Monday, March 2, 2015

02/13/2015 at 10:26am

Photo by the Associated Press

The Keystone XL pipeline is stalled again. No, not from the threat of a veto from President Obama, but from Nebraska landowners’ legal actions.

Nebraska State District Court Judge Mark Kozisek issued a temporary injunction Thursday against Canadian pipeline company TransCanada, which is seeking a route to pipe tar-sands crude oil from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico for refining. Nebraska ranchers and farmers say the process TransCanada used to take private land for the pipeline violates the state constitution.

The injunction will likely start another legal campaign in the controversial pipeline battle. David Domina, the Nebraska attorney representing the landowners, says the injunction will push the Nebraska Supreme Court to rule on the constitutional issue – a decision it sidestepped last month.

The pipeline is in the news everywhere this week because of Congressional action. But everyone knew Congress was going to send the president a pipeline bill. And we all know President Obama intends to veto the bill.

What most of the nation doesn’t know is that the actions of Nebraska landowners and their attorney have stalled the pipeline repeatedly, giving national politicians and environmentalists the opportunity to debate the issue and – one might argue – grandstand. 


In the time since President Obama designated the San Gabriel Mountains a national monument, about four months, people have seen a positive change.

“Our forest service community is very excited about this,” said Shane Jeffries, the interim monument manager for the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument. “We’re very proud of that — to have an area of the national forest be designated as a national monument.”

The monument is now up for millions in grants from the government, money they hope will pay for maintainence, rehab, and trail reconstruction and improvement.

“It’s a challenge when you’ve got as many people as we have here who are enjoying their national forest,” Jeffries said. “We’ve got to continue to explore ways to allow people to enjoy that, but then also balance what the land can sustain.”


An editorial in Salon paints a not-so-bright picture of the economic sustainability of small, organic farms. We’d love to hear experiences from any of you who work on or run similar farms.

Surely many farmers enjoy what they do, as I often find pleasure in my daily tasks, but ultimately farming is work, an occupation, a means of making a living that must fulfill the basic function of a job: to provide an income. Does the notion that farming is lovable work excuse the fact that the entire industry relies on underpaid labor? Does it somehow make it OK that in 2014 it’s forecast to be $–1,682? I had to wonder if this notion works only to assuage a collective discomfort provoked by an unsettling fact, a fact that should enrage us, that should disgrace us as a society: the fact that the much celebrated American small farmer can’t even make a living.


On the flip-side, however, one Canadian urban farmer says that if you aren’t making money, you’re farming wrong.

Stone maintains that a skilled urban farmer can make $50,000 on just a quarter-acre and — if his math is sound -- $100,000 on a half-acre of land by growing high-value crops with short growth cycles and by following the money. And the money comes from high-end restaurants and subscription-based buying clubs called CSAs, for community supported agriculture.

Ah yes, cashing in on CSAs. That old get-rich-never scheme.


The Church of England has issued a “Doomsday warning” to its rural churches: Either fill the seats or face elimination of your small church.

John Spence, chairman of the Church’s finance committee, told the Synod that there was an urgent case for a new approach. He detailed research showing that regular attendees are declining by around one per cent per year and that two thirds of members are now over 55.

“If you look at that arithmetic projection you identify that over a period 2007 to 2057 church attendance and membership would fall from 1.2 million on a regular basis to something like two or three hundred thousand if current trends continue,” he said.


Here’s something for your “good idea” file: Pass a bill that guts water pollution protections a year after a mining chemical company spilled 10,000 gallons of some weird, toxic mixture into your local river, rendering your water untouchable. That’s exactly what some West Virginia lawmakers are trying to do. Oh, the new bill would also protect coal companies from lawsuits around some water quality standards. Because, of course, it would.

According to Paul Ziemkiewicz, the director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute, West Virginia’s lax regulation of above-ground tanks was the main culprit behind the spill last year.  “If these tanks had been properly maintained and inspected, and if the secondary containment system had been as well, then [the chemical] would never have gotten off this site. That’s where the attention has to be paid,” Ziemkiewicz said around the time of the spill, emphasizing that the state badly needed rigorous tank requirements to prevent another spill disaster.

--- Shawn Poynter


02/13/2015 at 7:14am

Photo courtesy of Jim Wortman Some seniors ride horses and farm vehicles to school to celebrate their rural upbringing and the last day of class.

I am the middle school principal in a rural school district in northwestern Pennsylvania. On the final day of school, you can drive through our parking lot and see an impressive array of John Deere, International Harvester and Caterpillar tractors lined up.

