Friday, October 31, 2014

10/30/2014 at 6:36am

Photo by the USDA Black Angus cattle grazing in Adamstown, Maryland. Some producers say the $1 tax imposed on each head of cattle is going toward anti-labeling efforts, not toward marketing and research.

All the way back in 1960, John F. Kennedy said “The farmer is the only man in our economy who buys everything at retail, sells everything at wholesale, and pays the freight both ways.”

Truer words were never spoken by a presidential candidate.

But there's another farm expense JFK never thought about.

He left out advertising.

Spandex notwithstanding, food markets are inelastic. People only eat until their hunger is satisfied. That means the best way farmers can protect markets is by opening new ones through exports or by vying for a larger market share at home. And that means promotion.

That's how modern day “checkoff” funded marketing began. They were sold to farmers of corn, soybeans, beef, pork and a lot of other stuff as a way to boost sales through research and advertising.

The checkoff programs impose a tax on producers, and the proceeds go toward promoting the commodities these farmers produce. You’re familiar with these programs through their media campaigns like “Got milk?” “The incredible, edible egg,” and, of course, “Beef. It’s what’s for dinner.”

In the beginning, none of these producer-promotion funds were called “taxes.” But Ann Venneman, George W. Bush’s secretary of Agriculture, changed all that.

When U.S. pork producers realized their checkoff-payments were supporting monopolized pork markets, they wanted to end funding for meat-packer funny business. Their recall vote, originally approved by Clinton Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, was held in USDA county offices around the country. It passed.  The pork checkoff was DOA. But when Venneman took over, she invalidated the voting results. She said that as a government tax, the checkoff could not be revoked by the very people who created it in the first place. The program was government "speech" that only an act of Congress could change.

While pork producers fumed, most cattlemen continued to view their beef checkoff program favorably. But that changed a few years ago when country-of-origin labeling became the law of the land.

10/29/2014 at 5:11am

Photo by Shawn Poynter To ensure that persimmons are ripe, never pick them from the limb; wait for them to fall.

October brings so many wonderful things. My woodshed is filled with a winter’s full of warmth. The hillsides, aflame with vivid colors, are as pretty as a mortgage paid in full. Post-season baseball reminds me each October that no matter how many games I see, I still haven’t seen it all. And October is Eat Country Ham Month – honestly, it is. 

But one of October’s greatest pleasures is the wild persimmon that I grew up with and that we have in abundance here in southwestern Virginia. Unlike the larger Asian varieties, our native persimmons are about the size of a quarter with up to eight seeds about half an inch long, are more nutritious and possess a more intense taste.

Persimmons are not popularly considered to be berries, but in terms of botanical morphology that is exactly what they are, as is the tomato. Some variety of the native or common persimmon is found from southern Connecticut to southern Florida; westward through central Pennsylvania, southern Ohio, southern Indiana, and central Illinois to southeast Iowa; and south through eastern Kansas and Oklahoma to the valley of the Colorado River in Texas.

When ready to eat, the wild persimmon is very soft -- too ripe to be mass marketed but excellent to carry from field to kitchen.  Perhaps the fact that you don’t find these delicacies in super markets is the reason that they are often misunderstood. I have received comments such as “I have always considered persimmons as ornamental-- and that not very much”.  Most recently a friend wrote to me: “Persimmons are lovely. I just never knew what to do to make them edible!” 

Persimmons can be as tasty as an apricot, if they're ripe.

The first thing to do to make them edible is to wait until they are fully ripened. By that I mean, have fallen to the ground and are soft -- squishy even. By then they have sweetened to a point that possums, raccoons, deer, wild turkey and some humans will stand under the tree and enjoy them raw. I relish eating them raw as I gather them. There is a widespread belief that the first frost is required to sweeten the persimmon, but frost has nothing to do with it.  Nor can you always judge ripeness by the color. To be safe, don’t pick them from the tree. Wait until they fall on their own or can be released with a gentle shaking of the limb. If you find them on the ground and they are soft, they should be sweet. 

10/28/2014 at 6:50am

Downtown Quitman, Mississippi, will soon be on of only 10 places in the state with a gigabit network.

For Quitman, Mississippi, the crisis hit in the early 1990s.

Fifteen hundred textile industry jobs vanished, as well as 400 jobs in the timber trade. In a town of 2,300 located in eastern Mississippi, the impact was dramatic. The population dropped 17% from 1990-2013, tax revenues fell, school enrollment plummeted by 30%. Quitman’s young people were moving on.

It is a story often repeated as the Industrial Age reached its zenith in the U.S. Large cities pulled ahead of rural areas. Millions left rural communities for the economic opportunity of cities, where the proximity of people accelerated innovation and specialization – two critical factors in economic growth, economists say.

