We breathed fire and ran on unrefined youthful energy. It was 1973.
We knew that if we wanted federal policy to work for rural Americans, we had to raise our voice. So, we opened shop in an old storefront in rural Nebraska and put nose-to-grindstone. We grew a rural grassroots community. We spoke up about corporate wrongs against family farmers. We took rural voices to Washington.
We believed we would succeed. It was hard work, but our passion kept us standing strong for rural Americans.
The Center for Rural Affairs was founded in 1973 by rural Nebraskans concerned about the loss of economic opportunity in agriculture and the decline of rural communities. From a base in northeast Nebraska, the Center has built a broad program to address the problems of rural people.
The Center’s enduring history of innovative, insightful and effective work for rural America provides a solid foundation. On that foundation, with your support, the Center continues to give voice to your concerns. Major efforts to expand services for small businesses, serve beginning farmers and ranchers, develop vibrant small towns, and win policy change that supports our collective values are underway today.
One of our first projects reported on the growth of large-scale hog factories, the public policies that favored them, and the threat they posed to family farms. Who Will Sit Up With the Corporate Sow? demonstrated the Center’s prophetic vision as it predicted the onerous impacts consolidation and vertical integration would have on family farms.
Wheels of Fortune, a 1975 report on the impact of new irrigation technology on land ownership and use in Nebraska, anticipated the major controversies that have developed over land and water use, absentee ownership, and exploitative irrigation development of the Great Plains.
In 1976, our Small Farm Energy Project launched pioneering on-farm research on renewable energy production and energy-saving techniques for small farms. That was followed by work to help small farms explore innovative farming practices to conserve water, cut costs and build soil health – work that helped lead the way for the sustainable agriculture movement.
In 1979, we established the Small Farm Advocacy Project, laying the foundation for decades of national family farm advocacy. In the 1980s, we succeeded in expanding federal low-interest loans for beginning farmers and cutting federal tax shelters that subsidized mega farms. Today, the Center is the nation’s leading voice for capping excessive federal subsidies to mega farms that help them bid land away from beginners and drive family farms off the land.
We played a pivotal role in 1982 in a coalition of farm and religious groups to pass Initiative 300 by a vote of Nebraskans to restrict corporate farming and protect family farms and ranches. Regrettably, I-300 was overturned by a federal judge in 2006.
In 1987, organizational changes were initiated that decentralized both management and program responsibilities. Project work became structured into two programs, each with its own leader, while a more participatory management system was implemented. The board of directors became more active in planning and evaluation. Our program structure has continued to evolve. Four programs now carry out the work of the Center for Rural Affairs.
We helped form the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition in 1988, now the leading voice for sustainable agriculture policy in Washington, DC. In the early 1990s, we were the lead founder of the National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture. Our historic efforts in creating these organizations were pivotal in establishing a voice for grassroots conservation and sustainable agriculture advocates in federal policy debates.
In 1990, we launched our small business program, then known as the Rural Enterprise Assistance Project (REAP), to provide loans, training and business planning assistance to rural microenterprises–businesses with up to 10 employees. In 2001, we added a Women’s Business Center, and in 2004, a Latino Business Center. We drew on experiences with REAP to win the new federal Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program in the 2006 farm bill. That program is now helping small businesses across all of rural America, and to date has invested over $50 million in rural small business development across 42 states.
Also in 1990, the Center pioneered Land Link, the first agricultural linking program in the nation. Our goal was to transfer farms from retiring conservation-minded farmers and ranchers to like-minded beginners. Land Link has since been replicated in 20 states and in Japan and Australia. More recently, we evolved our approach to seek estate gifts of land to be received by the Center’s Granary Foundation and rent or sell to beginning farmers or ranchers.
Staff began “doing its homework” on global warming and published Mares Tails and Mackerel Scales in 1992. This report outlined the likely effects of climate change on agriculture, quantified agriculture’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and presented viable strategies to reduce warming, protect farm income, and enhance food system resilience to climate change. We continue to be a voice within agriculture for addressing climate change.
To ensure our own long-term sustainability, we took two critical steps in 1996. We established an endowment, and we completed the process begun in 1987 by Marty Strange to reduce the Center’s reliance on its founders. Marty resigned as program director. Chuck Hassebrook, a 30-year veteran of the Center, was named as his replacement. Longtime administrative director and co-founder Don Ralston retired from the Center in 2001, and Chuck Hassebrook became executive director.
Our research focused national attention on the growth of rural poverty in the Great Plains in 1999 with publication of Trampled Dreams: The Neglected Economy of the Rural Great Plains. In 2003 a major update, Swept Away: Chronic Hardship and Fresh Promise on the Great Plains pushed rural development reform onto the public policy agenda.
The 2002 farm bill contained many of our proposals for enhanced conservation, assistance for value-added agriculture, and help for beginning farmers and ranchers, including a pioneering green payment program, the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Value Added Producer Grant Program. More than 70 million acres are now enrolled in the Conservation Stewardship program nationwide.
In 2004, the 30th anniversary of our founding, the Center moved from Walthill to a new modest headquarters in the small farming community of Lyons, Nebraska. We invested in an accessible, state-of-art, brand new building on Main Street. To us, the new building and our program speak volumes about our history and our future. We live and work in rural America, and we are here for the long haul.
Around that time, Iowa State University contacted us about setting up a section on the Center for Rural Affairs in their library archives. They, and we, wanted to see that the Center’s unique history was preserved for others to learn from. Center administrative staff continues to work to keep the archives up-to-date.
Since then we have produced and disseminated research on federal underinvestment in rural development in the most demographically challenged communities, rural socio-economic trends, proven rural development strategies, and the corporate takeover of many aspects of the rural economy. We have also produced reports on health care disparities in rural America and on the connections between health care reform and rural development.
In 2008, we collaborated with others to develop new entrepreneurially-based rural development policy and support for beginning farmers and ranchers and were a leading voice in favor of farm program reform. We began a project to help farmers learn more about carbon management in 2002. And we stepped up efforts to help family farmers build new cooperatives to reach high value markets.
In 2009, the Center joined the health care debate and quickly became the nation’s leading rural voice for reform. We stepped up to address this difficult issue because skyrocketing health insurance premiums were swelling the ranks of the rural uninsured and undermining rural entrepreneurship. We engaged rural Americans in the debate over the Affordable Care Act, helped win provisions to address the unique concerns of rural health providers, and lent support to passage of this historic legislation.
In 2010, we also advocated for a federal Renewable Electricity Standard of 20 percent. Our focus has now turned to advocating for improved transmission, the renewable energy infrastructure that will connect wind-rich areas with more distant regions with high energy demand. We continue to sponsor a popular Farm Bill Helpline that helps connect farmers and ranchers to sustainable agriculture, organic, and beginning farmer and rancher programs.
The Center stepped up lending and technical assistance to rural microbusinesses in 2010 and 2011 in the wake of the financial crisis.
In 2010, the Center helped students in Cody, Nebraska (population 156), launch their effort to establish a grocery store in their hometown. Today, the store is a thriving student-operated business. In addition, the Center has worked to introduce local healthy foods to school lunch programs and serves as the Midwest regional leader of the National Farm to School Network.
Rural America has become more diverse, with recent immigration from foreign lands. Our new residents can be left to live in the shadows, or they can be invited to become full participants in building strong and thriving communities. Since 2013, the Center has worked with several communities to bring together long-time residents and recent immigrants to lead and revitalize their communities and help new immigrants launch small businesses.
In 2013, Brian Depew became the third generation of leadership at the Center when Chuck Hassebrook moved on to pursue elected office. With a strong board and strong staff, the Center’s work moved forward without missing a beat.
By Don Ralston and Marty Strange
The forces that led to the organization of the Center
In 1973, we were employed by the Goldenrod Hills Community Action Agency, a Nebraska nonprofit corporation that was federally funded to eliminate poverty in five Northeast Nebraska counties. Don was Deputy Director, Marty was a planner.
As part of a planning process involving citizen participation, Goldenrod Hills launched an agricultural redevelopment program aimed at stimulating alternative crop production (onions were a prime example) and conceiving alternative food system approaches, including a small-scale home canning center in Winnebago.
Advocacy efforts around agricultural issues were minimal. Our initial staff included Laura Snake (later using her maiden name Whitewing), a Winnebago; Everett Kilzer, a long-time Walthill citizen with deep roots in the local economic system; and Lynn Spivak, who had been a VISTA volunteer with Goldenrod Hills.
In January that year, newly re-elected President Richard Nixon decided to eliminate the federal anti-poverty programs that were the central funding source for Goldenrod Hills, and he appointed an angry conservative named Howard Phillips to shut down the federal agency that distributed the funding. Phillips issued a lengthy instruction detailing how to close out operations.
The local response was remarkable. The Goldenrod Hills board, with people like Art May, a community developer from Macy; Allen Heine, a prominent farmer/feeder from St. Helena; and Howard Swanson, a farm equipment dealer from Decatur, was defiant. Too bad the federal government doesn’t think there is a need for anti-poverty programs – we do.
