Rural Renewal Monitor

Draft horses bring fiber optics to remote locations | By Eric Blokland | May 22, 2011

Claude Desmarais and Fred

For over three decades Claude Desmarais has been laying line with draft horses. Fred has been on the job for five years now. VTD/Eric Blokland

Two miles above the village of Greensboro Bend on Stannard Mountain, a crew of linemen for FairPoint Communications takes a break. A garter snake slinks around the rear wheel of a work truck parked on sparsely-populated Norway Road. One of the linemen picks up the snake by its tail. It wriggles as he brings it close to Claude Desmarais, a 67-year-old lineman who stands over six feet tall.

Desmarais remarks that he has no plans — and no need — to retire from his work — which is negotiating tough terrain with his Belgian draft horse Fred. Snakes, however, give him the freaks.

“You don’t get close to me with that snake,” he says, a Kingdom lilt in his speech.

“What about Fred?” says the lineman, dangling the snake as he moves past Desmarais.

“Wouldn’t bother him,” says Desmarais. “Just me.”

Fred, the draft horse standing next to Desmarais, is unperturbed by the snake or much else. The muscled 1,700-pound cable-hauling Belgian is in full draft regalia. Studded leather flaps keep his eyes on the task at hand. A leather collar wraps around his neck, bearing the hames, or a frame from which the traces span Fred’s torso and connect to an iron whippletree trailing behind.

The hames, now wrought from aluminum instead of the traditional wood, are about all the progress Desmarais has seen in draft horse technology since he started contracting with power and telecommunications companies over three decades ago.

“My part of it has always been the same,” says Desmarais.

It’s perhaps a fitting irony that Fred is the anachronistic vehicle for broadband installation in remote areas of the Northeast Kingdom. Without Fred pulling his weight in fiber-optic cable, however, FairPoint would be hard-pressed to meet its 2013 goal, set by Gov. Peter Shumlin, to bring Internet to every home in the state. Read more about Draft horses bring fiber optics to remote locations

Small U.S. Farms Find Profit in Tourism

The New York Times | By William Neuman | June 9, 2011 

Early each morning, Jim Maguire milks the sheep and goats and feeds the pigs on his small dairy farm here before heading off to his day job as a public defender in San Luis Obispo County. His wife, Christine, makes cheese and tends the animals.

But in recent years, Ms. Maguire has added some new chores: changing linens and serving food to the guests who stay at Rinconada Dairy’s two bed-and-breakfast units, one in a private wing of the farmhouse and the other in a remodeled corner of a barn. Money from the paying guests is now enough to pay for the animals’ feed, one of the farm’s biggest expenditures.

“The whole idea is to get the farm in a productive state so that it carries itself, so that it pays its own way,” Mr. Maguire said early on a recent morning as he watched sheep file onto the raised stainless steel platform of an automatic milking machine. “The farm stay is an important economic portion of that.”

The United States Department of Agriculture predicts that this year the average farm household will get only about 13 percent of its income from farm sources. Agritourism is appealing because it increases the family’s income from the farm, potentially reducing the need for off-farm jobs.

The U.S.D.A.’s census of agriculture, which is conducted every five years, estimated that 23,000 farms offered agritourism activities in 2007, bringing in an average of $24,300 each in additional income. The number of farms taking part fell from the previous census, in 2002, but at that time the average agritourism income per farm was just $7,200. Read more about Small U.S. Farms Find Profit in Tourism

Minnesota to host National Rural Assembly for first time | By Heather Thorstensen | May 18, 2011

ST. PAUL — This will be the first year the National Rural Assembly will be held someplace other than Washington, D.C., and it's coming to Minnesota.

Approximately 300 rural leaders and advocates from across the country will meet at the Crowne Plaza St. Paul-Riverfront Hotel June 28-30. They will discuss common concerns and how to work towards a better future for rural America.

"Instead of each little part of rural America speaking separately, we're trying to bring the voices together so we can make sure what's important for rural communities gets heard," said Tim Marema,vice president of the Center for Rural Strategies. Read more about Minnesota to host National Rural Assembly for first time

Rural broadband a ‘necessity'

Omaha World-Herald | By Ross Boettcher | May 19, 2011


C&C Meats in Diller, Neb., has nearly tripled its workforce since getting broadband Internet access in 2001. (Photo by RossBoettcher, World-Herald)

DILLER, Neb. — In this small town southwest of Beatrice, companies like C&C Meats are thriving on the trickle of broadband that connects them to the outside world.

