Thursday, March 30, 2023

New Census Bureau data show exurbia thriving

A story in the New York Times today based on just-released Census Bureau data reveals that many major metropolitan counties lost population between 2021 and 2022, even as immigration boomed in these same places.  An area of overall population growth, however, is what the Times writers label exurban, which includes some areas in the West experiencing gentrification.  Here's an excerpt highlighting the latter trends from the story by Robert Gebeloff, Dana Goldstein, and Stefanos Chen:
Counties identified as exurbs by the American Communities Project account for about 12 percent of the nation’s population, but they could claim about half the national population growth in 2022.

Counties tagged by government economists as specializing in recreational activity account for 9 percent of the national population and 28 percent of the growth in 2022.

Kaufman County, Texas, about 35 miles southeast of downtown Dallas, is among the fastest-growing counties in the nation. Traditionally a hub for ranching and farming, Kaufman County has steadily suburbanized, and also encompasses parts of Cedar Creek Lake, a popular fishing and recreation area. Its population grew by 9 percent in 2022, and stands at 172,000, up from 40,000 in 1980.

Kaufman County became a popular place from which to telecommute during the pandemic, the story explains, and 70,000 homes are currently in the construction pipeline there, with prices in the $250,000 range.  

Regarding amenity rich places, Gebeloff, Goldstein and Chen write: 

Because of their growing populations, many exurban and vacation counties are in economic and cultural flux, said Jaap Vos, professor of planning and natural resources at the University of Idaho.

Affluent newcomers to areas like Sun Valley, Idaho, known for its ski resorts, may bring new political and spending habits and deplete natural resources, he noted — or may not live in their new homes year round.

“They may not care so much about the local coffee store and rather go to Starbucks,” Professor Vos said, adding, “Do they have kids? Can we convince them to spend money in our local stores? Are they as likely to volunteer for organizations or sit on boards?”

Then regarding immigration and natural decline, the story notes:

Overall, three-quarters of the nation’s counties experienced more deaths than births last year, a statistic that is “a rarity,” said Kenneth Johnson, a demographer at the University of New Hampshire. In 2018, just 45 percent of counties had more deaths than births.

* * * 

But because the country was aging and experiencing low fertility rates even before the emergence of Covid-19, the numbers point toward immigration as a key driver of future growth. That puts pressure on the country to integrate newcomers into the job market, housing and schools.

This quote from Johnson, perhaps best known as a rural demographer, closes the story, which does not use the word "rural":   

If places are going to grow, it’s immigration that helps.
This is a good occasion to share this recent story from the San Jose Mercury News about Livermore, California, between the Bay Area and the San Joaquin Valley and arguably exurban of a sort.  The gist of the story is captured in the headline, "As the Bay Area Urbanizes Around it, Livermore is one of the Last Ag Cities Standing."  The "ag city" juxtaposition is curious--and one that I find confusing.  Here's an excerpt from Will McCarthy's story that perhaps helps to unpack the paradox in that headline:   
From certain places on Darrel Sweet’s ranch near Altamont Pass, the world looks no different than it did 150 years ago. Wildflowers blanket the hillside. A ranch dog named J.J. chases squirrels across a muddy dirt track. Cows stand near a cattle pond, looking out at a range of rolling hills that seem to act as a bulwark against time.

But from one of the ranch’s hilltops, it’s clear that much has changed. Towering wind turbines dot every mountain. To the west are sprawling developments in Dublin. To the south, the suburban center of Livermore.

“When you’re in downtown Livermore, you’d think this place is all developed,” Sweet said. “But it’s not.”

As cities around it have undergone explosive growth, residents say Livermore has maintained a sense of identity tied to its agricultural and ranching history. But that identity has also come into conflict with suburban development and the changing culture of the Bay Area.

Working farms and vineyards still surround the city of 86,000. An ancient ranch, part of the original Mission San Jose, is preserved in the center of town. And at Livermore High School, dozens of students continue to enroll in an agricultural sciences program — the last of its kind in Alameda County.

Thus, as one long-time resident put it, Livermore is a place where "you can find 'a physicist, a rancher, and a gravel pit worker all sitting together at the bar.'”  The reference to physicist is because of the presence of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.  

Postscript:  Here is what the Daily Yonder had to say about the new Census Bureau data in relation to rural communities.  

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

New Zealand study finds rural elderly face "latent precarity"

 This piece, titled "Rurality and latent precarity: Growing older in a small rural New Zealand town" was recently published by the Journal of Rural Studies.  The abstract follows: 

Behind rural lives lurk several forms of latent precarity that are unique to rural dwellers and rural contexts. Latent precarities may never become actualised or experienced, and the expression of latent precarity can be mitigated by both individual and community resources. For older rural dwellers, the latent precarities associated with rural life intersect with those associated with ageing and when experienced or actualised, can impact on an individual's ability to successfully ‘age in place’ within their rural community. We interviewed adults across the lifespan who lived in a small rural southern New Zealand community, and this article explores the latent precarities of rurality and ageing that they identified. If community assets dwindle or become unavailable, and health capabilities decline, latent precarities may multiply, or become actual/experienced precarities. The experience of ageing well in rural places can be improved and older adults better supported through the identification of, and attention to, forms of latent precarity within these rural places.

The authors are Chrystal Jaye, Judith McHugh, Fiona Doolan-Noble, and Lincoln C. Wood. 

Monday, March 27, 2023

New Niskanen Report: "Faction is the (Only Viable) Option for the Democratic Party"

Political scientists Robert Saldin (University of Montana) and B. Kal Munis (Utah Valley University) authored the report, which focuses on rural and working-class whites, for Niskanen Center.  The executive summary follows:  

The Democratic Party finds itself in a highly precarious electoral position. Although the party performed historically well in 2022, its central weaknesses – those which threaten its ability to govern both nationally and especially at the state level – were still very much in evidence. Even in “good” election cycles, Democrats struggle to translate their typically impressive aggregate vote totals across the country and within states into seats in government. Core to the party’s struggles are its weaknesses with rural and working-class voters. If left unaddressed, the party will not only become irrelevant throughout many states in the country, but it will also continue to face difficulty – and maybe increasing difficulty – in winning the presidency and congressional majorities.

To effectively address these problems, like-minded activists, donors, and others in the broader Democratic ecosystem must come together to form and institutionalize a proper faction within the party that has a platform and brand that differs from that of the big city and college campus-dominated national party establishment. This new faction needs to be capable of recruiting, financing, and otherwise supporting candidates to run on a platform and brand more appealing to the rural and working-class voters that the party has been hemorrhaging in recent decades. While this new faction will emphasize different issues than the national party, it need not alienate most voters within the current Democratic base. From a policy standpoint, the faction should pursue strategic moderation on social issues paired with progressive economic populism and championing, on a district-by-district basis, local issues that are not amenable to politicization in the national discourse. 

The authors explain "faction":  

The term “faction” is commonly used to refer to all sorts of political groupings and subgroupings with varying levels of coherence and organization. But we employ the term to refer to entities that are, essentially, parties within a party. By faction, we mean an institution within one of the major parties that has an affiliated team of politicians, political professionals, activists, interest groups, donors, and intellectuals. A faction is characterized by its formal organization and its grounding in ideas (as opposed to, say, the charisma of a single politician). There’s more structure to factions than a “wing,” or a “bloc” or a “Gang of X.”

(p. 11) 

Here are some other excerpts: 

Democrats running in rural areas (or, indeed, in any district where national partisan dynamics leave them at a disadvantage) should avoid engaging in contentious debate on polarizing national issues such as race, gender, abortion, sanctuary cities, the specter of gun bans, and the like. After all, electoral campaigns are, in essence, a competition to define the narrative, or determine the handful of issues that will define what’s at stake in a particular election.