And we are not a federal agency. They can’t tell us to shut down. The staff was commissioned to build a survival strategy. Anticipating more “shut down now” memos from Howie Phillips and wanting to reflect the board’s defiance, Don bought a rubber stamp to record receipt of each instruction. It read: “BULLSHIT.” We were off.
We were commissioned by Larry Lassek, the Goldenrod Hills executive director, to develop a plan by which the service programs of Goldenrod Hills and the advocacy and development efforts might both be preserved, perhaps under separate entities with differing funding strategies.
May, Heine, and Swanson ultimately became the incorporators of the Center for Rural Affairs, the advocacy and development strategy. It was designed to address controversial questions of economic policy affecting the agricultural base of Northeast Nebraska and to generate creative approaches to economic development. It would be largely privately funded.
But for starters, Goldenrod Hills would subcontract with the Center to conduct its own internal planning program and board of directors training. The Center owes a lot to its association with Goldenrod Hills – appreciation for the importance of an active, committed board of directors and the value of running a nonprofit organization (especially one dealing with controversy) in an accountable and businesslike manner, for example. By fall, we were in business as a separate entity.
Mr. Nixon, meantime, had come on political and legal hard times of his own making. Within a year, he was disgraced and out of office, and Goldenrod Hill and its subcontractor, the Center for Rural Affairs, were bigger, stronger, and better than before. The bullshit had made great fertilizer.
How the Center was named
Early in this period, we made a scouting trip to the East Coast to take stock of funding opportunities, largely in the private sector. We were right off the turnip truck, without so much as a name for the new organization we were raising money for. In Washington D.C. it became clear we needed at least a working name.
So we talked about it on the train between Washington and New York. We wanted to keep it simple. The name had to be versatile, something generic that would keep options open about how to define the program, that would accommodate an evolving mission. And it had to sound durable, not flash in the pan.
“Center” was in vogue and had an activist ring. “Rural” was a no-brainer. And “Affairs” seemed to make it clear that we wanted to deal in issues, using mutual action for the common good. “Center for Rural Affairs” would do for now – positive, activist, rural, but suitably nondescript and unlimiting. The Center’s image would be earned by its actions, not by its name.
How the board was recruited
In early 1973 we began assembling a list of people to interview for possible board membership in addition to Heine, May, and Swanson. Our own contacts in rural Nebraska were limited, so we relied heavily on advice from these three and from a handful of associates we knew from our work in Nebraska’s anti-poverty programs. We were looking for people who were interested in rural Nebraska, had integrity and a good reputation, and “cared more about their integrity than their reputation.”
Some names came to us quickly because they were well-known in Northeast Nebraska as people who cared deeply about rural communities and agriculture – Vince Rossiter, a Hartington banker; Pat Rogers, the young Cedar County Attorney; Bert Evans, the famous iconoclastic UNL economist and cattle breeder from Crofton; and Bob Steffen, a Cedar County native who managed Boys’ Town’s farm and was perhaps Nebraska’s best known environmental activist and organic farmer.
We wanted to include the diversity of rural Nebraska, so we sought out women and minorities, adding Neola Walker, a member of the Winnebago Tribal Council and Miriam Ramirez, a Hispanic community activist from Grand Island whom Don knew from his work there as a VISTA volunteer.
And because the early recruits were predominantly Roman Catholic, we sought out people with strong involvement in other denominations – Ken Mesner, a farmer and long-time Quaker activist in the peace movement, and Ed Schlachtenhaufen, a young Lutheran minister who had just been hired to run a Luther rural ministries program established by three Lutheran bodies (ALC, LCA, and Missouri Synod).
It was important that although some of these people knew each other, mainly by reputation, this was not a chummy group. Most of these people were introduced to each other for the first time when our board first met at the first annual meeting in December 1973.
The role of the board in program development
It is remarkable that very few turned us down when we asked if they would serve. The early board was composed of people who were not “control” conscious, but idea people and hands-on doers. They wanted to be part of things, and a lot of our early program development was heavily influenced by board members.
Ed Schlachtenhaufen, who was a trained forester as well as a minister, consulted with us on development of a Timber Development program for the Winnebago Tribe, and helped raised start-up funds from a Lutheran economic development fund. This launched a number of projects through which we worked with the Tribe to develop a better understanding of the natural resource base and potential of its lands.
Bert Evans sharpened our economic critique of agriculture, Vince Rossiter chaired an early research committee report on the structure of the banking industry (Where Have All the Bankers Gone?) and authored the introduction, giving the report a tremendous boost in credibility. Allen Heine, Ken Mesner, and Bob Warrick, all irrigators, helped us analyze the data we developed on the growth and impact of center pivot irrigation (Wheels of Fortune).
Pat Rogers previewed our most controversial publications with an eye for any statements that might get us in legal trouble, and most important, he authored a legal opinion arguing that legislation restricting corporate farming did not violate the equal protection clause of the constitution, an argument that is indistinguishable from that later expressed by numerous courts.
The second generation of board members added in the late 1970s included some of the Center’s strongest leaders: Paul Olson, Fern Norris, Clark Nichols, David Hansen, all of whom became President, leading the Center through successive stages of organizational development – a more active board, a more sophisticated management system, a change in staff leadership, an endowment.
In many ways, the Board was clearly out front of the staff in organizational development, too. It was the board, under the leadership of Connie Bowen, Fern Norris, and Paul Olson, who made us beef up the fringe benefit package, first with health insurance, later with a retirement plan.
All of these early board members contributed time and money to the cause, and most important, they took seriously the need to stand firm in the face of criticism. No pressure brought to bear on the Center in these early years – and there was plenty – ever made the board flinch.
The origins of the corporate farming issue
Northern Cedar County was vintage family farm country and heavily Catholic, so when the Omaha Archdiocese held a Rural Action Day in the winter of 1973 to define community improvement strategies for the deanery, we headed to Hartington to see and hear what was on people’s minds. In one small group session, talk turned to the issue of corporate farming and to the fact that there was a legislative proposal to restrict it.
The group decided to form a Rural Action Group to study this bill and to promote effective legislation. A reluctant, thoughtful farmer, who had arrived late, Francis Wortmann, was pressed into service as chair. Over the next months, Francis proved to be just the right mixture of decisiveness and deliberation necessary to keep a torrent of local activists channeled constructively.
With the energetic support of Sr. Loretta Ruskamp, a local parochial school teacher, Francis did the yeoman’s work of leading without dominating. With our research help, this local group studied proposed language, organized wider support, and sponsored large public meetings to talk openly about specific approaches to key legislative issues, such as how to define the “family farm.”
They used their local clout to press a reluctant (but prominent) local Senator into sponsoring a weak bill, but also pressed more eager Senators into introducing stronger bills. They generated statewide contacts, organized “rural action days” in which busloads of rural people traveled to Lincoln for public hearings. In church basements and old opera houses throughout Northeast Nebraska, they authored the legislation that would become Article XII, Section 8 of the Nebraska Constitution.
Funding the hard-to-fund advocacy efforts
That Rural Action Day was facilitated by Sr. Norita Cooney, the Archdiocesan Director of Pastoral Development, who proved to be one of the Center’s most valuable early friends. At the end of the day, as she watched us work with the small group focused on the corporate farming issue, she pulled us aside and asked us where our funding came from. When we told her we were launching something new, she told us to apply for a grant from the Campaign for Human Development (CHD), a Catholic social-action fund.
The local diocesan fund could only make small grants, but the national fund could do more. She was the local administrator. This proved to be our first private funding for the basic work of the Center, and this relationship with CHD lasted six years. The stalwart support of Sr. Norita and of Archbishop Daniel Sheehan, who withstood organized Catholic agribusiness opposition to funding the Center, was absolutely essential to the Center’s survival.
Funding the advocacy (or “policy” or “organizing” or “action”) work has always been the Center’s biggest financial problem. The CHD grant for our advocacy work provided this “activist” side of our house with credibility among private funders, and by 1978 we were attracting small private foundations used to taking risks with start up organizations.
Most of the early foundation grants (from the Stern Family Fund and the Shalan Foundation) were for our rawest activism. Much of this funding was marshaled to support a new project which we built around the talents of two “walk-on” players who simply presented themselves to the Center looking for a chance to make a contribution – Chuck Hassebrook and Gene Severens. Chuck was a university student with political savvy, Gene a young lawyer with years of volunteer and teaching experience in Asia.
The Small Farm Advocacy Project was designed to ferret out issues surrounding tax and credit policy and to engage rural people in a battle for policies that served public values as well as private interests. This project became the hallmark, along with the corporate farming battle, of the Center’s growing reputation as a national leader on agricultural policy issues with a grassroots and populist perspective.
But a lot of the earliest energy came in the form of VISTA volunteers, at first assigned to us by Goldenrod Hills CAC, then directly funded from the federal ACTION Agency that administered VISTA and some associated volunteer programs. It is impossible to overestimate the impact that this source of talent had on the Center’s development.
