Saturday, April 25, 2015

04/24/2015 at 11:17am

Photo by Julie Kenney Iowa corn farmers Mark and Julie Kenney and family.

Liz core, an Iowa-born writer for Grist, takes a trip home to meet the farmers behind the massive squares that make up the state’s commodity corn farms.

Really, I did more than just meet them. I chatted about agricultural policy over cinnamon-spice tea; toured a thousand-acre farm in a fourwheeler seated next to a labrador; and played peek-a-boo with shy, barefoot farming boys.

Iowa commodity growers are often demonized for what and how they grow, and monocultures andethanol aren’t exactly healthy for the planet. But all of the farming families I talked to expressed a deep respect for the land and the desire to take good care of it for the next generation. If we want to understand how and why our agriculture system is the way it is, we’d be wise to approach all farmers with an open mind.

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When an out-of-state company started buying up thousands of maple-tree-filled acres of Vermont land, some small syrup producers got a little antsy. Not to worry, says Sweet Tree, the buyer of the land, they aren’t looking to break into the syrup industry.

About 15 miles down a pot-holed Route 114, Sweet Tree CFO Michael Argyelan is showing its new processing plant to local and state economic development officials. He starts with a reassuring announcement.

“We’re not gonna sell syrup. We’re gonna use the syrup to make other things, so this way we won’t disrupt the maple market in the state or the United States. So we’re not gonna dump product just to make money, that kind of thing,” Argyelan explains.

But by the time the tour reaches the room with four gigantic steam-powered evaporators (eventually there will be eight, capable of processing over 300,000 gallons of syrup a year), Argyelan eventually drops a tantalizing hint. He says his wife is trying out one of his experiments — a facial scrub made from the gritty maple sand left behind after boiling.

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In an attempt to secure food supplies, Bunge Ltd., a Saudi Arabian state-owned investment firm, will buy a controlling share in a Canadian grain handler.

"Canada is a major wheat grower and exporter, and Saudi Arabia relies on imports to meet its growing demand for food," SALIC Chairman Abdullah Al-Rubaian said in a statement, adding G3 would "strengthen grain off-take and export capabilities in Canada".

In a multibillion-dollar search for food security, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf desert states, which rely on imports for 80 to 90 percent of their food needs, have invested heavily in agricultural projects overseas since 2008.

04/24/2015 at 7:25am

Photo by Frank Kilgore

With wildflower season spreading northward along the Appalachian Mountains, the city of St. Paul, Virginia, has reopened the Bluebell Island Trail just in time for hikers to enjoy the blooms that give the trail its name.

The foot path, which runs along the Clinch River in southwest Virginia, was flooded out earlier this year. The Clinch piled tons of uprooted trees and trash on the seven-acre wildlife sanctuary. The debris shut down the most popular segment of the town’s trail system – which contains more than 100 miles. (That’s a tenth of a mile per each resident of St. Paul, population 1,000).

Bluebell Island is home to bluebell flowers, which bloom each April. The park also contains giant sycamore trees, box elder and a small stand of cane, a native bamboo that once thrived along Appalachian river valleys before being nearly eradicated by domestic grazing and burning.

04/23/2015 at 5:03am

Poet Ted Kooser

Ted Kooser’s poetry is a collection moments, simply described but carrying great meaning. He shares small but profound insights about human relationships, how we relate to our past, and what it is to live in America. Poetry critic Ed Hirsch wrote of Kooser "Many of his poems have a distinctly Midwestern feel, which may reflect the poet’s upbringing in Ames, Iowa, and his current home in Lyons, Nebraska." Kooser began writing in his teens, but spent much of his adult life working for an insurance company in Nebraska after leaving the graduate writing program at the University of Nebraska in 1963. He remained in the insurance business for over 30 years, but continued to write poetry in the mornings before he left for work. In 1980, at the age of 41, Kooser published his first book of poetry, Sure Signs. Since then, he has been awarded the Pulitzer Prize and served as Poet Laureate from 2004 to 2006. Kooser’s most recent collection, Splitting an Order, was published in October of last year. Kooser spoke with The Daily Yonder about his curiosity about strangers, his ability to see things that often go unnoticed, and why he likes to stay at home. You can read some of Kooser’s poems on his website.

Daily Yonder: You’ve been publishing poetry for 50 years. How has your poetry changed over time?
Ted Kooser: My earliest poems were imitations of poetry I admired. In my first book I can easily identify, say, the Edwin Arlington Robinson poem, the May Swenson poem, the William Carlos Williams poem, and so on. The influence of other writers is still there in my poems, but there have been so many influences over the years that they can no longer be separated and identified. And over the years I’ve very gradually learned who I am, and how to write out of myself.