In what has become a rite of passage, graduating seniors make their final trip to school aboard the oversize-treaded family farm vehicle. This past year, one senior took things to the next level and rounded up a few classmates to join him on horseback for this last journey to school. 

This parking-lot full of farm equipment points out something positive and unique about rural students. To help prepare our young people for happy, productive lives, education policy ought to focus on the other positive aspects of living and learning in a small town or rural setting.

For starters, it’s time to demand equity with education dollars for the 10 million students (one out of every five) in our country who attend rural schools.  About one-half (49.9%) of all public school districts in the United States are located in rural areas. 

My rural school district has found the ways and means to leverage the unique aspects of our rural context, but I’m not at all certain this is sustainable and it is certainly not the norm.  We are not immune from the most significant challenges facing rural schools, and yet we recognize the need to present an education program that meets the requirements of state law and puts our students in the best position possible to compete in the global marketplace.

Across the country, 23 percent of rural students don’t even finish high school.  The college enrollment rate for young adults in rural areas is only 27 percent. This is lower than the rate in cities (37 percent), suburban areas (31 percent), or towns (32 percent).

02/12/2015 at 7:11am

Ken Delo sings "Let A Smile Be Your Umbrella" on the Lawrence Welk Show.

When a close acquaintance of mine said she had tickets to a Barry Manilow concert, my one word first reaction was to ask “Why?”  

Before becoming a successful entertainer, Manilow got his start writing advertising jingles. To me, his pop songs are the same type of commercial-sounding, easy-going, never-ending sound loops called ear worms, that go round and round in people’s heads.

In defense of Barry’s pleasant sounding choral repetition, my friend explained that the crowd will be smiling, mellow and grooving to the music— probably for weeks after—as narcotic-like lyrics take over their brains.

“It should be a good time” she said.

The only way to get rid of ear worms is to replace them with another ear worm. That might mean a trip to Disneyland this summer for a dose of the deepest burrowing song of all time, “It’s a Small World.”

But it’s not just Disney or Manilow that make folks smile and sway. A song written a long time ago in 1927 and performed by Bing Crosby 30 years later, “Let a Smile be Your Umbrella” lightened everyone’s rainy day. And in 1988, Bobby McFerrin recorded his frown wiping a cappella , “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”

Disney, Manilow, McFerrin and Crosby all prove that the chicken-or-egg question of what truly makes people happy is more evolutionary than revolutionary. Today’s latest research confirms another primordial fact: that it’s hard for people to feel down if the corners of their mouths turn up, because a recent issue of Scientific American magazine has revealed simply that people who smile really do feel happier than those who don’t.

Charles Darwin first wrote in 1872 that “The free expression by outward signs of an emotion intensi­fies it.” Though what Darwin wrote has to some extent been discredited, more recent research claims that facial expressions of happiness do affect the way we feel. Studies also show that even people who held a lead pencil in their mouths in such a way that made frowning impossible were happier than those who didn’t.

Backing that up are satisfied Botox patients, seemingly because their injections physically prevent frowning.

The explanation of why this works is that smiling creates its own feedback loop, much the same as happy ear-worm songs, to affirm our best feelings. It all comes down to the fact that a smile really can be your umbrella.

But some umbrellas leak.

02/10/2015 at 9:40pm

All photos by Clare Benson The Haul, 2012 (Bratislava, Slovakia)

Daily Yonder: Where did you grow up? Tell us a little bit about your background.

Clare Benson: Much of my childhood was spent on a forest covered island in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Drummond Island, where my father and generations of ancestors came from. But I wasn't born there, so perhaps I should back-track a bit. I was born in Indiana where I lived with my mother, two older sisters, and one younger brother until I was ten years old. We lived in a suburban area of Indianapolis, and would take road trips to Michigan for summers and extended holidays. My mother had family ties that kept her attached to Indianapolis, but she had these detailed fantasies of moving to the country and living off the land. Because of her, I think that nature and the rural landscape began to embody a kind of magic and mythos in my young mind. She was always torn between the city and the country. My siblings and I moved to Michigan to be with our father (when I was ten) as our mother had become seriously ill, and this is where we stayed until each of us slowly went off to college. I spent many formative years in northern Michigan, where my father was known around town as the avid hunter, archer, and hunting guide. He taught me how to shoot a bow, I took a hunters safety course, and the patches of forest in our front and back yard became my stomping ground.

Quiver, 2014 (Drummond Island, Michigan)


DY: Where do you live now?

