Tuesday, August 4, 2015

07/15/2015 at 7:25am


When we moved from Austin to La Grange, Texas, a town of about 5,000, I was struck very quickly by how often and how clearly a line falls between things male and female. I had become so accustomed to Austin’s androgyny that hearing the word “ladies” made me snicker – then wince, once I realized people were saying it without a drop of irony.

After we’d been in town about a month, I was standing outdoors in line at the local chicken take-out and saw a new acquaintance. As I tried to engage him in conversation, he turned away, pointing and nudging me toward a pickup, where his wife sat waiting, smiling, shaking her head. What is it about small towns? Is there something about rural life that inclines it to be more sex-segregated than city life?

My husband and I recently traveled to Austria. We visited Vienna, as well as Austria’s second largest city, Graz (both fairly androgynous).  But we’d scheduled the whole trip to see a rural-only custom. In the Lungau region of the Central Alps, two towns still celebrate the feast days of their patron saints with a stunning parade of floral towers, called prangstangen. Should have known – it was a parade of manhood, too.

The tapered armatures reach some 18 feet high and are wound with garlands of local wildflowers and greenery. It takes residents weeks to make and bind the floral decorations, all strictly patterned into geometrical designs and sacred lettering (IHS – the Latinized insignia for “Jesus”).  And of course it takes a major balancing act and serious muscle to lift them. The full size prangstangen weigh 80 kilos – 170 lbs.

Photo by Bill Bishop In the village of Zederhaus, the prangstangen are brought to town June 23, the night before the church honors John the Baptist. A young man hoists and carries each 170 pound pole to the church doorway, where he’s greeted by the parish priest. It takes a team to turn the giant towers sideways and carry them into the church.

The Lungau’s valleys look something like Eastern Kentucky hollers, except the mountains are steeper, with even higher, snow-patched peaks in the distance.  The rivers run fast and clear, and cold. The village of Zederhaus, one of our destinations, celebrates the feast day of St. John the Baptist June 24, and Muhr, on the other side of the mountain, honors Sts. Peter and Paul June 29. Origins of the flower tower tradition are vague. Some sources say the parades began “in the Middle Ages”; others claim the custom goes back 300 years. Let’s just say “long ago” a scourge of insects devastated all local vegetation, a horror for isolated mountain people who survived not on ski tourism but farming.  The only plants that withstood the plague were the “Sunnawendlan” – field daisies. In homage to God and as a plea for protection from future disasters, the villagers made pillars of these daisies and presented them at the church as sacred offerings. The creation and procession of floral towers has gone on, and the locusts, or whatever those historic pests were, have never returned.

07/14/2015 at 6:20am

USDA Economic Research ServiceHigh-poverty counties were prevalent in the South but varied widely across the United States.

The rural child poverty rate grew by more than a third during the past decade, according to a new report from the USDA Economic Research Service.

One in four rural children lived in poverty in 2009-2013, according to the 2013 American Community Survey. That’s up from one in five rural children in 1999.

During the same period, the metropolitan child-poverty rate grew at a slightly lower rate of 31 percent. About one in every five metropolitan residents under the age of 18 lives in poverty, the report said.

The increase in the rural child-poverty rate was not consistent across the country, however. Some counties got hit a lot harder than others.

“The problem of high and rising rural child poverty has been widespread but not pandemic across rural areas,” writes ERS Senior Economist David McGranahan in the analysis released this week in the ERS magazine, Amber Waves.

The percentage of poor children was greatest in counties that depended on manufacturing jobs, compared to other counties where agriculture, mining, or recreation dominated the economy.

In rural manufacturing counties, child poverty climbed by 45 percent from 1999 to 2009-2013. During the same period, roughly one in four rural manufacturing jobs disappeared, according to the report.

In contrast, agriculture-dependent rural counties saw an increase of about 6 percent in child poverty. Child poverty increased by about 5 percent in rural counties that depend heavily on the recreation industry.

In mining counties -- which include the oil and gas industries that boomed during the period of the study -- child poverty also grew by about 5 percent.

And counties that don’t fall into one of the other economic categories saw a child-poverty increase of 22 percent.

07/12/2015 at 7:06pm

All photos by Shaena Mallett The Nolan family.


Shaena Mallett is a photographer and filmmaker based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Four years ago she started shooting a film about the Nolan familly and their small dairy farm in Southeast Ohio, Laurel Valley Creamery. Last week she launched a Kickstarter campaign and quickly reached her initial goal to pay for editing the film.  We talked to her about making the documentary and why she thinks its message is important.