DY: On your website, you say that you’ve made it a specialty to look at things in the Nebraska landscape that often go unnoticed. Why do you think it’s important to write about things people might not take the time to see?
TK: Maybe forty years ago I published a poem, “Spring Plowing,” about field mice moving their nests into a fencerow to be safe from the plow, and a woman who had seen the poem wrote to me and said that she would never again pass a freshly plowed field without thinking of those mice, and it came to me at once, “This is my job, to show people new ways of looking at things!” And that’s what I’ve done.

DY: Some of your poetry takes place in cities, but so much of it has a distinctly small town feel. Why are you drawn to writing about small towns?
TK: I’ve written lots of poems about people I’ve observed in cities, but because I like to isolate my subjects, to push all the other people out of the frame and thus put the focus on one or two people, it may seem that my subjects are walking the streets in small towns. I don’t think I could write a poem in which I described a crowd. For me a crowd is a lot of separate poems standing around together. 

DY: The title poem of your 2005 collection Flying at Night reads:

Above us, stars. Beneath us, constellations.
Five billion miles away, a galaxy dies
like a snowflake falling on water. Below us, 
some farmer, feeling the chill of that distant death, 
snaps on his yard light, drawing his sheds and barn
back into the little system of his care.
All night, the cities, like shimmering novas, 
tug with bright streets at lonely lights like his. 

04/22/2015 at 6:57am

Photo by Nate Kauffman Playing fetch at Wisconsin's Kettle Moraine State Forest.

Playing fetch with a Labrador is a little like farming. I throw the ball, he brings it back. That's the way it is with farmers on the land; every spring Mother Nature throws the ball.

I can't help but run after it.

No one really understands all of agriculture in America--including our farmers. Wheat in North Dakota is very different from cotton grown in Texas. Climate, soils, machinery, and markets, all would require re-education to accompany farmer relocation.

We seldom pick up and move to greener pastures.

Farm animals have differences too. But corporations have injected genetic uniformity and huge confinement barns into poultry and hog production so that a reliably experienced West Texas hog confinement operator could be expected to perform equally well in the North Dakota winter ...if his car will start.    

The challenge for big business in agriculture has always been variables--in weather, crops, genetics, markets, and even in society where differences among farmers affect their methods and the way they do things. Consolidation of markets and the companies that buy livestock and poultry from farmers helped transform animal agriculture. That power in markets allows corporations to control the way animals are produced, and it allows them to control the farmers who do the work. (Sometimes it allows them to change consumer habits) Farmers who grow hogs and poultry now make massive investments in facilities, usually financed by loans. The borrower must have a contract or written agreement with one of a handful of livestock reigning corporations, not only to make the banker happy and secure the loan, but to repay it, too.

What's worse, losing a contract can mean losing everything, because farmers who feed corporate hogs or poultry don't actually own the animals or the feed animals consume.

And they have no to an alternative market.

They're contract growers supplying labor and facilities to corporate owners who throw the ball in a game of fetch.

Confined animal feeding operations have corporatized the meat business beyond anything ever seen before. Variables like farm animal inventory that once caused wide fluctuation in prices have been overcome somewhat, but animal health is one area where vagaries of the market persist. Especially when diseases such as poultry virus H5N2, or PEDv in hogs strike unexpectedly.

Genetic diversity and disease resistance can suffer under corporate systems like this. Uniformity for the sake of uniform profits is their natural weakness. Fickle customers play a part, too. That's why higher feed costs leading into 2013 along with diminished exports to China had Smithfield Foods  looking for a partner.

They found one in a Chinese government financed buyout by Shuangui Limited.

04/21/2015 at 7:06am

Photo courtesy of Rachel Woolworth Rachel Woolworth stocks shelves in a San Luis Valley food pantry.

Nestled between two mountain ranges in south central Colorado lays the San Luis Valley, an agriculturally dependent region as starkly beautiful as it is impoverished. The poverty rate in the San Luis Valley hovers around 25 percent, almost double the state’s average.

The Food Bank Network of the San Luis Valley, where I’ve worked as an Americorps volunteer since August, serves one in four of Valley residents (about 13,000 people) through its confederation of thirteen food pantries.

Food insecurity in the Valley is a consequence of the cycle of poverty here: seasonal employment and unemployment, lack of transportation resources, limited care for senior citizens, disabled citizens, and veterans, lack of affordable housing, a high rate of addiction, a harsh climate, and so much more. Additionally, many Valley residents live in food deserts — forced to travel over ten or twenty miles to reach the nearest full grocery store.

Their mission is to meet immediate needs and to empower people to live independently with dignity by providing emergency food packages to families and individuals throughout the San Luis Valley. That's consistent with those of countless other food pantries and the prevailing notion that food assistance programs across the nation are “emergency” services. While this might have been the case 20 years ago when the Food Bank Network opened its doors, it is no longer so. Working here day in and day out, this is not what I see.