* * * 

If such lightning rod issues must be discussed, candidates should recast them through a local lens to focus on the arguments for or against the policy in terms of costs and benefits to the district. New political science research shows the effectiveness of this approach in relation to the Affordable Care Act. Recasting policy arguments through a local lens helped persuade independent voters and weakly attached out-partisans. Regarding racial issues, because rural America is overwhelmingly white (appreciating that there are, of course, some notable exceptions mainly, though not exclusively, concentrated in the South), Democrats in these areas should reframe discussions of racial privilege, inequity, and such away from race to instead focus on a class lens.  In lieu of engaging their Republican opponents on the national issues of the day, Democrats should localize their races by heightening the salience of pressing problems and issues that are either idiosyncratic to the district or broader in scope but ignored in national partisan discourse. This approach is beneficial as it allows Democrats to appeal to independents and Republicans without alienating their base. 

Saldin and Munis not that U.S. Senator Jon Tester of Montana "has championed local issues most effectively in three policy areas: 

1. conservation and the environment: On multiple occasions, Tester has pulled together diverse arrays of stakeholders, including loggers and other extractive interests as well as conservationists and recreationists, to collaboratively craft highly place-based legislation that benefits virtually everyone.

2. veterans affairs: About 10% of the Montana electorate are veterans, so his advocacy resonates especially well. This also helps Tester tap into patriotism, which is relevant since Democrats are often dinged for being insufficiently patriotic and over 90% of rural Americans see America as rating among the greatest countries in the world.

3. corporate monopoly in agriculture: Only a small share of rural voters work directly in agriculture but farming and ranching remain a potent cultural symbol in rural America. As a result, Tester’s advocacy for family farmers and ranchers, including a 2021 proposal aimed at bolstering anti-competitive enforcement in the meatpacking industry, has widespread effects, both material and symbolic, beyond just the family farming and ranching communities. These kinds of issues are both substantively important for Tester’s constituents and help him break through the forces of nationalization that work against rural Democrats.

Rural Democrats across the country need to be similarly creative in identifying and championing local issues specific to their states and districts that cross-cut partisanship.

(pp. 16-17)

The report includes these specific suggestions for how Democrats can improve their margins in rural areas.

 • Recruit candidates who have strong roots (ideally rural roots), as voters tend to view these candidates as being more authentic and as more likely to understand the problems facing the district and its people. 

• Build up a presence in rural areas by holding events as well as earning and buying media time in the platforms that serve rural communities. 

• Strategically break with the national party and meet would-be constituents where they are on issues with high salience and high symbolic power in rural areas, like guns. 

• Avoid wading into the national political conversation on hot-button issues. To the extent national issues must be addressed, localize the framing of those discussions as much as possible. Instead of focusing onto national issues, elevate the saliency of cross-cutting local issues that cannot easily be grafted on national divisions. 

(p. 17) 

Cross-posted to Working-Class Whites and the Law.

Sunday, March 26, 2023

Addressing nihilism in rural America: What we can learn from the Jordan Peterson phenomenon and why it should not be written off as “dangerous right-wing radicalism”

A couple weeks ago, I stumbled across an interesting find in the used book section of a thrift store in a rural town in southwest Kern County, California. It was a copy of Dr. Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. I purchased the book, and on my drive home up highway 99, I contemplated the impact of Jordan Peterson, a prominent public intellectual who, at times is casted as a conservative, is more accurately described as a classical liberal and traditionalist, on rural communities.

While I recognize that Jordan Peterson is a polarizing figure, I believe that understanding the “Jordan Peterson phenomenon” is important for anyone seeking to understand and uplift rural peoples in America. 

The aspect of Jordan Peterson’s message that I am interested in exploring in this post is his emphasis on personal responsibility, to which Peterson attributes much of his popularity, especially amongst young men (though women are an increasingly growing part of his audience as well). For Peterson, responsibility is the neglected half of any discussion pertaining to rights. And this is especially important because, Peterson argues, responsibility gives meaning to life–it’s what makes the suffering one experiences in the world worth enduring.

Peterson’s book is subtitled “An Antidote to Chaos,” signaling the clear purpose of his rules for life. Peterson notes that though not all chaos is bad, it must be balanced adequately with order, lest extreme forms of chaos—like anarchy or tyranny—result. 

Many parts of rural America seem to suffer from what I would call an inner chaos, if I may, in the form of ennui. It is a chaos of the soul due to feelings of loss of dignity, status, purpose, and importance, which ultimately results in nihilism—the notion that there is no meaning or purpose to life. Nihilism entails the rejection of objective truths, morals, philosophical codes, meanings, or values. This inner chaos is exacerbated by the pitiful economic conditions of many rural communities.

The plight of despair within rural communities has been chronicled by Princeton economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton in their book Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism (2020). Since the turn of the century, premature death rates have sharply increased among rural Americans due to increases in suicide, drug overdoses, and liver disease related to alcohol abuse. To be fair, there are countering narratives as to the cause of these tragedies. Case and Deaton argue that the main reason is the lack of economic opportunities whereas others point to the proliferation and accessibility of illegal drugs. Either way, the net effects are undeniable, and they result in what we logically expect from broken communities: pervasive poverty, homelessness, drug addiction, and the likes.

To add insult to injury, rural communities also face “rural bashing” often at the hands of progressive elites, who, in recent election cycles, have resorted to blaming rural folks for their own problems because they ostensibly vote against their own interests.

The zeitgeist of our time would entail rural folks adopting a mentality of victimhood and internalizing it as an identity. Perhaps many rural Americans have done just this in embracing Donald Trump. President Trump capitalized on America’s victimhood culture by encouraging his supporters to embrace victimhood as an identity throughout his presidential campaigns and presidency. 

This should not be too surprising because furthering victimhood culture is (tragically) an excellent political strategy. Indeed, both Democrats and Republicans are guilty of perpetuating it. This is because it allows an “in-group” to rally its members to act in an intensely revengeful manner against an otherized “out-group”. Think Democrats vs. Republicans, rural vs. urban, white vs. non-white, educated vs. uneducated, etc. What results is dangerous and destructive.

When a group places extraordinarily great emphasis on their own suffering, they can develop “egoism of victimhood.” Psychologists use this phrase (egoism of victimhood) to refer to situations “whereby members [of an in-group] are unable to see things from the perspective of the rival group’s perspective, are unable or unwilling to empathize with the suffering of the rival group, and are unwilling to accept any responsibility for harm inflicted by their own group.” (See here and here for research supporting this.) Further, researchers have found that people who embrace victimhood culture are less willing to forgive others, have an increased desire for revenge (as opposed to mere avoidance,) and are more likely to engage in revengeful behavior. 

Another pitfall of victimhood culture is that it relieves one of responsibility by shifting it to someone else, maybe even “the world,” broadly, or to some structural aspect of society. Dr. Peterson argues that once a person is relieved of responsibility, they are also stripped of power and agency. Thus, without responsibility, one has no power to change one’s circumstances (though it seems that without personal agency to change one’s immediate situation, some folks shift their energy towards deconstructing and destroying societal structures at large, given their ostensible structural inequities). 

Given this backdrop of the rise of victimhood culture, the plight of rural America, and the increasing struggles of young men (see Richard Reeves, Of Boys and Men: Why the Modern Male is Struggling, Why It Matters, and What to Do about It), Jordan Peterson offers an attractive alternative. I argue that rural Americans may be attracted to this message—and benefiting from it—because it is radically different.

Jordan Peterson fans and followers seem to share a common perspective and experience. Many are disenchanted by the shaping of contemporary society (the prominence of ideologies based on the centralization of race, gender, and sexuality,) and many are even more troubled by the apparent lack of purpose in their own lives. Many share stories of despair, addiction, and depression in their lives. Still, his followers are often written off as right-wing extremists. I believe, however, that there’s more to Jordan Peterson fans than the popular media presents.

