Thursday, February 28, 2013

Drought has big implications for a Texas town

The New York Times reported today on the closure of a meat processing plant in Plainview, Texas, a consequence of two years of drought.  The story also focuses, in turn, on the consequences of the closure for the town and its families.  Plainview has just about 22,000 residents, and about 2,300 were employed by the Cargill plant, which had a $15.5 million annual payroll.  Many of those families are now leaving Plainview, some for jobs at another Cargill plant in Dodge City, Kansas.  

Manny Fernandez's story described the plant's workforce, noting that several generations of some families worked there, many of them Mexican-Americans who have "long called Texas home."  He writes:
They spent decades rising into the middle class on an average hourly pay of $14.27 and becoming highly skilled at the grisly process of turning slaughtered cattle into beef products, though many lacked high school diplomas. 
* * *  
Cargill executives said they were idling the plant and not permanently closing it, and it could reopen if the drought breaks and the cattle herd rebounds, a process that would take years.   
On the day the plant closed, federal officials released data indicating that the number of cattle in the state of Texas was at its lowest point since 1967.  The plant was built in 1971.

The plant closure is expected to have significant impacts on the city's 12 schools. Among the 5,700 students, about 1,000 had at least one parent at Cargill.  If half of those students leave the district, the financial blow will be about $2 million in state and local funding.

Fernandez closes his story with this vignette:
Every Saturday morning, a group of residents and laid-off workers gather outside the plant to walk four miles around the perimeter. They do it not as a protest, and not strictly for the exercise. They encircle the plant with prayers. 
“It’s going to have to be a miracle,” said Manuel Balderas, a police captain who organizes the walks. “That’s what we’re praying for.”
Plainview is between Lubbock and Amarillo in the Texas panhandle.  It is the county seat of nonmetropolitan Hale County, population 36,000

Cuts to Medi-Cal reimbursement rates may close rural hospitals

The Sacramento Bee reported yesterday on the possibility--even probability--that several rural hospitals and skilled nursing facilities in northern California are facing impending closure, largely due to cuts in Medi-Cal reimbursement rates. These cuts, reflected in AB 97 passed in 2011 and designed to save California $330 million each year, trimmed 10 percent from the state's Medi-Cal budget. They affect 88 California hospitals.

Here's an excerpt from Jane Braxton Little's story, dateline Portola (population 2,104), and headlined "Portola Hospital could face closure over Medi-Cal reimbursement reductions."
Within the next few weeks – even days – the hospital that has been saving lives in this rural Plumas County community since 1910 may itself face mortality. 
Eastern Plumas Health Care is confronting a combination of reductions in its Medi-Cal reimbursements that amount to as much as 25 percent of the total, said Tom Hayes, administrator of the 75-bed hospital. 
In addition to a $1.3 million annual cut to the federal Medicaid program, called Medi-Cal in California, the state Department of Health Care Services is demanding a $2.4 million repayment of funds already issued retroactive to 2011.
Hayes explained that the cuts would reimburse skilled nursing facilities at rates 20% to 40% below below the facilities' actual cost to provide the services.  He went on to comment:  
If the California Department of Health Care Services requires us to pay this amount, it will be the demise of not only our skilled nursing facility but the entire organization.
A number of rural hospitals, as well as the California Hospital Association, sought an injunction to stay the cuts.  That injunction was upheld by a federal district court in Los Angeles, who ruled in February 2012 that "California's fiscal crisis does not outweigh the irreparable injury the plaintiffs would suffer." In December, 2012, that decision was reversed by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.  Thus the cuts can be levied in March or April.  Meanwhile, the plaintiffs are seeking to have their case heard en banc by the Ninth Circuit.  

The Bee notes that Assemblyman Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville, has introduced AB 900 to stop the proposed budget cuts to Medi-Cal reimbursements.

Meanwhile, hospitals like the one in Portola seem to be living on borrowed time.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

The continuing postal saga: rural implications of stopping Saturday service

The first two months of 2013 have been an interesting ride for the United States Postal Service. First, the USPS has been dragged down by Lance Armstrong's fall from grace following his admission of doping and being stripped of his Tour de France titles (however, the USPS may be able to recoup some of the sponsorship dollars they fed into the Armstrong team). Secondly, the recent announcement concerning the ending of Saturday home delivery of mail. And finally, in a headline pulled straight from Project Runway, the USPS announced the introduction of a new line of clothing. The surprisingly not-a-joke "Rain Heat & Snow" fashion line will be available for retail and is being billed as a revenue building endeavor. Ladies, don't get too excited, this inaugural line will only be available for men.

Although the implications of the fashion line are rife with opportunity for comment, this post will delve into the cessation of Saturday delivery of mail. As previously documented on this blog, decisions to cut back mail service impacts rural communities at a higher rate than urban communities, and is often ignored by main-steam media.

On February 6th, 2013 the USPS announced plans to end Saturday delivery of mail across the country. The changes won't take effect for six months in order to give consumers and employees time to make plans. The end of Saturday service comes after years of discussions about ways to make the USPS financially sound, with the most recent year posting a $15.9 billion deficit. The end of Saturday service is expected to save USPS $2 billion annually, which will make a bit of a dent in the deficit currently being experienced.

The largest reason articulated for the USPS change to the delivery schedule is consumer support for ending Saturday mail delivery. Early polls by national news networks from 2010 through 2012 indicate that there has been wide-spread support for ending Saturday delivery. Between 67 and 71% of Americans surveyed were in support of switching to 5-day delivery in the various polls.

USPS has recently released a survey that demonstrates support for the 5-day delivery schedule across geographic boundaries. The survey cited by USPS was conducted between February 8th and 11th by the research company IPSOS. One thousand and two US residents were surveyed and the study had a 3.1% margin of error with a 95% confidence letter. The responses are categorized by the respondent's geographic location, designated as either Urban, Suburban or Rural. Although the USPS doesn't include definitions of these geographic definitions or provide information as to the number of participants in each category, it is important to acknowledge USPS's attention to geography and place. Perhaps this change in approach and express inclusion of geographic responses is in anticipation of a well-organized response from rural consumers, similar to the response that ended previous plans to limit service to rural communities.

Although USPS's direct acknowledgment of differences between urban, suburban and rural perceptions about mail service is important to acknowledge, the currently cited survey does not strike me as genuine. The small sample size coupled with a failure to define the geographic populations mentioned is concerning. The timing of the survey cast additional doubts on the validity of the sample, as the survey was conducted only two days after the decision to move to 5-day service was announced to the public. Additionally, subsequent questions in the survey appear phrased in ways to support favorable results. Finally, the survey was conducted solely on the basis of internet responses. As has been previously documented, broadband and internet resources are not readily available in rural areas. Rural residents who are filling out surveys put out by USPS are likely not the residents who rely on Saturday home delivery services as a connection to others.

