--all while sticking tax payers with the bill by subsidizing crop insurance.  (Read more on some of these issues in a June post).  The main difference between the two chambers' versions, Herstgaard notes in just a parenthetical, is that the latter would cut food aid to the poor.

This story was one of the ten most emailed stories on about 24 hours after it was published.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Newton County Farmer of the Year (Part II): Perseverance, diversification, and off-farm employment kept senior farmer going

This is the second in a four-part series about the Newton County, Arkansas, farmers who were honored this summer by the county's farm service agencies.  The Senior Farmer of the Year is Paul Martin of Yardelle, which is not even a Census-Designated Place, in the northeastern part of the county.  Martin and his family were honored as Farm Family of the Year 31 years ago, in 1981.  Martin is now 67, and he has been married to his wife Irene for 51 years.

The Newton County Times story about Martin's receipt of this honor is a tale of perseverance.  He reports "starting from scratch" twice, once after he and his wife were married and once after a fire consumed their home.   Like Syble Garrison, the Farm Woman of the Year about whom I wrote a few days ago, the Martins ability to farm has been dependent on off-farm employment.  Specifically, both Garrison's husband and the Martins have worked as school bus drivers to supplement their farm income.  They also held other "public jobs," including pumping gas, working at the Levi Strauss factory in neighboring Harrison.  Martin said he would love to work his farm with his son-in-law, but  "it would be impossible for [the son-in-law] to take up the farm and make a living. ... It's not there."

The Martins currently manage 1300 acres and keep cattle and a Boer goat herd.  Earlier in their farming career, they had 29 sows on 129 acres, while also working an additional 140 acres owned by Martin's family.  They borrowed money from FHA to build a house and barn on the property.  At one time Martin also purchased "haying equipment and went into the business of putting up hay for people and himself."  They "combined fescue seed" and raised milo, which they used to feed their hogs.  "I still think we mixed a better feed than you can buy at the store," Martin said.  He added:
'I always thought I'd love to be a row cropper.' ... That type of farming isn't practical in the Ozarks, but 'I did, anyway.'
At one time the Martins kept 300 bee hives, which he would "rent to farmers to pollinate their huge fields of soybeans."  His wife "traveled far and wide selling cases of jars of honey to roadside stands and markets."

Martin and Irene married when they were aged 16 and 15 respectively.  He later finished high school at Western Grove, and he earned her GED and took some college courses at the community college and at the University of Arkansas.

In an interview with the Newton County Times, Irene called herself a natural born follower to Mr. Martin's undisputed leadership.  Martin "recalled a time that Irene delivered a gooseneck trailer load of pigs to Taneyville, Mo., all by herself.  'She'll do anything.'"  But then he added a caveat:  "I can't get her to run a chainsaw and she doesn't like to operate the dozer."  And that relates to Martin's final comment in the story--that work on the farm is never done, there is always more land to be cleared.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Congress, returning from recess, confronts farmers

The New York Times reported yesterday that one of the most challenging issues facing Congress as it returns from its five-week recess today is the farm bill.  The Senate passed a 2012 farm bill back in June, but the House of Representatives has not acted in similar fashion, even refusing to consider their own Ag Committee's "sweeping farm measure, instead pushing through a short-term $383 million package of loans and grants for livestock producers and a limited number of other farmers."  The Senate has not acted on that measure, considering it too limited.

The 2008 farm bill expires at the end of September.  Meanwhile, the plight of farmers has been aggravated over the summer by the crushing, record-setting drought.  Yet both Senate and House officials indicate that negotiations during the summer recess "were not fruitful."

Here's an excerpt from Jennifer Steinhauer's story, with a focus on agitation from Midwest and Great Plains states:
The fate of the current farm bill ... has preoccupied many voters in agricultural states and has haunted lawmakers at constituent meetings, debates, and local and state fairs.  In South Dakota, the farm bill was the central topic at a recent debate between Representative Kristi Noem and her Democratic challenger, Matt Varilek.   
Members of Congress in places like South Dakota and Iowa have apparently told constituents that they expect a one-year extension of the 2008 farm bill.