Daily Yonder: Describe the movie for us.

Shaena Mallett : [It’s] a documentary film that I've been working on for four years and it's a really intimate look at one family and their experience surviving as a family farm in a rural food desert. 

It revolves around the characters. One of the main characters is the father of the family [Nick]. I describe him as a farmer/philosopher. He is just a very wise, well-spoken character who will go about his day very quietly, milking the cows and working out in the field and then just sit and look off into the distance and then just drop deep wisdom about farming and life and legacy. He's just a really philosophical character. The other main character, Celeste, is the mother of the family. She is really down to earth, very soulful, hard working person and just a really wonderful mother and cheese maker. 

They're a multi-generational family farm. And Nick grew up on the farm. It was his grandfather's. His grandfather bought it in 1947. Nick grew up right next door to the farm on the end of a dead-end dirt road and dreamt of a life far away and the great world out there. He eventually got into working as an engineer in a food manufacturing plant and worked in corporate food for many years, throughout all of his 20s, and he ended up moving away to Florida. He was the person who helped work on the machines that made Totinos pizza rolls and convenient frozen entrées. He was still working in food, but as far away from the family farm style of producing food as you can get. 

A scene from Laurel Valley Creamery, a family dairy farm featured in the documentary "Farmsteaders."

His grandfather died in a farming accident and Nick, over the coming years, had a major transition and ended up taking over the family farm. He was laid-off from his job, so he took his severance package and invested it all in a herd of dairy cows and decided to go back to what he knew and what he did in childhood. They invested in cows and decided that's what they were going to do. Everyone told them not to do it. The people buying the milk told them not to do it, grandma told them not to do it, the people who sold them the cows told them not to do it. ... But they did it anyway. They worked for several years just selling milk and trying to bring in all of their income from selling milk and just couldn't make it, which is a really common story for a lot of small-scale dairy farms in the U.S. right now.

Now they take all the milk they produce and 100% of the milk goes into making farmstead cheese. "Farmstead" meaning all the milk comes from the farm and all the milk goes into the cheese and it's all made right on the farm. They've been doing that since 2010 and they finally are starting to rise up out of the initial costs of starting that. They're finally starting see the light of day financially by making cheese. 


DY: Why do you think they went against all that advice and start buying cows? 

SM: That's a question a lot of people ask a lot of dairy farmers these days, because it really seems like an impossible struggle to make it in small-scale dairy. I've heard several reasons from the Nolans. One of them, I think, taps into legacy. It's what Nick grew up doing, it's what he grew up loving, and really knowing, and I think it helps Nick feel very connected to his family, connected to his grandfather, who was one of the closest people in his life, by continuing on that family tradition. I also know that Nick really likes working with the animals. …There's just something about working in a very reciprocal relationship with animals. Opposed to making all the income, let's say, selling meat (Ed. Note: They do sell some meat). But something like that, the relationship with the animal has a finite end, and you're raising animals to slaughter and that's the end of the story. Whereas, for milk, the way that they raise the cows, they raise most of the cows from calf. The cows are on the farm from the day they're born till they day they die and they have many years of working together. They really get to know the animal and it's much more of a symbiotic relationship. I think there's something about that that's really appealing to the Nolins and to some other sustainable dairy famers.

07/10/2015 at 5:55am

Photo courtesy Rick Kochenower, Oklahoma Panhandle Research and Extension Center A dust storm approaches Cimarron County in the Oklahoma Panhandle on January 12, 2014. Drought, plus the deterioration of the Prairie States Shelterbelt, created in the 1930s, are contributing to the storms, which have been compared to the Dust Bowl.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was a tree hugger.

After his father, James, died in December, 1900, the future president began to manage his Hyde Park, New York, family estate with conservation in mind. To counter soil erosion, he planted thousands of trees each year.

Later, as president, FDR used conservation projects as a job-creation tool against the Great Depression. His ambitious plan for forest shelterbelts—windbreaks using trees and shrubs across the Great Plains to reduce soil wind erosion, retain moisture, and improve farming—offers a backstory about a gift that is widely forgotten and being destroyed.