If we look past the rhetoric and analyze Dr. Peterson’s message, we can see that his message is one that seeks to uplift individuals by speaking to the basic nature of humans as conceived within a Judeo-Christian-Islamic ethos. In short, Peterson proffers a solution to chaos that has been neglected and maligned by the Left in recent years and only superficially discussed by the Right.

The power of his message is that it seeks to restore dignity and agency to each human being, reminding them that they have control over their circumstances so long as they take responsibility. This is so even if much of their predicament is technically at the hands of forces outside of their own individual power. Put another way, this is a return to personal responsibility, and it seems to resonate with rural people, who tend to value individual striving, hard work, and responsibility

Dr. Peterson proffers 24 “Rules for Life”  in his books. Fifteen out of the 24 are related to personal responsibility:
  • Treat yourself like you are someone you are responsible for helping.
  • Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.
  • Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world.
  • Tell the truth – or, at least, don't lie.
  • Be precise in your speech.
  • Do not carelessly denigrate social institutions or creative achievement.
  • Imagine who you could be and then aim single-mindedly at that.
  • Do not hide unwanted things in the fog.
  • Notice that opportunity lurks where responsibility has been abdicated.
  • Abandon ideology.
  • Work as hard as you possibly can on at least one thing and see what happens.
  • Try to make one room in your home as beautiful as possible.
  • Plan and work diligently to maintain the romance in your relationship.
  • Do not allow yourself to become resentful, deceitful, or arrogant.
  • Be grateful in spite of your suffering.
I believe that a message that puts power back into people's hands resonates with folks in despair because it means they have agency to change their lives. This does not necessarily mean that it puts blame on the individual for their circumstances or that it rejects the notion of structural issues that may play a role in causing underlying crises. I’ve always wondered why a message that emphasizes personal responsibility ought to be viewed as one that denies the existence of structural inequalities? The two aren’t mutually exclusive. 

People in despair genuinely seem to be benefiting from Jordan Peterson’s message. He has amassed a massive following on YouTube (over six million subscribers and over half a billion total views on his videos). Glossing through the comments on his videos and posts on the Jordan Peterson Reddit page (which has over 300,000 members) there seems to be a significant number of people profusely thanking Dr. Peterson for his role in transforming their lives for the better. Sure this is anecdotal, but it is certainly worth something.

Earlier I stated that Jordan Peterson’s approach is a “return to” personal responsibility. I say this because the importance of personal responsibility in uplifting the downtrodden has ancient roots. It can be traced least as far back as the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition. Arguably one of the most successful programs for pulling people out of addiction and despair, the 12-step program created by Alcoholics Anonymous, puts the power in the hands of the sufferer, but interestingly, via a recognition of a higher power that can give aid, i.e., God. Ultimately, though, it is the individual who has the conscious ability and free will to make decisions and perform actions that will better their life.

This reminds me of multiple verses in the Quran in which God says that no soul is taxed with a burden except that it is one which they are able to bear. (Quran 2:233, 2:286, 6:152, 7:42, and 23:62). Furthermore, God states that “no bearer of burdens shall bear that of another.” (Quran 6:164, 17:15, 53:38. Translation by Nuh Ha Mim Keller, The Quran Beheld, (2022)). The implication is that some level of personal responsibility is required to recognize and strive toward a path out of one’s difficult circumstances. For the 12-step program, as well as the Muslim and broader Abrahamic traditions, the path begins with recognition of the Higher Power.

Tying this back to the discussion about victimhood culture, psychologist Dr. Scott Kaufman explains in an article published in a Scientific American article that the opposite of a victimhood mindset is a “personal growth mindset.” He argues that a personal growth mindset can help flip the narrative of trauma and despair if individuals choose to view their trauma not as a something essential to their identity, but as something that may actually be a source of personal growth and development, rather than a demarcation of oppression. He ponders of the personal growth mindset:
What if we all learned at a young age that our traumas don’t have to define us? That it’s possible to have experienced a trauma and for victimhood to not form the core of our identity? That it’s even possible to grow from trauma, to become a better person, to use the experiences we’ve had in our lives toward working to instill hope and possibility to others who were in a similar situation? What if we all learned that it’s possible to have healthy pride for an in-group without having out-group hate? That if you expect kindness from others, it pays to be kind yourself? That no one is entitled to anything, but we all are worthy of being treated as human?

This would be quite the paradigm shift, but it would be in line with the latest social science that makes clear that a perpetual victimhood mindset leads us to see the world with rose-tinted glasses. With a clear lens, we’d be able to see that not everyone in our out-group is evil, and not everyone in our in-group is a saint. We’re all human with the same underlying needs to belong, to be seen, to be heard and to matter.

Seeing reality as clearly as possible is an essential step to making long-lasting change, and I believe one important step along that path is to shed the perpetual victimhood mindset for something more productive, constructive, hopeful and amenable to building positive relationships with others.
Dr. Kaufman’s proposal seems to be an explanation of how people in despair are benefiting from the message of Jordan Peterson. I would further argue that a good part of why Dr. Peterson has been so successful with his employment of this messaging is because it is rooted (however imperfectly) in ancient, transcendent truths steeped in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition.

I share this post in large part to compel us to reckon with the possibility that there is great good in a message that emphasizes personal responsibility in lieu of one that places greater emphasis on structural inequities and victimhood culture. For one, the former seems to bring about real benefit more readily for real individuals in a relatively short period of time, whereas the latter leaves one stuck in a rut, hoping for the government to deliver a utopia.

Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Harvard water grab: how the largest academic endowment in the world is threatening to devastate a community in rural California.

In 2012, Harvard University's endowment purchased over 8,000 acres of former grazing land in the Cuyama Valley, a rural area about 60 miles north of Santa Barbara. The point of Harvard's massive multibillion-dollar endowment is to make money, and it can easily do this with its new property by establishing water rights in the Cuyama River Basin. This will inflate its property's value because as water scarcity worsens due to the drought and climate change, properties with strong water rights (especially those that were established before state restrictions on water usage) will become more and more valuable. Harvard can then sell the land for a hefty profit.

Because of the way that California's water laws work, Harvard has to create a history of water usage to ensure future access to water in the already critically over drafted basin. It has put its plan into action. Since 2012, Harvard has drilled a dozen water wells on its property and planted a vineyard. Harvard is now the third largest water pumper in the Cuyama Valley. The Wall Street Journal noted the stark contrast between the lush, green vineyards and the surrounding dry fields.

Now, Harvard is attempting to build on its property "frost ponds," or large above-ground reservoirs that would be filled from below-ground aquifers, on its property. The so-called North Fork Ranch Frost Ponds Project ("the Project") would install three frost ponds which would pump water from the Cuyama River Basin. This new project would essentially allow Harvard to hoard water, increasing its property value, expanding its history of water rights in the Basin, and making water more scarce and therefore more valuable in the region.

The Cuyama River Basin is home to an estimated 1,259 people (according to the 2010 Census). It has approximately 372 wells. Groundwater accounts for 100% of the Basin's water supply, meaning if a groundwater well runs dry, locals have no access to any other water short of drilling a deeper well or importing water from other areas.

Harvard's water grab, and the Project more specifically, is disastrously harmful for a number of reasons. For one, significantly increasing water pumping in an already critically over drafted basin threatens neighbors' access to water. This is especially true for local communities and rural farmers who have shallower water wells. As Harvard pumps more groundwater, the water table for the groundwater aquifers gets lower and lower, and local water wells become drier and drier. It is also a logistical nightmare when the water table is lowered at such a rapid speed.