The American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Farmers Union will hold rallies on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.  But, Steinhauer reports, lawmakers may not be moved by these, "appear[ing] to favor action on other bills that emphasize their political agendas over actual lawmaking."  Her suggestion is that the farm bill is not part of those political agendas.

Other summer stories about the farm bill are here, here, and here. Here and here are New York Times editorials on the topic. Here is an earlier blog post on the topic.

Meanwhile, Nicholas Kristof offers this on happy cows in Oregon.  I can't help wonder if keeping dairy cows in this humane way is as easy and profitable as this Oregon farmer makes it seem, why aren't all farmers doing it this way?

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Newton County Farmer of the Year (Part I): A dying breed

Farm in Ben Hur, Arkansas, May 2012
Every summer, the Newton County Times, the weekly paper for my home county in Arkansas, runs stories about the Farm Family of the Year, the Farm Woman of the Year, the Senior Farmer of the Year and Junior Farmer of the Year.  These awards, given by "various farm service agencies" in the run up the County Fair, say something about farming in this sparsely populated, persistent poverty county in the Arkansas Ozarks where many people have long farmed, but where few now make a living solely from farming.  I offer these portraits here in part to contrast these farm lives with those more commonly associated with farming in the 21st century, in particular, with factory farming.

I begin this series Farm Woman of the Year is 83-year-old Syble Garrison of Ben Hur, not even a census designated place.  Ben Hur is in the far southeastern part of Newton County, amidst Ozark National Forest.  I took the photo of the church, below left, when I passed through the area this spring. It was the only civic or commercial building still in operation there.  Indeed, Garrison's musing suggest that Ben Hur might experience a resurgence--a second life, if you will, if it had any amenities to draw people back and if there was any land to buy--which isn't the case because the federal government buys up whatever it can to return it to wilderness.  Because of that, Syble Garrison is necessarily a dying breed.

The Newton County Times features a detailed profile of Garrison who, even as an octogenarian,  "live[s] on her own, raise[s] chickens and 15 head of cattle on her 80 acres."  Her small herd started with two heifers who calved a few days apart several years ago, and it has steadily grown since. She has a name and feeding tub for each cow.  She also takes care of her brother's six cows, and in exchange he helps her put up hay.

Garrison grew up on a nearby farm, and went to school through eighth grade at Moore, a school now long out of existence.  She recalls her childhood on her parents' farm:
Ben Hur Freewill Baptist Church
The family raised its own food.  They had milking cows, pigs that were allowed to run free range and plenty of chickens.  The hogs were butchered, salted and put in a hickory smoke house to cure.  ... [B]ack then you didn't have a tractor, you had horses.  
They plowed the land, planted crops of corn and beans, and Lespedeza grass for pastures and hay.  You didn't bale hay then, she explained.  It was gathered and stacked.  
Syble Standridge married at the age of 17 to a sawmill operator, Leon Garrison.  They lived in Arizona, California and Kansas before returning to Arkansas to farm.  Initially, their 80-acre farm had only 3 cleared acres.  Syble's husband worked off the farm for most of his life, operating a sawmill and working as a custodian and bus driver for the Deer School.  He died of cancer in 1997.  Mrs. Garrison is herself a cancer survivor.

In addition to taking care of her farm animals, Garrison tends her garden and harvests and cans or freezes its produce.  She also uses a sprayer she carries on her back to tame blackberry briars, and she sometimes cuts cedar trees on her property.  She no longer drives following an accident, but she walks the two miles each way down the state highway to get to church--yep, the one in the photo at left.  Garrison cleans the church once every other week.  (Now I know why it was as neat as the proverbial pin when I saw it).

