Sunday, December 29, 2013

West Virginia tilts right

Trip Gabriel reported a few days ago in the New York Times under the headline, "West Virginia Democrats Face and Uneasy Time."  The story is about the election to fill the U.S. Senate seat being vacated by Jay Rockefeller who, interestingly, first came to the state "in 1964 to work with the rural poor as a Vista volunteer, just a few years after John F. Kennedy cemented his presidential nomination by winning the West Virginia primary."

Gabriel documents a right-ward shift in West Virginia politics, a shift that has ramifications as Democrat Natalie Tennant, the W.V. Secretary of State, and seven-term Republican congresswoman, Shelley Moore Capito, vie for Rockefeller's seat.  The story includes several references to the state's rurality.
Neighboring Virginia has leaned leftward in recent years because of the growth and diversity of its Washington suburbs. But the Appalachian region of West Virginia and parts of Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Tennessee, which had stayed faithfully Democratic even as Southern whites abandoned the party, have more recently been defecting over issues that are as much cultural as economic. 
Many of the poorest counties in West Virginia, which are among the most dependent in the nation on food stamps, unemployment insurance and other federal benefits, voted most heavily for Mitt Romney in 2012.
Gabriel quotes Lane Bailey, a former chief of staff to Senator Rockefeller and the son of a coal miner.
The state that first elected Jay Rockefeller in 1976 as governor is not the same state today.  [Rural West Virginians] are more and more angry, more and more turning inward, because they have become untrusting of a government that they feel has forgotten them.
Gabriel paraphrases Bailey as saying that "[r]ural West Virginians feel culturally adrift from Washington."  

This reminds me of a New York Times story from last week in which Jonathan Martin explored the question whether Arkansas is "Still Friendly to Bill" (Clinton, that is) who has been spending time in the state campaigning for Democratic candidates for governor, U.S. Senator, Congressional seats, and other offices.  Some of the candidates go way back with the former President--to their own work on Clinton's early campaigns for governor.  Martin notes that the state's right-ward tilt in recent years may have seriously tempered Clinton's influence there.  One of the striking things about that story was its suggestion that all politics remains local, with this story from James Lee Witt of Clinton's response when Witt told the former President that Witt was considering a run for a house seat:    
“He got very excited,” said Mr. Witt, who was the head of Arkansas’s emergency services for Mr. Clinton before joining him in Washington. “He was telling stories about when he ran for governor here and what counties he won by down there and what counties he lost and by what percentages.” Mr. Clinton’s conclusion: “He said, ‘You know what, you can win that race.’ ”

Friday, December 27, 2013

NYTimes covers controversy over industrial hog farm in rural Arkansas

C & H Hog Farm, Mt. Judea, Arkansas, in Buffalo National River watershed.  April, 2013.  Photos by Lisa R. Pruitt
I've been writing since last March about a huge industrial hog farm that Arkansas state agencies approved in August, 2012 under a virtual shroud of secrecy given the lack of notice to area residents.  The farm, called C & H, is in rural Newton County, Arkansas, just a few miles from the Buffalo National River and along one its tributaries, Big Creek.  (Read more here, here, here, here, here and here).  Some state and regional media have followed the story, too, which has drawn protests from environmental groups.

But imagine my surprise--and delight--when the New York Times published on its website this evening "2,500 Pigs Join Debate Over Farms v. Scenery."  I was even more delighted to see that the story focused on the very same industrial hog farm that I and lots of other folks in northwest Arkansas have been complaining about in the 11 months or so since the enterprise became truly public.

John Eligon's story for the Times does not have a lot of new information (above and beyond my blog posts, that is) about what happened and is, indeed, still happening.  It does, however, feature some interesting quotes from locals--some who support the hog farm, others who do not.  Here's a sampling:

