Saturday, May 30, 2015

05/29/2015 at 7:38am

Video produced by Joel Cohen. Music by Graham Marema.Colleagues of Sandra Rosenblith from LISC comment on her contributions to the field of rural development and her work style. Speakers are Michael Rubinger, president and CEO of LISC; Suzanne Anarde, head of Rural LISC; and Robert Warwick, a long-time member of the Rural LISC Advisory Committee.


Sandra  Rosenblith, whose vision and tenacity helped spread the practice of nonprofit community development from the nation’s urban centers to hard-hit rural areas, died this week at the age of 70. The cause of death was cancer.

Colleagues remembered Rosenblith as a passionate, effective, and dogged advocate for policies to help rural communities.

 “In my mind she contributed more to community development than anyone else I know,” said Arnold Montgomery, who worked in various capacities with Rosenblith since 1971. “She did ground-breaking things. And all of it was driven by her vision, her tenacity, and her determination to never give up – and I do mean never.”

Rosenblith helped establish Rural LISC at the Local Initiatives Support Organization in 1995. The program helps rural development groups tap public and private funding for local projects. Currently Rural LISC has 63 partner development organizations that work in 40 states and cover nearly 1,200 U.S. counties. Rural LISC has leveraged $3 billion in rural development investment in the past two decades, according to a fact sheet on the organization’s website.

Equally important was the network of rural development advocates she created, Montgomery said.

“She brought together people working in rural development from all over the country who would have never met each other otherwise,” he said. “Together they became pretty powerful because they could go as a group to see their members of Congress and tell them what rural organizations and communities needed. They got a lot of things done.”

Rural LISC will celebrate its 20th anniversary next month in Portland, Maine.

Rosenblith retired from LISC in 2009 and remained involved in rural development policy work. She served on the steering committee of the National Rural Assembly, which is coordinated by the Center for Rural Strategies. And she served on Rural Strategies’ board of directors from the organization’s founding in 2001 to 2013.

(The Center for Rural Strategies publishes the Daily Yonder and was also the fiscal sponsor for Stand Up for Rural America, an advocacy organization Rosenblith created.)

Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies and publisher of the Daily Yonder, said Rosenblith was instrumental in helping the organization get off the ground. “I remember talking to Sandy about our plans and saying, ‘I think this is going to work, but I’m not sure I know how to do this.’ And she said, ‘That’s OK, honey, I know how.’ And she always did know how.”

05/27/2015 at 9:56pm

Author Marilynne Robinson

Dr. Marilynne Robinson is an author and essayist living and teaching in Iowa City.  In 1981, Robinson published her first novel, Housekeeping, which was a finalist for the National Book Award.  In the years that followed, Robinson focused on non-fiction essays.  In 2004,  Robinson published the Pulitzer Prize winning book Gilead, a novel that centered around John Ames, a preacher in the fictional small town of Gilead, Iowa, in the 1950’s. Her third and fourth novels, Home and Lila (published October of last year) returned readers to Gilead, Iowa.  Lila won the 2014 National Book Award.  Dr. Robinson spoke with the Yonder about why she writes about rural places, and why she hesitates to make generalizations about any time or place.

Daily Yonder: Tell us a little bit about your background. Where did you grow up and what was it like?

Marilynne Robinson: I grew up in northern Idaho, Coeur d’Alene and Sandpoint, both at the time small, still undiscovered by the resort industry.  It is a beautiful region, mountains and lakes, and it was a wonderful place to grow up.

DY: You now live in Iowa City.  What brought you there?
MR: I was invited to teach in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

DY: All of your four novels are set in small towns. Are you drawn to rural settings because of your upbringing?
MR: Perhaps I am.  I like the quiet and simplicity of life in small towns.  I like the fact that they can reflect very directly the choices that are made to shape the community.  I love cities, too, but just because they are so interesting they demand more attention than I am used to devoting to daily life—or at least they demand attention of another kind.  I have spoken at flourishing mainline churches in Manhattan, different in size and resources but not in ethos from my church in Iowa.  I don’t drive, and a small town with a big university is ideal for me, because I can walk to a major library, a concert, a farmers’ market.