Those who came to us through this path in the early years included Chuck Hassebrook, Dennis Demmel, Judy Dye, Drey Samuelson, Tyler Sutton, Annette Higby, Paul and Jeanette Spivak, and others. They researched, wrote, organized, analyzed, designed (the logo, among other things), built, developed (the Small Farm Energy Project, among other things), and most of all, served.
A sense of place
The Center’s origins were very local, and for many years, even after the formal separation from Goldenrod Hills and the termination of the planning contract, we maintained a local program aimed at natural resource development. The most ambitious effort was the Winnebago Timberlands Project and a series of studies we undertook to evaluate alternative agricultural strategies for the Winnebago Tribe.
But we also raised funds for and installed a home canning center in Winnebago and in response to the oil embargo and energy crisis, launched an investigation into how local farmers might respond by restructuring their farms into energy producers through the use of conservation and appropriate alternative energy technologies.
For the latter effort, we had the benefit of a lasting relationship with Roger Blobaum, a Creston, Iowa, consultant who had helped us think through the data for Who Will Sit Up With the Corporate Sow? (see below). Roger was a great organizer, an energetic promoter, and a real articulator and communicator who helped us get together an effective program to demonstrate the cost-effectiveness of alternative energy on small, commercial farms.
The Small Farm Energy Project was based in Cedar and Knox counties where our strong board presence (Heine, Rossiter, and Rogers) were huge factors in gaining instant credibility for the effort. It is remarkable how, on so many fronts, these early board members were willing to take risks for the sake of ideas and unproven strategies.
The project was launched with a competitive federal grant from the Community Services Administration and staffed by Dennis Demmel, a young engineer, and Ron Krupicka, fresh out of a UNL masters’ program. They were not energy experts, but both were Northeast Nebraska farm kids. Our reasoning: you can hire or acquire technical expertise, but this project has to have people in charge who understand the decision-making calculus of people who must survive on the land. It was the best decision we ever made.
Demmel and Krupicka, with Blobaum, proved to be an incredibly effective team, balancing strengths, tirelessly enthusiastic, careful listeners, wonderfully analytical, flexible, and innovative. They not only made the technology work, but they got the data to prove it, and they wove dozens of small successes into a tapestry of grand sweep.
Their little storefront office in Hartington became a national laboratory for the emerging sustainable agriculture movement, many of whose most enduring principles were demonstrated and defined by this heroic little project.
The Small Farm Energy Project established the “practical” side of our house and provided a base for other federal grants, including a research and development project focused on the infrastructure needs of small communities in the Upper Midwest and a multi-year study of the electrical energy pricing policies of Nebraska and neighboring states.
This “practical,” bread-and-butter side of our program has become far and away the biggest part of the organization and has always served well as a source of and proving ground for policy issues (on the other side of our house).
As our program became more complex, so did our internal management systems and accounting. The establishment of an indirect cost allocation system (first used in the Small Farm Energy Project) was an important development in the financial base of the Center.
Though some of these programs began to take on a regional character, most of the earliest efforts were richly local in character and deeply rooted in the diverse communities of Northeast Nebraska. Knowing where it came from was one of the real achievements of the Center’s early life, reflected in the proud notation on our letterhead that our address was Walthill, Nebraska, “Population 900.”
Among the most delightful aspects of these early days were the annual meetings. Most during this period were in December or January, some of them in the midst of legendary blizzards and cold spells. One year we built the meeting around “round table” discussions in which we recruited people to participate in a topic on the basis of their potential contribution. There were no presentations and no advertised “panelists.”
Dozens of people who came had been recruited to make a specific contribution to a specific topic, but not asked to “speak.” We used every church and public building in Walthill to host simultaneous topic discussions, and when we gathered for the Populist Cocktail Hour (beer and cheese), then supper and square dance, we filled the American Legion Hall to overflowing with 400 people, eating in shifts amidst a din of happy talk.
It was 20 below zero that night and blowing snow, but we ate and square danced, the crowd only gradually diminishing as each successive group furthest from home had to leave. In these annual meetings meals were potluck, though we might provide the meat, and there were skits, poetry, song, and some talk, and a joy that only common cause and goodwill can generate.
We wanted to establish a short, simple, frequent communication vehicle that would have a feisty edge in its voice. A four-page monthly newsletter, the first two pages of short, pithy items with lots of information and insight, the last two devoted to a single, substantive analysis, critique, or feature. No authorship credit, to reflect the organizational nature of the message. Free, to make growth in readership quick and easy.
This was a cultivation and recruitment tool, not a moneymaker. But to avoid the notion that it wasn’t worth anything and to establish our identity as an organization that people needed to support with money if they valued its work, we began immediately to solicit free-will donations and to require regular “updating” of reader interest. You had to return a coupon every year to stay on the list – and the coupon was a convenient donation form, too. We kept records of each donation from the beginning.
Within a few years we were also publishing a tabloid journal called the New Land Review (later, the Prairie Sentinel) featuring in-depth articles on a wide variety of topics. At one time, we were publishing four periodicals simultaneously (Small Farm Advocate, Small Farm Energy Newsletter, Prairie Sentinel, and the monthly newsletter) and lots of special reports. We had almost become a publishing house without a marketing strategy, and these publications could not be sustained. The decision to discontinue the Prairie Sentinel in the early 1980s was a big and a difficult decision.
The investigative research style
Perhaps because we really didn’t know much about agriculture or agricultural policy, a lot of early effort went into “research” or investigative reporting. The first project was an attempt to define the corporate farming issue by doing a 13-county land tenure study in Northeast Nebraska.
We learned how to use public records in the courthouse, how to trace land ownership history, how to get information from the county level federal farm program offices, and how to use Secretary of State records. The report was published informally on legal-sized paper, stapled in the corner. Its findings were unimpressive, and it got almost no notice. But it had taught us the disciplines of fact finding and much about how to get the information you want.
Next, we dispatched Lynn Spivak, a former VISTA volunteer with no background in agriculture, to find out about vertical integration in the pork industry. We were looking for evidence of forward contracting arrangements or other semblances of the heavily industrialized poultry industry.
She came back with a tale about sow leasing by feed companies and the advent of large-scale confinement technology and with details about the complex cooperatives farmers were organizing and how the tax laws and the technology itself (largely developed at publicly-funded universities) were encouraging the rapid transformation of these farmer-owned cooperatives into closely held, investor-owned corporations that would eventually prove that you don’t need farmers to raise hogs. We were stunned by the data she had gathered on 43 operations in Nebraska. It named names, gave the numbers.
None of us really knew what it meant, so we traveled to the University of Missouri to visit with V. James Rhodes, a leading researcher in livestock policy and markets, and to Creston, Iowa, to get Blobaum’s insights into how to tell the story. The result was Who Will Sit Up With the Corporate Sow? (1974), perhaps the most prescient piece of work the Center has ever done.
You can read that report almost 30 years later and marvel at the accuracy of its predictions. It earned us our first lawsuit threat (Walnut Grove didn’t like what we said about their sow leasing program), our first headlines, and our first notice in the agricultural research establishment. The report was formally published by us with a heavy stock cover, although the cover was hand drawn. Not even the title was typeset – Spivak hand wrote it. It looked amateur then. It looks fashionable today.
The growth of confinement hog feeding in Nebraska was accommodated by the movement of the Corn Belt west by the growth of new irrigation technologies exploiting the Ogalalla aquifer. Capital intensive center pivot irrigation systems were opening up new lands to irrigation, imposing environmental risks, and creating opportunities for investors and wheeler-dealers to create the first very large-scale crop farms.
We used our land-tenure research skills to find out who was doing what on what kinds of soils in a handful of the counties most impacted by these developments. Wheels of Fortune (1975) told that story, naming names, substantiating the facts, creating a big stir, prompting more lawsuit threats, and boosting the effort to restrict corporate farming.
This report drew attention from the Washington Post and the New York Times, but its impact might best be measured by the rueful description given it in the newsletter of the Nebraska Society of Professional Farm Managers and Appraisers: “It appears,” the newsletter reluctantly reported, “to have been professionally done.”
Following was a report on the structure of the banking industry in Nebraska, with a detailed analysis of ownership and control arrangements, using creative data sources such as FDIC disclosure reports showing which banks had large blocks of stock mortgaged to another bank (Where Have All the Bankers Gone?, 1978).
With these research reports, especially Wheels of Fortune, the bullying grew. Custom farm manager Glenn Williams wanted to know “who your superior is in Washington,” and threatened to “put us out of business in six months.” Senator Walter George of Blair told the newspapers we must be “commingling” federal money with private money for political purposes.
Senator Loran Schmit made frequent public attacks, accusing us of wanting every farmer to farm with “a sow, a cow, and a walking plow,” and Senator John DeCamp set up a public forum in Neligh richly populated by irrigation developers roughly resembling a lynch mob.