The Project threatens to exacerbate this issue. Harvard's profits depend on lowering the water table while increasing its own access to water rights. It's a loss for everyone—except, Harvard's pockets.

Additionally, with the acceleration of climate change and California's drought, it is inevitable that the brunt of water restrictions and shortage will fall on the state's agriculture industry. This will be most deleterious to small rural farmers, who will likely be unable to afford the costs of drilling deeper wells or importing water from elsewhere. Big Ag will likely also feel the effects of the increased cost of water. I'm expecting it will transfer a significant portion of this burden to its already exploited rural workers—and raise food prices for consumers.

Not to mention that none of the benefits or profit from the water grab or the Project will go to local communities. After astronomically inflating the value of the property by creating a scarcity of water in the region, Harvard will likely just sell the property and leave. Harvard then, already the richest endowment in the entire world with $41.9 billion in assets at the end of 2020, will pocket all of the profit and take it back over 3,000 miles to Cambridge, Massachusetts.

While it is too late to stop Harvard's ownership of its property and current pumping of the Cuyama River Basin, it is not too late to stop the Project. This is largely due to local outrage. On March 29, 2023, the Santa Barbara County Planning Commission will hear public comments regarding the Project and vote on whether to approve or reject it. A group of UC Davis Law and Harvard Law students have written a public comment in opposition (which can be found on page 409 of the Proposed Final EIR) and will be speaking at the meeting. They believe that they only need to sway one person on the Planning Commission to win a favorable vote.

Anyone is welcome to attend or speak, and the meeting will be available over Zoom here. I would encourage anyone with a passion for defending rural communities to attend and even speak if willing. We must stop Harvard from exploiting California's rural communities and natural environment for their own monetary gain. Please support in any way you can.

Another story of law enforcement struggles to serve (and protect) rural communities

Dani Anguiano wrote in The Guardian a few days ago under the headline, "‘We’re on our own’: the rural US town where police refuse calls."  The story is about Rancho Tehama, an unincorporated community in Tehama County, California, population 65,829, about 120 miles north of Sacramento.

Failures of law enforcement in Tehama County burst into the news in 2017 after a mentally ill gunman killed five in remote Rancho Tehama, including at an elementary school.  The Los Angeles Times covered the events thoughtfully, drawing state wide attention to happenings that might otherwise have gone largely unnoticed because of the remote location.  I wrote a few blog posts in the aftermath of the killings, here and here

More recently, Tehama County has been in the news in relation to its inability to recruit and retain enough deputies to serve the county.  CalMatters report on the issue was the topic of a December, 2022 blog post here

Here's a lede from Anguiano's Guardian story last week: 
In Rancho Tehama Reserve, residents are used to getting by without everything they need. The price, or the perk, of living among the oak trees and rolling hills where cattle graze in this rural northern California community is its isolation.

People typically come to the Ranch, as residents call it, looking for space and quiet – they only got proper cellphone and internet service three years ago. The settlement is at the end of a two-lane road that meanders through the hillsides of California’s Sacramento Valley and offers glimpses of the snow-capped peaks of Mounts Lassen and Shasta. The gas station has snacks, propane and phone chargers, and the hardware store carries alfalfa pellets, kerosene and bolts, but most anything else requires at least a 30-minute drive.

Sherri Burns, the owner of the hardware store, said people here knew one another, and were often united by their love for a place viewed by outsiders as the “armpit of Tehama county”.

Burns, who is also the assistant volunteer fire chief, is quotes:  

I love it. I wouldn’t go anywhere else.  If you respect people, you get respect back. I’ve never had fear out here – and I’ve gone on calls in the middle of the night by myself.

Recently, however, the remoteness has presented a dilemma:  

[R]esidents say when they call 911, they are frequently unable to get any help.
In places like Rancho Tehama, residents say, the issue is not a lack of police, but neglect. The staffing challenges only exacerbated a longtime problem – residents say that for years, even when the sheriff’s office had more deputies, the county’s remote settlements received little attention. Though the absence of patrol deputies affected the entire 3,000 sq mile county, it hit those living in rural areas particularly hard due to their distance from major population centers and the lack of other law enforcement agencies.

One Rancho Tehama resident, Cheyenne Thornton, called the situation a "ticking timebomb," adding:

 Unless you’re bleeding or dying, you’re probably not going to get a sheriff or anyone to respond.
You feel like you don’t matter out here – you’re on your own.

Others, like Chris Foster, said they were less troubled by the lack of law enforcement protection:  

I can protect myself and my family, whether I shoot you in the ass or beat you with a stick. This is the country. People packing guns is normal to me and my nine-year-old son. Because, you know, you have to protect your wellbeing and your property. It’s like anywhere else.

Don't miss the rest of Anguiano's story, where you'll also echoes of this post about rural law enforcement's struggles to effectively oversee vast physical territory with few resources.  The story also notes that some Rancho residents sued the county over the 2017 shootings, in particular the failure to seize the killer's guns pursuant to a restraining order that compelled them to do so.  

Finally, if you want to learn more about this community, the 2017 killings at Rancho Tehama are the subject of a just-released set of episodes on the podcast This is Actually Happening.  

Monday, March 20, 2023

Immigrants should be more than an investment for rural communities

Immigrants and refugees now makeup 31% of new residents in rural communities according to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey. The University of New Hampshire's report finds that rural immigrants are more likely to be of working age (18-64), are more racially and ethnically diverse, and are nearly twice as likely to be poor than native-born rural population. With an increasing immigrant population, it is important to consider the way the narrative around immigrants is structured in rural communities, often emphasizing the labor value that immigrants add rather than focusing on their inherent value allowing for harm to happen.

Often, the narrative around immigration whether it be in our federal government, or the subject of academic literature is that we should allow immigrants into "our" country because they contribute to the workforce, have a strong work ethic, and are family oriented. These traits seem to resonate with rural Americans who too have close-knit family units and identify strongly with the work they do. However, painting immigrants with this brush leads to harmful and real consequences that allow for the continued exploitation and abuse of migrant labor and immigrant communities. 

The harmful narrative around immigration begins as a political strategy and continues as an economic one. Politicians often conflate crime and immigrants, utilizing "tough on crime" slogans to shape their campaigns and rally votes as evidenced here. Constructing a fear-mongering narrative, particularly depicting those entering the U.S. from the southern border as criminals, part of drug cartels, or "aliens" aims to evoke strong emotions that further an "us" vs. "them" mentality.

Inherent in immigration discourse, is the concept of "legality" or rather the lack of it. According to this UCLA Law Review article, "illegality or undocumented status is a function of a border regime, and as such, plays a significant role in creating and sustaining highly exploitable labor pools." Similarly, "where the border regimes are racialized, so too is the highly exploitable labor generated by those regimes." This becomes significant when furthering narratives that tie immigrants' value and worth to the labor they produce for rural communities. 

For example, when immigrants are considered a lifeline to save rural areas that are facing population declines, it allows for exploitation to take place rather than actually welcoming immigrants for who they are. Many jobs, not so coincidentally, some of the lowest paying with the least protections are dependent on migrant labor. Some of these jobs are a part of the agricultural labor, food services, and construction industries that are integral to society and dominate the rural economy. 

The racialization of immigration is crucial to understanding how people are excluded from the U.S. and how labor can be extracted from their bodies. Systemically denying citizenship to those that are not aligned with whiteness allows for the exploitation of those that are already vulnerable. Without legal status in the U.S., abuse within and of immigrant communities is magnified, especially in rural communities.