DY: Gilead, Home, and most recently, Lila, are novels set in Gilead, a fictional town in rural Iowa in and before the 1950’s.  Why and how did you settle upon this place and time?
MR: I had been reading about the history of Iowa and the Midwest, which were very important in the period of the Civil War.  It is a history that was entirely new to me, and very fascinating.  Gilead is set in the period of the Civil Rights movement, when the heroic past had been largely forgotten.  John Ames is old enough to have known someone, his grandfather, who was involved in it.

05/26/2015 at 11:32pm

Photo by Jason Ferris Coastal erosion is forcing the indigenous community of Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana to move its cultural home inland.

A tribe of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw from the Isle de Jean Charles, in the bayous of coastal Louisiana, is soon to become the first community in the lower 48 states to relocate because of coastal erosion. They will certainly not be the last.

Southern Louisiana loses a football field’s amount of land every hour to the seas, and that’s before expected sea level rise from climate change. In the coming years, coastal erosion, driven by a multitude of factors, will force the relocation of thousands of people, many of them part of indigenous communities. Southern Louisiana, faced with increasingly powerful storms, disappearing swamps, sinking land, and now, rising seas, has become the American test case for dealing with climate change. And if Katrina was the precedent for an urban climate crisis, Louisiana’s bayous have become the pilot site for dealing with climate change in rural American. This means working on mitigation, resiliency, and relocation.

“You see all that water out there?” Chris Brunet, a native of the Isle de Jean Charles asked, pointing out his window, past the small levee several dozen feet from his house, to a large bay. “That used to all be land…. They used to have cattle out there.”

Photo by Gabe Schwartzman Chris Brunet, a native of Isle de Jean Charles looks at old photos of a disappearing way of life on the island.

Jean Charles’ story is classic in southern Louisiana. In the late 1950’s, oil companies dug canals in the swamp to drill wells. With more direct access to the sea, the canals brought a deluge of saltwater to the swamps. This compounded the problems that engineering the Mississippi River had already created. Several decades earlier the Army Corp of Engineers had nearly stopped the Mississippi River from overflowing its banks—a process that previously had built up the land by depositing billions of tons of sediment across all of Southern Louisiana. That feat meant building and maintaining hundreds of thousands of miles of levees. With the sea encroaching, storms have gotten much worse on Isle de Jean Charles. Even surrounded by a levee, houses are now required to be 16 feet off the ground to prevent regular storm-surge flooding.

Floods, land loss, and government inaction have discouraged many residents. A community that had 325 residents in 2002 now has 25 homes – 60 or so residents. Many of those who are left are elderly or disabled.

“It’s a second Trail of Tears,” Chief Albert Naquin says in Jason and Rebecca Ferris’ recent documentary, Can’t Stop the Water. The film will be publicly available soon – showing dates can be found here. Chief Naquin explained to me that during the Indian Removal Act of 1837—which resulted in the Trail of Tears— his people fled as far south as possible. “So we pretended to be French,” he related one windy winter day on the Island. “But everyone knew we were Indians.”

Photo by Jason Ferris Chief Albert "White Buffalo" Naquin says the tribe's options to relocate are limited by a lack of federal or state recognition.

A group of people, many of whom speak a mixture of French and Choctaw as their first language, are facing a hard question: Where do they go, as a community? With most of the tribe rapidly scattering across southern Louisiana, the Isle has remained a cultural center. Now, the chief is looking at a piece of land 15 miles inland. In the film we see expansive meadows, woodlands – plenty of land compared with the narrow strip of road and houses that now make up the island. “It could be Isle de Jean Charles New Reservation,” says Chief Naquin. But without federal or state recognition as a tribe, it has been, and will be, a struggle.

05/25/2015 at 9:25pm

This trailer for a documentary project, "Under Contract: Farmers in the Fine Print," says chicken farmers are kept in a cycle of debt. "What you end up with at the end of a contract life are farmers who literally live on the edge of bankruptcy," says Christopher Leonard, author of the book The Meat Racket.