The survey initially divides responses to a question about support of the shift to a 5-day a week delivery schedule. In this first question (found on page 3), 76% of Rural respondent's support the switch to 5-day delivery. While urban and suburban dwellers support the decision at 81% and 82% respectively. The introduction to this question states that the observed differences in the areas are not statistically significant. While the 6% difference between rural and suburban dwellers is within the +/- 3.1% margin of error, it is right on the far end of the margin. It seems disingenuous to disregard this difference in the poll, especially one with so few participants and such a large margin of error.

The USPS survey goes on to close the gap between rural and suburban dwellers by introducing the current budget deficit as a reason to end Saturday service. In a subsequent question relating to the move to 5-day service being linked to allowing the postal service to be financially stable, the number of supporters in all geographic areas jumped to 85-86% (see page 7). This questions appears particularly misleading especially in light of the fact that the reduction to 5-day service will eliminate less than 8% of the USPS operational deficit.

Anecdotal evidence provides a more faceted picture of rural resident's reactions to the changes in the home delivery schedule. In rural California, resident's provided viewpoints on both ends of the spectrum in response to ending Saturday home delivery. A particularly compelling piece by Vermont Public Radio paints the rural post office as an enduring social centerpiece of the community. Al Floyd, a local general store owner in Brookfield, VT laments: "I think they will but they're going to take the heart right out of the town," he says. "It gives it a name. I mean, we got a ZIP code!"

Despite dissatisfaction amongst rural residents, USPS is in a serious financial crisis. A recent LA Times article suggests putting USPS in charge of expanding broadband services throughout the United States. As noted above, the limitations of the current broadband system cast doubt on the published USPS survey. Could an expansion of broadband solve reductions in home delivery?

Perhaps it is a start, but there may be additional barriers in play for many residents of rural American. The shortage of home broadband has been documented amongst seniors, along with the low number of seniors owning laptops or smartphones. Might these fiscal barriers or computer literacy issues come in the way of broadband expansion being the answer to decreased home mail delivery?

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

A vignette of parallel gun-making, gun-toting cultures in Montana

Felicity Barringer reports in the New York Times today from Bigfork, Montana, population 1,421, "Where Guns Are a Way of Life, and a Living." Alternative headlines being used for the story are "In Kalispell, Montana, Guns Are a Matter of Life," and "In Montana Town's Hands, Guns Mean Cultural Security."  Barringer's story reports on the significance of gun manufacturing--both high-end, artisan type production and mass production of guns, including assault weapons--to the local economy.  In nearby Kalispell, the county seat of Flathead County, gun manufacturers have been responsible for more than 200 jobs since 2005.  

Barringer writes that "gun owns and Second Amendment supporters have been pitted against one another" since the Sandy Hook school shooting, but she doesn't state explicitly what the conflict is.   What she implies is that old fashioned (or old school or old timer) gunsmiths and gun owners here have different views on assault weapons than does the NRA, its most rabid supporters (my adjectives, not hers) and, for that matter, newcomer gun manufacturers who are producing assault weapons. In a sense, what Barringer seems to convey is an oldtimer vs. newcomer tension typical of rural places, with one area of disagreement being attitudes about the type of guns appropriate for private ownership, as well as their uses.  She reports that a former state Senate President, Republican Bob Brown, had written an op-ed in a local paper calling on gun owners to take back the NRA, which he said had been hijacked and radicalized.  Views opposing Brown's position were summarized, Barringer reports, by online comments like this one:
As long as the American people are able to arm themselves properly there will never be a ‘cultural revolution’ that takes 60 million lives like that in China. A disarmed man is no man, he is a slave to his oppressors.
The writer apparently sees "proper" arms as meaning assault weapons and high capacity ammunition clips.

Representing the other end of the spectrum is "Lee Helgeland, 65, a high-end gunsmith who ... lives deep in the country" and who sees the rise in assault weapons as "a problematic development." Barringer quotes her story with a long quote from Helgeland:
We grew up with gun safety pounded into our heads when we were kids.  ... It’s a problem — the misuse of firearms — without a solution. 
There is a great distance between the world of the guns I make and the criminal element using the semiautomatics and the Saturday night specials.  The urban attitude, the attitude of the antigun people, is based on unfamiliarity with the use of firearms in this part of the world.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Victory for hemp? Something is growing on in Kentucky: re-igniting the industrial hemp debate in 2013.

An agricultural renaissance may be on the horizon; Midwestern states such as Kentucky are leading the way to Washington DC with bipartisan support. This month politicians made several key strides and pushes towards the legalization of industrial hemp farming. Kentucky made headlines on the 14th of February when the state senate voted to approve a measure (SB 50) that would allow the licensing of hemp growers should the federal government permit cultivation of the crop. The Kentucky Senate Agriculture committee voted unanimously in favor of the bill while the full senate passed the bill with a 31 to 6 vote.

The mention of farming hemp may conjure mental images of the natural-fabric-wearing and biodegradable-soap-using counterculture for some, but the truth is hemp is a significant contributor to America’s agricultural history. Hemp cultivation dates back to the late 1700’s and was grown by notable historic figures such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson before it was heavily taxed in the late thirties and later banned in the 70’s. The crop was used as a textile fiber, supplying material for cord and sailcloth in the 1800’s and is currently used in a variety of commercial industries around the world. In the early 1900’s Kentucky produced the majority of the United States’ hemp supply so it should come as no surprise that the state’s representatives are leading the way in Washington.

Although several states condone and permit the cultivation of industrial hemp, growing industrial hemp is currently illegal and farmers are subject to the DEA’s enforcement and prosecution. Industrial hemp is illegal because no distinction is made between cannabis cultivars. The narcotic variety and hemp marijuana are both Cannabis Sativa, but they contain different levels of THC and have very different phenotypes. Hemp does not contain enough THC to have a narcotic effect and unlike its shrubby high-inducing counterpart is a tall, fibrous plant with more stalk than foliage.

The distinction between the two varieties of cannabis sativa is what lawmakers in Kentucky and other states seek to define. Republicans and Democrats in Kentucky and DC are reaching across the aisle and teaming up to garner support for H.R. 525 The Industrial Hemp Farming Act of 2013. This resolution seeks to amend the controlled substances act by excluding industrial hemp from the definition of marijuana.