While industrialization was a path to prosperity in the past, today there’s a new way forward through broadband connectivity, many folks say. And Quitman is getting a rare opportunity to rebuild itself to participate in the new information technology.

The small town beat out much larger competitors to become one of 10 cities in Mississippi to receive a broadband network one hundred times faster than standard speeds. With a blistering 1-gigabit per second, users can participate in multi-person, high-definition video conferencing, transmit high-resolution radiology images, download a half-hours’ worth of television programming in three seconds. And they can be creators and providers of digital content, taking advantage of faster upload speeds.

It’s a dose of what Quitman needs to remake itself, town leaders say.

“Having 1-gigabit high speed Internet throughout the city is the key to accomplishing our goals,” said Mayor Eddie Fulton, a major force behind the city’s efforts to secure and build the high-speed network. The mayor said that assistance from other groups like the Intelligent Community Forum have given the town the “impetus and guidance to see a very bright future for our city and our county.” (The writer is a senior fellow at the Intelligent Community Forum.)

10/27/2014 at 3:46am

Photo by Kent Kanouse The downtown of Las Vegas, New Mexico. Las Vegas is part of the Main Street movement, which links historic preservation with economic development.

I live in a small Main Street town, which means we’ve followed the National Main Street Center’s methods for restoring and revitalizing our historic downtown.

The historic downtown is chock full of “unique entrepreneurial businesses,” in the language of the Texas Historical Commission, including a seemingly endless variety of antique stores.

But I don’t spend a lot of time downtown. There’s nothing I need there. I don’t need antiques. I need toothpaste, something to cook for supper, and toilet paper. I can’t get those downtown.

On those rare occasions when I do go downtown, I have to compete with tourists to get my business done. The streets and sidewalks are congested with traffic, and parking is at a minimum. While I’m glad that tourists come and spend their money, I really don’t want to get into a nest of them.

That’s the problem with the Main Street program. It does a great job of helping towns preserve and gussy-up their downtowns, but in and of itself, does it really serve the broader local community?

Now before you come after me with pitchforks and tell me how many small businesses Main Street has spawned and how many jobs it has provided, just listen a moment. Those small businesses? Many don’t last, and you end up with dreams rotating through empty store fronts. According to a study done for Southeastern Geographer in 2002 on predicting the success or failure of Main Street towns, the author states, “The 'boutiquization' of small town America led to increased vacancy rates because many of these retail establishments (such as craft shops and antique stores) had a difficult time making a profit and staying in business.”

Those jobs?

10/24/2014 at 9:00am

Photo by Nic Persinger for The Wall Street Journal Diners at the Bluegrass Kitchen in Charleston, West Virginia.

Melanie Kaplan, writing for the Wall Street Journal, takes a multistate road trip through Appalachia to explore its cuisine, with the help of the Appalachian Regional Commission's new “Bon Appalachia” map. You may not want to read the rest of the story on an empty stomach.

“In Boone, N.C., a hippy-outdoorsy town, we imbibed at Appalachian Brewing Company and dined at Hob Nob Farm Café, a five-year-old restaurant with a surprising number of vegan options—like a tamale with local kale, portobellos, sweet potatoes and vegan crème fraîche. I opted for the real-cheese, local-vegetable lasagna; Travis succumbed to the bacon-wrapped meatloaf.”

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Iowa’s close Senate race could be decided by voters in a handful of rural counties. But the lessons from Iowa may not apply to the rest of the nation, says NBC’s Dante Chinni

Chinni looks at counties that flipped from Republican to Democratic between the 2004 and 2012 presidential elections: Allamakee, Benton, Bremer, Cedar, Louisa, Marshall, Union and Woodbury.

Generally speaking, Rural Middle America is not good territory for Democrats. In 2012 they gave their vote to Republican to Mitt Romney by 12 percentage points.

But Iowa is different – or at least it was different in 2012. Romney only eked out a 1-point win in the 79 Rural Middle America counties in Iowa. Instead, the counties were battlegrounds in the state.

And there is reason to believe that will be the case again this November because their story doesn't match that of other rural places.

The economy has rebounded better in rural Iowa than in other rural areas. And that might add a little bump to Democratic candidate Bruce Braley instead of Republican Jony Ernst, Chinni says. Braley and Ernst are vying to fill the seat vacated by Democrat Tom Harkin.

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At the Washington Post, Philip Bump looks at Iowa through a different lens. The increasing urbanization of the state means a long-term shift  favoring Democrats, Bump says.

And Bump refers to yet another take on the rural-urban political dynamic in Iowa, Michael Barbaro's story in the New York Times earlier this week.

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Last year’s bone-chilling winter and higher-than-normal propane prices have combined to increase demand for firewood in Minnesota, the state’s public radio network reports.

"Usually we cut 500 cords. We've done that already this year," said logger Duane White, who works the woods in north-central Minnesota near Akeley. "We have 500 more waiting to be cut that we've already sold."