In the early 20th century the Federal Trade Commission said five big meat packers held a  monopoly over our livestock markets. That's why the Packers and Stockyards Act was passed, as a follow up to the Sherman Antitrust Act.

Monopolies then were predominately held as trusts. So antitrust was the same as pro-competition.

It was bad enough in meat markets that the FTC went so far as to recommend government ownership of livestock auctions to keep the packers from cheating. 

Packers and Stockyards protections for farmers were strengthened off and on throughout most of the 20th century as government responded to periodic challenges by an increasingly concentrated and powerful meat-packing industry.

Here's how it works: Unless you buy exclusively from farmers markets, most of the poultry and pork consumed in America today is a product of vertically integrated production. Corporations that once bought animals from farmers now own those animals from conception through slaughter.

The only part farmers play in all that today is as independent contractors who agree to supply facilities and labor.  

Back in the days of the Sherman Antitrust and the Packers and Stockyard acts, farmers grew animals and crops on their farms. They fed grain from the farm to their livestock and sold market ready animals at auctions. The purpose of auctions was and is competitive bidding, where genuine supply and demand determine the value of animals on a real-time basis. Prices might be up or down, depending on numbers for sale and consumer demand. But other things, like weather or holidays could affect prices too. While all that didn't always necessarily benefit farmers, auctions represented a transparent market where everyone could see the prices being paid.

It also allowed farmers to anticipate shortage or surplus so they could aim for better markets – for instance seasonal turkey demand at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Today, government enforcement of the Packers and Stockyards Act as well as other antitrust law has slowed or stopped altogether. Like too-big-to-fail banks, too-big-to-regulate packers mean lack of competition, and in some cases foreign manipulation of markets. All have been allowed to grow to the point that monopoly (characterized by an absence of competition, which results in high prices) combined with monopsony (the market condition that exists when there is only one buyer) have infringed on the rights of consumers and farmers alike.

Early in President Obama’s first term, we had the chance to communicate these problems to a president and administration who seemed to care. A new administrator to the USDA Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration was appointed, a lawyer with a lifetime of experience in livestock markets and forcing meat packers to adhere to the law. His name was Dudley Butler.

Meetings were held, problems discussed, and then — nothing happened.

05/24/2015 at 7:19pm

USDA Economic Research Service Three quarters of female veterans who live in rural areas are aged 64 or younger. Less than half of male veterans who live in rural areas are aged 64 or younger.

An increasing percentage of rural America’s veterans are women, reports the USDA’s Economic Research Service.

From the end of the First Gulf War to the present, the percentage of rural veterans who are female more than doubled, from 3 to 6.3 percent.

Nationally, since the change from a conscription-based military to all-volunteer armed forces, the percentage of women in the service has grown seven fold, from 2 percent in 1973 to more than 14 percent in 2013.

Because the increase in the number of women serving in the armed forces has occurred in more recent years, rural female veterans tend to be younger than male veterans, on a percentage basis.

The ERS reports:

Over 40 percent of rural female veterans served during Gulf Wars I and II (2003-2011), compared with less than 5 percent of rural male veterans, reflecting a more youthful rural female veteran population. In 2013, 55 percent of rural female veterans were under the age of 55 compared to 26 percent of rural male veterans.

05/22/2015 at 7:08am

Lou Murrey Photography Jeff Thomas and his dad, Will, on their farm in Ashe County, North Carolina, in the northwest corner of the state.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Jeff and Bettie Thomas and their son, Will, are some of the western North Carolina farmers featured in the just released Blue Ridge Farm Book. The book, published by Blue Ridge Women in Agriculture of Boone, North Carolina, is part of a larger project designed to help new farmers find mentors and technical support. The Blue Ridge Farm Book, from which this article is reprinted, focuses on the stories and culture of farming in the North Carolina High Country. A complementary website provides more technical information.