This violence is also gendered; low-income immigrant women are targeted for sexual abuse and harassment in workplaces and are subsequently silenced with the threat of a call to Immigration and Customs Enforcement looming over their heads. This becomes complicated in rural communities where women are even more isolated, further analyzed here

Abuse within immigrant communities also has many layers because victims that are undocumented or don't have citizenship might not want to interact with state authorities for fear of increased attention. Conversely, victims might not want to report their abusers for fear of them getting deported. Deportation acts as the ultimate punishment that can eventually lead to death and aims to scare immigrants into obedience. As we know, almost any sort of conviction or criminal record can be a barrier to naturalization thus risking retaliation for speaking out is usually not an option. 

Ultimately, immigrants should not be valued solely for the work they do, which is often borne out of necessity and as a way to achieve inclusion. Immigration should be viewed as a systemic political and economic strategy used by the state to determine who is included and excluded and for what reasons. Steering clear narratives that try to justify immigration based on labor, profit, and capital is crucial in ensuring that migrant labor is not abused and that immigrants are not prevented from accessing education, employment, or healthcare. Instead, we should ensure immigrants are welcomed into rural communities for who they are- human beings.

Sunday, March 19, 2023

Hollywood stereotypes of rural America

When I was a kid, I loved day trips to Chicago. I remember my grandmother having to sign a clearance contract because I "accidentally" stumbled onto the “Transformers 3” set and got picked up by a camera. Movies about Chicago, or even just ones filmed there, have always been my favorite because I get to see a little slice of my childhood on the screen. But when it comes to movies from my real childhood, tucked away in the rural Midwest, I often find myself cringing at the media stereotypes.

I was recently encouraged to watch the movie, “Hillbilly Elegy”, for a class about whiteness in Rural America. However, I fail to see how this movie was anything more than a jaundiced example of media tactics. Stories of underdogs overcoming poverty, abuse, and addiction can be found on any street in America, not just the rural backroads. Yet, Hollywood only uses this type of plot-line as a heartstring blockbuster for people of color, such as “The Blind Side”, or to further depreciate the image of rural whiteness.

Rural America is shown by the media to be either "hicks and hayseeds" or "criminal kingpins and murderers." Dramatic television shows such as Ozark and Sons of Anarchy depict a rural lifestyle of crime, whereas "reality" shows such as Here Comes Honey Boo Boo and Duck Dynasty uphold the hillbilly tropes. This is seen across Hollywood and has been around since the early 1900s. A 1904 film, "The Moonshiner", depicts rural Americans breaking the law in order to drink. The behavior shown in media such as this culminates and fosters these rural cliches to the point where Rosann Kent, Appalachian studies professor at the University of North Georgia, asks, "Why are we the last acceptable stereotype?

This cliche becomes particularly harmful when the political climate of America is considered. The US is increasingly politically polarized and this difference in opinion has been leading to violence. From the January 6 insurrection to protests that turned violent against speakers on college campuses, politics have become a method of assuming one’s moral character and can even determine one's safety and social acceptance. Rural Americans get portrayed as being alt-right and are even being credited as the reason Trump won in 2016

Rurality is painted by the media as being predominantly white, with a culture of poverty and addiction. Although there is some truth to both poverty and addiction rates in rural communities, many rural areas thrive culturally. A previous article can be found here describing how music is an integral part of Appalachian culture. By whitewashing rurality, Hollywood loses any appreciation for minority groups who inspire and elevate rural livelihoods.

Furthermore, there are many parallels exist in how rural Americans and people of color are depicted. Unwhite: Appalachia, Race, and Film examines this further and argues:
Appalachian people in cinema have been portrayed as phenotypically white, but using the same tropes that have long been used to portray non-whites in film . . . The similarity in the way these groups are portrayed draws a connection between the treatment of non-whites and the treatment of Appalachians, both of which maintain and protect a particular image of whiteness.
I have personally experienced the negative impact of this "white trash" stereotype. When I moved to California, I experienced a culture shock so large I felt like I was in a different country. Being thrust into high-level academia with a background that matched these stereotypes, I was set up to be looked down upon. After the intro week of law school, I began to state that I was instead from Chicago, hoping that people would think I belonged there. I recategorized my uncle's hand-me-down tees into "vintage thrift finds" and made an aesthetic out of never owning clothes nice enough to ruin. However, I can't blame the people around me for making those assumptions. Most of my classmates are from urban areas and likely gathered their understanding of rurality through their media consumption. Even though many of the Hollywood portrayals are hyperbolic, the cumulation of negative stereotypes is othering rural people, and the misunderstood cliches need to be retired.

Saturday, March 18, 2023

Big NYT feature takes up Oregon's rural-urban divide and the prospect of "Greater Idaho"

A student blogger, Christian Armstrong, wrote about the "Greater Idaho" movement a few weeks ago, and now the New York Times follows in his footsteps with a major feature on the growing acrimony between eastern (rural) and western (urban/coastal) Oregon.  Here's an excerpt featuring a 52-year-old woman named Corey Cook who lives in Cove, Oregon, population 620
“Oregon is not a unified state to me anymore,” [Cook] said. “To say that I’m an Oregonian is a geographic truth, but it doesn’t really have meaning to me the way that it did before I lived in eastern Oregon.”

The broad sense of estrangement felt across rural Oregon has led conservatives in recent years to pursue a scrupulous strategy to open a theoretical escape hatch, gathering thousands of signatures for a series of ballot measures that have now passed in 11 counties. Those measures require regular meetings to discuss the idea of secession. In those places, including Union County, Ms. Cook’s new home, county commissioners in rooms adorned by Oregon flags and maps are now obligated to talk about whether it would one day make sense to be part of Idaho.

The “Greater Idaho” movement joins a long history of U.S. defection struggles. In California, for example, there have been more than 200 attempts over the years to break up the state. Greater Idaho sees its solution as more simple — a shift in an existing border that would claim the entire eastern half of Oregon without creating an entirely new state. Despite being a political long shot, the sustained and growing interest from residents in the area and attention from politicians in Idaho have illustrated how much the state is already divided in spirit.

The story quotes John Lively, a Democratic state representative in one of the eastern counties:   

It’s got worse over the years.  It’s really reflective of the divide we have in our country.

Some other stories out of eastern Oregon, including about the "Greater Oregon" movement are here, here, here, and here.  

Here's a recent LA Times story about how Portland has changed in recent years.  

Friday, March 17, 2023

Crisis close to home: Nevada's failing mental health services

Over the past three months I've been reflecting on my time here at UC Davis Law as a first generation student with a person history in a flurry of rural towns across Nevada and California. I wound up in law school as the result of what I tend to refer to as a line of "self-sabotaging matriarchs." From my great-grandmother to my mother and eldest sister, my family's intergenerational poverty can be chalked up in large part to the codependency of its women on men who were steeped in drug and alcohol abuse. The chaos and poverty were inflamed by my family confining itself to rural places, where the domestic violence and drug abuse were hidden behind the walls of single or double-wide mobile homes.

For me, the chaos peaked when my mom tried to force me to leave our destitute life in the "Cowboy Capital of the World," Oakdale, California to return with her to Winnemucca. She was running back to what was known: a rural town where she could indulge and conceal her addictions to substances and men. But to preserve my chance at a better life, I knew I couldn't go with her. So, after a turbulent back-and-forth, she told me simply: "you can [sic] stay here then." Those words caused us to be estranged for the past decade. 

But on the brink of graduation, I can't help myself from looking back. Through everything, there is still and will always be a part of me that loves the woman who brought me into this world and raised me as best she could. So, about two weeks ago, I called her on video chat. She was living with her boyfriend in a trailer park on the outskirts of Winnemucca. I wasn't sure which version of her I was going to get. She suffers from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder (the latter being the one I inherited), and when you add substance abuse on that, it forms different personalities that for her varied from the woman I called my mother to the woman who abandoned me. 

