Friday, July 25, 2014

07/16/2014 at 5:52am

Photo by Sam Beebe The urban-rural interface is a porous, productive place. Understanding the interaction that occurs there could help create economic and social gains for all of us, the authors say.

This article is adapted from “Choices: The Magazine of Food, Farm and Resource Issues.


 Most Americans—taxpayers, politicians, and policy makers—have an urban-centric world view. Yet all Americans have a large and growing stake in the demographic and economic vitality of rural people and places. At a minimum, we cannot forget that urban Americans depend on rural America for food and fiber, natural resources (for energy), recreation and entertainment, and much more.

The so-called urban-rural divide is not a divide at all. It is a space of intense social, economic, political, and environmental interaction. It also is space where rural and urban interests are sometimes in competition, for example over land use management, while in other instances rural and urban interests are conflated.  

The new interdependency of urban and rural America is perhaps illustrated best in the agricultural sector. America’s “food system” cannot be examined in isolation from other aspects of the economy and society. The restructuring of the meatpacking industry makes our point. Rather than shipping cattle or hogs to slaughterhouses in faraway cities, such as Chicago and Kansas City, most are now processed close to where they are raised in rural areas. For some small towns, this has been a demographic and economic boon, especially in the Midwest and Southeast, such as poultry and pork processing.

The contemporary agricultural economy has also opened up niches for some small- to medium-sized producers who benefit from direct access to large urban markets. This development has been especially rapid at the urban-rural interface. The metropolitan farmer is not an oxymoron.

07/15/2014 at 6:59am

Photo by Mary Anne Andrei Hog barns are often stuffed to near capacity, allowing disease to spread easily.

My dad and writer George Santayana both belonged to the pragmatist school of philosophy.

Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Dad said, “I suppose if everyone jumped off a cliff, you would too.” 

To practical, parent-types like Dad – and to pragmatist philosophers – jumping off a cliff has an obvious, proven result.

But risk-takers believe it needs a test.

Apparently, our government doesn’t think cliff-jumping will result in a predictable splat. Because we seem dead set on testing whether concentrated hog genetics and large hog operations are going to create trouble. Any hog farmer from the 20th century can answer that question for you based on experience.

Hog-raising is one of the most concentrated industries in the world. Over the last 20-plus years, while pork production held steady, more than 70% of U.S. hog farmers got out of the business. The smaller operations have been replaced by large farms connected to names like Tyson, Cargill and Smithfield.

The big corporations didn’t do it on their own. Rather, they passed on the risk to individual farmers.

Corporate meat shields itself from liability by breaking up the phases of production. Hog farmers used to raise pigs from “farrow to finish” – from birth to slaughter weight. Now contract farmers specialize in one phase of production, such as growing breeding stock, breeding, gestating, farrowing pregnant sows, or feeding pigs to finish. But it’s not a bidding war where corporate owners pay what the market demands, but a reverse auction where contractors grab what they can to survive. 

07/14/2014 at 7:28am

Photo by Hyun Namkoong/North Carolina Health News A sign supporting a small, rural hospital on the side of the road near Belhaven, North Carolina, a small coastal town.

The number of patients admitted to small, rural hospitals is dropping rapidly, creating big changes in the economics of rural healthcare.

From 1996 to 2012, the average number of acutely ill inpatients at “critical access hospitals” fell by half, from an average of 8.7 to 4.35 per hospital per day.

If the current rate of decline continues, most of the inpatient business at these hospitals will be gone in the next decade.

Inpatient care accounts for a third or less of the revenue of critical access hospitals. But it’s a vital stream of money for institutions that operate in the black by only 1% of their budgets, on average.

Why are patient admissions declining, and how should we respond?

Critical Access Hospitals

A critical access hospital, or “CAH,” is a rural hospital with no more than 25 beds that meets certain criteria for distance from other hospitals or has been declared critically needed by its state’s governor.  Unlike most hospitals, a critical access hospital is paid whatever it costs to care for its Medicare hospitalized patients and, in many states, its Medicaid patients.   

The federal government developed the designation of critical access hospitals during the late 1990s, in part to address a spate of rural hospital closures. Now, with the drop in inpatients (plus some changes from Obamacare and the failure of some states to expand Medicaid), the problem of hospital closures is back in the news.