  • “I was just sick over it — I just couldn’t believe it,” said Jewell Fowler, 87, who found out about the hog farm after it had been approved, through a notice in a local newspaper. Born in Mount Judea, Ms. Fowler has lived for the past four decades in a wooden cabin on the banks of the Big Creek, one of the main tributaries to the Buffalo River: a quiet oasis where the trees emit a sugary scent and water laps over rocks in a soothing whir.  “I’m just afraid of the stink, maybe contamination, make people sick,” Ms. Fowler said.
  • Glenn Ricketts, 55 and a relative by marriage to some of the hog farm's owners, asked Eligon, "You smell it." He then continued, “Reason why it don’t bother us, we’re just hillbillies.  When you’re raised up around a hog, it don’t bother you.”
  • Charles Campbell, 77, who has an agreement with the hog farm to spray its manure on his land says, “I don’t think that it would pollute the river at all.  I’ve lived in this count[ ]y for, well, all my life, and cattle and hogs has been raised up and down the creek here, and to me it ain’t bothered nothing so far."
As for BigAg, Mike Martin, a spokesman for Cargill, Inc., the entity that will benefit most from the farm, said:
We believe that modern farming and environmental conservation and protecting the environment can coexist.  A lot of the fear and concern is based on a ‘what if’ scenario that may never take place.
C & H Hog Farm, as seen from Mt. Judea School.
Eligon notes the economic context of this battle as it relates, in particular, to considerable local support for the CAFO:
Many see it as an economic bright spot in Newton County, which has high poverty. 
High poverty, indeed. It is a persistent poverty county with no industry and mostly subsistence farms.  It is classified by USDA ERS as federal-state government dependent.
Neighbors of C & H Hog Farm.  Newton County is a persistent poverty county. 

Friday, December 20, 2013

"A Town, a Team, and a Dream that Just Won't Die"

Here's the lede for an NPR story about Davy Rothbart's new documentary, "Medora"--as in Medora, Indiana, population 693.
In a high-school locker room in small-town Indiana, a coach is tearing into his basketball team. The Medora Hornets have scored zero points — none at all — in the game's fourth quarter. 
In Medora, the hapless team becomes a kind of metaphor for the town itself — "a no-stoplight town," in the words of documentarian Davy Rothbart, one where the jobs have dried up and the population has dwindled.
Melissa Block, who interviewed Rothbart, calls the film a "kind of elegy for a vanishing small-town America."

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Urban-rural partnerships help make Shanghai schools some of the best in the world

This editorial in today's New York Times highlights U.S. educational failures and then holds up three models from which the U.S. might learn:  Finland, Canada, and the Shanghai area of China.  The headlines for each country/region indicate what the NYTimes finds so laudable and key to the place's educational success:
  • Finland:  Teacher Training
  • Canada:  School Funding
  • Shanghai:  Fighting Elitism 
I am going to focus here on China because the specific mention of rural-urban difference there (although when it comes to improving rural education, we could certainly learn a lot from the Canadian model of more centralized, less localized funding.)  Here is how the editorial board summed up what Shanghai is doing so well.  Note the references not only to rural schools (and I'm not sure how Shanghai, as a city, has authority over "rural" schools), but also to the issue of rural-to-urban migration in China.
One of its strengths is that the city has mainly moved away from an elitist system in which greater resources and elite instructors were given to favored schools, and toward a more egalitarian, neighborhood attendance system in which students of diverse backgrounds and abilities are educated under the same roof. The city has focused on bringing the once-shunned children of migrant workers into the school system. In the words of the O.E.C.D, Shanghai has embraced the notion that migrant children are also “our children” — meaning that city’s future depends in part on them and that they, too, should be included in the educational process. Shanghai has taken several approaches to repairing the disparity between strong schools and weak ones, as measured by infrastructure and educational quality. Some poor schools were closed, reorganized, or merged with higher-level schools. Money was transferred to poor, rural schools to construct new buildings or update old ones. Teachers were transferred from cities to rural areas and vice versa. Stronger urban schools were paired with rural schools with the aim of improving teaching methods. 
The Times description goes on to note that strong Shanghai schools have been given administrative responsibility for weak schools.  In short, Shanghai educational officials are expecting that the "ethos, management style and teaching" of the strong schools can be transferred to the weak ones--and it sounds like a lot of that transfer from strong to weak is across the urban-rural divide.  

I am sure the reforms are all more complicated than depicted in this brief description, but the results speak volumes:  Shanghai's students were first in the world in math, science, and literacy in last year's  international exams.