But this time it was neither. She could barely look at me, and I knew that meant something was awry. I tried lightening the mood by asking her positive questions: what are some great traits you gave your son? What things you are looking forward to over the next few years? It was the latter question that caused a pause and a tear. I called her again the following week and she told me she was going to check herself in to rehab. I asked what prompted the decision and she said, she couldn't say aloud because her boyfriend was in the trailer. She did say, however, "I couldn't give you an answer to where I want to be in the next few years," and when I asked her want she wanted to be, she cried and held up a note: "free."

My mom's journey to freedom could only begin by taking an Amtrak from Winnemucca to Reno - a 165-mile journey that would otherwise take two and half hours by car. And so I thought: "what mental health resources are available in remote, rural places like northern Nevada?" As it turns out, close to none. Nevada is in the bottom five states with the lowest ratio of licensed psychologists to population, just 12: 100,000. Humboldt County (the county seated in Winnemucca) doesn't have any licensed psychologists. Consequently, Nevada is in the top three U.S. territories with the highest rate of unmet needs for illicit drug use and alcohol disorders (closely behind Colorado and the District of Columbia) that often exacerbate preexisting mental disorders. 

Overall, the state only has 460 licensed psychologists. Each county in Nevada meets the federal definition of a professional mental health provider shortage. As a result, many psychologists in the state have waitlists for assessments for about two months, while the waitlists for treatment are often a year long. The largest medical provider in Humboldt County is the Humboldt General Hospital and where there is only one licensed "clinical social worker" and one psychiatric nurse practitioner. But one nurse practitioner cannot begin to meet the needs of a county with 17,600 people

Another part of the problem is the lack of public transportation. As noted above, people like my mother who live in northern rural counties that are hundreds of miles from Reno where many of the licensed physicians are located face transportation barriers. Because there are no "long range" transportation services in these parts of the state, it is harder for people in those counties to seek proper treatment for their mental health disorders -- or any other services for that matter. 

But there have been movements to address these issues. One solution relates to accessibility of housing for people who suffer from debilitating mental health disorders. A Nevada Senate Bill is trying to increase the real property transfer tax by 20 cents for every $500 of value to build affordable housing for Nevadans with mental health conditions, disabilities, and those who are lower income. The bill seeks to address the problem that one woman characterized as people having no place between "'the hospital and the streets.'" But the bill has been met with resistance by the corporate community in the state. The Nevada Realtors and Vegas Chamber testified against the bill, arguing that a new tax increase would harm first-time homeowners. On the opposite end, Reno + Sparks Chamber of Commerce, Nevada Rural Hospital Partners and other organizations dedicated to serving rural community mental health needs argue that the legislation is critical to support people in the state who already face insurmountable obstacles to getting proper care. 

These issues are only the tip of the iceberg, as insurance companies add fuel to the fire by denying benefits to people for mental health services as well as denying mental and behavioral health specialists into their networks. For people like my mother, who rely on a mix of public health benefits including Medicare and Social Security Disability, getting care for serious mental disorders is almost impossible in rural communities. As a result, millions of people living in rural areas across the country fall into hopelessness. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the problem of inadequate mental health care has received widespread attention but stakeholders have taken little action to meet the needs of people who suffer from mental and physical isolation. 

As for my mother, when I last spoke to her she hadn't been able to make the trip to Reno because the Amtrak was not running given the recent snowstorms battering northern Nevada. When I reached out to her again to see if she had made it to her intake appointment she didn't answer and hasn't since. I can only hope she made it. And for people in circumstances like mine (higher education students with no income other than financial aid) who have relatives living in rural areas trying to seek treatment for mental disorders, that's about all we can do for them: hope. 

Thursday, March 16, 2023

Neglecting infrastructure that protects rural and farmworker communities (or, the curse of government's cost-benefit analysis)

Last week, the levee protecting the town of Pajaro, California from the Pajaro River failed amidst the tenth atmospheric river of the 2022-23 winter season.  The levee was built in 1949, and the Army Corps of Engineers knew it did not provide the level of protection it was initially designed to provide.  

Here's the lede from a March 12, 2023 Los Angeles Times story about the Pajaro disaster:  
Officials had known for decades that the Pajaro River levee that failed this weekend — flooding an entire migrant town and trapping scores of residents — was vulnerable but never prioritized repairs in part because they believed it did not make financial sense to protect the low-income area, interviews and records show.

“It was pretty much recognized by the early ‘60s that the levees were probably not adequate for the water that that system gets,” Stu Townsley, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ deputy district engineer for project management for the San Francisco region, told The Times on Sunday.

And despite having studied it on and off for years, in terms of “benefit-cost ratios,” it never penciled out, he said.

“It’s a low-income area. It’s largely farmworkers that live in the town of Pajaro,” Townsley said. “Therefore, you get basically Bay Area construction costs but the value of property isn’t all that high.”

This cost-benefit analysis is a recurring theme of spending on infrastructure, and it's one that disserves communities like Pajaro, an unincorporated community of just about 3000 residents that sits south of the river in Monterey County, while the city of Watsonville, population 50,000, sits north of the river in Santa Cruz County.   Indeed, some coverage of the Pajaro disaster has observed that Pajaro has effectively been sacrificed to help save Watsonville.  Though both are relatively poor and home to many farmworkers, Watsonville is home to a larger population and more commercial enterprises.  In other words, a Watsonville flood would be even more costly than the Pajaro flood is proving to be. 

Luis Alejo, chair of the Monterey County Board of Supervisors (and an alum of UC Davis Law), commented for the Los Angeles Times on why Pajaro had been neglected:
Low-income neighborhoods and communities have always historically been ignored by state and federal governments.
The story of Pajaro is exactly that. There was a lack of commitment by our federal and state governments. The residents have never felt they had that kind of support, knowing that the danger, the risk, has always been there.

Alejo further noted local communities like Pajaro and Watsonville are unable to pay their part of the millions it costs to improve levees, funds that are required to match the Army Corps' federal funding.  In fact, state funding had recently been secured to bolster the Pajaro levee, but it didn't come in time. 

In 2021, Sen. John Laird (D-Santa Cruz) authored a bill requiring the state to completely fund the [Pajaro River] project. This past fall, Laird and others held a ceremony celebrating the funding of the levee project.

“I said some version of ‘I hope to God it doesn’t rain before this gets done,’” he said.

Laird has worked for years to get funding to repair the system. He said he was a county staffer in 1995 when the river flooded and spent several nights at the fairgrounds “where many of the same families that are being evacuated this time.”
Today, several days after the Pajaro levee breach came this from KQED (the NPR affiliate in San Francisco), adding insult to injury for those impacted by the Pajaro flooding.  The report by Jeremiah Oetting reveals yet another betrayal of Pajaro:   
At a press conference in the flood-stricken Monterey County town of Pajaro on Wednesday, Gov. Gavin Newsom talked up a plan, paid for by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and managed by United Way, to provide financial aid to farmworkers affected by floods and recent winter storms.

“There's not a state in America, not one state, no other state that does more for farmworkers than the state of California,” Newsom said. “I want folks to know … it's important to reinforce today, March 15th, the United Way was able to get $42 million from USDA, and they're starting to send out $600 checks for farmworkers, regardless of their immigration status.”

Newsom was not referring to a new program for farmworkers who are in financial straits due to recent flooding and severe weather. Rather, as KAZU, KQED and The California Newsroom have learned, Newsom was referring to a $42 million farmworker grant managed by United Way that was announced in October of 2022, and has nothing to do with economic hardships due to recent storms.

The existing $42 million grant was created to provide “a one-time direct relief payment of $600 … to qualifying frontline farm, grocery, and meatpacking workers for expenses incurred due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to the USDA’s website.