It might seem odd that republican representatives and red states are in strong support of drug legislation reform, but many of these politicians are citing agricultural renewal and economic opportunity as the reason for a renewed dialogue on the issue. Hemp products and goods that contain hemp are part of a very profitable industry. In fact, the Hemp Industries Association estimated hemp product sales of more than 400 million dollars in 2011. Industrial hemp could provide substantial economic growth in depressed agricultural areas where previous industries such as tobacco or cotton have foundered. Industrial hemp proponents have a wide array of support in rural and agricultural industries, including the Grange and the National Farm Lobby. However, resistance remains among politicians and law enforcement who are convinced that legalizing industrial hemp will be both expensive and problematic. In order to ensure H.R. 525 doesn’t meet the same fate as the previous industrial hemp farming acts (H.R. 1009, 1866 and 1831) proponents will have to find new and constructive ways to present the issue.

Medical training for rural health care

The California Health Care Foundation estimates that with the Supreme Courts validation of the Affordable Car Act, millions of new patients will be entering the healthcare system by 2014. The foundation explains that California already has a below average amount of doctors per capita than most other states. The Foundation further explains challenges facing California in 2014:
California has an unusually large number of doctors heading into their retirement years. It expects a much higher-than- average rise in the health-intensive 65-and-older population. And it has one of the lowest reimbursement rates in the country for Medi-Cal, the state's primary program offering health coverage for the poor.
One of the many concerns regarding the Affordable Care Act is how the country is going to adjust to the overwhelming increase of patients in the healthcare system.
"The Affordable Care Act will add hundreds of thousands of people to the rolls of the insured. That's good," said Dr. G. Richard Olds, founding dean of the UC Riverside School of Medicine. "But where are the primary care physicians going to come from to serve that population?"
The problem described by Dr. Olds is even more prevalent in rural areas, where doctors and healthcare are already in short supply. Although creative thinking and brainstorming can solve many problems, it seems the only way to solve this problem is to get more doctors into the field, especially ones working in rural areas.

The University of Kansas, a medical school that focuses on keeping graduating doctor’s in rural areas, often faces challenges getting graduates to stay:
They say they have every intention of coming back to rural Kansas but they meet a soul mate, they get married. Their soul mate happens to be from a big city and we never see them again. They get captured in the big city.  Hopefully, if we train them in smaller communities, they can meet their prospective spouses here, they can network here and they have those connections which can be lifelong.
The UC Davis School of Medicine had recently launched a new program that will help train soon-to-be Doctors to practice general healthcare in rural areas. This program is aimed not only at educating young doctors on how to practice in rural communities, but also helping to build ties between young doctors and rural communities.

The program at UC Davis medical school advertises the practice of rural medicine as one that offers many opportunities due to its broad scope of practice:
Students at UC Davis will train for rural medicine in a way far different from their predecessors. Our focus combines team medical practice, advanced information and telecommunication technologies and evidence-based medicine, while still recognizing what has always made rural medicine fulfilling and fun: that broad scope of practice, great relationships with patients and the knowledge that you are making a difference.
The innovative curriculum at UC Davis Medical school will:
Increase student exposure to rural practice, allow for consistent teaching and mentorship by rural physicians, equip students with tools for life-long learning, combine the M.D. and master's degrees in public health, medical informatics or another, related health-care field.
Programs like these could be a saving grace for patients in rural areas. The unique curriculum used by the UC Davis School of Medicine does not just educate students on how to practice rural medicine, but actually exposes them to rural communities. Hopefully, this kind of exposure will help create ties between young medical students and the communities they are working with. Furthermore, the exposure to such medicine at the beginning of a doctor’s career may result in a new population of doctors that value and appreciate the work that needs to be done is rural communities.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Law and Order in the Ozarks (Part CXIII): School under lock down for drug search

"Jasper School under lockdown Monday" is the lead story in the February 13, 2013 issue of the Newton County Times.  It reports that the Jasper School was under lock down on Feb. 11 while "a law enforcement canine and its handler accompanied by local law enforcement and staff conducted a search for contraband in student lockers and backpacks and in vehicles parked in the school parking lot."  The search was apparently conducted as a deterrent to student drug use, not because of any information indicating that any particular student(s) had or were using drugs.  The story quotes the high school principal as indicating that he was pleased with how things went but was "not at liberty to discuss what was or was not found."

Another campus in the Jasper system, Oark, was recently searched in similar manner, and the story reports that the last school in the district, Kingston, "will also be searched at some unannounced time."  The search was conducted by a Belgian Malinois, Tyson, and his handler, Carroll County Deputy D.J. Harlan.  Tyson is trained to sniff out illegal drugs and served a year in Iraq, the story notes.

A January 2, 2013 story reported that three 10th grade boys at the Jasper campus were suspended from classes and then expelled after they were found to be in violation of the district's policy on banned substances.  Following a 10-day suspension, one was expelled for an additional 30 days, and the other two were expelled for an additional 20 days.

In other school news, the Deer-Mt. Judea Board of Education heard at their January meeting of staff members' concerns about school security and the need for salary increases.  The Deer Elementary Principal, Pete Edgmon, said his staff members met after the school shootings at Sandy Hook in Connecticut to discuss what additional security measures they should take. Edgmon suggested that all Deer School building should be locked with only teachers allowing students in and out.  He suggested that entrances to main buildings would be locked and additionally guarded with a buzzer that would sound in their respective offices alerting to visitors, and surveillance cameras would be positioned in certain locations.  Edgmon also suggested that all staff should be fitted with walkie talkies when they had outdoor duties so they would be in direct contact with the offices at all times.  He opined that these measures would not be expensive to put in place.

Edgmon also reported that base teacher salaries have not bee raised in nine years, leading some younger teachers to look for opportunities elsewhere.  The superintendent, Richard Denniston, explained that the state legislature sets base teacher salaries, and it has not addressed the matter in at least the last three sessions.  "At the same time, schools are funded based on their average daily membership and enrollment" which, until recently, was on the decline.  He continued:
The school district must be cautious with expenditures to prevent the additional pitfall of landing on the state education department's fiscal distress list.  If a school district is on that list two consecutive years the state can close the school.  Some schools have reduced their staffs to cure their funding problems.  We're on a skeletal staff now.  
Denniston noted that individual families in the district had recruited foreign students to the school in order to increase enrollment and save it from mandatory consolidation.  However, he said that keeping enrollment at the current level (356) will be a challenge and he suggested that the district "pursue its many churches to support two foreign students each.  A bona fide effort by churches would help."  Denniston noted a similar effort by the Lead Hill School District in Boone County.