N.B.  This was the most-emailed story in the New York Times for much of today.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

"Rural" sheriffs are scofflaws on gun control legislation

That's the gist of this story by Erica Goode in yesterday's New York Times under the headline "Sheriffs Refuse to Enforce Laws on Gun Control."  The dateline is Greeley, Colorado, population 95,357, and the county seat of metropolitan Weld County, population 263,691.  Never mind that Greeley is a city in a metropolitan county… early in the story, Goode evokes the connection between gun rights advocates and rurality, suggesting that this disobedience by public officials is a rural phenomenon (maybe she is thinking "frontier mentality" as "rural culture").
Colorado’s package of gun laws, enacted this year after mass shootings in Aurora, Colo., and Newtown, Conn., has been hailed as a victory by advocates of gun control. But if Sheriff Cooke [of Weld County] and a majority of the other county sheriffs in Colorado offer any indication, the new laws — which mandate background checks for private gun transfers and outlaw magazines over 15 rounds — may prove nearly irrelevant across much of the state’s rural regions.
Goode reports that 55 of Colorado's 62 elected sheriffs have signed onto a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the state's new statutes.  (And many of them no doubt are from nonmetropolitan counties). Some sheriffs explain that the laws are too vague, and others--even those who have not signed onto the lawsuit--say that enforcing them is "a very low priority."  Among the latter category is Sheriff Pete W. Palmer of Chaffee County, population 16,242, in central Colorado, who notes the "huge practical difficulties" in enforcing the laws, violations of which are misdemeanors.  Palmer states:
All law enforcement agencies consider the community standards — what is it that our community wishes us to focus on — and I can tell you our community is not worried one whit about background checks or high-capacity magazines.
Regarding the law suit, a federal district judge has ruled that the sheriffs can sue as individuals, but that they have no standing in their official capacity.  The judge also ruled that one part of the law regarding magazines was not unconstitutionally vague.

As for the sheriffs' decision to buck the laws, Goode quotes Lance Clem, spokesperson for the Colorado Dept. of Public Safety:
We’re not in the position of telling sheriffs and chiefs what to do or not to do.  We have people calling us all the time, thinking they’ve got an issue with their sheriff, and we tell them we don’t have the authority to intervene.
Goode continues, with a more opaque reference to rurality--"heartland": 
The resistance of sheriffs in Colorado is playing out in other states, raising questions about whether tougher rules passed since Newtown will have a muted effect in parts of the American heartland, where gun ownership is common and grass-roots opposition to tighter restrictions is high.
She goes on to details similar issues in Florida, New York, and California. For example, Goode reports that a delegation of California sheriffs met with Governor Jerry Brown this fall to try to influence his action on new gun control laws passed by the California legislature.  Goode quotes Jon E. Lopey, the sheriff of Siskiyou County, who was among those meeting with Brown:  
Our way of life means nothing to these politicians, and our interests are not being promoted in the legislative halls of Sacramento or Washington, D.C.
Goode paraphrased Lopey's other comments, including that "residents of his rural region near the Oregon border are equally frustrated by regulations imposed by the federal Forest Service and the Environmental Protection Agency."  Brown did veto a law that would have banned semiautomatic rifles with detachable magazines.  Another California law, one banning lead ammunition for hunting, he signed into law.

Note that Weld County, Colorado and Siskiyou County, California, are two places where secession activism has recently garnered national attention.  Read more here and here.  Weld County residents voted against secession on the November ballot, though six other counties favored secession.  

P.S.  This was one of the five most emailed stories on for the week ending Dec. 18, 2013.  

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Swam of earthquakes shakes rural Oklahoma

Henry Fountain reported a few days ago in the Environment section of the New York Times.  The headline is "Experts Eye Oil and Gas Industry as Quakes Shake Oklahoma."  The story's dateline is Oklahoma City, but most of the earthquake action lies in the nonmetropolitan counties between Oklahoma City and Tulsa, as the accompanying map suggests.  Photos accompanying the story are of places like Calumet, population 507, and Sparks, population 137.   The report also mentions Love County, population 9,558, and Shawnee, a city of 28,692.

Here's an excerpt that summarizes what is going on quake-wise in Oklahoma where, as in other places, experts think the the culprit may be wastewater disposal in wells.  The wastewater comes from both conventional oil and gas wells and fracking.   
Oklahoma has never been known as earthquake country, with a yearly average of about 50 tremors, almost all of them minor. But in the past three years, the state has had thousands of quakes. This year has been the most active, with more than 2,600 so far, including 87 last week.
This was one of the most emailed stories on for several days after it appeared.  