Back in Washington, D.C., politicians have used C&C Meats as an example of the impact that barely adequate high-speed Internet can have on businesses in rural America.

The small Midlands towns once built on railroad tracks and paved highways now need a new kind of infrastructure to carry them through the 21st century and beyond.

Without adequate Internet speeds, small businesses will stagnate or crumble, as will rural economies, leaving residents with little choice but to move to larger cities and urban areas.

On Wednesday, Julius Genachowski, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, was among a delegation from Washington that visited C&C Meats and its owners, Chad and Courtney Lottmen.

Genachowski, who came to the state at the request of Rep. Lee Terry, is leading the movement to expand broadband access and overhaul the Universal Service Fund.

The fund, which is administered by the federal government, contains $8 billion that is used to provide reasonably priced telecommunications services to all U.S. citizens.

Currently, all telecommunications companies that provide service between states — including long-distance and local telephone companies, wireless telephone companies, paging companies and pay phone providers — are required to contribute to the fund, as are carriers that provide international services. Read more about Rural broadband a ‘necessity'

Ag boom misses small towns

 The Des Moines Register | By Adam Belz | May 14, 2011

Guthrie Center, Ia. - Fifteen miles northeast of Guthrie Center, a quarter of a square mile of farmland sold for $1.3 million this spring.

Near-record corn and soybean prices have driven the value of farmland to within striking distance of all-time highs. Landowners are suddenly millionaires, and farmers can lock in $6.30 a bushel for corn they will sell in December - almost double what they could get a year ago.

You wouldn't know it on Main Street.

Aside from some scattered bright spots, the biggest boom in farmland prices in 30 years has done little to reverse the gradual decline of small towns across Iowa. The same is true in agricultural communities across the country, according to scholars who track rural economies.

Ohio’s smallest town, Rendville, was ahead of its time in racial equality, fostering civil-rights and labor leaders

The Columbus Dispatch | By Mary Beth Lane | May 3, 2011

RENDVILLE, Ohio — It’s a tiny town with a big history.

Rendville, population 36 by the latest census count, is the smallest village in Ohio, but one with a rich legacy in the civil-rights and labor movements.

The quiet of Rendville’s block-long downtown in the hills of southeastern Perry County is broken only by the whistle of the coal trains that still travel alongside Rt. 13.

Village Council meetings don’t take long. Usually, it’s a matter of voting whether to fill this pothole or whack the weeds. Read more about Ohio’s smallest town, Rendville, was ahead of its time in racial equality, fostering civil-rights and labor leaders

Monsanto Will Soon Be Allowed To Police Itself

Fast Company | By Ariel Schwartz | April 25, 2011


Monsanto, enemy of organic farmers and anti-GMO advocates alike, will likely be allowed to conduct its own environmental studies as part of a two-year USDA experiment. But there is no good that can possibly come of an experiment where the company behind nearly every genetically modified crop in our daily diets is allowed to decide whether its products are causing any environmental harm. And Monsanto isn't the only biotech company that will be permitted to police itself. Read more about Monsanto Will Soon Be Allowed To Police Itself

High Prices Sow Seeds of Erosion

The New York Times | By William Neuman | April 12, 2011

Bill Hammitt on his farm near Portsmouth, Iowa, where he has terraced the land, refrained from tilling and taken other measures to curb soil erosion.

When prices for corn and soybeans surged last fall, Bill Hammitt, a farmer in the fertile hill country of western Iowa, began to see the bulldozers come out, clearing steep hillsides of trees and pastureland to make way for more acres of the state’s staple crops. Now, as spring planting begins, with the chance of drenching rains, Mr. Hammitt worries that such steep ground is at high risk for soil erosion — a farmland scourge that feels as distant to most Americans as tales of the Dust Bowl and Woody Guthrie ballads.