CB: I am currently living in the far north of Sweden (about 90 miles north of the Arctic Circle), working on a ten-month project with the help of a Fulbright Fellowship. When I leave here in June, I'll go back to Michigan to continue working. I've moved around quite a bit in recent years, living in Arizona for graduate school, with a six month study abroad stint in Slovakia, and Los Angeles for a short time after that.


DY:  Tell us about the series The Shepherd's Daughter. How and why did you start it? Where were these pictures taken?

For a long time I was making work about my relationship with my mother, my memories of her death, and my desire to understand her life. In 2011, I shifted the focus over to my father. I was fascinated at first by what seemed to be a kind of obsession he had with hunting. I came across a collection of old slides from the '70s when he was a hunting guide in the Alaskan wilderness, and there was something so rich and honest about the images. I realized that hunting wasn't his obsession, it was his life. The photos are also gorgeous—they have a certain patina that can come only from time; they are rugged and full of adventure. I wanted to know who this person was in the photos, this younger version of my father. And so I started recreating the images, inserting myself as the protagonist (using the taxidermy he had accumulated over the years), attempting to connect with and become part of those stories. That's how it began, and since then the series has continued to develop organically, bringing in other influences and inspiration. Many of the images were taken in Michigan, though some were taken in the mountains of Arizona and in Slovakia because that's where I happened to be working at the time.

Winter, 2013 (Drummond Island, Michigan)


DY: So you the woman who appears in many of these photos? Why did you choose to include yourself?

CB: I am one of the women who appears in many of the photos. One of my sisters is also in several of them, and my father is included in a couple as well. Part of my reason for doing this was that through this process, I was trying to connect with and understand my father. In that sense, the images become like documents of performance art. Another reason was that using myself in the images seemed easier than asking someone else to do it. The work is clearly autobiographical, and of course it speaks to notions of identity, but I have steered away from referring to any of the images as self-portraits. Even when I am the one in the photos, I think of myself more as a character or archetype; a symbol that represents more than my own individual experience. 

02/10/2015 at 1:42pm

Photo by AFP/Getty Piglets block the aisle as French farmers protest low meat prices.

As the old saying goes, “ Kill ‘em with cuteness.” I’m paraphrasing, of course, but a group of French farmers are taking it to heart by letting loose a pack of piglets in a supermarket to protest falling meat prices.

…The farmers' group FDSEA [is] campaigning against the lowering price of pork and lack of brands which state where the meat has originated in its packaging. “The price we're paid for pork is too low, it doesn't allow us to cover our own food and housing costs,” said Damien Legand, a farmer from Parigne, Ille-et-Vilaine. “It's bad for us but also for French buyers.”


COOL is dead.

Long live COOL.

The Canadian Ag minister, Gerry Ritz, says he thinks the U.S. Congress is going to undo country-of-origin labeling (COOL) for meat, changing the law that requires U.S. retailers to tell consumers where the meat they sell was raised and processed.

Meanwhile the “multinational meatpacking industry” (as Chris Clayton at DTN describes it) has dropped its federal lawsuit seeking to block country-of-origin labeling. In theory, that opens the way for USDA to start enforcing the law more aggressively.

But the real fight over the law – which is popular with U.S. consumers and disdained by big meatpackers and Canadian exporters – is currently in front the World Trade Organization for ajudication.

Canadian producers have claimed that country-of-origin labeling has hurt Canadian meat sales in the U.S. But the National Farmers Union has countered with another study that says the law hasn’t hurt Canadian exports a bit.


Two bills in the Nebraska Legislature would open the state to “chickenization” of the pork industry, according to the Organization of Competitive Markets.

One bill would decrease local government authority to control the size of hog farms through planning and zoning ordinances. The other bill would allow hog processors (the folks who slaughter and butcher hogs) to control a wider part of the hog market by owning hogs as they are being raised.

Practices such as these have been criticized as lowering profits, market leverage and autonomy of chicken farmers. The Nebraska legislation would allow the pork industry in the state to operate more like the chicken industry, the Organization of Competitive Markets (OCM) says.

“The bills work in tandem to reverse laws that long protected Nebraska’s family farmers from the abuses of corporate farming,” according to an OCM press release.

State Senator Ken Schilz introduced the bills into the Nebraska Ag Committee this week.


Rural citizens groups in Scotland are pushing back against government plans for “large-scale developments,” including wind farms in wild areas. The alliance released a statement on the matter:

"Few people dispute the necessity of first reducing our energy use, and then substituting the use of fossil fuels with renewable energy alternatives, to help address the challenge of climate change. However, as we have seen, there is public disquiet about proliferation of energy developments in Scotland's wild land areas…It is vital that any decisions on the location of these developments rely on the fair and impartial assessment of all pertinent information and points of view... The people of Scotland depend on their government to ensure this happens. Unfortunately, we do not believe that the Scottish government is doing this in a consistent manner with wind farm developments."