Firewood prices are rising a bit in response – up $5 a cord to $85 for lower-grade firewood, White said.F

"Most of the time people want seasoned hardwood," White said. "This year they're taking birch, pine, whatever I'm cutting."

Suppliers in the urban Twin Cities area are having a hard time keeping up with demand, reports John Enger of Minnesota Public Radio.

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Beau Dure writes in the online publication Ozy that small towns need to do a better job of marketing themselves to millenials to combat rural outmigration:

“Small towns will have to hustle to recruit and retain millennials, experts say. The American Planning Association urges local planners to mimic the appeal of city centers by creating “density.” That means keeping the walkable neighborhoods and traditional town centers that millennials say is key to making a community a desirable place to live.

Interestingly Dure's own story says it's not necessarily the walkable urban centers that are attracting population growth; it's the sprawling suburbs.

Digging a little deeper into rural population loss (and, yes, some gain) could have provided a more revealing look at U.S. migration patterns. Here's a place to look, for starters.

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10/24/2014 at 6:16am

Photo by urbangarden Badluck Way is set in the beautiful, harsh and complex ecosystem of southwest Montana. The owners of Sun Ranch manage the 25,000-acre spread to accommodate both wildlife conservation and cattle. The tension between these goals serves as a focus for Bryce Andrews’ memoir.

Badluck Way: A Year on the Ragged Edge of the West. By Bryce Andrews 2014. Atria Books. $25. 256 pages

A place for everything, and everything in its place.

You’ve always believed that keeping your possessions where they belong is the right thing to do. Putting away tools has saved you frustration. Packing gear in one place has saved you time. But as you’ll see in the new memoir Badluck Way by Bryce Andrews, there’s also a wrong way to stow your stuff: a man’s boots, for instance, do not belong beneath a desk.

Ever since he could remember, Bryce Andrews was fascinated by anything Western. He’d loved Western art, spent summers as a kid on the spread of a family friend, had learned to ride a horse and mend fence. So, following a broken heart and a few wandering months around the country, he took a job at a Montana ranch.

The 25,000-acre Sun Ranch sat at the edge of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness in southwestern Montana and was owned by a Silicon Valley millionaire. Wildlife was plentiful there, and conservation was important, as was managing livestock so that cattle could graze and thrive alongside native elk and wolves that came over from Yellowstone.

Starting the first of May, the job consisted of moving cattle, fixing fence, caring for livestock and cleaning water tanks. It was a life Andrews grew to love again: he spent his days doing chores, learning from the two other ranch hands, and exploring wherever the four-wheeler took him: through grassland and canyons, past pugmarks and bones, beneath Big Sky and stars.

10/23/2014 at 8:11am

Photo by the Associated Press Idaho Democratic gubernatorial challenger A.J. BalukoffRepublican, left, laughs with current governor C.L. “Butch” Otter as they compliment each other’s ties after the gubernatorial debate earlier this month.

Some races in the November 2014 election are closer than they should be.

My home state of Idaho is a case in point. Idaho may be the most Republican state in the country. There is no Democrat currently holding a statewide office.

Nonetheless this year Idaho is close. This is remarkable. In a year when all Republicans think they have to do is to say nasty things about the president, the voters are saying something else. “[Idaho Governor] Butch Otter is one of the least popular governors in the country,” said Dean Debnam, president of Public Policy Polling (PPP). “But there may not be a state where it’s harder for Democrats to win than Idaho.”

True, that.

Here are the numbers: PPP final polls shows incumbent Butch Otter leads with only 39 percent to 35 percent for Democrat A.J. Balukoff. Minor candidates combine for an unusually high 12 percent, and 14 percent of voters are undecided. There are six candidates on the ballot (including Marvin "Pro-Life" Richardson.) Many Tea Party voters dismiss Republicans as too liberal. Idaho Republicans at that.

Via Wikipedia. Idaho leaned heavily toward Mitt Romney in the 2012
presidential election. .

So if Idaho’s conservative voters go for one of those minor parties — there is a chance that the Democrat could win (without earning 50 percent of the vote).

Idaho’s five Native American tribes are small in numbers, roughly 1 percent of the state, so in a close election, you just never know.

It’s more likely that voters will break for the Republican as they normally do in Idaho. But, hey, anything can happen. Real Clear Politics still rates this race as “safe” for the GOP.

Another state where a minor party candidate could shake things up is Colorado.

Democratic Senator Mark Udall is trailing Republican challenger Cory Gardner in several polls. What’s interesting is how that lead shrinks when independent candidate Steve Shogan is included. Shogan is capturing as much as 8 percent in some polls.  This is the opposite of Kansas. If the conservative candidate splits the votes of Republicans, it could be enough for Udall to win.