West Virginia native Nic Persinger makes photos of people, landscapes and objects, but he considers them all portraits. Taking photos almost exclusively in his home state, Persinger says he used to approach photography with a point to make. Lately, though, he’s content to wander through West Virginia with a sense of curiosity.
For years, the high point in rural population growth was amenity-rich recreation areas, which attracted tourists and their dollars. Since the Great Recession, the growth rate in those counties has dropped by nearly 75 percent.
The nation’s largest retailer joins the growing list of companies seeking new production standards for the food they sell. The new standards arise from consumer demand, which is promoting changes based on both human health concerns and concern for the welfare of animals.
Novelist, poet, and short-story writer Ron Rash says discipline, mystery, and geography have contributed to his work over the years. But don’t make the mistake of calling him “just” an Appalachian writer.
A Tennessee group that supports same-sex marriage and civil-rights for LGBT people has expanded its organizing beyond the state’s largest metropolitan areas to smaller cities. The director of the Tennessee Equality Project tells us why rural matters to him.
In 2013, twenty-six-year-old Cody Weber began exploring his family history by photographing in and around his hometown of Keokuk, Iowa. This sparked his ambitious project Forgotten Iowa, for which Weber plans to photograph all of Iowa’s 947 official and unincorporated towns. We talked to Weber about what the process has been like so far, and why he’s so drawn to his home state.
All photos by Cody WeberCantril, Iowa, at an Amish grocery store. Population: 222
Daily Yonder: Where did you grow up? Tell us a little bit about your background. Cody Weber: I grew up in Keokuk, Iowa. It's a small river town in Southeast Iowa. The people there are as friendly as the architecture is worn. Despite its pratfalls, the community is very warm and inviting, and I take a lot of pride in being an Iowan, but even more specifically as a Keokukian. I grew up the same way that most of my peers in the community did, whether it was riding bikes throughout town or fishing on the coast of the Mississippi river. Keokuk is a great place to wander, to get lost, and it's not hard to spend entire days doing just that.
Milton, Iowa. A 96 year-old shop owner poses for a frame in front of his garage. Population: 443
DY: When did you first start taking pictures? CW: I've been photographing my life almost every single day since the day I turned fifteen. I'm twenty-six now, so I guess that's a little more than a decade. It's strange to go back and look at events as they unfolded in retrospect. There are entire months that my brain really doesn't even really remember, but the photo evidence is still there. I really believe that, as egotistical as it is, it's helped shape me and become all the more self-aware. As of today, I have taken over 2.5 million photos...and I've deleted nothing.
In fact, the longest break I have ever taken is five days in late 2008 when I had pneumonia.
A blind stray cat looks for scraps of food in Rome, Iowa as the sun sets in front of him. Population: 117
DY: After years of traveling, you’re back in Iowa taking pictures. Why did you decide to head back to Iowa? How long do you plan to stay? CW: Southeast Iowa is my safe place. It's where my entire family resides, where most of my friends live, and where I feel the most at home. Every time I've ventured to other cities, I always find myself longing for a slower existence. Cities are overwhelming to me. Everybody has somewhere to be, all the time, and almost without exception. There's no time to just stop and converse with a total stranger. That couldn't be any further from reality in small-town USA. I love that I can bump into somebody that I don't even know and end up learning a lot about them. I am a small-town kid just by my very nature, and it's become obvious to me that you can take the boy out of the town but you can't take the town out of the boy. It took a long time to accept that reality, and I actually envied the kids of inner-cities who seemed to take on the sprawl of a cityscape as part of their routine. I've spent entire years of my life in cities and I've never once been able to do that. I get overwhelmed too easily. I miss seeing stars. It's the little things.
So, I suppose the question is never “How long do I plan to stay?” as much as it's, “How long do you plan to stay away?” No matter where I end up, a large part of my heart belongs to Keokuk. It always will. And though I'm absolutely aware of the mountains that the community has to climb, I still associate my mentalities with it. Everything I think, whether it's my political or ideological stances, stemmed from that community. It was birthed through those experiences and those people. There is no shortage of love that I have for my community. Logistically speaking, though, I'm also aware that sometimes you have to venture elsewhere to improve your own position. And that's what I imagine I'll end up doing; living in a series of small apartments in various places until I find a place that suits me just as well as Keokuk did. You wouldn't believe how difficult that's been thus far. I feel out of place wherever I go, even when I've been an active part in various art and music scenes. I'm still this outsider, you know, the small-town kid that I've always been. You can't run from that because it can outrun you. It's nothing for reality to stay in pace.
