Tuesday, July 29, 2014

07/29/2014 at 3:23pm

Photo by Dana Dillehunt Jamie Seuberling works in Ashton's Gibsonville, North Carolina, facility.

In the rural Carolinas there is a growing movement for businesses to take another go at their core industries. 

Within the textile industry there is major buzz around brands looking to “re-shore” their production of goods to U.S. soil.  The Carolina Textile District is a network of mill owners, pattern makers, label producers and suppliers joining together to lift up each other’s work and get ready to manufacture on a large scale once again. 

In the early 1990’s when the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) took effect, American brands rushed overseas to mass produce goods paying workers incredibly low wages.  North Carolina factories that employed 100-plus worker were suddenly empty.  The hum of machines dwindled, and vacant buildings became part of the landscape.  Often life-long textile employees were left without job, pension and retirement. 

Some mills managed to keep their doors open in the midst of this economic bust. Nand Thapar of Action Sports Inc. kept his business going by making uniforms for sports teams.  He even produced some of the uniforms for the 1996 Summer Olympics teams, but the scale of work changed drastically.  All the major contracts, like Nike, Victoria’s Secret and Hanes, once the main providers for these factories, left for overseas.  It took determination for mill owners like Thapar to keep their doors open. 

Dan St. Louis, director of the Manufacturing Solutions Center in Conover, North Carolina, and a founding member of the Carolina Textile District, worked during the cycle of the boom and bust around textiles during the 1990s.  Through his position at Manufacturing Solutions he was able to see the high number of garments being sent in for testing after problems with overseas production.  Everything from use of wrong materials to poor craftsmanship made it apparent that there might be another way to go. 

St. Louis recalls seeing the first wave of designers wanting to produce American-made goods again.  

“Around 2011 the phones started ringing off the hook, first from entrepreneurs," he said.  “They were calling all of us. Word was getting out that we were willing to work with them, and it just exploded.”

It was then that he began talking to others in the community like Molly Hemstreet, who was in the beginning phases of opening a worker-owned cooperative, Opportunity Threads.  She saw the need to create one point of contact for potential clients seeking manufacturers. The idea was to to create a regional value chain -- a network of businesses, nonprofit organizations and collaborating players who work together to satisfy market demand for specific products or services.

They needed one umbrella organization that could link a designer up to someone who could help with the patterns and professional grading of their product, create a sample, start a production run for retail, even down to the labeling and tags.  With that, the Carolina Textile District was formed.   

07/28/2014 at 4:31pm

Percent Change Nonemployers, Micro, and Small Businesses, 2002-2012

US Census Nonemployer Statistics Dataset; US Census County Business Patterns

When small cities and rural communities talk about adding jobs, the conversation frequently turns to recruiting outside employers to set up shop locally and put people to work. But Census data from the last decade shows that one of the bright spots in nonmetro economic development since 2002 has been among self-employed workers – the ones who create their own jobs locally.

In fact, such businesses were the only ones among businesses that employ 20 or fewer employees that expanded from 2002 to 2012, according to Census data analysis.

This finding ought to be part of rural economic development discussions, especially when it comes time to determine how to invest limited resources in efforts to create local jobs.

“Nonemployer” vs. Micro and Small Businesses           

To better understand the role of small businesses in creating work opportunities, the U.S. Census Nonemployer Statistics dataset was analyzed. “Nonemployer” is what the Census calls businesses that have no paid employees. These are typically very small, unincorporated entities. In common language, we usually refer to these business owners as self-employed. According to the Census definition, such businesses pay at least some federal taxes and have annual receipts of $1,000 or more. (In the construction industry, the Census includes all businesses that have $1 or more in receipts).

The Census County Business Patterns dataset for continental U.S. counties was also analyzed. This dataset includes businesses with paid employees. Besides nonemployer businesses (remember, that’s what we usually call self employed), two other types of entities were included: “micro” business (MB), which have one to four employees, and “small” businesses (SB), which have five to 19 employees.