A separate story--indeed, the lead story--from the same January 30, 2013, issue of the paper was headlined "Pee-wee basketball teams will play to win." It reports on a survey conducted regarding the attitude that coaches should take in pee-wee basketball.  One paragraph of the story sums up the debate:
    The basketball program for fifth and sixth grade boys and girls has been discussed earlier this year both at school board meetings and at meetings held with coaches and parents.  The issue has been a philosophical one:  Everyone gets to play vs. Play the best players in order to win.
    The story does not indicate who responded to the survey, only that "the majority wants to play to win over more participation."  The next paragraph is quite confusing:  "The play to win agenda was followed until last year. Parents apparently did not want a repeat."  

    Another policy related to pee-wee basketball allows volunteer coaches to oversee practices and games, though at least one school district coach or other certified staff member or administrator must be present to monitor the gym and accompany teams to games.  The school coaches, who are too busy with the junior and senior high season to assist with pee-wee coaching, will nevertheless schedule the pee-wee games.  

    In other news:
    • A former member of the Compton Water Corporation's board of directors has expressed concern about the board being out compliance with bylaws by passing regulations and rules at private meetings.  
    • The Newton County Farmers Market Organization will be meeting on Feb. 25 to set up farmers markets for the upcoming growing season.  
    • The Mt. Judea Area Alliance is endorsing a Book Nook at Cave Creek.  This is part of the Little Free Library Movement (with between 5000 and 6000 libraries world wide), and retired school librarian Bertie Wells and her husband Ron Wells are responsible for it.  The Book Nook is in the front of the Wells yard, near the road. Everyone is encouraged to take a book and pass it on.    

    Friday, February 15, 2013

    Law and order news out of Indian country

    The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in mid January that the lawsuits of two Indian families against F.B.I. agents who allegedly failed to properly investigate the murders of loved ones can proceed.  Both families/plaintiffs are from the Crow Indian reservation in Montana, and that is where the crimes occurred. The New York Times reports:
    The court declined last month to reverse a 2010 federal court ruling that said the F.B.I. agent, Matthew Oravec, did not have qualified immunity from legal action, a protection usually given to government employees when acting in an official capacity — and a status sought by the Justice Department, which had appealed the ruling by the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
    The suits against Oravec are based on the Fifth Amendment, with plaintiffs asserting equal protection and due process violations.  

    Oravec was involved in investigating the deaths of Steven Bearcane in 2005 and that of Robert Springfield in 2004, both on the Crow reservation. Journalist Timothy Williams explains:  
    Federal prosecutors did not file charges in either case, and the men’s families sued, accusing Mr. Oravec of conducting a second-rate investigation, which they said was part of a wider problem of discrimination against Indian crime victims on the reservation. 
    The lawsuit also asserted that Mr. Oravec had sought to intimidate family members, made derogatory remarks about Indians and had refused to carry out basic investigative tasks, including interviewing potential witnesses or taking crime scene photographs.
    Williams's story quotes Patricia S. Bangert, the lawyer who represents the Bearcane family:  
    The decision puts federal and state law enforcement agents on notice that they may be held personally liable if they discriminate against Indians in investigating crimes against them.
    According to Bangert, her clients had offered to dismiss the lawsuit if the "federal government agreed to allow a third party to investigate independently, but that the government had declined."

    Earlier posts related to the Bearcane case and general failings of federal law enforcement in Indian country are here and here

    In more recent news, a townhall meeting is set to discuss the failings of the child protection system at the Spirit Lake Indian reservation in North Dakota.  Timothy Williams reports for the New York Times here.
    Residents have complained that the Bureau of Indian Affairs and federal prosecutors have done too little to stop child abuse, which officials acknowledge is commonplace on Spirit Lake and has reached epidemic levels, whistle-blowers say. North Dakota’s senators and a representative are expected to attend the meeting. 
    The federal government took over the tribe’s social services in October, and in one month federal officials said they had investigated more than 100 cases of reported child abuse. More recent figures are not available, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
    Earlier posts about the failed child protection system at Spirit Lake are here and here

    Tuesday, February 12, 2013

    AG boom and bust

    On my return from New York City, that most un-rural of places, I needed some entertainment for the long flight back to California. So I grabbed a copy of The Economist (and a copy of Maxim. Stop judging me; it is a long flight and one magazine isn't enough) to re-tune with the political and economic world after being in a month and a half long cocoon of moot courting.

    In the agricultural economics section was an article about the boom of agriculture in the United States. Last years drought might have destroyed whole fields of corn and soy, but in the cold hard world of economics scarcity means profit.

    Corn and soy prices have skyrocketed in the post-drought year, because there is so "little" available. That isn't really true, there is still plenty of corn and soy to feed us, but markets see such fluctuations as being cost altering.

    The article crowed about how this was causing a sharp rise in agricultural profits. Investors were being encouraged to buy up futures in crops now as prices will only climb in the short term due to climate change. This was all to the benefit of the investors, but no one in the article seemed too concerned with the small farmers.

    Perhaps The Economist can be forgiven for forgetting the little farmer. Does that little farmer even really exist anymore? It seems corporate farms have taken over America's food production. In a situation where big corporations and investors want to corner the market on each other, I say go for it. Yet there still have to be some small farmers out there that will be hurt by this.

    High profits mean more corporate farms are going to look for a bigger piece of the economic pie. So will the little guy and gal be faced with mounting pressure to get out from under the bank and sell their land to the big guys?

    If farm land is going to be subject to investors, speculators and mega farm corporations, I'm scared for the future of the little guys that are trying to eek out a living growing crops. Ag land has always been subject to wild fluctuations in value, but this seems like the first time all but a few players have millions to go land hunting.

    We might be inching even closer to the end of the family farm if these high, high prices keeping encouraging non-farmers to get into the Ag game.

    Monday, February 11, 2013

    Mo money mo problems? Does quinoa’s popularity pose a B.I.G food security risk in South America?

    Forget TJ’s butter chicken, Quinoa is the latest food making headlines these days. A number of recent articles documenting its rapid increase in popularity and price are receiving widespread attention due to a controversy regarding the impact of its rise to health-food stardom. Quinoa is nowhere near pushing bananas or chocolate from the top rungs of the moral and ethically debated foods ladder, but recent trends are certainly cause for concern and awareness.

    The majority of the world’s quinoa is grown in the altiplano regions of Peru and Bolivia where it has been a staple crop throughout South American history. Often mistaken for a grain, the seed is hailed as a superfood and is internationally recognized for its nutrient density. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization declared 2013 “The International Year of the Quinoa,” praising its high protein, amino acid, and mineral content. The FAO views quinoa as an excellent ally in the fight against global food insecurity. Widespread recognition of its nutrient dense value, in addition to its popularity in vegetarian dishes, has led to a significant increase in global demand for the crop.