When FDR came to office in 1933, the Great Plains and other regions were already smarting from droughts in 1929 and the early 1930s; the Dust Bowl began in earnest in 1934. The environmental disaster was triggered by policies and markets that promoted massive, unsustainable agricultural expansion in dry lands. Weak farm markets, coupled with the droughts, had caused a crisis for President Herbert Hoover as he tried to mitigate the growing Depression that started in 1929.

FDR began discussing what would become the Plains Shelterbelt Project within weeks of taking office in March, 1933. The idea grew from his experience and federal research that dated to about the 1890s. Passage of the Clarke-McNary Act in 1924 enshrined shelterbelts in forest policy.

Shelterbelts were used the U.S. during the early 1800s and were common in Canada and Russia. According to Agriculture Secretary Arthur M. Hyde’s report to Hoover in 1933, the department cooperated with 37 states and two territories in producing and distributing trees to farm owners for reforestation of farm woodlands and for windbreak and shelterbelt planting.

Roosevelt’s documents show he initially was deeply involved in planning his proposal, along with his secretary of Agriculture, Henry A. Wallace. In a March 1935 letter to Senator Duncan U. Fletcher (D-Florida), FDR notes that shelterbelts were a “subject near to my heart,” and outlines the complicated steps of the plan:

07/09/2015 at 7:09am

DOE Workers at the Idaho National Laboratory move a drum toward a compactor in this photo uploaded by the Department of Energy in June 2015.

Sitting as I do in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, I view a proposal to convert weapons-grade plutonium into fuel for nuclear power plants as a sobering proposition.

 We’re directly between South Carolina’s Savannah River nuclear reservation, where some of that plutonium is stored, and nuclear power plants in Tennessee and Alabama, where the fuel could be used.

 “Using plutonium from weapons, there would be a regular traffic of plutonium oxide from dismantlement and storage sites to fabrication facilities and reactors, with the risk of attack along transportation routes,” said Lou Zeller of the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League.

“The cost estimate for construction of the plutonium fuel plant at Savannah River Site has soared from $1.8 billion in 2004 to $7.7 billion in April 2013,” said Tom Clement of Friends of the Earth.

“When we’re dealing with something as fraught with danger as weapons plutonium, there’s no margin for error,” said Ralph Hutchison of Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance.

  “We are taking plutonium out of warheads that were pointed across the world and we’re moving it. The problem is we need to make sure it’s put in a secure form and in a secure place,” said Gretel Johnson of Mothers against Tennessee River Radiation.

Would TVA Use Converted Nuclear Fuel?
The big thing in nuclear right now is the environmental impact statement released by DOE in May.  Oh, it’s big all right -- five volumes, 495 pages, 12 pounds. The testimonies above are in its “Comment Response” volumes and it’s very thorough.

This is the latest size-up whether disposal of plutonium from warheads can comply with the National Environmental Policy Act. The DOE states generally in its Federal Register posting that its goal is to “dispose of U.S. surplus, weapons-usable plutonium in a safe, secure and environmentally sound manner, by converting such plutonium into proliferation-resistant forms that can never again be readily used in nuclear weapons.”

07/08/2015 at 7:01am

All photos by Cody Weber Cantril, Iowa, at an Amish grocery store. Population: 222

Daily Yonder: Where did you grow up? Tell us a little bit about your background.
Cody Weber: I grew up in Keokuk, Iowa. It's a small river town in Southeast Iowa. The people there are as friendly as the architecture is worn. Despite its pratfalls, the community is very warm and inviting, and I take a lot of pride in being an Iowan, but even more specifically as a Keokukian. I grew up the same way that most of my peers in the community did, whether it was riding bikes throughout town or fishing on the coast of the Mississippi river. Keokuk is a great place to wander, to get lost, and it's not hard to spend entire days doing just that.

Milton, Iowa. A 96 year-old shop owner poses for a frame in front of his garage. Population: 443

DY: When did you first start taking pictures?
CW: I've been photographing my life almost every single day since the day I turned fifteen. I'm twenty-six now, so I guess that's a little more than a decade. It's strange to go back and look at events as they unfolded in retrospect. There are entire months that my brain really doesn't even really remember, but the photo evidence is still there. I really believe that, as egotistical as it is, it's helped shape me and become all the more self-aware. As of today, I have taken over 2.5 million photos...and I've deleted nothing.

In fact, the longest break I have ever taken is five days in late 2008 when I had pneumonia.  

