Friday, February 27, 2015

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.

02/06/2015 at 12:37pm

Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler proposes the organization's support for Net Neutrality.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler wrote an editorial in Wired Magazine this week explaining and defending the commission’s pending Net Neutrality proposal.

I am proposing that the FCC use its Title II authority to implement and enforce open internet protections.

Using this authority, I am submitting to my colleagues the strongest open internet protections ever proposed by the FCC. These enforceable, bright-line rules will ban paid prioritization, and the blocking and throttling of lawful content and services. I propose to fully apply—for the first time ever—those bright-line rules to mobile broadband. My proposal assures the rights of internet users to go where they want, when they want, and the rights of innovators to introduce new products without asking anyone’s permission.


The New York Times reports on the state of America’s locks and dams, which are getting so old and crumbly they’re holding up traffic. Agriculture and concrete businesses suffer the most.

President Obama’s water resources bill had provisions to build a new lock in Illinois, but he has also called for cutting the budget of the Army Corps of Engineers, which would include cutting the budget for repairs to locks and dams.

In the United States, the equivalent of 51 million truckloads of goods move by river each year.

The lock here at the Kentucky Dam is a major thruway for products from nearly 20 states. But over the last decade, the average delay here has grown to nearly seven hours, from less than four hours in 2004.

Because of its age, the lock has a hard time accommodating newer, larger barges. Workers have to break the barges into sections before letting them through, which increases the wait times. In the meantime, large cracks are visible in the walls of the lock.


02/05/2015 at 3:18pm

Photo by the USDA Volunteers at the Self-Help Build Day begin the day by erecting the north end wall of a house in West Virginia.

Rural housing programs in the Department of Agriculture would get a modest increase in spending under the president’s proposed budget for 2016, rising by $94 million over this year’s figures to about $29.2 billion.

At Housing and Urban Development, another important source of housing funding for rural areas, key programs are also recommended for increases. But relatively small, rural programs have been zeroed out, according to a rural housing advocacy organization.

The budget at USDA’s Rural Housing calls for an increase in loans to construct multi-family housing like apartment buildings. There’s also an increase to help low-income rural renters, though some participants may see their share of the monthly rent go up to help pay for the program.

The USDA funding increases are offset by user fees and cost sharing, plus cuts in self-help housing programs. There’s also a small decrease in the community facilities program, which provides loans and grants for buildings that improve health, public safety or education.

The recommendations are part of the budget proposal released by the Obama administration Monday. The proposal is the first step in negotiations between the Democrat-controlled White House and the Republican-controlled Congress over spending for 2016. (We looked at proposed funding for the USDA's business development programs in an earlier story.)

Funds for USDA’s program that supports multi-family housing like apartment buildings would rise by about $64 million to a total of $242 million for both direct and guaranteed loans. (Direct loans provide financing directly to housing entities from the government. Guaranteed loans are handled by private lenders but backed by the government, making them a safer business bet for private entities.)

02/04/2015 at 4:20pm

Photo by Karen Fasimpaur Four of the Fasimpaurs' 12 solar panels help the couple live and run a business off the grid.

When I tell people I live “off the grid,” I get a variety of responses. Many are some iteration of “Wow! That is so cool. But what does that actually mean?”

In my case, it means we are not physically connected to the electrical grid. Instead, we rely exclusively on solar power and propane to provide energy for our household.

We do have landline phones and Internet access, but the power to run all of this comes from solar. (In a future article, I will write about how we connect to the telecommunications network and some of the policies that make that possible for us.)

It was never really a goal of mine to live “off the grid,” but when we found a piece of land in eastern Arizona that we fell in love with, it turned out that it was about a mile from the nearest power lines, and there is no public policy that requires electrical companies to provide grid access. When we looked at the cost of bringing electrical power to our site, it was approximately $80,000. That made solar an easy choice for us. While the robust solar installation we ended up with will never pay for itself in terms of the electrical bills that we don’t incur, it was cheaper than bringing in a grid connection.

There are many reasons people choose to go solar. Besides environmental and cost concerns, aesthetics can be a factor. There are no electrical poles and wires obscuring the natural beauty. Other people already established here were keen that we not bring in electricity to limit the impact of development. (Folks here like their isolation, and accessible electricity might draw a disruptive number of other residents.)

Before choosing solar components, we looked at many houses that were running on solar to see the options. We found people with everything from a bare-bones set up of a couple panels and a few car batteries to much more elaborate systems.