“We bought this place, and I’d always wanted a farm. Just as a romantic type thing. Our plan was to come out here and be self-sufficient.” Jeff Thomas explains how he and his wife, Bettie, first came to live on their property, which sits in southwestern Ashe County, skirting the Tennessee line. “I was an Army brat so I was moving every three years or more when I was growing up. So once I moved up here on my own, I never left. I guess I just wanted some roots somewhere. And we just love this community; I mean it’s still a farming community. And we were different than everyone here but they did accept us, which was nice.”

What began as a quest for self-sufficiency grew into a complex, active farming operation, Creeksong Farm. “Originally we just bought the house on a half-acre. This was the original house on the land that the family had divided all up.” Gradually, though, they expanded the farm to 105 acres. “The neighbors would start coming over and talking to us and they’d end up asking if I had any interest in buying more land.” On their expanding acreage, the Thomas’ began selling at the Watauga County Farmers’ Market and experimenting with wholesale outlets. “We did a little bit of tobacco for a couple of years. And then we started doing the bean market. And I think the last year we did the wholesale bean market was the year Will was born.”

Will Thomas, now an adult with a family of his own, participated in the farm from a very young age. “He was always staying home instead of going to day care. I’d put him in my backpack and we’d go out or I’d put him in the garden digging dirt. Just little things that he liked and enjoyed.” As Will grew up, Jeff and Bettie never pressured Will to become a part of the family farm, but that’s exactly what he chose to do. “I can’t imagine being anywhere else,” Will admits. “I grew up doing it and I spent summers home from college here. I think I started out saying that I was coming back here for a year. But after a few months, I realized that this was what I wanted to be doing.”

With Will added to the operation in 2003, Creeksong Farm expanded its reach and production. Now in addition to growing produce, Creeksong Farm activities include grass-fed beef, free-range eggs, and some logging. Their food products are found at the Watauga County Farmers’ Market and through their CSA. With Will involved, production has not only expanded, it’s become carefully monitored. “Will is very business oriented,” Jeff explains, “He’s a really good record keeper. I mean he keeps exact records, knows what each crop makes and all that.” This is helpful for weeding out an ineffective venture, Jeff explains, adding, “So we can dump it if it doesn’t make money.”

05/21/2015 at 10:54am

Potato farmer Jacob Van Den Borne flying a drone he uses to gather information that helps production.

In 1884 Van Gogh depicted the potato farmers of the southern Netherlands turning soil by hand.

Today, things are different. Dutch farmers are still growing potatoes, and there is still open land. But the people in and around the small city of Eersel are creating a new kind of rural – the modern countryside.

Taking me on a tour of this region last month was Kees Rovers, a noted telecommunications entrepreneur and speaker on the impact of the Internet.  Years ago he was a leader in bringing a high speed fiber network to the nearby city of Nuenen (where Van Gogh lived for a while 130 years ago).  Now Rovers is working on bringing fiber networks to the area around Eersel.

Eesel is located in the province of Noord-Brahant, a region that receives an unusually large number of research patents, perhaps partly – but not only – due to the presence of Philips research labs in the city of Eindhoven.

This culture of innovation gets a boost from inventive residents and leaders. Three of these leaders joined us for our tour: Eersel Mayor Anja Thijs-Rademakers, City Manager and Alderman Harrie Timmermans and Alderman Liesbeth Sjouw.

We saw three great examples of the modern countryside.

First, there’s the van der Aa family farm, which has invested in robotics – robots for milking the cows and robots to clear the barn of the manure the cows produce in great quantity.  Think of a bigger, smarter, more necessary version of the Roomba.

Then we visited Vencomatic, which was created by a local entrepreneur but is now a global business, still based in the countryside.  In addition to pioneering animal-friendly technology for the poultry industry, their headquarters won the award as “Europe’s most sustainable commercial building.”

The final stop was at Jacob Van Den Borne’s potato farm in Reusel.  He described his use of four drones, numerous sensors deep in the ground, analytics and scientific experiments to increase quality and production on the land.  He has a two minute video about precision agriculture.

This is the kind of potato farmer that Van Gogh could never have imagined.