Long in decline, erosion is once again rearing as a threat because of an aggressive push to plant on more land, changing weather patterns and inadequate enforcement of protections, scientists and environmentalists say. Read more about High Prices Sow Seeds of Erosion

Regional trade centers catching much of farm prosperity wave

Lincoln Journal Star | By Art Hovey | April 19, 2011

A level of prosperity in agriculture not seen since the 1970s is being felt on main streets across the state, especially in communities the size of Norfolk, Scottsbluff and Kearney.

Set aside Papillion, on the outskirts of Omaha, and those three regional retail settings top the list of gainers in 2010 in net taxable sales reported to the Nebraska Department of Revenue by cities with more than 10,000 people.

Jason Henderson and Bruce Johnson see a definite connection to crop and livestock success.

"It's keeping things going," Johnson, an agricultural economist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said Monday. "It's cooking pretty well."

Henderson, an Omaha-based economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, made a similar point as he explained the spillover from a 17.6 percent gain in the value of agricultural land in the first quarter of 2011 and the strongest performance in two years for the region's agricultural banks.

The larger regional trade centers -- cities between smaller towns and the metropolitan settings of Omaha and Lincoln -- are "where the spending, the ripple effects go," he said.

The answer to the frequently asked question about gains on Wall Street transferring to Main Street, Nebraska, seems to have been mostly "no."

Meanwhile, Roger Townsend's answer about dollars transferring from the agricultural economy to his Kearney workforce is a resounding "yes." Read more about Regional trade centers catching much of farm prosperity wave

The Corn Belt Debate: Crops Or Cattle?

NPR, All Things Considered | By Clay Masters | April 12, 2011

The Department of Agriculture predicts cattle prices will rise 20 percent in 2011 over last year. But that pales in comparison to the price of corn, which has more than doubled in the past year to nearly $8 a bushel.

You might think this scenario would tempt plenty of farmers to flip their acres from cattle pasture to cropland. But it's a tough decision that depends on much more than recent prices.

Acres That 'Flex'

Some farmers use the term "flex acres" to describe land that can be used either to graze cattle or to grow crops like corn and soybeans.

Ed Morse has some land just like that outside Council Bluffs, Iowa.Wearing green coveralls and a tan hat, Morse stands outside his barn watching his 17-year-old son Noah drive a feed wagon down a row of cattle while the animals feast on corn and hay.

This 320-acre farm will see some changes soon. Despite the record-high corn prices, Morse is shifting some of his land out of corn and soybeans and into pasture.

"With the cattle you're more on your own," he says. "In some ways, it's an act of faith because you have got to look out into the future a couple years and see that this will be a paying proposition as well."

Morse is used to analyzing figures. He's also a law professor at nearby Creighton University in Omaha, Neb. Morse admits corn is tempting but says he'll stick to cows for now. Read more about The Corn Belt Debate: Crops Or Cattle?

U.S. Sees More Female Farmers Cropping Up | By Kathleen Masterson | March 30, 2011

The old farmer stereotype of a white guy in overalls has at least one truth to it: The majority of farmers in the U.S. are white males. Yet a growing number of women are joining their ranks.

Women now run about 14 percent of the nation's farms, up from only 5 percent in the 1980s. Most female-run farms tend to be smaller and more diverse, and many are part of the burgeoning organic and local foods movement.

Women have long been involved in agriculture, but even just a generation ago, it was harder for women to take leadership roles on the farm.

Kathleen Masterson/Harvest Public Media

Helen Gunderson sits with her chickens by their "summer home" coop in her garden. The eggs are for her personal use, but Gunderson is a farmer by trade, managing 180 acres of her own land in Rolfe, Iowa.

"Girls could grow up to be farmers' wives, but for a woman to actually consider herself to be farmer or grow up to be farmer, that wasn't in the script," says Helen Gunderson, who grew up in a farming family in northern Iowa. Now Gunderson lives in a one-story white ranch house in a quiet neighborhood in Ames, and she has turned her half-acre yard into a garden and chicken run.

Gunderson always wanted to be a farmer. She grew up in Rolfe, Iowa, where her family farmed large tracts of corn and soybeans. As a kid she resented that her brother, Charles, the only boy in the family, was trained to take over the family business.