    The rise in popularity is where the cause for controversy lies. Its simple economics: as the demand for quinoa increases so does the price. In fact, the crop costs almost three times as much as it did five years ago. These recent trends are changing livelihoods in quinoa farming regions, arguably for better or worse. Farmers who left the region in search of financial security might return to farming, while current farmers are receiving more money for their crop, allowing them to better support their families.

    In a recent NPR program, Annie Murphy documented the story of Ernesto Choquetopa--a quinoa farmer, who through an organic cooperative, has been able to market his crop to retailers such as Whole Foods and send his daughter to medical school. Proponents of globalization and free trade argue increasing demand and rising prices are beneficial for both farmers and export markets. Doug Sanders of The Globe and Mail cites the benefits of an expanding quinoa market in his response to an article in the Guardian that railed against the “unpalatable truth” and downside of Quinoa’s new popularity.

    Food justice advocates have been quick to point out that we cannot examine this trend through rose, or in quinoa’s case—royal red, colored glasses. Higher prices can increase the financial burden in local communities. The staple crop is now less affordable for those who rely on it: non-farmers and urban dwellers in quinoa growing and surrounding regions. As a result, quinoa consumption has declined in the growing regions while malnutrition has increased. There are also environmental concerns. Will quinoa’s popularity lead farmers to forgo sustainable practices such as rotational growing, fertilizing and grazing? Will farmers take-up use of chemicals and synthetics to increase their short term production? Will we witness the displacement of farmers as wealthy landowners and plantations push them off their land to monocrop?

    It is a complicated topic; the outcomes of the quinoa market and farmer are difficult to predict. It is also easy to oversimplify. Those who share Sanders’ view cite declining hunger and malnutrition rates throughout the country when countering critics assume correlation between economic growth and poverty relief. However, critics who point out increased rates of hunger in quinoa regions omit consideration of the global trend of rising food costs. One cannot draw conclusions based on recent news articles alone. However, the ethical and environmental concerns raised in these debates bring to light important considerations consumers can take when making their grocery lists. Locavores will be happy to know that quinoa is produced on the small and organic scale here in the US. Dedicated green thumbed foodies can delight in growing a crop of quinoa in their own gardens, but be forewarned---like the quinoa debate, it is not as simple as cutting and drying.

    Sunday, February 10, 2013

    Rural areas may feel brunt of Boy Scouts "local option"

    On January 30, an inside source at the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) leaked word of the organization’s pending deliberations on a proposed change to their national policy disallowing openly gay individuals from Scout membership. The 103-year-old organization is considering transferring the decision-making power to the hands of local troops, in a significant shift since their July 2012 affirmation of the current exclusionary stance. Under this policy, local troops must choose between ejecting openly gay troop leaders (often from their own child's troop), and ceding national membership in the BSA, thus losing insurance, funding and a connection both nominal and substantive to the larger organization.

    The backdrop to BSA’s newfound sensitivity to inclusion is the solvency – both cultural and financial – of the organization itself. CNN reported that Boy Scouts membership, currently at 2.7 million, has dropped by nearly one-third since 1999. And since the 2012 affirmation of the policy, Scouts for Equality, a civil rights group dedicated to opening the doors of the BSA, launched a campaign urging the corporate sponsors of BSA to drop their support as anathema to corporate anti-discrimination policies. Intel, Merck and UPS, three of the Scouts largest corporate funders, have pulled their money since the campaign began (just six months ago).

    Some advocates believe the local option is sorely inadequate, as it will allow local prejudice to dictate the policy for small-town Scouts. In a recent editorial, Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, states that this move would effectively undermine the BSA’s position against openly gay Scouts and leaders without recognizing the continued harm it would inflict on those individuals excluded by the policy: “Don’t pass the buck and watch passively while young people in progressive big cities are free to be Scouts while those in conservative small towns are turned away.”

    The New York Times, too, framed the concept of local control as one likely to fracture along rural/urban lines: “The debate, according to scout leaders and parents, was shaped by two great forces that have defined scouting for decades: The huge role played by churches in sponsoring Scout troops, and the tradition of local control, which can differ greatly from urban downtowns to rural farm country.”

    In moments like these, ‘rural’ and ‘small-town’ become synonymous with religious. The basis for decision-making regarding institutional acceptance or exclusion of gay community members often turns on religious affiliation. And indeed, the Boy Scouts have a deep historical connection to churches, whose support accounts for 70% of the troop affiliations and funding. The Mormon Church has the leading stronghold on the Scouts, with 421,000 Mormon boys enrolled in the Scouts and the Church sponsoring 15% of troops nationwide. In this light, the troops located in small-towns in conservative areas are likely to continue to disallow openly gay members, while troops in larger areas or small towns with a progressive bent will open the gates.

    Dan Savage, a nationally syndicated sex advice columnist, who is gay and the parent of a young son, wrote an article about BSA’s national policy back in 2000. He noted the harm rended by the exclusion as one primarily affecting young gay teens, not adults:
    [T]he Scouts' ban on gays is cruel [not to gay adults, but] to gay adolescents--boys who are already involved in scouting. What's worse is that it's cruel to them at a particularly vulnerable time in their lives. A gay teenager who got involved in scouting before he had any inkling that he might be gay can now add the fear of being tossed out of the Boy Scouts to a long list of other fears, like being rejected by his family, ostracized by his friends, and condemned by his church.
    For small-town proponents of the national policy against admitting openly gay members to the Scouts, local control threatens to undermine their own vision for the Scouts. In a recent Times article, the mother of a Boy Scout in Broussard, Louisiana (population 8,302) predicts:

    “It will be the small troops that decide they don’t want to have a homosexual leader, and then where do they go for help? If they get sued by the A.C.L.U. or whatever organization decides to come after them, they won’t have the resources or the backing of the Boy Scouts of America because of this policy. It will be the destruction of the Boy Scouts.”
    In this formulation, the national policy serves as a safety net for those in small towns, whose beliefs are buttressed by the overarching structure of the BSA; severing that connection would leave these Troops untethered and isolated. Leaving to the side the fact that isolation and lack of support are exactly the threats faced by those excluded under the current policy, it appears that the prospect of local control threatens both sides' positions. And for both sides, it is those troops in remote areas who would experience the brunt of the resulting harm. In small towns, there are fewer outlets for everyone – fewer people translates into fewer community groups, fewer options for connecting, and fewer resources for self-support (with an attendant increase in reliance on outside structures).