Map via the FCC Click on the map to see the full-sized version in the FCC report (page 4).

In a move that’s making service providers rethink their marketing strategy (and probably causing them to freak out), FCC recently re-defined broadband Internet as 25 Mbps download/3 Mbps upload. This is significantly faster than the older 4 down/ 1 up definition. The new definition, however, has made the rural broadband access gap even wider than it was before, if you can imagine that.

 "In rural areas, more than half – 53 percent – lack access to broadband at the new benchmark; in Tribal lands, it's almost two-thirds – 63 percent – that lack access," Wheeler said in a statement. "The disparity persists at all speeds. For example, at our previous benchmark of 4 Mbps/1 Mbps, 20 percent of Americans in rural areas cannot get that level of service. In urban areas, only 1 percent lack access to that service. Sadly, we wouldn't be where we need to be on broadband deployment to all Americans, even if we hadn't increased the benchmark speed."

02/09/2015 at 10:32pm

Photo by Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg A demonstrator holds a sign in support of net neutrality outside the FCC headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Last week the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission gave us a peek into the strong Net Neutrality rules the commission will vote on February 26.

Chairman Tom Wheeler came out strongly in favor of net neutrality. That’s the principle that the Internet is a neutral playing field where all information gets treated equally, no information gets preferential treatment and no player is blocked.

Pat yourself on the back, rural America, because your voice helped move the chairman to draft this strong proposal in support of an open Internet.

More than 50 rural organizations were part of an overwhelming public-input process that supported net neutrality. These groups asked the commission to classify Internet access as a “common carrier” under federal regulations. A federal judge has said that would give the FCC the authority to enforce network neutrality rules. The big telecommunications corporations that want to run the Internet disagree. But Wheeler’s statement is an important first step in getting the FCC on board with reclassifying broadband under “Title II.”

The chairman’s statement has a lot of implications for rural communities. Here’s a brief break down of “what’s the what” in his proposal.

1. The Chairman Proposes to Use Title II
Media-policy nerds may have trouble believing this statement, but you read correctly. You are not dreaming. This really is his proposal. Chairman Wheeler is urging the commission to use the strongest authority possible so that your voice, stories, and ideas are not downgraded to the slow lane. If you were one of the 4 million individuals and groups who submitted a comment to the FCC to support this decision, you should celebrate and pat yourself on the back!

2. Rules that Protect Your Use of the Open Internet
To ensure that you get the full benefits of the Open Internet, Chairman Wheeler proposes rules that ban:

  • Blocking – a broadband provider may not block your access to legal content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices. For example, a broadband provider cannot block you from reading the website of your local newspaper or radio station in an effort to push you toward national news outlets.
02/09/2015 at 6:58am

Photo courtesy the Prairie Land Conservancy Shimmering heatwaves rise as part of a prescribed prairie burn at Stony Hills Nature Preserve. The burn is necessary to improve the health of the prairie and to destroy undesirable invasive species. In the foreground is a bird nesting box.

In Illinois, the buffalo are back – in small numbers, but back nonetheless.

And scientists are working on ways to integrate the natural prairie landscape with row-crop agriculture.

Developments like these make it an exciting time to be working on conservation. They offer the hope that Illinois could someday again live up to its name as the Prairie State.

In my back yard, it is exciting to be a teeny-tiny part of the land conservation and preservation movement as chair of the directors of the Prairie Land Conservancy (PLC), a division of Prairie Hills Resource Conservation and Development (PHRC&D). The board is a dedicated group of volunteers who seek to make life better in this part of the world. Our organization is the local land conservancy for west-central Illinois.

In December, the Prairie Land Conservancy acquired 535 acres of land near the Illinois River in Banner, Fulton County, from the Central Utility Coal Company for $1.7 million. Restoration will cost about $200,000 more.

“The land sale culminated nearly eight months of grant applications and negotiations to acquire this unique Illinois River flood plain,” said David King, executive director. “Nearly 220 acres of farm land will be restored to wetland habitat of shallow wetlands, wet prairies and bottom land hardwood trees.”

The remainder of the tract may remain in agriculture for the next five years unless it can be put into either the Conservation Reserve Program or the Wetland Reserve Program. It will be managed to help support the restoration of natural floodplain land closer to the river, according to King.