A pair of cars rests in the grass in Lockridge, Iowa.
DY: Tell us about the Forgotten Iowa Project. How did it begin and what is its aim? I became mildly obsessed with researching my ancestry in the summer of 2013, and I discovered that my family has stayed in the same geographical pocket for more than a hundred and fifty years. Not all in Keokuk, obviously, but well within 50 miles of it. It started in Virginia, though, and moved toward Kahoka, Missouri in the 1800's. From there, my family has stayed put. They've weathered population rises and falls, factories coming and going, and the like.
Anyway, that really got me thinking. I wanted to know more about my ancestors, so I eventually worked my way to these small towns. I saw family homes that were constructed by my great-great-great grandfather. To this day, they stand and families live in them. That's an incredible feat and was so awe-inspiring to me. It showed me that your legacy doesn't die with you. It lives on with the people you loved, the people that loved you, and the things that you helped create.
With Canada and Mexico claiming to have been harmed by the U.S.'s Country of Origin Labeling, advocates find themselves fighting for the law on multiple fronts. Some lawmakers suggest scaling back COOL, but others say cutting some fat would equal a surrender.
Photo by ReutersCOOL requires The country of origin label meatpackers are required to include country-of-origin labels on their products to denote where the meat was raised and slaughtered. The law is in dispute.
Both Canada and Mexico have claimed harm from U.S. Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) that identifies sources of our food.
In spite of the fact that a study by Dr. Robert Taylor of Auburn University shows no harm to foreign markets, the U.S. House of Representatives, led by the House Agriculture Committee, has repealed COOL for U.S. beef, pork, and poultry.
Four U.S. Courts approved the legality of COOL before the World Trade Organization (WTO) complaint was filed. But American laws were subverted by free trade deals allowing WTO statutes to take precedence over our own U.S. law.
Action in the Senate is pending. I hope they take the patriotic route, but with trade sanction retaliation threatened by Canada and Mexico, weak knees in the Senate may prevail just as they did in the House.
USDA has recently approved chicken imports from China even though China’s food safety record is atrocious. The Obama Administration has also approved the import of beef from foot-and-mouth disease afflicted regions of South America, at great peril to American beef herds. And every so often Canada reports another case of mad cow disease, the brain destroying disease that might affect humans the same way.
Without COOL, American consumers will be in the dark about food safety like never before.
Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) has proposed modifying the COOL law of mandatory labeling for muscle cuts of beef and pork to one of voluntary labeling, while preserving mandatory labeling for chicken, ground beef, and ground pork. Those are the products where the risk of food borne illness is greatest.
Some farm groups who said they supported COOL never stepped up to defend it. Farm Bureau, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and National Pork Producers Council never questioned the unfounded WTO complaint. That’s because they represent corporate business interests ahead of small family farms.
The Census Bureau wants to cut the “flush-toilet” question from its largest survey, saying the query is an “unnecessary burden on the American Public.” But changing the definition of inadequate plumbing won’t make it go away.
With the recent foreclosure crisis and the rise of housing affordability problems, concerns around substandard and dilapidated homes may have waned or been pushed in to the background. Indeed, long-term efforts to improve housing conditions have resulted in dramatic reductions in the most egregious housing deficiencies. In 1970, more than 3.5 million homes in the United States were without complete plumbing facilities. In 2013, the number of homes lacking adequate plumbing declined to roughly 570,000, or less than 1 percent of the nation’s housing stock. An estimated 70 percent of these “plumbing-inadequate” homes lack a functioning flush toilet.
How do we know this? The Census Bureau asks U.S. households a series of questions about their housing as part of its American Community Survey, or ACS. The ACS provides relatively limited data on basic structural and quality characteristics of our homes, such as adequate plumbing and kitchen facilities. The Census survey classifies a home as having adequate plumbing facilities if it contains three basic characteristics: 1) “hot and cold piped water,” 2) a “flush toilet,” and 3) a “bathtub or shower.” Citing an “unnecessary burden on the American public,” the Census Bureau is proposing to discontinue the “flush-toilet” criterion when determining if a housing unit has adequate plumbing.
A large number of homes without working toilets are located in rural and small-town areas. In some rural communities, especially on Native American lands, the incidence of homes lacking basic plumbing can exceed 20 times the national rate. In Apache County, Arizona, part of the Navajo Nation, an estimated 17 percent of homes lack adequate plumbing. The state of Alaska has some of the highest rates of homes without toilets. Overall, 8 percent of rural homes in Alaska lack proper plumbing, and in some Alaska counties, nearly 40 percent of homes are without indoor plumbing. Inadequate plumbing in Alaska is likely influenced in part by its climate and permafrost that inhibits water and wastewater access.