    But it’s hard to see these potential harms as equal to one another. When reading about the BSA controversy, I immediately thought of ACLU’s anti-bullying campaign - focused on making “public schools safe and bias-free for LGBT students” - and the It Gets Better Project, which culls testimonial videos attesting to the fact that it gets better for LGBT individuals after high school, so to “inspire hope for young people facing harassment.”

    It Gets Better was launched by the above-mentioned Dan Savage in 2010, in response to a rash of teen suicides whose roots were found in severe harassment inflicted by their classmates on account of their sexual orientation. The teens saw little to no intervention from school officials or authority figures. The youngest among the victims were from small towns. (Another modern phenomenon of violence which takes place disproportionately in rural areas is mass shootings).

    Rural places thrive on, and suffer from, their isolation: rural geography and population foster an insulation that can create tight-knit communities which at times embody an idyllic vision of American life (see the recent coverage of the Alabama kidnapping). But these tightly bounded worlds can also be pressure-cookers for those who don’t conform to the mold. By backing down on the national policy of discrimination, but failing to step far enough in the opposite direction (towards positive inclusion), the BSA’s local option will simply reinforce the more rigid of local norms, narrowing the realm of the acceptable and thinning to a sliver any light from alternative choices for gay youth. The recent strides we’ve made in gay rights obscures this reality for many young people living in areas where conservative ideals rule, and few alternatives are in view. BSA’s national policy brings these persistent issues to light.

    Saturday, February 9, 2013

    Law and Order in the Ozarks (Part CXII): Groceries and guns

    The Feb. 6, 2013 issue of the Newton County Times reports on several major happenings, with the lead story being the re-naming of Bob's AG Supermarket after its purchase by the Harp's chain, based in Springdale, Arkansas.  Bob's had operated in Jasper since 1967 and is the grocery store I grew up with, having also gone to school with Bob's children.  The good news is that Jasper still has a grocery store and residents are not forced to go to Harrison, 20 miles away, for groceries.  Read reports about the demise of rural grocery stores here and here.

    In more substantive news, the Quorum Court (equivalent of a Board of Supervisors) adopted Resolution No. 13-01, "A Resolution Supporting the Individual Right to Bear Arms as Established by the Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United Staes of America and Supported by the Laws of Nature and God for Survival and Self Defense."  The resolution is similar to a non-binding resolution approved by Arkansas's state lawmakers last month, urging the federal government not to limit Second Amendment rights.  Among other things, the resolution states:
    WHEREAS, the individual right to keep and bear arms is fully germane to the right to life-survival and self defense and the right of liberty ...
    At the same meeting the Quorum Court appropriated funds to the Sheriff's office for "computers and to help meet detention costs."  The appropriations included $3,603 from the a Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District grant for the purchase of computers that law enforcement officers can use in the field, as was phone signal boosters.  The Quorum Court also appropriated $793.48 received from the state for unclaimed property and $15,300 in general funds to the County Special Detention Fund.  The County has received $34,061.94 from the federal government for the "purpose of patrolling and rescuing on government lands, of which $4,200 is in service contracts for local fire departments, and the remainder is Tittle III budget funds for personal services.

    In other news, the Arkansas Dept. of Rural Services awarded $61,000 to the Jasper Volunteer Fire Department for the purchase of a new tanker truck.

    U.S. Congressman Tim Cotton has set a townhall meeting for February 9 at the Huntsville City Hall.

    Amish sect leader sentenced to 15 years for religion-based hate crimes

    Samuel Mullett, Sr., the leader of a breakaway sect of Amish in Bergholz, Ohio, was sentenced to 15 years in relation to his conviction of federal hate crimes for forcibly cutting the hair and beards of Amish not part of his faction, which is 18 families strong.  Fifteen of Mullett's followers, including three of his sons and their wives, were also convicted of related offenses, but they received shorter sentences, ranging from one year and one day (for most of the six women defendants) to seven years.  The prosecutor had recommended a life sentence for the elder Mullett, who was said to have coordinated the assaults even though he did not participate in any of them.

    Reports of sentencing indicate that the elder Mullett asked that he serve all of the defendants' sentences so that the four couples involved could "go home to their families, raise their children."  The New York Times report included this further detail of the sentencing.
    Another defendant, Lester Miller, apologized before the sentencing to his parents, whom he and others, including his wife, Elizabeth Miller, had attacked. He asked the judge to spare his wife, “to put her sentence on me,” so she could care for their 11 children, according to WKYC-TV.
    Other defendants asked the judge to give them all or part of the elder Mullett's sentence.

    Eyder Peralta's story about the matter, for NPR, is here.  The New York Times coverage is here.  Earlier blog posts about the events are here and here.

    Friday, February 8, 2013

    Jerry Brown's day in the country

    The Sacramento Bee reported yesterday on Jerry Brown's visit to Colusa, California, population 5,971.
    Gov. Jerry Brown knew the room was against him when he showed up for a farm show here Wednesday. 
    But Brown has a controversial water project to promote and is trying to make inroads in rural California. He put on a flannel shirt and opened with a joke. 
    "I checked out the voting history of Colusa County," Brown said. 
    Not only has the county opposed the Democratic governor every time he has been on a ballot, Brown said, but it overwhelmingly voted against a similar, unsuccessful, water plan Brown championed when he was governor before, in 1982.
    * * *
    Later – after Brown had toured the farm show, sat on a tractor and announced that he will build a house on family land nearby – even his second cousin's reaction suggested how difficult it may be for Brown to find support among area farmers for his $14 billion plan. Brown is proposing to build two tunnels to divert water around the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to the south.
    * * *
    Appearing at a farm show in a rural, relatively tiny county is indicative of how significant the project is to the governor.
    Wow, I guess a California governor has to be pretty desperate about something really important--like water for southern Californians--to spend time visiting a rural area, even paying lipservice to their interests and concerns.

    The story concludes:
    Following Brown's address, he made small talk with farmers and exhibitors as he strode through the grounds. Brown ate a few prunes, asked about machinery and appeared all but ready, at one booth, to purchase a flagpole. 
    At the suggestion of first lady Anne Gust Brown, the governor put his dog, Sutter, on a tractor. His wife told him it would make good "publicity for the (farm) show."

    Read more here:
    Colusa is the county seat of Colusa County, population 21,419, which is one California's six original counties.  