Where Have All the Patients Gone?

The inpatients who previously might have been treated at a critical access hospital are likely going to larger hospitals, as opposed to getting treatment at some other kind of community hospital.

Part of the change comes from an important “age cohort” effect. Twenty years ago, researchers found that people older than 65 thought their small, rural hospital was good or excellent.  But back then, people under 45 were less likely to think so. 

07/11/2014 at 7:37am

Photo by Matt Slocum AP A western scene outside a Cowboy Church in Ellis County, Texas

Cowboy churches” are springing up across rural America as alternatives to traditional brick and mortar locales of worship. Over four hundred of these new wave churches can be found from Florida to Alaska and notably attract non-churchgoers. You won’t find a steeple or stained glass windows in these churches, and you won’t find a congregation of only cowboys, either. On Sundays, the crowds are filled with everyone from baristas to accountants looking for a more basic, unconventional gathering place to seek God.

"In a lot of ways, it's what you would call unchurchy. It's a simple way of doing church. It's more about relationship than it is about religion. And I think that's why these churches have been exploding," Pastor Timmons of the Santa Fe Cowboy Church claims.


Mark your calendars, Yonder readers. In mid-November the New York Times is holding a conference titled “Food For Tomorrow” and for a mere $1,095 (at the now “discounted rate”) you can come learn how to “Farm Better. Eat Better. Feed the World.”

We scanned the list of speakers and it dawned on us that something (or maybe somebodies) were missing. Wait! We know what it is….


The New York Times is putting on a two-day conference on food and farming and we could find only one person among the dozen speakers announced so far who makes money farming, and that’s U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of New Haven, Maine. She has an organic operation that supplies her restaurant and lodge, and she sells a good bit of wool on line. Rep. Pingree is also the only speaker who lives in a rural community.

Instead of farmers at a conference on farming, we have the usual foodie suspects: the ubiquitous Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan, a couple of New York Times reporters, some professors and a celebrity chef.

Bittman, a food writer, is giving the keynote address, telling us “How to Change the Food System and Feed the Nine Billion.” There’s a panel discussion on who will farm (with no full-time farmers) and a group talking “sustainable scale,” with no farmers and nobody who has had to deal directly with food monopolies.

The Yonder has written about this phenomenon before – how urban “foodies” like to gather to talk about the ways farmers and rural communities ought to be — always without farmers or people from rural communities anywhere within a stone’s throw. Read here and here. This is just the latest go ‘round.

The New York Times people tell us they are adding speakers. We’ll let you know if they add anyone who has a working knowledge of the subject. In the meantime, save your pennies. The full-rate registration is $1,395.>

07/10/2014 at 5:17am

Photo by Erik M. Lunsford/St. Louis Post-Dispatch Voters in Missouri are finding the diversity in their candidates shrinking, as everyone paints themselves as more conservative than the next guy or gal.

I tried politics once. I wasn’t very good at it.

I think this is why: When it comes to rights of the unborn, I’m anti-abortion – but pro choice. In other words, if it were up to me I’d have the baby, but since I’m a man, I don’t have to worry about that.

And I used to belong to the NRA  ... until they rated me an antigun liberal because I said in their questionnaire I didn’t think average citizens should own machine guns. Since then I’ve reconsidered my position. I’m sure average Americans shouldn’t have the right to own machine guns, rocket launchers, hand grenades – or low yield nuclear weapons.

If that makes me antigun, then so be it. But to quote an old proverb, it is easier to pass a camel through the eye of a needle than for a Democrat to be endorsed by the NRA.

These days in Missouri, conservative Democrats are treated as suspected grand marshalls at a San Francisco gay rights parade, whereas conservatives, even the gay ones, keep looking for ways to be more conservative than anyone else.

A good example of that was the conservative candidate for U.S. Senate from Missouri in 2012 who stated in front of reporters that abortions for rape victims were unnecessary because women only get pregnant when they want to. 

It’s that whole “woman” thing.

Now we’re entering another election cycle, and it is my privilege to live in an area of Missouri where I can observe my own states politics and those of our neighbor to the west, Nebraska, where most political ads begin with the words, “I am a conservative Nebraska Republican.”