Friday, December 13, 2013

Canada to curtail urban postal delivery, leaving rural services (apparently) in tact

Ian Austen reported on Wednesday for the NYT:  
Though Canada would become the first Group of 7 country to end all residential mail delivery in cities and older suburbs, Canada Post shares many problems with postal services in the United States and elsewhere, including rapidly declining mail volumes and high wage and pension costs. Along with the service cuts, the government-owned service said it would eliminate 8,000 jobs, mostly through attrition.
What is interesting from a ruralist perspective is what Canada plans to do about its postal service budgetary crisis:  curtail metropolitan delivery, NOT close rural post offices.  The latter, of course, is what the U.S. has periodically proposed in recent years. Read more herehere, here, and here, for example.  What's odd about this news report--especially in light of the relatively recent controversy over rural post office closures in the United States--is that Austen's report never mentions the rural at all.  The implication, I guess, is that rural service will not be affected.  Or maybe it is just so unimportant as not to be worthy of mention. Hmmm.

Rather Austen quotes Professor Dwayne Winseck, who teaches communications at Carleton University in Ottawa, for a more general proposition--that the decision to end postal delivery is a "pivotal moment" in Canadian history:  
The whole notion of a universal correspondence service is a pretty important one. It’s quite a comedown for a national postal system.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

"Gun Country" in the New York Times

Don't miss this multi-media feature, with the stories of several people sharing their perspectives on guns and gun control in the United States. Among the places featured, Jeffersonville, Indiana, population 44,953, Merrill, Wisconsin, population 9,661, and Summerville, South Carolina, population 43,392. Highly urbanized places are featured, too.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Homelessness in rural Alaska

That is the subject of Kirk Johnson's piece in today's New York Times, "Soldotna Journal:  Alaska's Thin Line Between Camping and Homelessness."  Specifically, Johnson writes of the problem of homelessness on the Kenai Peninsula, south of Anchorage.  Johnson's story highlights the challenges of providing services in an area where the few population clusters--Soldotna, Homer, and Seward--are no more than a couple thousand people each and where natural features--forests, rivers, mountains, the sea--dominates the landscape.  Part of the challenge to service provision, in short, is the spatial challenge associated with rural spatiality--magnified by the Alaskan scale:
In Alaska’s deeply rural villages, where no roads penetrate and many families are interconnected through blood or culture, homelessness is often dealt with in the old-fashioned way, with relatives or neighbors giving shelter to those in trouble. 
Johnson contrasts this situation with Anchorage, which has the the state’s biggest homeless population, but also "the biggest system of help and outreach."

Johnson also addresses some of the reasons for the homelessness problem on Kenai, which are linked to the nature of the economy and the workforce.  While the area features "bounties of nature" like salmon and oil--both of which are accompanied by "upward opportunities and working-wage jobs for people with skills," those bounties "mask a hard reality":
 When someone’s life goes awry, through a misstep or a spousal betrayal, a job loss or an eviction, or just a stretch of bad luck, there is not much of a safety net here.
* * * 
[T]the downward pull of drugs, alcohol and poverty is always there.
He quotes Cathy Giessel, a state senator who represents part of the peninsula, who notes the role that lack of anonymity can play in keeping the downtrodden in that situation. 
This is a great area to raise families; it has wonderful, positive things.  But folks can be shut out of jobs pretty easily by making bad choices.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Crime on the rise in Great Plains oil field communities

Jack Healy reports in a front-page story in today's New York Times, "As Oil Floods Plains Towns, Crime Pours In."  The dateline is Sidney, Montana, population 5,191, where 42-year-old Sherry Arnold, a school teacher, was abducted during her morning jog in January, 2012, and later found murdered.  But the story also references sensational crimes in other oil field boom towns, including Dickinson, North Dakota, population 17,787, and Williston, population 18,532

Here's an excerpt:  
While the raw numbers of murders and rapes remain low, every few months seem to bring an act of violence that flares like a gas flame on the dark prairie, shaking a community and underscoring how much life here is changing. 
In Dickinson, it was the rape of an 83-year-old woman, who the police say was attacked inside her home by a 24-year-old man who had come to town looking for work. In Culbertson, Mont., it was a man who was beaten with brass knuckles by a group of drug dealers and left for dead along the side of a road. In Sidney, it was the murder in January 2012 of Sherry Arnold, the 43-year-old schoolteacher abducted during her Sunday morning jog. 
Hundreds of people searched for Ms. Arnold in frozen fields, neighborhoods and ditches until her body was found in North Dakota, near a line of trees planted as a windbreak by farmers.  
Healy quotes Sidney Mayor Bret Smelser:
Nobody knew anybody anymore.  We were a community that never locked our doors. That’s all changed.
The story also highlights the problem of domestic violence in these communities, including the shortage of shelter beds and other support services.