A South Dakota Oglala Lakota nonprofit has just broken ground on what will become a regenerative community housing development that focuses on people, prosperity and the planet. The Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation says the project is one response to a “moral responsibility” to end poverty in Native communities.
Photo by Andrew Iron Shell/Thunder Valley CDCMembers of the Thunder Valley CDC break ground on their new regenerative community.
The Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation (Thunder Valley CDC) broke ground on its regenerative community housing development last month.
Local, regional and national partners including the Sustainable Home Ownership Project, USDA Rural Development, Enterprise Community Partners, the Northwest Area Foundation, and the Bush Foundation among others also support the project. The project will create 32 single family homes, apartments, a small farm and aquaponics greenhouse, a grocery store, powwow grounds, a youth shelter, artist studios and more, according to a press release.
In the past, the Oglala Lakota people had strong, sustainable regional economies that were built around a nomadic lifestyle of hunting buffalo, stewarding the land, and managing sophisticated societal and democratic governance structures, said Nick Tilsen, founding executive director of Thunder Valley CDC. However, policies and injustices have created third world poverty conditions in the heart of America, he said.
“Our people no longer hunt the buffalo as a way of life, but we are still here,” Tilsen said. “We know that a sustainable, resilient community is still possible. The movement is here. The time to define and develop our own future is now.”
Corporations would like to get the credit for reforming the poultry industry. But they’d like to pass along the costs of change to chicken farmers, says a commercial grower. What choice do chicken growers have? Under the current rules, only two: Take it or leave it, says contract grower Mike Weaver.
Over the last year, we’ve heard a half-dozen major players in the poultry industry announce their intentions to change production methods because of concerns over human health and animal welfare. Most recently, for example, Walmart said it intends to purchase only “humanely raised” chickens.
While ag corporations, animal-rights groups, and health advocates have been in the media commenting on the changes, there’s one set of voices we’ve heard little from:
Mike Weaver of Pendleton County in eastern West Virginia, is a commercial chicken grower and president of the Contract Poultry Growers Association of the Virginias.
Weaver contracts with Pilgrim’s food, which is owned by JBS, the largest meat producer in the world. Pilgrim’s supplies Weaver and growers like him with chicks and feed. The growers are independent contractors. They provide their own land, houses, and equipment to raise chicks to slaughter weight. The mature chickens go back to the poultry “integrator,” and growers get paid on a “tournament” system, which ranks growers’ performance and pays them accordingly. That’s the way nearly all commercial chicken production in the United States works, unless you buy poultry at the farm gate.
We asked Weaver how the push for changes in chicken production will affect small, commercial farmers.
Daily Yonder: Changes in how poultry is raised could mean an increase in production costs. How do you think poultry integrators like Pilgrims, Perdue, and Tyson will pay for this?
Mike Weaver: I’m sure the companies are going to try to throw as much of that cost off on us [growers] as they can. You mind what I’m saying. [Companies] will go to the growers and they will say, “Well, we have to do this antibiotic free.” That means growers aren’t going to be able to produce as many birds in each chicken house, so we need to [build more] housing. And to some of the companies, they will say, “If you don’t agree to build an additional house, we’re going to terminate you as a grower. You’re not going to get chickens anymore.” They will trick them into doing it. And some people will do it.
One of the reasons I speak out is that I don’t have to have their money to make a living. But a lot of us do. They are living chicken check to chicken check.
The reason I emphasize the treatment of the farmers is because that directly relates to how the chickens are raised. When it comes to what can be done to change the growing arrangement, the best thing they could do is start treating farmers better. The way farmers are treated should be illegal.
How are farmers treated?
Let me give you a really good example. When you go to KFC and buy a 12-piece chicken meal, that runs anywhere from 28 to 30 bucks. Out of that, KFC keeps about 22 dollars. The integrator, which is the poultry company KFC bought the chicken from, gets 5 to 6 dollars of that. And the grower who spent at least six weeks raising that chicken gets 30 cents. Now tell me how that’s fair.
And you pile that on top of the fact that it’s been going on 20 years since we’ve had an increase in base pay. That says a lot about the industry and what they think of farmers and how we are being abused by the big companies.