Of the future of farming in Newton County, Garrison's outlook is not very positive, in part because communities like Ben Hur have essentially dried up.
A lot of the people [Garrison] knew have left the area.  Former farms have been bought up by the government and are reverting to wilderness.  
There used to be three stores between Ben Hur and Moore and both communities had post offices, Syble recalled.  Now for groceries the closest place to shop is Jasper about 40 miles away.  The nearest post office is at Pelsor, but it has been put on a list of rural post offices to be closed.  
Some people would like to live here, now, but there isn't anything to come back to and there isn't anything for sale, Syble said.  
Syble gave birth to each of her five children at home.  She also has eight grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.  All eight of Garrison's siblings are still living.  Photos accompanying the story show her with her canned goods in her kitchen, and feeding her chickens and cows.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Bears come to town

The New York Times reported today, dateline Denver, that bears are increasingly "coming to town" to find food, as drought conditions deprive them of their usual fare.  Here's an excerpt:
In addition to destroying crops, this summer's record-breaking drought has also killed off wild acorns, berries and grasses that sustain animals like mule deer, elk and bears.  Without that food, the great outdoors is pushing its way inside, looking for calories wherever they can be found.  
Bears have been spotted lumbering through alleys, raiding garbage cans and scooting into people's homes through open windows and unlocked kitchen doors. 
A bear in Telluride, Colorado even tried storming a hotel bar.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Food v. energy: A view from Colorado

Gunnison River, Colorado, where water is diverted
via tunnel to irrigate the Uncompahgre Valley
I wrote this post a few weeks ago about the conflicts between ag interests and natural gas extraction in Australia.  The New York Times reports today on similar conflicts in the United States.  Kirk Johnson's story focuses on the competition for water between farmers on the one hand and oil and gas interests on the other.  His dateline is Greeley, Colorado, and the headline is "For Farms in the West, Oil Wells are Thirsty Rivals."

Water from the Gunnison River irrigating a farm near
Montrose, Colorado
Johnson reports that oil and gas interests in Colorado are paying record high prices for excess water that they buy or lease from cities.  While farmers have tended to pay between $30 and $100 for an acre foot of water (about 326,000 gallons), depending on scarcity, oil and gas companies are now paying as much as $1K to $2K for that amount of treated water purchased from cities.  Farmers say they can't match those bids.  Peter Anderson, a corn and alfalfa farmer in eastern Colorado, casts farmers as the underdogs based on the value of the commodity delivered:
It's not a level playing field. ...  I don't think in reality that the farmer can compete with the oil and gas companies for that water.  Their return is a hell of a lot better than ours.  
But as water-intensive as fracking is, the controversial process is consuming far less water than farmers are right now in Colorado.  Oil and gas companies estimate their 2012 water use at 6.5 billion gallons--or about a tenth of one percent of the state's total water use.  That figure is disputed by Western Resource Advocates, an environmental advocacy group that puts the figure at perhaps twice that much.  But even 13 million gallons is a drop in the proverbial bucket compared to the whopping 85.5% of Colorado's water use that goes for irrigation and agriculture.

Oil and gas may be David to ag's Goliath when it comes to water consumption, but tension between these sectors is likely to increase, particularly during times of drought and as the gas industry's water needs grow--growth projected to be 16% over the next three years.

A spokesperson for agricultural interests articulated the conflict as one between food and energy.  For example, Johnson quotes Ben Rainbolt, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union:
We're not going to be able to raise the food we need.  How are we going to produce this with less?
A spokesperson for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association puts a different spin on it, calling energy the "foundation of all we do," including agriculture.

But isn't this really a "chicken and egg" situation?  That is, food is energy--the first form of energy--and without it, people can't engage in energy production or energy consumption for other purposes.

I note that Colorado law requires court approval of these bulk water purchases, so it will be interesting to see if legal norms around such approval evolve as oil and gas industry demands for water grow.

Cross-posted to Agricultural Law Blog.