07/09/2014 at 5:42am

Data from National Center for Education Statistics.Rural student enrollment grew by 9.1% nationally over a three-year period, according to the methodology of the National Center for Education Statistics. Note that this mapping of "rural" districts is different from the metro/nonmetro-county definition used frequently in the Daily Yonder. NCES's "rural" definition uses Census definitions of rural, factoring in the location of individual U.S. schools and their enrollments. Under this methodology, some nonmetro counties have no rural school districts. (Interactive map.)

A flurry of news stories cropped up last year when the 2012 U.S. Census estimates led to claims that many rural counties in the U.S. are “dying.”

Although some rural areas are indeed declining in population, this figure obscures the larger overall trend: The number of students in rural school districts is steadily growing, according to data compiled by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Just as important, the growing rural population comprises an increasingly rich racial composition.

Part of the reason for this contradictory story may be that the NCES uses a different definition of “rural” than the simple “metro/nonmetro” definition (see below) readers of the Daily Yonder frequently see. But there’s much more to the story than just a difference in how we define rural. The facts show that school districts located in our nation’s smallest communities are increasing the size of their enrollments and becoming more diverse.

To debunk three myths about the rural student population, this article builds on the findings of Why Rural Matters, the biennial report of the Rural School and Community Trust,

Myth #1: The rural student population in the U.S. is shrinking.

Enrollment in rural school districts isn’t in decline; it’s expanding. Why Rural Matters 2013–14 found that enrollment in rural school districts has increased since the previous edition of the report two years ago. If we increase the scope to include the newest year of data, the total enrollment in rural districts now exceeds 10.5 million students—880,000 more than there were three years earlier. The interactive map at the top of this article shows the change in rural student enrollment between 2008 and 2012 for each county.

This growth in the absolute number of rural students might seem to be simply a byproduct of the overall growth in the U.S. population. On the contrary, during the same three years that the rural student population grew, the total student enrollment in towns, suburban areas, and urban areas declined. In terms of percentages, rural enrollment increased by 9.1% while town enrollment decreased by 7.8%, suburban enrollment decreased by 1.7%, and urban enrollment decreased by 1.4%.

07/08/2014 at 5:51am

Map via the New York TimesThe Mississippi Delta, Appalachia and the greater South stand out as among the toughest places to live in this analysis by the New York Times. 

Former New York Times economics reporter Annie Lowery sets out to prompt a national conversation about rural poverty.

But instead of illuminating an economic problem, she shines the spotlight on herself.

Her New York Times Magazine article, “What’s the Matter with Eastern Kentucky,” isn’t a portrait. It’s a selfie, one that tells us much more about her own bias as part of an urban power couple (she’s married to journalist Ezra Klein) perched on the heights of national media.

Lowery’s piece appeared in the June 29 New York Times Magazine (and in an online version on June 26). This 29-year-old zoomed through Kentucky like a Roadrunner cartoon on fast forward.  From statistical analysis, she zeroed in on Eastern Kentucky as the worst of the worst of what she calls America’s “tough places.”  From here, the article takes acrobatic leaps to shaky conclusions: that public investment can do nothing to address the region’s economic problems, that population density is the key to economic success, and that rural people should move to cities, which routinely lavish jobs on floods of poor people. 

At first glance, the article looks true because it has facts. But statistics without attention to cause and effect are mere data bling.  Cause and effect matter.  History matters. 

International scholarship over the past several decades has definitively established that regions rich in natural resources tend to have a host of difficulties, like poverty, corruption, lack of public investment, and over-reliance on extractive industries, to name a few. Some call this the “resource curse,” but we tend to just say “rich land, poor people.” 

The resource curse is a distinctive path of development that creates self-reinforcing problems that make it hard for communities to jump into a different track of development.  It’s very clear from the scholarly literature that this is primarily a political problem.  Extractive industries tend to lock rural, local economies into global markets that are characterized by extreme boom and busts, and ones in which local elites can become gatekeepers to vastly greater wealth than others in their communities.  This means that local and rural economies are subject to large flows of money sloshing in, and flooding out.  This is a recipe for cronyism and corruption, and once this kind of local inequality is laid down, it becomes a political machine that is very good at grabbing new funds, including federal monies which may be designed to undo it.  (It is not surprising, for instance, that Kentucky is 10th in the nation in political corruption).  Landra Lewis aptly calls this set up the “money laundering” machine.