The growth or decline in these types of businesses from 2002 to 2012 in rural (noncore) counties, counties with small cities (micro), and metropolitan areas were analyzed. Some of the results are in the chart at the top of this article.

07/25/2014 at 6:00am

Photo via Big Bend Brewing Company Big Bend Brewing Company chose Alpine, Texas, as it's home base.

Craft beer breweries are finding their niche in rural areas. Big Bend Brewing Company is based in Alpine, Texas - over 150 miles from any other town. The company found its foothold in the Alpine area, which has seen a large tourist boom lately, and has gathered loyal clients from all over west Texas as well. Now, the company even has a waiting list of hundreds of bars and restaurants that want to stock their product.

“We could’ve been another one of the 20-something breweries in Austin,” Big Bend brewmaster Steve Anderson says. “But we wanted to do something different.”

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Aspen, Colorado is proving that even rural areas can have efficient public transportation systems. The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority buses connect downtown areas along Route 82 and delivered over 4.1 million rides last year alone. The RFTA features express buses as well as a bikeshare program.

“My car doesn’t do very well in the snow, so especially in the winter it’s nice not to stress about the snow,” says Aspen local Jamie Cundiff. “If it’s in the summer, I love having the ability to bike one way and bus the other because sometimes the weather is different in the morning than the afternoon.”

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Small producers and Slow Food advocates have initiated a growing movement to conserve endangered species of livestock and poultry. Among these breeds is the Red Wattle pig, which was down to a population of just 50 in 1999. Due to the efforts of small farmers and the Livestock Conservancy, their numbers are now back up around 6,000.

"As counterproductive as it may seem, to save these pigs we have to eat them," says hog farmer Travis Hood.

07/24/2014 at 8:07am

Photo by Scott Goldsmith / The Marcellus Shale Documentary Project A gas drilling rig in the middle of Hopewell Township in Washington County, Pennsylvania.

Editor's note: This article first appeared in ProPublica on July 2, 2014.

For the last eight years, Pennsylvania has been riding the natural gas boom, with companies drilling and fracking thousands of wells across the state. And in a little corner of Washington County, some 20 miles outside of Pittsburgh, EQT Corporation has been busy 2013 drilling close to a dozen new wells on one site.

It didn't take long for the residents of Finleyville who lived near the fracking operations to complain 2013 about the noise and air quality, and what they regarded as threats to their health and quality of life. Initially, EQT, one of the largest producers of natural gas in Pennsylvania, tried to allay concerns with promises of noise studies and offers of vouchers so residents could stay in hotels to avoid the noise and fumes.

But then, in what experts say was a rare tactic, the company got more aggressive: it offered all of the households along Cardox Road $50,000 in cash if they would agree to release the company from any legal liability, for current operations as well as those to be carried out in the future. It covered potential health problems and property damage, and gave the company blanket protection from any kind of claim over noise, dust, light, smoke, odors, fumes, soot, air pollution or vibrations.

The agreement also defined the company's operations as not only including drilling activity but the construction of pipelines, power lines, roads, tanks, ponds, pits, compressor stations, houses and buildings.

"The release is so incredibly broad and such a laundry list," said Doug Clark, a gas lease attorney in Pennsylvania who mainly represents landowners. "You're releasing for everything including activity that hasn't even occurred yet. It's crazy."

Linda Robertson, a spokeswoman for EQT, said in a statement that the company had worked hard and conscientiously to address the concerns of the residents. She said consultants had been hired, data collected on noise and health matters, and that independent analysis had shown the company was in compliance with noise and air quality requirements. She would not comment in detail on the financial offers.

07/23/2014 at 6:12am

A poster for Bliss Ragsdale's forthcoming movie "Firebox Lake."

In a world where people live in a moonlit village at the base of a towering mountain, eerie, spooky and downright dangerous things are bound to happen. And when grizzled gray beards can’t even walk through the woods without being hacked apart by a chopping maul, you know you’ve come to Firebox Lake.