"He was the one groomed to make decisions about farming. He had more significant farm projects. I had chickens; he had cattle. He had a 40-acre field project," says Gunderson. Read more about U.S. Sees More Female Farmers Cropping Up

Amber Waves to Ivory Bolls

The New York Times | By William Neuman | March 29, 2011

Matt Nager for The New York Times

A cotton field in Dumas, Tex. More Photos »

SPEARMAN, Tex. — Tight supplies of corn, soybeans and wheat have sent prices skyrocketing in the last year, prompting worries of a looming global food crisis.

In other years, American farmers have responded to high prices by devoting more land to staple food crops.

But this spring, many farmers in southern states will be planting cotton in ground where they used to grow corn, soybeans or wheat — spurred on by cotton prices that have soared as clothing makers clamor for more and poor harvests crimp supply.

The result is an acreage war between rival commodities used to feed and clothe the world’s population.

“There’s a lot more money to be made in cotton right now,” said Ramon Vela, a farmer here in the Texas Panhandle, as he stood in a field where he grew wheat last year, its stubble now plowed under to make way for cotton. Around the first week of May, Mr. Vela, 37, will plant 1,100 acres of cotton, up from 210 acres a year ago. “The prices are the big thing,” he said. “That’s the driving force.”

Economists, agricultural experts and government officials are predicting that many farmers, both in the United States and abroad, will join Mr. Vela this year in chasing the higher profits to be made in cotton — with consequences that could ripple across the globe. Read more about Amber Waves to Ivory Bolls

Once Rare in Rural America, Divorce Is Changing the Face of Its Families

The New York Times | By Sabrina Tavernise and Robert Gebeloff | March 23, 2011

SIOUX COUNTY, Iowa — In the 1970s, the divorce rate was so low in this rural northwest Iowa County that it resembled the rest of America in the 1910s. Most of its 28,000 residents were churchgoers, few of its women were in the work force, and divorce was simply not done.

So it is a bitter mark of modernity that even here, divorce has swept in, up nearly sevenfold since 1970, giving the county the unwelcome distinction of being a standout in this category of census data.

Divorce is still less common here than the national average, but its sharp jump illustrates a fundamental change in the patterns of family life.

Forty years ago, divorced people were more concentrated in cities and suburbs. But geographic distinctions have all but vanished, and now, for the first time, rural Americans are just as likely to be divorced as city dwellers, according to an analysis of census data by The New York Times. Read more about Once Rare in Rural America, Divorce Is Changing the Face of Its Families

Wiring the Oil Patch

The Bismarck Tribune | By Christopher Bjorke, Photo by TOM STROMME/Tribune Rapid  | March 26, 2011

 Western North Dakota’s economic growth is built on oil and gas, but the oil boom also runs on electricity.

While oil and gas companies are making big investments in the state’s oil patch, the region’s rural electric cooperatives have had to spend more and more on power lines and substations to keep up with the surging demand.

“Last year alone, we built more miles of line than we built from 2000 to 2007,” said Jason Brothen, general manager of the Burke-Divide Electric Cooperative, based in Columbus and serving the northwest corner of the state. “There’s just miles and miles being put up.”

The pace of development in the oil patch has made planning difficult as cooperatives scramble to accommodate new demand. Brothen’s cooperative predicts it will invest $15 million in improvements this year, $20 million next year and $25 million in 2012.

The Character of Rural America

Hoosier Ag Today | By Gary Truitt | March 11, 2011

There are lots of songs written about moving to the country. They usually talk about the clean air, the slow pace of life, the beauty of nature, and the friendly people. They over-romanticize the true reality of rural life. They also give the impression that everyone really wants to leave the city behind and get back to the land. The fact is, however, that is not what most people want to do. According to the latest census data, most people are doing just the opposite: moving to the city.

The 2010 census data shows that the overall population of Indiana increased, but it was only large urban areas that saw their population grow. Indianapolis and Ft. Wayne had the most increase. Several suburbs of Indianapolis more than doubled their population in the past decade. Contrast that with rural counties like Benton and Wabash that saw a decline in their population.  Read more about The Character of Rural America

Maine Town Passes Landmark Local Food Ordinance

Sedgwick becomes first town in Maine to adopt protections | March 8, 2011

SEDGWICK, MAINE – On Saturday, March 5, residents of a small coastal town in Maine voted unanimously to adopt the Local Food and Self-Governance Ordinance, setting a precedent for other towns looking to preserve small-scale farming and food processing. Sedgwick, located on the Blue Hill Peninsula in Western Hancock County, became the first town in Maine, and perhaps the nation, to exempt direct farm sales from state and federal licensing and inspection. The ordinance also exempts foods made in the home kitchen, similar to the Michigan Cottage Food Law passed last year, but without caps on gross sales or restrictions on types of exempt foods.