Back in the winter, Pilgrim [the company Weaver raises chicks for] paid their stockholders a 1.5 billion dollar dividend. ... Now what does that tell you about the kind of money they are making, and not spending a penny on increasing pay for growers. And the growers are the ones who make that money for them. To make that kind of money and then the growers not get an increase in base pay, considering how long it has been since they’ve had one. Now tell me what kind of business sense that is.
If you don’t like the way your chicken company treats you, why don’t you negotiate better terms or raise chicks for a different company?
Well, I would if I had the choice, but I don’t. They are the only integrator in town. They have a compact between themselves that they don’t steal each other’s growers. It happens some, but they don’t do it much.
Photo by the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition Congresswoman Chellie Pingree (D-ME 1st District), farmer Mike Weaver, advocate Benny Bunting, and author Chris Leonard participate in a briefing for congressional staff and press to raise the awareness about anti-competitive practices in livestock farming.
We have no say in our contracts. It’s take it or leave it. They bring you a contract. If you sign it, you continue to grow chickens. If you don’t, you’re terminated.
There’s very few of us out there who don’t have to have that chicken check. And the companies abuse that terribly. They will go to growers who they know can’t possibly be close to paying off their mortgage – or even when they are close to paying off their mortgage – they will go growers and say, “Well, you’ve got to make improvements here.” And force them to go back into debt so that they can continue to control them. That’s part of their master plan is to keep growers in debt so that they’ve got to keep growing their chickens.
“My husband, when he was sick, he asked us to not let them. And you know we are going to respect that wish, ain’t we? What kind of people would we be if we didn’t?” Elizabeth Wooten in the documentary, On Our Own Land
In 1989 Appalshop Films won the Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia University Award for broadcast journalism. The prize was for a public television documentary, On Our Own Land, about the practice of strip mining coal under the authority of deeds written before strip mining coal was invented. Local landowners had little or no recourse in the courts.
Anne Lewis produced and directed the program, and I was the executive producer, meaning I helped raise the money and talked to people when there was trouble. A lot of talented folks worked on the show. In New York they gave us a silver baton with an engraved quotation about television that was once spoken by newsman Edward R. Murrow: “This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and even it can inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise, it's nothing but wires and lights in a box.”
The true star of the documentary was Elizabeth Wooten. She could illuminate and inspire. Elizabeth died last week at 91. She was from Bulan, Kentucky, what people might call a wide spot in the road. And, full disclosure, she was my babysitter for a while when I was growing up, meaning that she worked as a maid in my home. She ironed clothes, kept house, stopped my brother and me from maiming each other while the parents were at work. Our family was not well-off. You did not need to be to have help. My dad made a hundred dollars a week at the furniture store, my mom far less as an assistant lab technician at the hospital. Mrs. Wooten made far less than that. In the 1960s, maybe $20 a week, less than a buck an hour.
USDA Economic Research ServiceDarker areas receive more philanthropic grants per capita than lighter areas. Although urban areas receive more funding on average, some notable rural areas stand out in the map: Western North Carolina; parts of New England and Maine; Colorado; and Oregon.
Whichever way you slice it, rural communities aren’t getting a proportionate share of foundation grants compared to the relative size of the rural population, a new report says.
Researchers found that rural communities, which accounted for 19 percent of U.S. population in 2010, received only about 6 to 7 percent of foundation grants awarded from 2005 to 2010.
The federal study also found that over the same time period, grants from large foundations to organizations based in rural areas came to about $88 per capita. Organizations in metropolitan areas received foundation support at twice that per capita rate, the report said.
The study expands on previous work by Nonprofit Quarterly’sRick Cohen that has tracked philanthropic investment in rural development. The new USDA study examines grants in all types of funding – not just development.
Determining how much foundation money is going into rural work is not an easy proposition, Pender writes. The study used three methods:
Measuring the size of grants going to organizations located in rural areas.
Adding to those rural-based grants money that went to urban organizations that appear to be doing rural work.
And taking random samples of grants to study geographic and programmatic distribution of grant funding.
The primary data for the study was grant reports of the nation’s 1,200 to 1,400 largest foundations, which are tracked by the private Foundation Center.
Each method yielded similar results, and in each case the share of grants going to rural work “is much less than the rural share of the U.S. population,” Pender writes.
U.S. foundations gave approximately $2.2 to $2.5 billion for the benefit of rural areas in 2010, the study says.
Though those dollars are small compared to public investment in rural projects, private philanthropy is an important part of the rural funding mix. Private grants can affect the impact of public programs, Pender writes.
Private philanthropy is also important because of equity, Pender writes.