But first, 42-year-old Bliss Ragsdale, native of Laramie, Wyoming, needs to make his horror movie by that name. Not only is he the writer and director, he’s willing to do his part as cannon fodder, growing out his beard to play the role of the chopping maul victim named “Shots,” which he says is an homage to the 1980s horror movie Chopping Mall. But in general, he sees two things wrong with most horror movies: too much money and too few bodies.          

Ragsdale describes his film as a “Scooby-Doo episode with a really high body count.” In the average action movie, hundreds of people die. But in horror movies, an average of only five people die, he says. “I want to up that. I kill ten people by page five. The opening scene is a slaughter-fest.”            

It starts with a few people with a little too much curiosity. He’s trying to decide whether he wants an ending that suggests a sequel, or whether to “just kill everybody.” The former prospect would be satisfying and allow the killer to be caught. But the latter would be fun, too.       

Photo via Julianne Couch Bliss Ragsdale relaxing at the Buckhorn Bar, Laramie's version of the Algonquin Hotel.

If all this sounds horribly twisted and graphic, Ragsdale is quick to point out it is actually intended to be funny. “My concept is to move away from the saw generation, the gore porn.” He believes too much gore desensitizes an audience and deadens a film’s power to scare and shock. His approach is more along the lines of Hitchcock, or John Carpenter, who directed the Halloween films: show something shocking and then cut away, leaving the audience to interpret how ghastly it really is.

07/22/2014 at 6:37am

Photo by Ed Suominen The EPA is cracking down on woodburning stove emissions.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed new restrictions on emissions from wood-burning stoves have garnered praise and criticism from a variety of health, manufacturing and small business organizations.

The proposed rules, which will reduce allowable emissions for many new woodstoves, could have a bigger impact in rural areas, which burn up to twice as much wood for heat as metropolitan areas, according to a George Mason University report.

The American Lung Association and the Alliance for Green Heat support the tighter restrictions, reports Jim Gillam in the Chimney Sweep News, an industry publication. The Lung Association says the changes will help protect the environment and human health.

“The EPA set the current standards for wood-burning devices in 1988,” the Lung Association states, according to Gilliam, “years before the first of the landmark studies that demonstrated that particles like those that make up wood smoke can be deadly.  Improved technologies in use today can greatly reduce the harmful pollution from these devices.”

But the claim that the tighter standards will improve human health doesn’t take into account that most wood for heat gets burned in rural areas, says Stonehill College economics professor Sean Mulholland.

“If a tree burns in the forest and no one’s there to breathe the smoke, does this reduce human health?” he writes in a U.S. News and World Report online opinion piece.

“Because most of the emissions reductions will take place in rural areas with low population densities, the [EPA] rule overestimates total health benefits realized by averaging these reductions across all U.S. residents,” Mulholland writes. “So a reduction in particulates in the rural community of Forest City, Maine, has the same estimated value as a reduction in the densely-populated urban city of Oakland, California.”

07/21/2014 at 6:50am

Photo via Risky Business Road washed away by extreme flood in Jamestown, Colorado.

Back in his day, Dad always stressed the risky side of farming. As proof he’d pull from a desk drawer his personal handwritten record of Langdon yearly corn prices during the 1950’s. Next to those were annual yields. The message was clear; if prices don’t get you, yield and weather will.

I should have asked more questions.

I thought I had all the answers. When I looked around the neighborhood all I saw was accumulated wealth of successful farmers rooted all the way down to the Depression era. Now I’ve figured out the hard way, secrets are held not in the answers you have, but in the questions you ask, like:

Why were they there?

Because the only farmers I saw were those who had survived.

How does one farmer succeed where so many have failed?

Being optimistic helps. Farmers believe hail storm losses won’t be total, the drought won’t last and rain will fall, the levee could hold if the river drops and, if all else fails, prices should rise. But as optimistic farmers like me grow older, they’ve learned that even if the government doesn’t mess things up, Mother Nature might.

Like an old farmer once said, “I’d rather be lucky than smart.”

Anyhow, Dad was right.

Farming is risky.