The Skinner Macaroni firm in Omaha threatened to organize Catholic businessmen to withhold donations from the Catholic Church in retaliation for the CHD grants. Angry bankers sent the FBI to find out how in the world we found out from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation which principal bank shareholders had mortgaged their stock to another bank.
We weathered all this, one way or another. The things we had said about Williams’ operation were true, and he had problems of his own with the truth, as clients in his custom farm management service found him converting their assets. Last we heard, he was on the lam avoiding federal agents.
We told Sen. George publicly to come to Walthill with his accountants to examine our financial records, provided he release the results to the public. He stayed away and shut up. When a group of irrigators and farm managers came to disrupt our annual meeting in Neligh, Bert Evans and Allen Heine took them on, backed them down, and sent them packing.
Macroni’s threats proved only to solidify the Archdiocesan support for our CHD grants, and the FBI investigation ended when Don handed the agent a copy of the letter by which we had simply requested the data from FDIC (data we were entitled to have).
The battles with Schmit and DeCamp were longer. We organized support for corporate farming in their districts, giving them fires in their own backyard to worry about. Schmit, the more adaptive of the two and Chair of the Agriculture Committee, agreed to come speak to the Rural Action Group, and we picked him up at the Norfolk airport and drove him to Randolph for the meeting.
On the way, we listened to Richard Nixon’s resignation speech. Our respective reactions to this speech proved a metaphor for our respective fates. Schmit was livid that Nixon was disgraced, while we rejoiced. Schmit’s stubborn resistance to corporate farming restrictions eventually proved his undoing at home in his own district, while our perseverance on the issue paid off, and our influence grew.
A culture of commitment
It is difficult to appreciate the bare-bones nature of the Center in its earliest days. We were housed in one room of the old bank building that was home to Goldenrod Hills Community Action Council. When we separated formally from the CAP, we moved into the old post office two doors down, and our budget that first year of independence was about $65,000. We shared that space with the Thurston County food stamp office, separated from each other by portable cubicle partitions.
Over the next five years we grew slowly until they moved out, but throughout this period the Center’s working space had the character of an old-fashioned news room – crowded, cluttered, noisy, ugly. We shared two phone lines on three telephones, one of which was for the receptionist and the other two of which were placed on small tables between desks.
We built a dark room for developing photos for the New Land Review in the bathroom, a closet arrangement that measured less than 4x6 feet. A noisy off-set press cranked out news releases and action alerts against the back wall.
A skylight let in glorious sun, but also leaked miserably when it rained, as did the roof generally. We’d put out buckets and coffee cans, emptying and putting them away when the rain stopped. The number of buckets grew, however, and it got bad enough that we finally just left them in place as we needed too many to justify the time it took to deploy and restore them each time it rained.
In the summer, we welcomed the rain because it cooled things off in the air-condition-free office. We got our first air conditioner, a mammoth window unit that ran on 110 volts and generated about 4,000 BTU in 1978. You could not hear the phone ring when it was on. It might have lowered the temperature 2 degrees, but that is doubtful. Later we got a 220 unit, but had to wait for a 220 line to be installed to use it.
Our receptionist-secretary had an electric typewriter with several interchangeable font balls, but the rest of us used antique manuals, one of which was stored on a rolling cart that we ferried from desk to desk depending on who needed it most – or whined most. We had access to a photocopy machine at the CAP, and we stacked items to be copied in a box so that once or twice a day they could be hauled down the street to copy.
Our supply storage was the old post office vault until we got a local carpenter to build some shelves out of plywood. Everything was make-do. We wrote checks by hand on a check-writing system that used carbon paper to keep dual-entry accounting books. We invented as we went.
A couple of VISTA volunteers doodled around until they crafted the logo. When an itinerant sign painter came to town to paint a sign for Don Sampson’s insurance agency, we beckoned him across the street to paint one for us, and on the spot he designed the cursive name wrapped around the logo that became the Center’s trademark.
The clock meant nothing to us. We started early, worked late, came and went as we saw fit, and washed down each day’s events with beer at Brown’s Derby (later named the French Quarters, and now the Horseshoe Lounge).
All of this constituted a culture of shared commitment, but it should not be mistaken for a culture of sacrifice. There was no feeling of deprivation or hardship. We were hungry for the action, and the Center invariably attracted VISTA volunteers, employees, and hang-arounds who were there for the cause.
As the Center matured and took on necessary institutional characteristics, more professional staff, people with families and other responsibilities, and people who expected to stay for more than awhile, the notion of sharing and commitment remained, but the reality of the sacrifice became more apparent, and the need to allocate the suffering equitably became a big part of managing the Center’s limited resources.
The board was more sensitive to these needs than the staff, in some respects. It was the board, under Connie Bowen and Paul Olson’s persistent leadership, who forced on the staff an enlarged fringe benefits package that included health care insurance and a pension plan. That was not until about 1982. For the first seven or eight years we breathed fire and ran on unrefined youthful energy and an absolute ignorance of the things that everyone knows can never be accomplished.
“The old keep getting older, but the young must do the same,” says the songwriter, and the first sign that the Center was getting to adulthood was the decision in 1980 to buy the old Metz Hotel down Main Street from the post office building we rented. Like many small town buildings, it had served many masters, housing a hotel, café, liquor store and bar, grocery store, and gift shop (more like a “head shop” actually) at various times over 70 years.
It was structurally sound but badly in need of remodeling, which we did for the most part ourselves, as volunteers, with the able leadership of Tom Graff, then editor of our publications and a real handyman. It was 105° the July day we tore out the front wall with its high glass heat-sink windows and porous front door and replaced it with a well-insulated wall and energy-efficient windows.
When we climbed up to re-paint the golden colored ceiling tins we discovered they were painted silver, not gold, and that the uniform gold color came from 70 years of grease from the kitchen. The basement was completely filled with the residue of a lifetime of bargain hunting at auctions, and we hauled over 30 pickup loads to the landfill.
We worked nights and weekends and stole hours during the day too, and in a few months we were ready to relocate into our completely remodeled, amply insulated, fully wired, well-lit, warmly carpeted, tin-ceiling restored office. We missed the skylight at the old post office, but not the leaky roof and the bucket circus.
It was nine years before we remodeled the upstairs, renting out the front half of the second floor to the Legal Aid Society for a few years before our own growth overtook the entire building and we were, as in the post office, jammed tight.
We and others had tried valiantly for eight years to get corporate farming legislation passed in the Nebraska Unicameral, to no avail. Most years we couldn’t even get a bill out of committee. In a way, we had nearly stopped trying.
To our astonishment, Neil Oxton, Nebraska Farmers Union president suddenly announced at his annual meeting in 1981 that they would launch a petition drive to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot. With help from a number of rural groups, organized labor, and the Catholic Church, and with a Herculean effort by Farmers Union, the signatures were gathered in a blizzard of last-minute efforts.
The next five months – July-November – were critical months in the Center’s history. It was during this period that we proved we could collaborate with our friends, punish our enemies, and speak the truth to powerful interests in a way that persuaded the general public.
And we proved we could be creative. Working closely with Farmers Union late in the campaign, we used campaign finance disclosure laws to reveal that a $500,000 campaign against the amendment was being financed by corporate funds, much of it from out of state. Armed with the facts, we responded to a traveling news conference planned by opponents of I-300.
The news conference was to take place in half a dozen cities across the state, with leaders of the farm organizations opposing I-300 being flown from site to site. We hastily organized news conferences the day before in each of those cities, with local people speaking on behalf of I-300, focusing on the source of the money funding the opposition’s campaign.
Next day, when the flying news conference showed up, the first question they got everywhere they went: “Who’s paying for the jet?” It was a marvelous demonstration of how people can beat money when they know the score.
But maybe the most effective campaign tactic was the simple TV ad we made with a real farmer standing in his field saying: “Let’s send those out-of-state-corporations a message: Our land is not for sale…and neither is our vote.”
We did not have the funds to pay for the ad to be run, but we invoked the “fairness doctrine,” a federal regulation at that time (since eliminated) requiring federally licensed electronic media to cover ballot questions fairly, whether both sides of the issue could pay for ads or not. We wrote every TV and radio station asking for free air time, and most of them gave us some – about one minute for every five the other side bought.
Our ads ran no more than a couple weeks. But they were brutally effective because they focused on the money, on the attempt of corporate America to buy this election, and they were juxtaposed against slick Madison Avenue ads with actors and urban leaders (former Congressman Cavanaugh, for one) bombarding people with phony claims that most farmers didn’t want anyone telling them who they could and couldn’t sell land to.
Our ad was real, convincing, and powerfully simple. Its message gave voters the same stake in the outcome as farmers – our land is not for sale…and neither is our vote. The other side probably drove voters away from its cause during the last week of the campaign by implicitly reinforcing our message with their expensive ad campaign.
In any case, while we lost Omaha by a modest margin, we made up the difference in Lincoln and won by 2:1 in rural Nebraska.