Instead, I see Valley residents stuck in cyclical poverty, stopping in each week (often on the same day, at the same time) to collect from the “weekly system” (predominately non-perishable food like bread and produce) and six months out of the year for our “monthly system” (canned goods, eggs, meat etc.) in an attempt to put consistent meals on the table.

Rather than showing up in crisis mode, with starving mouths to feed, most of our clients seek reliable, supplementary help. When the system fails clients, the Food Bank Network is a resource they can fall back on.

Indeed, the majority of clients, most of whom are senior citizens, disabled, and/or providing for children, calculate the Food Bank’s services into their financial planning and weekly routine. The Food Bank is an enduring and integral presence in clients’ lives, but only one piece of the tattered puzzle of how to get by as a low-income resident of rural America.

To understand this further, it is important to understand our clientele.

04/19/2015 at 6:56pm

Roberto Gallardo/Daily Yonder. Data: 2012 Five-Year American Community Survey (ACS), Bureau of Economic AnalysisPer capita market income grew slowly but steadily in nonmetropolitan counties as the percentage of foreign-born residents increased. The relative size of the foreign-born population is grouped into five sets or quintiles, with 1 having the smallest percentage of immigrants and 5 having the most. The chart also shows the two types of nonmetropolitan counties – micropolitan (counties with cities of 10,000 to 49,999 residents) and noncore (counties with no city of 10,000 or more). Both types of nonmetropolitan counties saw an increase in income as the percentage of immigrants increased.

For many rural counties, having more immigrants also goes along with having a better local economy, according to a new study commissioned by the Daily Yonder.

“The results of this study contradict common perceptions regarding immigrants,” said Roberto Gallardo, Ph.D., the author of the study “We frequently hear that immigrants are a drain on the economy and resources. But this data shows a very different picture.”

Gallardo looked at the percentage of a rural county’s population that was born beyond U.S. borders and correlated that information with some basic economic data. He found that, in general, as the proportion of the immigrant population grows in rural areas, positive economic indicators like per capita market income rise, as well. And negative economic indicators like the rate of poverty and unemployment go down.

Gallardo, whose academic focus is community economic development, is an adviser to the Daily Yonder, the author of numerous Daily Yonder articles, and an associate extension professor at Mississippi State University.

The study used data from the 2012 five-year American Community Survey, combined with data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. (The ACS data does contain margins of error that need to be considered when interpreting the results, Gallardo said.)

(The data set is available in Excel format for download (1,200 KB). Also available is a description of methdology used in the study.)

The study split rural counties into five groups (or quintiles) based on the percentage of population that was born outside the United States in 2012. The counties with the lowest percentage of residents born outside the U.S. were in quintile one. These low-immigrant population counties had an average of less than 1 percent of residents who were born outside the United States. In quintile five, on the other end of the spectrum, the average size of foreign-born population was 8.9 percent.

The general pattern of more immigrants equaling better economic performance is reflected in per capita market income (shown in the chart at the top of this story), Gallardo said. Counties with the smallest percentage of immigrants had a per capita market income of $23,326. That figure grew steadily and peaked for counties in the “most-immigrants” category. For those counties, the per capita market income was 27 percent higher, or $29,538.

Similarly, for nonmetropolitan counties, the poverty rate fell from 20.9 percent in counties with the smallest proportion of immigrants to 17.6 percent in counties with the largest proportion (see chart below).

Roberto Gallardo/Daily Yonder. Data: 2012 ACS The percentage of population living in poverty tended to be less in counties with a greater percentage of foreign-born residents in the population. The change was more pronounced for the smallest counties, which have no cities of 10,000 or greater (shown in the red columns).

And unemployment was 0.8 percentage points lower in high-immigrant, nonmetropolitan counties – 7.9 vs. 8.7 percent, using 2012 data (see chart below).

04/17/2015 at 6:50am

USDA Economic Research Service

It seems like common sense to state that nonmetropolitan America is losing population because people are leaving. But there’s another reason populations fall – when the number of deaths in a county exceeds the number of births. This is called the natural increase or decrease. The other type of population change – migration – measures whether residents are leaving or moving into a particular county.

In case there was any doubt about which of these factors is the bigger cause of rural America’s population decline, this new chart from USDA Economic Research Service sets the question to rest. (See more from the ERS here.)

More people are leaving nonmetropolitan America than are moving there. That’s true for all categories of nonmetropolitan counties, from the biggest ones that are closest to cities all the way to the smallest and most remote ones.

Nonmetropolitan counties with small cities are still gaining population because there are more babies being born than there are people dying. But even those small-city areas are seeing more people move out than in. Presumably those migrants are heading to larger cities, which have a net gain in migration.

The chart tells the story.