A blind stray cat looks for scraps of food in Rome, Iowa as the sun sets in front of him. Population: 117

DY: After years of traveling, you’re back in Iowa taking pictures.  Why did you decide to head back to Iowa?  How long do you plan to stay?
CW: Southeast Iowa is my safe place. It's where my entire family resides, where most of my friends live, and where I feel the most at home. Every time I've ventured to other cities, I always find myself longing for a slower existence. Cities are overwhelming to me. Everybody has somewhere to be, all the time, and almost without exception. There's no time to just stop and converse with a total stranger. That couldn't be any further from reality in small-town USA. I love that I can bump into somebody that I don't even know and end up learning a lot about them. I am a small-town kid just by my very nature, and it's become obvious to me that you can take the boy out of the town but you can't take the town out of the boy. It took a long time to accept that reality, and I actually envied the kids of inner-cities who seemed to take on the sprawl of a cityscape as part of their routine. I've spent entire years of my life in cities and I've never once been able to do that. I get overwhelmed too easily. I miss seeing stars. It's the little things.

So, I suppose the question is never “How long do I plan to stay?” as much as it's, “How long do you plan to stay away?” No matter where I end up, a large part of my heart belongs to Keokuk. It always will. And though I'm absolutely aware of the mountains that the community has to climb, I still associate my mentalities with it. Everything I think, whether it's my political or ideological stances, stemmed from that community. It was birthed through those experiences and those people. There is no shortage of love that I have for my community. Logistically speaking, though, I'm also aware that sometimes you have to venture elsewhere to improve your own position. And that's what I imagine I'll end up doing; living in a series of small apartments in various places until I find a place that suits me just as well as Keokuk did. You wouldn't believe how difficult that's been thus far. I feel out of place wherever I go, even when I've been an active part in various art and music scenes. I'm still this outsider, you know, the small-town kid that I've always been. You can't run from that because it can outrun you.  It's nothing for reality to stay in pace.

A pair of cars rests in the grass in Lockridge, Iowa.

DY: Tell us about the Forgotten Iowa Project.  How did it begin and what is its aim?
I became mildly obsessed with researching my ancestry in the summer of 2013, and I discovered that my family has stayed in the same geographical pocket for more than a hundred and fifty years. Not all in Keokuk, obviously, but well within 50 miles of it. It started in Virginia, though, and moved toward Kahoka, Missouri in the 1800's. From there, my family has stayed put. They've weathered population rises and falls, factories coming and going, and the like.

Anyway, that really got me thinking. I wanted to know more about my ancestors, so I eventually worked my way to these small towns. I saw family homes that were constructed by my great-great-great grandfather. To this day, they stand and families live in them. That's an incredible feat and was so awe-inspiring to me. It showed me that your legacy doesn't die with you. It lives on with the people you loved, the people that loved you, and the things that you helped create.

07/07/2015 at 7:58am

Photo by Reuters COOL requires The country of origin label  meatpackers are required to include country-of-origin labels on their products to denote where the meat was raised and slaughtered. The law is in dispute.

Both Canada and Mexico have claimed harm from U.S. Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) that identifies sources of our food.

In spite of the fact that a study by Dr. Robert Taylor of Auburn University shows no harm to foreign markets, the U.S. House of Representatives, led by the House Agriculture Committee, has repealed COOL for U.S. beef, pork, and poultry.

Four U.S. Courts approved the legality of COOL before the World Trade Organization (WTO) complaint was filed. But American laws were subverted by free trade deals allowing WTO statutes to take precedence over our own U.S. law.

Action in the Senate is pending. I hope they take the patriotic route, but with trade sanction retaliation threatened by Canada and Mexico, weak knees in the Senate may prevail just as they did in the House.

USDA has recently approved chicken imports from China even though China’s food safety record is atrocious. The Obama Administration has also approved the import of beef from foot-and-mouth disease afflicted regions of South America, at great peril to American beef herds. And every so often Canada reports another case of mad cow disease, the brain destroying disease that might affect humans the same way.

Without COOL, American consumers will be in the dark about food safety like never before.

Senator Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) has proposed modifying the COOL law of mandatory labeling for muscle cuts of beef and pork to one of voluntary labeling, while preserving mandatory labeling for chicken, ground beef, and ground pork. Those are the products where the risk of food borne illness is greatest.

Some farm groups who said they supported COOL never stepped up to defend it. Farm Bureau, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and National Pork Producers Council never questioned the unfounded WTO complaint. That’s because they represent corporate business interests ahead of small family farms.