In some ways, Election Day 1982 is when the battle over corporate farming began. Hell hath no fury like the rich and the powerful when they can’t have what they want. The Omaha National Bank almost immediately filed a lawsuit to have the amendment declared unconstitutional. It failed.
There were three more suits over the years in state and federal court, all failing. Each year there would be open or surreptitious legislative attempts to place repeal on the ballot. There were petition drives, paid and volunteer, to place repeal on the ballot.
Nothing worked because family farm supporters kept the focus on corporate farming, collaborated closely without organizational jealousy (forming Friends of the Constitution), and operated an amazingly efficient telephone tree and action alert system (hats off to Nancy Thompson and Mark Epp) that kept people informed and engaged.
We filled the legislative chamber whenever hearings were held, flooded Lincoln on an annual Family Farm Day, confronted paid petition circulators with volunteer counter circulators, asking people not to sign the petition. We made sure TV cameras were there filming farm wives arguing with mercenary college kids being paid by the signature.
And perhaps most important, we went inside the bowels of farm organizations who supported corporate farming, notably the Nebraska Farm Bureau Federation and the Nebraska Cattlemen, and cultivated their local leaders to effectively neutralize these organizations. From 1983-1990 this battle raged, but there was never a time when the corporate farm proponents had the upper hand.
The farm crisis
If I-300 tested our mettle with the corporate interests, the farm crisis that befell American agriculture in the mid 1980s tested our character in far more difficult ways. While it takes courage to speak truth to power, it takes a lot more courage to speak the truth to a friend you think is wrong about something important. Many of the Center’s friends saw the farm crisis much differently than we did, and many of them had a lot at stake personally in the outcome.
We disappointed many when we refused to endorse the Harkin-Gephardt Farm Bill that would have introduced a mandatory supply management program on most major crops. We wrote an open letter to the family farm movement explaining our position on the merits of the issues, and we offered an alternative approach.
We kept as many doors open as possible to activists in the field who felt our position undercut their efforts to help farmers, and we were especially trusted by them when it came to addressing issues related to credit, debt settlement, and taxation. But this period hurt the Center with some church denominations, with the activist left, and with many lately activist farmers, and with some funders.
But among many leaders of rank and file farm organizations, this was a period when our credibility grew. We were increasingly valued for the service and leadership we provided on credit issues and organizing and leadership development we provided on federal tax reform.
It was during the farm crisis that we insisted that the policies that fueled the boom that had become the bust – tax subsidies to capital investment and cheap and loose credit that protected the most aggressive expanders from the consequences of their actions – be changed. Over time we prevailed on both issues, to greater or lesser extent.
During the farm crisis we also urged farmers and policy makers to focus on the farm recovery by helping farmers to downsize when necessary and reposition themselves for starting over at a time when declining land values were making bargains in the land market. In this we failed because the bargains came and went quickly, and policy makers were focused on bailouts and emergency assistance, not recovery.
Frustrated, we responded by fashioning a strategy around use of the new federal Chapter 12 bankruptcy law. A lot of farmers positioned themselves for recovery by forcing creditors to accept some responsibility, but unfortunately, the creditors most vulnerable were the unsecured creditors who were friends and neighbors of the farmers going broke.
A farm crisis not managed by sensitive and informed policy hurts the innocent on the farm and on Main Street, as well as those who fueled it with their greed.
Sustainable agriculture movement
The farm crisis also fed the need for farmers to get off the capital-intensive, environmentally destructive, anti-social path of industrial agriculture and to seek what we initially called a “more resourceful” agriculture, but which eventually became known more generally as “sustainable” agriculture.
While the seeds of these efforts had been planted in the Small Farm Energy Project, the work fully blossomed in the mid 1980s with the emergence of a national sustainable agriculture movement. The movement was supported (albeit meagerly) by a federal research funding program called the Low-Input Sustainable Agriculture (LISA) program.
Our Congressman, Doug Bereuter, was the first Republican to sign onto sponsorship of the bill after he toured the Small Farm Energy Project and visited with dairy farmer Gary Young, who explained to him how he could use minimum tillage without chemicals by using a nine-year crop rotation scheme. This, we observed, was a problem mainly because a nine-year rotation more than quadrupled the tenure of a U.S. Congressman.
By the mid 1980s there was growing national interest in sustainable agriculture, with its emphasis on resource conservation, reduced cash flow, crop diversification, and risk management. Many alternative agriculture organizations were springing up nationwide, and though many of them were interested in advocating government policies to encourage sustainable agriculture, most of them did not have much experience with federal farm policy.
We played a key role in organizing the Midwestern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group and a parallel Coalition, which in turn spawned regional working groups in many other parts of the nation and eventually lead to establishment of a National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture which has played an increasingly important role in all farm bills.
In the early 1980s, our concern about irresponsible irrigation development lead to an alliance with rural (and urban) interests trying to limit construction of a massive federal irrigation project that would be fed from a dam on the Niobrara River. The Norden Dam would supply northern Holt County, a region infamous for corporate farming, and destroy one of Nebraska’s most precious natural streams.
This was the occasion for adding Bassett rancher Wes Sandall to our board, who with Bob Warrick anchored our farmer-environmental perspective. We joined forces with Audubon and Sierra and other groups to form the Nebraska Water Conservation Council and launched a door-to-door canvass that gathered signatures and donations to fight the Norden dam. The effort was very effective, and the project was de-authorized by the late 1980s.
Diversifying the program
Our work had never been just about farm policy, but about farming practices, environmental issues, and rural development, but during the 1980s and early 1990s this diversification became more apparent and more ambitious. We hauled out many tools from our toolkit and put them to work building a rich and complex program.
In 1980 we were still mostly gadflies on economic policy issues, criticizing bankers and farm managers and agricultural researchers. By 1992 we were operating our own ongoing research effort, making loans, managing farm land. We were still critics, but we had put ourselves to work performing the way we thought those we criticized should perform.
First, the Small Farm Energy Project evolved into the Small Farm Resources Project, a much more comprehensive approach to on-farm research focused on a wide range of sustainable agriculture practices and appropriate technologies. A lot of the effort centered on moisture management strategies, critical to the survival of dryland farming and animal agriculture in the western Corn Belt and eastern Great Plains. Later, this work evolved further with a growing emphasis on management strategies for beginning farmers.
That emphasis was a natural outgrowth of the continuing deterioration of federal farm policy’s social mission, the diminution of beginning farmer loan programs, and rising land values that once again priced beginners out of the market. In 1991 we launched Land Link, a multi-dimensional program including a clearinghouse to link beginning farmers with retiring farmers, a comprehensive farm planning program, and a licensed professional farm management and realty service.
Joy Johnson and Allen Prosch designed and implemented Land Link, which has inspired over a dozen replications nationwide. None are as comprehensive, but all have been fashioned to create new economic opportunities in agriculture.
At the same time we inaugurated the Rural Enterprise Assistance Project (REAP), which used community organizing strategies and group lending models to foster entrepreneurship in rural communities, first in Nebraska, then in Iowa and Kansas. REAP became a model for rural micro-enterprise programs, and led to broad development of the strategy throughout Nebraska. Gene Severens and later Rose Jaspersen were the key developers of the concept early on.
These innovative and positive programs gave depth to the Center’s work and engaged us with new constituencies and partners. There was sometimes tension between these more affirmative and collaborative strategies and the Center’s traditional in-your-face advocacy.
Can an organization be a lender and a critic of credit policy, a farm manager and an advocate of owner-operatorship, a scientist and a skeptic of technology? We thought so, and we hope so. There is no doubt that we learned a lot about very pragmatic matters from designing and implementing these programs. It would be a blessing to know that it made our policy advocacy more effective. But it is not clear to us that it did. Maybe from a further distance, it will become clearer.
During the 1980s the Center also got involved with local historic preservationists trying to save the small hospital building originally built in Walthill by Dr. Susan LaFlesche Picotte, the first Native American woman physician. The Center borrowed the money and bought the building and over the next several years worked closely with the local group to rehabilitate it, research, design, and produce several exhibits on the “shared history” of the Native America and white people in the area.
Eventually we turned the building over to the local group. It is a National Historic Landmark and a marvelous tribute to a great woman and to the enduring struggles of the people of the area.
Dealing with founders’ syndrome
The board had been growing in many ways, partly because of the growing role of women. Fern Norris became the first president other than Art May. (Center titles have sometimes confused all of us – the president has never been a paid staff person, but the board chair.) Connie Bowen, Maryanne Rouse, and Karen Tikalsky all became strong leaders in many capacities. (All but Bowen, whose death was a tragic loss for many good causes, have served as president.)
Things started getting taken better care of close to home. We added health insurance and other fringe benefits for a staff getting older and taking on more family responsibilities, incorporated bylaw provisions that required the board to add at least one new member each year (which implicitly required someone to leave if the board was at its size limit), established functioning board committees, adopted a budget process and a general planning process. And we turned attention to the biggest issue looming over the future of the organization – founders’ syndrome.