The "country boy from Arkansas" does it again

I laughed at this line from Bill Clinton's speech at the Democratic National Convention last night, in the midst of an attack on Republican economic policies in relation to the national debt:
It was a highly inconvenient thing for [the Republicans when I was President] that I was just a county boy from Arkansas, and I came from a place where people still thought two and two was four.  It's arithmetic. 
Talk about a great "everyman" line, invoking the cultural values of the hinterlands.  I also noticed that more of Clinton's Arkansas accent crept in as he delivered this part of the speech, but his phrasing and enunciation were colloquial at other times, too.  NPR this morning referred to Clinton's use of "folksy humor," and they quoted a convention delegate from Pine Bluff, Arkansas who said she would have happily listened to another 50 minutes from Clinton.  The delegate said "It was like we were home and he was telling us a story."

More substantively, Clinton made one reference to rural places.  It came in the context of lauding Obama's proposed student debt repayment program.
[I]t means that if someone wants to take a job with a modest income, a teacher, a police officer, if they want to be a a small-town doctor in a little rural area, they won't have to turn those jobs down because they don't pay enough to repay their debt. Their debt obligation will be determined by their salary.  This will change the future of young Americans.  
Here, he at least implicitly acknowledges a challenge associated with rural labor markets (lower pay), and also the needs rural communities have for health care providers.

The full text of the speech is here.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Suffering in the wake of Isaac--and in the shadow of NOLA

The New York Times has reported several stories in the past several days from rural Mississippi and Louisiana, stories that suggest--or outright assert--that rural communities are struggling mightily in the wake of Hurricane Isaac, but that most of them are garnering little attention because of the focus on New Orleans.

The first story was this one datelined Picayune, Mississippi, population 10,878, and it tells of the storm-related death of 52-year-old Greg Parker, a father and tow truck driver who "lived on a road named after his family."  Parker died Wednesday night after trying to help a stranded driver during the worst part of the storm.  He died when an oak fell on his truck, and he was the only fatality attributed to Hurricane Isaac.  Kim Severson writes in her story:
With nearly every national news organization focused on New Orleans and whether its new levees would hold, the death of Mr. Parker was barely noted. 
But then again, neither was much of what happened to Mississippi during the storm, even though its 26 miles of beach and the network of rivers that flow to the gulf took on a huge amount of water and wind for the nearly two days that Isaac sat over the state. 
It has always been that way when it comes to hurricanes, especially in Katrina's aftermath, people here say.  That storm tore up the state's Gulf Coast, wiping away towns along the beaches and destroying homes deep into Mississippi's southern counties.    
The second story ran on Saturday, focusing on Plaquemines Parish, a long, skinny parish that stretches southeast from New Orleans, with the mighty Mississippi flowing right down its center 'til it spreads out in Delta at the mouth.   Plaquemines is spread over many miles, stretching from Belle Chasse, essentially a suburb of New Orleans, to Venice, a tiny community at the far, watery end of the parish.  The parish's total population is 23,628, but its poverty rate is just 11.6%, low for such a sparsely populated county in the South.  The headline for Campbell Robertson's Saturday story is "In Louisiana, the Water Gives, and Takes Away," and many folks featured in the story are from Venice, population 202, including shrimper Acy Cooper, who has just made his way back in his boat, after the weathering the storm in New Orleans.  He returned to Venice soon after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, sleeping on his boat and eventually bringing his family, too.  They lived there for months without power, and they expect to be without power for sometime again this fall.

Another quintessentially rural voice from Plaquemines is 53-year old Aleen Barthelemy of Phoenix, an unincorporated place not designated by the U.S. Census Bureau.  She waited out the storm in a hotel, planning to return home as soon as possible.  Barthelemy is quoted:
Call me crazy .... I don't want to be nowhere else.  If this happened a hundred times, I'm going to move back a hundred times.
Like her father and grandfather, Barthelemy was born and raised in Plaquemines Parish.
"You know that 40 acres and a mule thing?  That's how that started," she said.  It's country there, slow-paced and familiar, and it is worth the trouble. 
And that speaks volumes about rural people and places, volumes that urban folks often can't understand.