    In other rural news, it was revealed this week that the Brown administration has been using funds from the controversial rural fire protection fee to investigate and "chase" fire starters, a practice the Office of Legislative Counsel views as a violation of state law.  Read more here.  Some background on the fee is here.  Now, Brown has posted a bill that would permit the state to use the fire fund "beyond where fee payers live." His bill would "additionally include fire projects in areas that immediately threaten state responsibility areas." Meanwhile, Republican legislators are proposing to eliminate the fee altogether.  Read more here. Currently, about 825,000 rural home owners pay the $150 annual fee.

    Thursday, February 7, 2013

    Small town as "super-human"?

    Yes, I know that small towns are not human, let alone super human, but this recent headline from the New York Times seems to anthropomorphize a particular town in Alabama--the one where a standoff between a mentally ill man who abducted a young child and local police ended a few days go.  The headline for the story by Campbell Robertson and Robbie Brown is "Small Town Wins Its Standoff with Kidnapper," and the tone is somewhat similar to the Times earlier reporting about the Midland City, Alabama incident.  (See this prior post).  Not only does the Robertson-Brown story treat Midland City, population 1,703, as a homogeneous and cohesive unit, like prior NYT coverage of the kidnapping, it focuses on religion.  Here's an excerpt that refers to the fact that the boy kidnapped, Ethan, had an assigned seat on the bus from which he was kidnapped, a seat with his name on it:
    It seems unthinkable that even a man with a conspiratorial bent like Jimmy Lee Dykes, Ethan’s kidnapper, would bear a violent impulse against the familiar small-town universe of school buses and name tags. And it seems hard to imagine, in turn, that this universe could stand up under Mr. Dykes’s sort of violence. But over the past week, as the world of pot luck dinners and prayer meetings joined with the lethal efficiency of elite law enforcement, Mr. Dykes fought and lost.
    Which leaves me wondering: Do Brown and Campbell seriously believe that the outcome would have been different had this happened in a metropolitan area rather than in little ol' Midland City?  Was it the small town solidarity and prayer--or the "lethal efficiency of elite law enforcement"--that made the difference?

    Wednesday, February 6, 2013

    Selling trucks, shortchanging reality

    Chrysler’s ad for the new Dodge Ram was arresting from the first moment. The crackle of an old radio marked a departure from the Super Bowl’s diet of anthropomorphic, snack-food loving animals and club scenes touting Budweiser’s latest iteration. The commercial’s aged patina and no-nonsense narration evoked a pared-down, no-nonsense America.

    The ad featured late radio broadcaster Paul Harvey delivering his 1978 homage to the American farmer over a slideshow of classic farm scenes. “And on the eighth day,” Harvey declared, “God looked down on his planned paradise and said, ‘I need a caretaker.’ So God made a farmer.” The slideshow is unabashed Americana: pickups and barns, prairie churches and weathered farmers.

    Chrysler’s play at returning us to our rural roots was heralded as a marketing triumph by most in the industry. Heartland politicos were understandably tickled: even Iowa’s Governor Terry Brandstad joined the media chorus, quipping that he “thought it was one of the best ads that aired during the Super Bowl.”

    Once our plucked heartstrings settled, however, some began to see something subversive. The ad painted a portrait of American farm life that is racially homogeneous and dominated by the family farm. The brief flash of a darker-skinned family in the middle of the ad only made the discrepancy starker.

    Agricultural America isn’t all white – fully half of farmworkers are Hispanic – and the family farm hasn’t dominated rural economies for quite some time. Taken as homage to those producing our food, this commercial clearly comes up short. The Atlantic broke from the general gushing, deriding Chrysler’s trumpeting of outdated rural tropes as 'whitewashing':
    Now, did God make Mexican farmworkers or only white farmers? Is the strength and toughness that comes from hard work God's gift to white people only? [...] the way this ad whitewashed American farming leaves Mexican farmworkers and their children "excluded from the process of patriotism[.]"
    Other criticisms were more tempered. Here's what NPR had to say:
    Despite these objections, one thing is for sure: For two captivating minutes Sunday night, the values and future of American farming left the sidelines of the popular conversation to dominate a very, very large stage.
    I felt quite the opposite. While I enjoyed the commercial and Paul Harvey’s rousing speech, the commercial did little to shed light on the issues facing rural America. By valorizing a narrow slice of rural America, I think Chrysler actually contributed to a broader cognitive dissonance between the myth and reality of rural America. I think waving images of Grant Wood's rural America to sell trucks is harmful because it inoculates us against a full discussion of the issues. This ad belongs in the canon of cultural references to the half-truths of the rural myth discussed on this blog.

    Assuaged by the myth of Paul Harvey’s Heartland, we seem largely content to put rural immigration issues and poverty aside. The close association between white farmers and agrarian values only stokes the passions of those who believe these values are under siege by the latest tide of immigrant farmworkers. Public perception of agriculture also certainly contributes to the untouchable nature of the farm bill. The American food production system is often inhumane, irresponsible, and inefficient, yet metro-centric media continues to fetishize a rural reality that simply isn’t.

    Chrysler is pledging up to one million dollars derived from ad views to FFA, an organization dedicated to agricultural education and the original audience of Paul Harvey’s speech. They’re a fine organization, albeit not one terribly inclusive of minorities, but I’m left wishing Chrysler did more. Between this commercial and their paeans to Detroit from Super Bowls past (we’ll ignore their military exploitation misstep), Chrysler has proven masterful at spinning narratives that insert itself in the fabric of our dearest American myths. I wish they’d go a step further and shed some of that storytelling power on American reality.

    China premier's visit casts spotlight on rural poverty

    The New York Times ran a story on January 27 about Chinese Premier Xi Jinping's visit to Luotuowan,  "a remote mountain hamlet in north China" in Hebei Province, a place the story characterizes as marked by "grinding poverty."  Andrew Jacobs writes:  
    With a gaggle of local party chiefs and photographers in tow, Mr. Xi ducked into ramshackle farmhouses, patted dirt-smudged children on the head and, with little prompting, nibbled on a potato plucked from Tang Rongbin’s twig-fueled cooking fire. 
    “It was as if we had met Mao,” said a still-incredulous Mr. Tang, 69, who shares a bed with five family members.
    Jacobs explains that the visit, which was broadcast nationally, was intended to show Xi's "concern for China's rural poor" and to "burnish the new leader's bona fides as an empathetic man of the people." 
    “I want to know how rural life is here,” he said at one point as the camera lingered on the unvarnished details of the Tang family’s poverty: a single light bulb, a tattered straw ceiling, a huddle of grimy pots and mounds of detritus. “I want to see real life.”
    In the aftermath of this visit, Jacobs reports, money and gifts have flowed into Luotuowan.  The government sent $160 in cash, a bottle of cooking oil, and sack of rice to each household.  A businessman drove 500 miles to Luotuowan to deliver more cash and a "car load of flat-screen televisions."  A government work crew came to do some sprucing up.  Finally, government researchers came, having been instructed "to solve Luotuowan's intractable poverty, perhaps by pursuing Mr. Xi's suggestion that, with outside expertise, "the people can make yellow soil into gold."  Whatever that means.  The village is home, Jacobs reports, to about 600 corn farmers.  Jacobs also focuses on Xi's "secretary of the people" demeanor, including his ability to rub elbows comfortably with "farmers and factory workers." 