We had served as co-directors from inception, and our entrepreneurial, share-everything-with-each-other leadership style worked well in a young and somewhat wild organization. But the Center was getting more sophisticated, its need for management systems more formal, its need for division of labor and wider participation in management decisions more apparent. Any organization that intends to outlive its founders needs to recognize and respond to this need. Beginning in 1988 we did.
During that year, Marty took a leave of absence from the co-directorship and, with the support of a grant from the Joyce Foundation, became a “senior associate” working on various projects that were, for the most part, outside the scope of the Center’s program. During this period a management process evolved within the staff.
A cloud hovered over the project because the goal was to establish management systems that would free the Center from excessive dependence on us without forcing us to leave. The goal was to establish a management system that would accommodate Marty’s return to the staff. We affectionately, but painfully, referred to this as the “re-entry” issue.
This year was painful and difficult. The Center had grown large as a series of unilateral relationships between individual staff and us. People used to having confidence in their relationship with us were being asked to deal with each other in a process that would redistribute power within the organization.
The board too was being asked to grow, to make formal decisions of a nature it had simply relied on us to make previously. There was uncertainty, confusion, sharply different views (especially over how much we should just go back to the old ways when Marty “re-entered”) and not a little distrust. Fern Norris’ patient leadership as president during this period was crucial to the effort.
And it was a productive effort. Out of it emerged a different Center, in these ways:
- A participatory money management and shared fund raising process called Resource Allocation and Management (RAM) established systems by which spending authority was decentralized, discretionary resources allocated to the projects where they were needed most, fund raising opportunities identified and assignments made, and a culture of sharing institutionalized and supported by both data systems and administrative processes.
- A clear division of labor between us, with separate but equal lines of authority and responsibility to the board – Don for administrative matters, Marty for programmatic matters; the co-directorship, with its joint and indivisible powers and diluted accountability, was terminated.
- Regular, formal, and participatory evaluation of all staff by supervisors and of us by the board was established.
- A wider range of policy issues were to be addressed by the board, which would exercise more leadership in decision making and organize itself into working committees.
- The program would be managed by two program leaders (Chuck Hassebrook and Nancy Thompson) chosen by project leaders and reporting to Marty.
- A program council consisting of administrative director (Don), program director (Marty) and the program leaders (Chuck and Nancy) would be the central management team.
This system continued to evolve for several years but was functional in decentralizing management, sharing power, and increasing accountability throughout the organization. Probably it was not the management systems that emerged, but the process by which we came to grips with the problem that mattered most.
From this point on, it was presumed that one day Don and Marty would leave, and that when they did, it would be a small event in terms of the viability of the organization. As it was, Marty stayed nearly eight more years, Don nearly 13. While the directorship has been unified into an executive director position since then, the other elements of the system remain in place.
It was also during this period of defining the Center’s institutional future that we launched an endowment fund, which we called The Granary. It was under Paul Olson’s leadership as president that we took this important step. The beginnings were modest, but the spirit of stewardship was firmly established by the first gifts to the Granary.
Those gifts memorialized Bert Evans, whose humor, passion, and intelligence sustained and energized the Center for many years; Connie Bowen, whose bright and clear-headed approach to the Center’s organizational development and commitment to environmental issues led us in new directions internally and externally; and John Vlcek, a Nebraska native son whose work in Tennessee and Texas on alternative agricultural marketing was an inspiration.
These early gifts were seedlings for the first major gift from the estate of Pulitzer Prize nominee Norris Alfred, the long time publisher of the Polk (NE) Progress, whose humorous and poignant editorials about rural life we collected and published as Butterfly Against the Gale. That gift, in turn, inspired donors in our first endowment campaign in 1997-98, which raised nearly $8.0 million.
What Have We Learned?
What have we drawn from this experience? Too much to distill here. We were asked to write a short essay – perhaps eight pages – about the “early” years. When we handed in our assignment, we were told it would be nice to write more, to bring it up into the 1990s.
We find that as it gets closer to the present, our ability to think clearly about it diminishes. That might mean we are only deluding ourselves into believing we remember that further past with good insight and perspective – “for now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face.”
Ten quick thoughts (in no particular order) about some lessons we have learned from this history.
- There is no work you will ever do that pays better than doing what you believe in every day. Doing what you believe in often requires financial sacrifice, but you won’t notice it if you are being fulfilled. If you are keeping score, however, you are losing.
- Rural organizations not rooted in rural places are easily distracted, often shallow, and usually ineffective. Loving rural places enough to criticize them and to know their strengths when you see them requires being there.
- Do not take yourself too seriously. People who do not have fun, who cannot laugh at themselves, who carry the weight of the world on their shoulders and anguish over every negative turn of events don’t last long in this business, drain energy from others, and can’t see the forest for the trees.
- The most important decisions are hiring decisions. Hire good people and give them lots of room to do their thing. If you don’t, you spend all your time cleaning up messes.
- Take care of each other. Whether it is the way you run meetings, the way you allocate salaries, or the fringe benefits you provide, mutuality is the most valuable source of good morale.
- Don’t let the staff get out in front of the board. If the board is not leading, it cannot or will not play its most important role: protecting the integrity of the organization, establishing its political independence, and defending it from its critics.
- Conduct yourself with honor and integrity and courage. Make the issues, don’t become the issue.
- You cannot invent too many ways to reward sharing and to encourage sacrifice. People who are not expected to share will hoard, and hoarding is the bane of good resource management in a small organization.
- Listen to those with whom you disagree. Especially, understand the other side’s argument in a political debate better than they do. Know it so well that you know what it is about their own arguments they don’t really believe. There is nothing more demoralizing than being confronted with your own doubts.
- Manage your resources prudently, conserve everything, especially time, and never cut cord. You might need it.
We would like to close by acknowledging that it has been impossible for us to mention with sufficient respect all of the people who have served on the Center board and staff and contributed in important ways to its development. We apologize. Each sentence we have written calls up a fresh memory of people and events not yet mentioned, and while we appreciate the need to get some of this into the record, we think it is time to say “enough.”
When the Center turned 25 in 1998, we included articles in our newsletter about what we’ve learned. We discuss both issue-oriented programmatic topics as well as organizational topics. The articles are collected here.
...about challenges that shape the Center’s character
What happens when you speak truth to power, which has been the Center’s habit over the years? You get whooped a lot. And you learn a lot. In 23 years with the Center, and since, I’ve had plenty of occasion to reflect on the challenges that have shaped the Center’s character. Here are a few thoughts about the lessons we’ve learned from facing those challenges.
- The battle is not for the hearts and minds of politicians, but for the hearts and minds of people. Sure, policy change usually has to be voted on by elected officials, but most of them are followers, not leaders, and the law can’t do what the people don’t want done anyway. Truly important change happens only when the people have made up their minds. In its formative years, the Center was under pressure to "make a difference," to produce political victories quickly. But it was our strategy to challenge rural people, to build slowly on rural values, rather than make fast friends with politicians, and it gave the Center a patient character.
- It is as important to understand opposing views as it is your own. There are at least three reasons. First, if you don’t understand the opposing view, you can’t defend your own ideas against your critics. Second, it’s often important to take a stand, even when you have lingering doubts. Otherwise, you may never have the resolve to do so. Just keep an open mind, and welcome your own doubts. They will make you strong, finally. Most people don’t believe that, and so, the third point is this: You should understand the opposing view well enough to know what its partisans themselves don’t really believe about it. Find the cracks in their armor, and relentlessly raise doubts in their ranks. Nothing is more demoralizing than unwelcome doubt. Over the years, this philosophy has moved the Center to do meticulous research, to listen and talk to those with whom it disagrees most, and this has given it a high reputation for intellectual honesty and courage.
- If you are keeping score, you are losing. The Center’s character has always manifested a special kind of resilience against defeat, intimidation, and disappointment. This work is often sacrificial, and the people who do it, as staff or volunteers, are often ridiculed, betrayed, and dismissed. And they are almost never adequately compensated. Those who "keep score," who worry too much about tangible evidence of success, especially popularity, are exhausted by the kind of big issues the Center tries to address. They carry the weight of the world on their shoulders, sober and dour, and they cannot endure it for long. Instead, have fun, keep focused on the big picture, don’t expect to see the results of your work (and relish them when you do), and most of all, seek solace in Gandhi’s teaching that there can only be real pleasure where there is real conscience.
- Self-interest is a valuable but insufficient foundation for the common good. When we build public policy only on vested interests, no matter how noble the people who hold those interests are, we lose the meaning of the word "public." There must always be a larger common good for which we jointly make sacrifice and mutual commitments. There have been many times when the Center was challenged to support this or that policy only because it was expedient at the time, and popular among farmers or other rural people. Many times we resisted the temptation to pander to such self-interest when it conflicted with the common good as we understood it. Doing so built a character of integrity.