Local farmer Bob St.Peter noted the importance of this ordinance for beginning farmers and cottage producers. “This ordinance creates favorable conditions for beginning farmers and cottage-scale food processors to try out new products, and to make the most of each season’s bounty,” said St.Peter. “My family is already working on some ideas we can do from home to help pay the bills and get our farm going.”  Read more about Maine Town Passes Landmark Local Food Ordinance

New Rules for New Technology Long Awaited in Rural America

The New York Times: Editorial | February 23, 2011

The proposal from the Federal Communications Commission to stop subsidizing rural phone lines and start subsidizing rural broadband connections is long overdue. Right now an estimated 14 million to 28 million Americans have no way of getting access to the Internet.

The Universal Service Fund was established in the 1990s to provide subsidies to telecommunications companies to install lines and hook up phones in areas where there weren’t enough subscribers to guarantee them a profit. Last year, the fund spent about $8 billion to support rural phones and subsidize phones in poor neighborhoods, schools and libraries.

The fund has fulfilled its original mission, and it needs to meet new technological demands. Virtually all of the country’s rural areas now have access to land lines or cellphone coverage. The real deficit is access to high-speed broadband, which can also deliver phone service. Read more about New Rules for New Technology Long Awaited in Rural America

More public land could be opened to growers | By Brett Wilkison | February 16, 2011

Fields he leased for vegetables were sold off for vineyards and subdivisions. Competing for the next patch of open land, he'd see grape growers pay 10 times what he could manage as a farmer.

Salvation came in 2002, when Tierra Vegetables, the company James runs with his sister Lee and wife Evie, found 17 fertile acres off Airport Drive in Santa Rosa in which to sink roots.

Because the land is owned by the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, the farm has been able to make a go of it, paying lower rent than it would on the private market.

“It basically makes our business possible,” Lee James said.

A decision Tuesday by the Board of Supervisors could offer the same opportunity for other small farmers and provide free garden acreage for neighborhood projects.

Under a program endorsed by supervisors, more county land — including parts of parks, open space parcels and vacant lots in residential areas — would be opened to community gardeners and small commercial farmers.

Illinois Hospital Association report: Rural hospitals provide well-paying, stable jobs and boost local economy

The Quincy Herald-Whig | By Deborah Gertz Husar | February 19, 2011

Registered nurse Katie Couch prepares Tunney Smith for his chemotherapy treatment last week at Illini Hospital in Pittsfield. Illini and other rural hospitals do more than just provide healthcare. They provide stable jobs, which have an impact on the economy of the surrounding communities. (H-W Photo/Michael Kipley)

Rural hospitals do more than just provide health care.

They provide well-paying, stable jobs and stimulate the local economy with purchases of goods and services -- a multimillion-dollar impact in Hancock and Pike counties thanks to Memorial Hospital in Carthage and Illini Community Hospital in Pittsfield -- based on data from the Illinois Hospital Association.

"Memorial Hospital plays a vital role in supporting and strengthening the economy of our community and the state, which is even more important now during the current economic downturn," said Ada Bair, president and chief executive officer of Memorial Hospital. "By providing jobs for a wide range of health care workers and spurring more economic activity through our spending on goods, services and capital improvements, Memorial Hospital is a key cornerstone of the local and state economy."

Memorial employs 200 people, resulting in 130 additional jobs for the community, IHA data shows, and it generates a total annual impact of $22.78 million on the local economy. Read more about Illinois Hospital Association report: Rural hospitals provide well-paying, stable jobs and boost local economy

Tax breaks sought for rural newcomers

The Topeka-Capital Journal | By Tim Carpenter | Febraruary 15, 2011

Kansas residents who pulled up stakes to seek greener pastures elsewhere may soon draw upon two economic incentives to return to the state.