    Searching for this story, which I read when it was first published, brought me to many other stories about rural China in the New York Times, including this one from yesterday, "Satellites Put Small Farms on China's Map."  Lucy Hornby and Hui Li report:
    [T]he tiny village [of Yangwang] in Anhui Province was home to a pilot project that for the first time mapped farmers’ land, putting Yangwang on the front line of China’s efforts to build a modern agricultural sector that can underpin the country’s food security — a policy priority for the Communist Party. 
    The mapping is a tedious but crucial task to make farmers feel more secure about their rights so that they become more willing to merge fields into larger-scale farms. It could also help protect them from land grabs by local officials, a leading cause of rural unrest.  
    Last week China released its annual rural policy document, which "calls for farmland titles to be defined nationwide during the next five years," a project that could cost $16 billion. The Chinese government also introduced "sweeping tax reforms ... to narrow a wide income gap between the urban elite and the rural poor." This separate story from last week discusses the rural-urban income gap in the country, referring to "public concern about the gap between the incomes of residents of dirt-poor villages and those living in privileged urban enclaves."

    Other headlines over the years suggest considerable attention to rural poverty in China.  Here are just a smattering of those that pop up from searching "rural China" on the NYTimes website:

    Sunday, February 3, 2013

    Fracking in the news, from Colorado to California

    A story out of Paonia, Colorado is here, and the one out of Fellows, California, is here.

    Jack Healy reports from Paonia, in the North Fork Valley, about leases for 114,932 acres of federal land in Colorado, leases that will be auctioned off in March as part of the Obama administration's effort to increase domestic natural gas production.
    For a glimpse into the complications of President Obama’s “all of the above” energy policy, follow a curling mountain road through the aspens and into central Colorado’s North Fork Valley, where billboards promote “gently grown” fruits and farmers sell fresh milk and raw honey from pay-what-you-can donation boxes. 
    Here, amid dozens of organic farms, orchards and ranches, the federal government is opening up thousands of acres of public land for oil and gas drilling, part of its largest energy lease sale in Colorado since Mr. Obama took office. 
    Coloradans in solidly red cities west of here are the ones who have written letters to the government supporting the lease sale, saying it will bring jobs and tax revenues. In Paonia, where political lines are more evenly split, residents have come out overwhelmingly against the idea of drilling, saying it threatens a new economy rooted in tourism, wineries and organic peaches.
    Landon Dean, an area dairy farmer, says she has been thinking of sowing hops for organic beer.  But one parcel that is up for lease sits directly below her fields, and she's worried about keeping her land suitable for organic farming.  She is quoted:
    It’s just this land-grab, rape-and-pillage mentality. ... All it takes is one spill, and we're toast. 
    Read more about fracking in Colorado here.

    An excerpt from Norimitsu Onishi's story out of Kern County, California follows:
    Comprising two-thirds of the United States’s total estimated shale oil reserves and covering 1,750 square miles from Southern to Central California, the Monterey Shale could turn California into the nation’s top oil-producing state and yield the kind of riches that far smaller shale oil deposits have showered on North Dakota and Texas. 
    For decades, oilmen have been unable to extricate the Monterey Shale’s crude because of its complex geological formation, which makes extraction quite expensive. But as the oil industry’s technological advances succeed in unlocking oil from increasingly difficult locations, there is heady talk that California could be in store for a new oil boom.
    While the dateline is in Kern County, California's oil and gas capital, it seems clear that the Monterey Shale could invite fracking across a very large region of central California.

    Boom and bust: energy and health in North Dakota

    North Dakota is experiencing a huge oil boom due to new advancements in horizontal fracking techniques. Western North Dakota sits atop the Bakken oil formation, an area estimated to hold up to 34 million barrels of oil. At the highest count, the number of oil rigs present in North Dakota reached 218 last May.

    Williston is an oil boom town in North Dakota. Rent there is comparable to rent prices in New York City: reaching almost $2000 for a one bedroom apartment. Towns in North Dakota cannot grow fast enough to meet the influx of new workers. Developers have set up ad hoc “man camps” which are dorm style living quarters for men who work in the oil fields.

    Salaries for workers in the oil field average out to $70,000 and more than $100,000 with overtime. Job opportunities outside the oil fields are abundant as well. One fast-food restaurant has almost doubled its hourly wage to keep workers.

    The oil boom in North Dakota has been compared to this century’s gold rush, North Dakota’s Silicon Valley. Journalists report that it is rare to find voices in opposition to the economic opportunities that come along with North Dakota’s new oil promise. Chip Brown from the NYTimes speaks with Professor Jenkinson, who voices his enthusiasm for the oil boom: “[The oil boom] reverses decades of anxiety about out-migration and rural decline and death . . . . We aren’t going to do anything to jeopardize it. People aren’t interested in stepping back.”

    North Dakota has only 700,000 people and a whopping 1.5 billion dollars in its coffers. Unsurprisingly, the speed of development, investment and rapid job creation coincides with a spike in work related accidents and health problems. Medical facilities in North Dakota bear much of the economic brunt caused by uninsured laborers’ inability to pay for medical care. Many of the laborers are transient migrant workers with no official place of residence. As such, hospitals have trouble tracking these workers down to pay their hospital bills.

    Not only is human health a growing issue in light of North Dakota’s oil boom, environmental health is a source of grave concern as well.

    Investigation conducted by non-profit news outlet ProPublica reveals that there were more than “1,000 accidental releases of oil, drilling wastewater and other fluids” in 2011. You can use ProPublica’s tracker to see how many gallons of oil were spilled in 2011 alone. The amazing thing is that numbers are but reported numbers from energy companies and do not account for illicit dumping or unreported spillage.

    The fraught imbalance between energy extraction, harm to human health, environmental degradation, and economic prosperity is an old tale. Boom and bust, rise and fall, it is important to remember that even within each “boom” there is always an irretrievable loss -- this is the inescapable reality of fossil fuel extraction. The story of this century’s “black gold” is still unfolding.