- Define the issues, don’t become the issue. The Center has long been controversial, but for its ideas, not for its actions. Fortunately, you can usually survive criticism for your ideas, if your conduct is honorable. In this, we have been above reproach. There are many who have wanted—and tried – to make the Center the issue by labeling us radicals or misfits, but their silly accusations have only proven that the Center can’t be bullied. Significantly, we have outlasted most of those name-callers. Challenged to defend ourselves, we have had the courage to remain focused on the real issues, not mislead into ego-satisfying, self-defeating defense of our reputation.
- Hate and fear are poor sources of political energy, because you can muster them easier than you can guide them. Fascists, communists, conspiracy theorists of all sorts, and some populists, have played on hate and fear to build power for themselves, but most of them have not been able to direct this political energy toward useful ends. They’ve been better at rousing than they were at rabbling. Early in its life, the Center was often expected to torment the rich and powerful for its own sake. And we have been outspoken, and at times irreverent. But we have also been precise, accurate, and focused in our criticisms of economic and social injustices, and we always poured energy into productive campaigns that inform people and make them better citizens. This has given the Center its reputation for civility, even among those who disagree with us most.
- Leave the bottle full for others. An old inspirational cowboy song tells about a parched desert traveler who stumbles on a dried up well and a buried bottle of water left by an old-timer named "Desert" Pete. There’s a note, too, admonishing the thirsty man not to give in to the temptation to drink the water, but to prime the pump with it instead. "You’ve got to prime the pump, have faith and believe, you’ve got to give of yourself before you’re worthy to receive," the note says. " Drink all the water you can hold, wash your face and cool your feet … but leave the bottle full for others, thank you kindly, Desert Pete."
The Center has worked hard these 25 years, having faith and belief in rural America. There have been plenty of times when the Center might have been better off, organizationally speaking, to forget the lessons above and abandon the strategies that have given it its special character. But it hasn’t. Instead, given good values and a strong sense of purpose to work with, the Center has primed the pump of rural America and drawn a lot of good work and renewed commitment to rural values from people all over this country.
Along the way, the Center has learned a lot, had some fun, and done plenty of good. And everyday, it still struggles to leave the work a little further along, the values a little stronger, and hope a little higher. This ethic of hope grounded in hard work may be the most important aspect of the Center’s special character. | Marty Strange
We are continually involved in fundraising; judging from our 25-year track record, we’ve been pretty good at it. Here are some simple truisms we’ve learned.
- Fundraising is a business deal. The fundraiser has a product to sell. The funder wants to make a wise investment. The funder must see the wisdom in your proposal, but also must be confident in the management and accounting of the funds. Likewise, maintaining a relationship with the funder—keeping them up-to-date, notifying them early of any problems—is a businesslike thing to do.
- Do your research before asking for money. You don’t want to waste your time or their time.
- They won’t give if you don’t ask. This is especially important with individuals.
- Funders grant money to people, not projects. The funder must have confidence in the leadership of a project or organization. This is a real challenge for a new or young organization, so taking the time to build a relationship with the funder is vital.
- Diversify. Just like rotating crops, having a mix of many funding sources (foundations, earned income, individuals, and corporations) helps weather the bad times.
- Share your knowledge with others. There is huge need for addressing the problems of rural America. Getting funders to support the good work of other nonprofit groups is something we’re always glad to help with.
- Good work is rewarded. Probably the most important truism. | Don Ralston
Farmers are underrated when it comes to solving problems and fabricating solutions. During the Small Farm Energy Project, we saw farmers adopt new technologies using baling wire and recycled machinery and facilities to reduce energy use. They developed site-specific, self-maintained solutions to farm problems without the need for purchased technologies or gadgets.
The key to the success of this project was education and support. Supplied with the knowledge, farmers understood the problem, accepted the challenge, and developed home-built solutions. Much of the education involved natural cycles and processes overlooked or forgotten. Making the behavioral changes necessary to, "farm with nature instead of in spite of it," and once again put farmers "in control," returned the fun, excitement, and profitability to farming.
Adopting a change in a farm practice involves risk—financial and personal. The financial risk, though real and important, can be overcome with cost-share programs and grants. The greater hurdle to adoption is peer review. To most family farms, especially those handed down for generations, a farm is much more than property. It is a farmer’s identity, her or his reputation and status in the community.
The support of local, like-minded individuals provides the impetus for farmers to take that first step and try something new. The decisions become a group effort that builds confidence and encourages adventure.
Lastly, farmers learned the importance of political awareness and involvement. The impulse of politicians often outweighs the whims of nature and has longer effects. | Martin Kleinschmit
...about building a strong organization
Ten years ago we were approaching 20 staff people and a half-million dollar annual budget. The organization’s leadership was still heavily vested in its founders, Marty Strange and Don Ralston. We were a solid organization, but we knew we couldn’t depend on our founders forever. For an entire year we deliberated over reorganizing ourselves to reduce this dependence. The changes we undertook have served us well.
Our staff project leaders were given more responsibility for planning, budgeting, fundraising, project expenditures, supervision and reporting. We set up processes for the staff to share their problems with others. We became a much more "open" organization resulting in a much more knowledgeable staff that understood organizational needs beyond their own project responsibilities.
At the same time our board of directors made a commitment to become more actively involved in organizational activities, especially in the areas of fundraising, evaluating the executive staff, and program and financial planning and evaluation. Our board members devote nearly 150 hours per year just for regular directors’ meetings.
Our individual board and staff members have been strengthened, and, consequently, the organization is more durable. We’ve gone through the departure of one of our founders without much anxiety. Just as the Center’s mission statement speaks of encouraging people to take personal responsibility for their communities, we ask our staff and board to do the same for our organization. | Don Ralston
...about the role of money in creating change
The power to create change can come from people, money, or information. Though the influence of money has grown, citizens with knowledge remain the most powerful force in democratic societies, when they choose to act.
The growing power of money is readily apparently in elections, Congress, state legislatures, and even the initiative petition process, once the domain of citizen activists. We urgently need reforms that curb the excessive influence of money on the democratic process.
But even more important is the persistence of citizens in working for what they believe. The most dangerous influence of money is in convincing citizens that they can no longer make a difference, creating cynicism and inaction.
That is a mistake. An informed and activated citizenry still trumps money. Look at recent trends in big money issue campaigns. They buy citizen activists—paid petition circulators or lists of citizens who might be willing to call Congress on their behalf.
Their money only buys them what concerned citizens have in themselves.
The third critical leg of the power stool is information. An active citizenry without information and understanding cannot effectively assert its values in a democracy. As society becomes more complex, the power of information grows.
Our formula at the Center has been to develop information, share it with concerned citizens, and alert them of opportunities to act. We need and use money too. But rather than using it to manipulate citizens or take their place, we use modest amounts to inform and support their efforts to create a future for rural America that reflects the best of its values. | Chuck Hassebrook
...about surviving the early years
The early years of the Center were tenuous, to say the least. It wasn’t just a matter of survival, of course. Could the Center speak truth to power and survive with principle? During those early years we took steps crucial to passing that test. Among them:
- Gather a committed board of directors—respected people with the integrity to protect the Center from powerful detractors. They not only stood up to power, but often did so against their own self-interest. Our expose of irresponsible irrigation was led by a committee of three irrigators. Our study of the decline of independent banking was chaired by a banker.
- Keep track of the money. From the beginning, we placed a lot of emphasis on sound and honest accounting. When an angry politician tried to suggest we were using funds improperly, we publicly invited him to bring his accountant and do his own audit, provided he publish the results. He shut up. More important, good accounting has always helped make good decisions.
- Hire good people and give them honest work they can do. We asked Lynn Spivak, with no experience as an agricultural researcher, to find out whether corporations were contracting to produce hogs, and six months later she came back with Who Will Sit Up With the Corporate Sow?, the first analysis of large-scale confinement hog technology and the public policies that nourished it. It was 20 years ahead of its time.
- Ask people to support the work. We published our first newsletter almost as soon as we opened the doors, and we asked for donations to support it. They did, generously. Some of you have been doing so for 25 years. Thanks to all of you. | Marty Strange and Don Ralston
...about our most important asset
The Center considers its staff to be an asset. Duh! That may seem obvious to you. Indeed, over 60 cents of every dollar we spend is on staff compensation (wages and benefits). But some organizations consider their staff a cost that is expendable—to be cut and trimmed to improve the bottom line.
The Center has been blessed with low staff turnover. We’ve tried to treat our staff well in terms of compensation, challenging work, a comfortable and efficient workplace (you won’t find unanimous agreement on this; we use every square inch of our 80-year-old remodeled hotel building), and an organizational culture that is creative, supportive, participatory, and friendly.
Our salaries range from $18,100 to $39,500 per year—high for main street Walthill, but comparatively low on the top end for a $1.7 million organization. The ratio of our highest-to-lowest salary is 2.2, well under our stated policy of keeping the ratio under 3.0. Our fringe benefits are generous: full family medical coverage and contributions to a retirement fund. The Center’s excellent compensation package reflects the priorities of our board of directors.