People moving back could be eligible for a state income tax exemption. The catch? Under a bill introduced in the Legislature, the recipient must have been gone for five years and commit to settling in one of 40 Kansas counties hit by steep population declines in the past decade.

The other drawing card is a proposed college loan repayment program. The idea is to attract former Kansans who graduated from an out-of-state college by flashing $15,000 in debt payments — if they live in a county included in the rural enterprise zone. Read more about Tax breaks sought for rural newcomers

Former Big Mac Addict Brings Fair Trade to Organic Farmers

Fast Company | By JENARA NERENBERG | February 16, 2011

Jason Freeman of Farmer Direct is a passionate agricultural innovator who is making big waves with a small group of humble Canadian family farmers.

Jason Freeman

Jason Freeman's organic farmer's coop, Farmer Direct, is a tiny Canadian 63-member group, but that hasn't stopped him from doing big things. Together with Equal Exchangeand others, he helped cofound North America's leading Fair Trade group, the Domestic Fair Trade Association, and now Farmer Direct is gearing up to launch one of the first farmer-owned, certified organic, Fair Trade, non-genetically modified product lines in North America.

Freeman, 41, is a self-proclaimed "city boy" from Vancouver who initially took an interest in organic farming after realizing that his McDonald's eating habits were making him sick. He adopted a completely organic lifestyle at age 25 and has been involved with farmers and farmers' groups ever since.

Fair Trade is a term often associated with developing countries, but it has its place in Canada as well. What it means is that "all laborers are being paid fairly, with safe working conditions, and they have access to collective bargaining," Freeman tells Fast Company. Read more about Former Big Mac Addict Brings Fair Trade to Organic Farmers

FCC proposes modernizing funding mechanism to bring broadband to rural America

BroadcastingEngineering | By Phil Kurz | February 9, 2011

The FCC launched a rulemaking proceeding Feb. 8 aimed at revising its long-standing Universal Service Fund (USF) with the goal of expanding the nation’s wireless and wired broadband Internet network to rural America.

The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking and Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking seek to transform universal service and intercarrier compensation policies and programs to provide funding to make broadband service available and affordable in remote, rural areas and tribal lands.

The USF, established under the Telecommunications Act of 1996, has, among other things, helped to connect rural America to telephone service. However, according to the FCC, elements of the fund have become inefficient and wasteful. Read more about FCC proposes modernizing funding mechanism to bring broadband to rural America

Chester grocer sees benefits of new health care law | By Ledyard King | February 10, 2010

WASHINGTON — Last spring, the health insurer grocer Mike Novak of Chester used went under. He then contemplated something many small-business owners dread: asking workers to start paying a portion of their premiums, raise the medical deductibles or drop coverage altogether.

"Our options were going to be devastating to us," he said.

That was around the time Congress passed a sweeping health care law designed to control spiraling costs and help businesses provide or keep coverage for their workers. The law provides tax breaks to small businesses under certain conditions, and Novak, owner of Mike's Thriftway, was able to use what he calculates as a windfall of between $5,000 and $10,000 to not only keep his approximately 25 workers insured, but to find a better plan for them. Read more about Chester grocer sees benefits of new health care law

Helping Veterans Trade Their Swords for Plows

The New York Times | By Patricia Leigh Brown | February 5, 2011

VALLEY CENTER, Calif. — On an organic farm here in avocado country, a group of young Marines, veterans and Army reservists listened intently to an old hand from the front lines.

“Think of it in military terms,” he told the young recruits, some just back from Iraq or Afghanistan. “It’s a matter of survival, an uphill battle. You have to think everything is against you and hope to stay alive.”

The battle in question was not the typical ground assault, but organic farming — how to identify beneficial insects, for instance, or to prevent stray frogs from clogging an irrigation system. It was Day 2 of a novel boot camp for veterans and active-duty military personnel, including Marines from nearby Camp Pendleton, who might be interested in new careers as farmers.

“In the military, grunts are the guys who get dirty, do the work and are generally underappreciated,” said Colin Archipley, a decorated Marine Corps infantry sergeant turned organic farmer, who developed the program with his wife, Karen, after his three tours in Iraq. “I think farmers are the same.” Read more about Helping Veterans Trade Their Swords for Plows


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