Newsom’s office confirmed the $42 million he referred to in the press conference was in fact from the Farm and Food Workers Relief Grant Program, which is funded under the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021.

When asked whether waivers would be granted to flood-stricken farmworkers who do not meet the pandemic hardship requirements, USDA spokesperson Marissa Perry reiterated that the FFWR program was specific to those suffering COVID-related economic hardship.

You can read (or listen to) the rest of the story for more details, but the bottom line is that no new state or federal funds have been set aside to assist the victims of the Pajaro flood, who have not only lost their homes but will lose access to work in the coming months as fields must lie fallow for a period following the flood.  Further, the pandemic-related funds will not be distributed immediately, and they will not provide relief to all who need them.  

Postscript:  The San Jose Mercury News explains in this March 19 story how levees get funded.  The feature by Lisa M. Krieger and Harriett Blair Rowan features Hamilton City, population 1759, in Glenn County, an hour or so north of Sacramento.  

Like Pajaro, Hamilton City lives on the edge of a volatile river. Like Pajaro, its residents are largely low-income Latinos. Like Pajaro, it repeatedly sought federal funds to fix its levee, and was repeatedly rebuffed.

But there are differences, and that’s what saved Hamilton City. A group of six farmers, most of them now dead, started the construction campaign decades ago. It stayed unified and relentless in its focus. Volunteers, supported by homespun “Levee Festivals,” made 15 trips to Washington, D.C., knocking on doors in Congress to win the hearts of political heavyweights such as Sen. Dianne Feinstein, former Sen. Barbara Boxer and others.
*.* * 
But who deserves protection? While the responsibility to prevent floods lies with local communities, the funds to replace levees come largely from state and federal budgets. The government can’t afford to replace every levee. With fierce competition for money, projects must be prioritized.

To win funding, a town must prove that for every dollar spent on the project, there is at least a dollar of benefit. While the impacts of six factors — healthy and resilient ecosystems; sustainable economic development; floodplains; public safety; environmental justice; and watershed — are weighed, a community’s economic value weighs heavily, because it is easy to measure and compare projects, he said.

“The methodology measures: ‘How much is it going to cost? And how much are we going to save?’ ” said flood expert Scott Shapiro of the Sacramento law firm Downey Brand, who serves as general counsel for the Central Valley Flood Protection Board.

This cost-benefit approach is much more equitable than the historic tradition of “earmarking” funds, where powerful members of Congress steered money to their pet projects, he said. But it favors more prosperous areas.

All of this is helpful context for a news story from December 2022 when the first atmospheric river of the season hit California, striking the Central Valley particularly hard and flooding Wilton, an agricultural community south and southeast of Sacramento:   the standards for levees in rural areas like Wilton, where the Cosumnes River flooded, are lower than for those in urban places.  

Postscript:  Here is an LA Times story out of Allensworth, another disadvantaged California community facing flooding in light of the unseasonably rainy winter.  

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

On the future of vertical farms: Conflicting trends from China and the United States

I first took notice of so-called vertical farms about the time I started this blog some decade and a half ago when I saw this story in the New York Times depicting plants growing up the sides of a skyscraper.  Bina Vinkataraman wrote there of an idea that had "captured the imagination of several architects in the United States and Europe in the past several years."  The story's lede follows: 
What if “eating local” in Shanghai or New York meant getting your fresh produce from five blocks away? And what if skyscrapers grew off the grid, as verdant, self-sustaining towers where city slickers cultivated their own food?

Dickson Despommier, a professor of public health at Columbia University, hopes to make these zucchini-in-the-sky visions a reality. Dr. Despommier’s pet project is the “vertical farm,” a concept he created in 1999 with graduate students in his class on medical ecology, the study of how the environment and human health interact.

The story included this reality check on the economics of these enterprises: 

Armando Carbonell, chairman of the department of planning and urban form at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in Cambridge, Mass., called the idea “very provocative.” But it requires a rigorous economic analysis, he added. “Would a tomato in lower Manhattan be able to outbid an investment banker for space in a high-rise? My bet is that the investment banker will pay more.”

Scientific American ran a story in 2009 that also featured Despommier's vision and noted what would be saved in money and carbon in not having to transport food to city consumers:

[A] 30-story building built on one city block and engineered to maximize year-round agricultural yield—thanks largely to artificial lighting and advanced hydroponic and aeroponic growing techniques—could feed tens of thousands of people. Ideally the recipients of the bounty would live in the surrounding area, so as to avoid the transport costs and carbon emissions associated with moving food hundreds if not thousands of miles to consumers.

I was intrigued when I learned about these developments (which was about the time I started this blog), but to be honest, I was also a tiny bit disappointed because vertical farms risked making rural places obsolete.  I was starting to see that one of the things rural places provided to urban places--one of the ways rural places were seen as adding value--was food.  If, somehow, urban places came to be able to supply their own food needs, it would become one more reason for metro folks not to care about rural folks and their livelihoods. 

Thus, for the past 15 years, I've tried to track what's going on with vertical farms.  Are they still a sort of "pie in the sky" aspiration?  or are they becoming a real thing?  

Among the vertical gardens stories since that 2008 report is this 2013 NY Times piece out of Singapore.  It is focused on the island nation's Kranji neighborhood, "home to a farm resort and ever-evolving agritourism circuit where locavore thinking has taken hold," thus reclaiming some of Singapore's early kampong (farm village) spirit.  Here's an excerpt focused on green skyscrapers as tourist attractions 
The most recent [vertical gardens] addition is Sky Greens, a collection of 120 30-foot towers that opened in late 2012 using a method called “A-Go-Gro Vertical Farming,” which resembles a sort of vegetable-stuffed Ferris wheel, and is designed for leafy greens like spinach and bok choy. Sky Greens is Singapore’s first vertical farm, located in Kranji, 14 miles from Singapore’s central business district, with bus service available every 75 minutes.

The Kranji Heritage Trail, instituted in 2011, includes 34 independent farms and agriculture-related businesses. Seventeen of the trail stops are open to the public, including a poultry farm, a goat farm, frog-breeding aquaculture, a community vegetable garden, a cooking school, and the no-frills D’Kranji Farm Resort, with 19 eco-friendly villas and a spa. A day spent exploring Kranji’s farms is a great antidote to Singapore’s crush of street-food hawkers and urban attractions.

A few more recent stories suggest conflicting answers to the question whether these farms can go beyond serving as tourist attractions and make significant dents in the world's food needs--or even a city's food needs.  

First, this February New York Times report by Daisuke Wakabayashi and Claire Fu caught my eye.  It's about a multi-story hog factory in Ezhou, China, on the south bank of the Yangtze River, which will produce 1.2 million pigs a year once its sister facility is completed and at full capacity later in 2023:  

The first sows arrived in late September at the hulking, 26-story high-rise towering above a rural village in central China. The female pigs were whisked away dozens at a time in industrial elevators to the higher floors where the hogs would reside from insemination to maturity.

This is pig farming in China, where agricultural land is scarce, food production is lagging and pork supply is a strategic imperative.

Inside the edifice, which resembles the monolithic housing blocks seen across China and stands as tall as the London tower that houses Big Ben, the pigs are monitored on high-definition cameras by uniformed technicians in a NASA-like command center. Each floor operates like a self-contained farm for the different stages of a young pig’s life: an area for pregnant pigs, a room for farrowing piglets, spots for nursing and space for fattening the hogs.

Feed is carried on a conveyor belt to the top floor, where it’s collected in giant tanks that deliver more than one million pounds of food a day to the floors below through high-tech feeding troughs that automatically dispense the meal to the hogs based on their stage of life, weight, and health. 

* * *  

China has had a long love affair with pigs. For decades, many rural Chinese households raised backyard pigs, considered valuable livestock as a source of not only meat but also manure. Pigs also hold cultural significance as a symbol of prosperity because, historically, pork was served only on special occasions.

And here are some more interesting tidbits about the factory, which was built by a cement manufacturer just diversifying into the hog breeding business:  

The farm is next to the company’s cement factory, in a region known as the “Land of Fish and Rice” for its importance to Chinese cuisine with its fertile farmlands and surrounding bodies of water.

While the journalists refer to the location of the hog factory as a "rural village," Ezhou is a city of more than a million.  Here's more on the factory itself: 

A pig farm in name, the operation is more like a Foxconn factory for pigs with the precision required of an iPhone production line. Even pig feces are measured, collected and repurposed. Roughly one-quarter of the feed will come out as dry excrement that can be repurposed as methane to generate electricity.

A Chinese executive who designs hog farms is quoted as suggesting that "multistory farms will have an impact on the world."  Meanwhile, the U.S. perspective is more skeptical, largely because of concerns about the inability to control contamination in these facilities: 

U.S. hog farmers look at the pictures of those farms in China, and they just scratch their heads and say, ‘We would never dare do that.’ ... It’s just too risky.

Contrast what's happening in China with this recent story out of western Pennsylvania, where a multi-story facility producing lettuces recently shut down.  Adele Peters reports for Fast Company under the headline, "The Vertical Farming Bubble is Finally Popping."  

When workers arrived at Fifth Season, an indoor farm in the former steel town of Braddock, Pennsylvania, on a cloudy Friday morning last October, they expected it would be a normal day.

The farm, which had opened two years earlier, seemed to be running smoothly, growing tens of thousands of pounds of lettuce per year inside a robot-filled 60,000-square-foot warehouse. The brand was selling salad kits—like a taco-themed version with the company’s baby romaine, plus guacamole, tortilla strips, and cheese—in more than 1,200 stores, including Whole Foods and Kroger. Earlier in the year, the company had said that it projected a 600% growth in sales in 2022. The branding was updated in October, and new packages were rolling out in stores. Solar panels and a new microgrid had recently been installed at the building. A larger farm was being planned for Columbus, Ohio.

But the workday never started. ... The managers announced that the company was closing immediately. After shutting down the electrical equipment and draining water lines, the plants were left to die. ... Dozens ... were left scrambling to find new jobs.

Fifth Season’s failure is only the most dramatic signal of a reckoning taking place in what’s known as the vertical farming sector. 

The story goes on to provide other examples of this trend of vertical farm failures in the United States and in Europe.  

So, is the salient distinction between what's happening in China and what's happening in the United States that the former involves meat and the latter involves fruit and veg?  That farmers--really agribusiness--in assess risk differently?  Or are there other reasons for the differing trajectories?  

Monday, March 13, 2023

Rural women are vital to global food systems

As the United Nations Women Watch's overview on food security identifies, rural women not only act as food producers and agricultural entrepreneurs, they also informally facilitate food security and stability in their households and communities (another post on women in farming is here). Expanding on the latter point, both the UN Women's research on rural women and girls and a 2019 Root Capital article, "How Climate Change Impacts Women Farmers," suggests that rural women are well positioned to foster resilient agricultural hubs, due to demonstrated skill at community networking, mobilization, and adaption in the face of environmental threats and economic crises. 

Over the past few years, the International Day of Rural Women has consistently endeavored to draw attention to this often unappreciated reality. In 2021 the theme, "Rural Women Cultivating Good Food for All," spotlighted how investing in rural women engaged in agribusiness could help alleviate global food insecurity. Food insecurity, which has been exacerbated by recent climate crises (discussed here) and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic (discussed here), affects upwards of 800 million people worldwide, including over 33 million Americans, who are disproportionately from communities of color and in rural areas (previous posts on food insecurity in the U.S. here and here). 

The premise, as informed by National Geographic's article, "Empowering female farmers to feed the world," is that gender-specific barriers, such as discriminatory practices, limited access to resources, and misogynistic social norms, prevent rural women from maximizing their agricultural and economic potentials. Consider, despite equivalent competency, on average women-run farms tend to produce smaller crop yields and generate less profit than those run by men. If barriers were eliminated, rural women might be able to close the gap between them and their male counterparts, in ways that would also strategically amplify their existing contributions to global poverty and hunger reduction. Citing the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the National Geographic article estimates that if women farmers were provided equal access to resources, then global food production by women could increase by up to 30%, providing food to roughly 150 million additional people. 

While obstacles to rural women farmers vary depending on regional particularities, certain impediments can be identified fairly consistently across contexts. Specifically, as discussed in a 2018 World Bank story, "Breaking the 'Grass Ceiling': Empowering Women Farmers," inequitable access to both land rights and financing opportunities, influenced by historic and ongoing gender-bias, emerges as a common limiting phenomenon. Synthesizing the World Bank story and the National Geographic article, this can be seen in certain developing countries where women comprise half of the agricultural labor force, but only make up 10% of landowners. Without autonomy over the land they are farming, women cannot structure land use and farming agreements to maximize their benefit. As a related matter, smallholder women farmers in these areas can struggle to access credit in the face of insufficient collateral and sexist cultural norms. Accordingly, they must operate under a funding deficit that can place advanced tools and techniques capable of improving production out of reach.

Focusing now on rural America, one can see that parallel limitations similarly inhibit women farmers. On one hand, as noted by the American Farmland Trust's 2021 report on "Women in Agriculture," women are currently outpacing men in agricultural education programs throughout the country (at UC Davis, in 2019-2020, 75% of students who earned a bachelor's degree in agriculture-related majors were women). Despite this, women are the principle operator on only 14% of U.S. farming operations. The American Farmland Trust report contextualizes this statistic within additional research documenting women farmers' obstacles to obtaining land, including exclusion from networks, challenges accessing credit and obtaining conservation support, and patriarchal norms that prioritize male heirs.

The American Farmland Trust report further notes that disparities in access to loans and capital hit women farmers of color the hardest. This is, in part, a result of women and farmers of color tending to run relatively smaller operations with lower revenues and weaker credit histories, but also the product of implicit bias in resource and loan provision. Additionally, as theorized in a 2022 National Institute of Health study, "Decolonizing agriculture in the United States," the predominant agricultural narrative in the U.S. has been constructed around white masculinity in ways that exclude women and people of color from our cultural imaginary of who a farmer is and should be. 

Juxtaposition of two feminist projects grappling with these issues shows a range of approaches being employed to support women farmers in the United States. The first, a One Earth-backed project, "Supporting Black Women farmers working to expand regenerative agriculture in the Southeastern US," embodies concrete resource-based programmatic support that must be paramount. Specifically, this project will expand on the American Farmland Trust's existing partnership with the Black Family Land Trust in order to promote land access, enhanced viability, and increased resilience for black women farmers. The second, FarmHer, a social media campaign initiated by Marji Guyler-Alaniz in 2013, represents a supplementary resistance strategy. This internet-based photo project aims to update modern conceptions of farmers in ways that recognize, celebrate, and recruit women.

Beyond these select examples, SeedChange, an organization committed to supporting farmers and combatting hunger, poverty, and climate change, provides broader recommendations for empowering women farmers. Specifically, its publication, "Women Seed Change," advocates for the following actions:

(1) strengthen women's leadership by funding women-led farmer organizations ... (2) prioritize women's knowledge and agency in climate resilient agriculture ... (3) invest in women farmers, including youth and indigenous women ... (4) develop gender equity frameworks to guide policies ... (5) enhance women's agency, decision-making power and rights over land and productive resources [and] (6) uphold the rights of women ...    

In short, rural women in agriculture are vital to global food systems, and they need robust support from a range of domestic and international institutions.