Many of our board and staff members refer to themselves as a family. Our quarterly board meetings brim with both board and staff. Our organizational culture is open, supportive and friendly; friendly to the point that we’ve had four interstaff marriages – all going strong. | Don Ralston
...about having many tools in the tool kit
We all like to do what we do best and what we enjoy. So it’s not surprising that 25 years ago, the Center reflected the style and temperament of its organizers and early directors: advocates, organizers, and policy nerds. We took aim at evil and fired, daily: industrialization of pork production, irrigation development in the fragile Great Plains, ownership and control of banking. We were pretty good at defining big issues long before they became fashionable.
But one tool doesn’t do every job. You have to go wherever your analysis takes you. If the energy crisis created an income opportunity for small farms through appropriate technology, better go to real farms and help discover how: Small Farm Energy Project. If small towns need help with infrastructure, better offer technical assistance: Midwest Assistance Program. If the key to rural development lies in building on the entrepreneurial assets of rural people, better organize communities to support those entrepreneurs: Rural Enterprise Assistance Project. If economic opportunity is bottled up in land held by retiring farmers, better link those farmers with beginners through a licensed farm management company: Land Link.
In short, do what has to be done, even if you don’t know exactly how. Learn how. Make it work. In 1976, we were critics of bankers and farm managers. By 1996, we were bankers and farm managers of a different kind.
Of course, we didn’t exactly drop the advocacy. We refined and expanded it. Go to the legislature or to Congress when you can: Tax Reform Act of 1986. Limited resource loans. Conservation Reserve. Property tax and school finance reform. Go to the people when you must: Initiative 300. Go to court when that’s necessary: Friends of the Constitution. Don’t go it alone. Invest years in building coalitions: Sustainable Agriculture Working Group. Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture.
And by all means, learn the truth as best you can and speak it plainly. Publish policy reports on conservation, taxes, agricultural research policy, credit reform, and free trade.
Or, when corporate power crushes open markets, invent new markets built on cooperation and initiative: Marketing Alliances. Loans for beginning farmers who practice sustainable agriculture: Stewardship Investment Finance Fund.
The Center has picked up nearly every tool in the toolbox of nonprofit organizations. The richness and diversity of this program is formidable. | Marty Strange
...about having a long range vision
The Center for Rural Affairs was born as a spin-off of a Walthill, Nebraska, poverty agency funded mostly by the Federal Office of Economic Opportunity (the main vehicle for the Kennedy/Johnson War on Poverty). When we started the Center, we kept the "opportunity" notion; it is part of all our programs and projects 25 years later.
In the early 70s, the Nebraska landscape was visibly changing from the introduction of hog confinement structures and center pivot irrigation systems. These developments foretold obvious environmental impacts, but as important to us, a loss of opportunity for future generations of young farmers who could not afford these expensive technologies. To make matters worse, public policies (in the form of tax policy and taxpayer-funded research) were encouraging and subsidizing these developments. Our response was to do our homework (resulting in the reports Who Will Sit Up With the Corporate Sow? and Wheels of Fortune) and to launch two long-range efforts in tax policy and federal agricultural research policy.
What may be good for today’s established farmers is often at the expense of future generations. The Center has opted to make sure the interests of that future farmer are represented in public policy debates. There will always be conflicts between the self-interest of different generations. Our constant challenge and the challenge of policymakers is to find the best balance. | Don Ralston
...about who makes the critical difference
It is rural people—farmers and non farmers—who will ultimately decide the shape of agriculture and rural America.
This conclusion is based on decades of experience in efforts to reshape farm policy to support family farms and resource stewardship. While we often lament that farmers are becoming too few to shape farm policy, our experience is that the dominant farm interests are responsible for the public policy bias toward bigness in American agriculture contributing to the demise of family farming and family farm communities.
It has not been non farmers, but rather some farm organizations and commodity groups, that supported tax policies that favor the giants. They blocked efforts to target farm program benefits to family farms and stood silently while federal laws prohibiting discriminatory pricing by packers against modest-size family farms went unenforced.
The good news is at times the dominant groups have taken a different more pro family farm stand, and, when they have, it has changed public policy. We saw that in the federal tax reforms of the late 1980s that reduced tax sheltering opportunities in farming. Today we again see the beginning of a shift in some commodity organizations toward more concern for family farms.
The support for tax reform among farm and commodity groups in the 1980s was a direct result of the efforts by family farmers. Likewise today, family farmers and rural people hold the key. Real change will only occur when they get involved and demand that the organizations that ostensibly represent them really do so. | Chuck Hassebrook
...about working from a rural community
We are frequently asked, "Why are you located in Walthill, Nebraska?" The Center for Rural Affairs grew out of a Walthill-based anti-poverty agency, the Goldenrod Hills Community Action Council (GHCAC). The Goldenrod Hills agency was established because of the high incidence of poverty here on the Omaha Indian Reservation. There are good reasons why we’ve remained here.
Living and working in a small rural community has resulted in a dedicated staff with low turnover. When interviewing prospective job candidates we are brutally honest about what they can expect living in a small town and what they will not have immediately available to them.
A low cost of living (especially housing) in a small rural community allows our modest staff salaries to stretch farther. When Center co-founder Marty Strange relocated to Vermont, he estimated he would need twice the salary he made here to maintain an equivalent life style—he says his estimate was correct.
When we shop, go to church, drink a beer, or engage in a coffee shop discussion, we’re rubbing elbows with our rural constituency. Our neighbors provide a good sounding board and a good opportunity for listening about the issues we work on every day.
While our up-to-date office communication tools (e-mail, etc.) keep us in touch with the urban world, we’re not as tempted or distracted by the hustle and bustle of big-city politics and meetings, meetings, meetings. Admittedly, we miss some worthwhile meetings. We’re proud to advertise "Walthill, Nebraska—population 900" on our letterhead stationery. | Don Ralston
The Center for Rural Affairs continues fighting for Rural America from our new Lyons, Nebraska, office.
A groundbreaking ceremony on June 6, 2003, kicked off construction of our new office. Moving day was Dec. 22, 2003, accomplished with an outpouring of volunteers from Lyons and our staff and board.
Executive Director Chuck Hassebrook expressed the Center's pride in this move. "Construction of a new building demonstrates that we are committed to our work for the long haul. Rural America faces profound challenges. But, if we are persistent we can create a better future for our communities, ourselves, and our children and grandchildren."
To celebrate 35 years of the Center's work, we produced an article series reflecting on where the Center has been and where it is going.
Renewable energy and conservation
Looking back at 35 years of Center for Rural Affairs history, it is easy to see some of the landmark projects that defined the Center for Rural Affairs. Reports like Who Will Sit Up With the Corporate Sow? and Wheels of Fortune put the Center on the map when it came to research and policy. But the Center also became know for its work with farmers on the ground, in rural Nebraska. One of the very first projects of the Center, the Small Farm Energy Project, defined the Center and its values in a way that rings true today.
A three-year (1976-1980) research and demonstration project funded by the federal Community Services Administration working with 48 farms in Cedar County, Nebraska, the Small Farm Energy Project sought to demonstrate that the adoption of alternative energy technologies by small family farms can make positive contributions to their incomes. To make a three-year story short, it worked. And it worked. In 1979, an average of $1,138 in energy expenses was saved for each participating farm.
More importantly, the project put the Center on the map when it came to on-farm sustainable agriculture research, and helped propel the Center for Rural Affairs into the top tier of nonprofits working in the sustainable agriculture field.
Martin Kleinschmit has worked directly for the Center for Rural Affairs since 1993, but he first encountered the Center in 1976 as a farmer working with the Project. As Martin remembers:
They used that project; because our farms turned into “show and tells” for other foundations [to raise money for future work]. I remember a lady showed up from the Ford Foundation on a muddy day in her heels; ruined her shoes. But largely because of that visit, the Ford Foundation got introduced to the Center for Rural Affairs. That project, as I understand it, turned into a huge steppingstone for the Center to enter the real world. … They brought people out all the time [to visit the farm]. We were also targeted for foreign tours, people from other countries came to see us.
But the Small Farm Energy Project wasn’t just a benefit for the Center for Rural Affairs, and its benefits went far beyond a cold dollars and cents calculation. Martin:
What it did for us, as individuals— it led us to believe we could make a difference, that we are not powerless, that we can make decisions that are going to change our future. That was the message of the Center then— you can make a difference.
Thirty years later, that is still a primary message of the Center for Rural Affairs, and it is one that I hope we articulate as well today as we have in the past. And the impact of the Small Farm Energy Project continues today as well. Later this summer, Martin will host a renewable energy presentation at the Cedar County Fairgrounds, and several local farmers will be there to lend Martin a hand. Farmers who, 30 years ago, started working together through a Center for Rural Affairs program, the Small Farm Energy Project. | Casey Francis
Good decision making minds the present and future
Our 35 years of decision making have taught us that good decisions are based on what is best for our local community and beyond, for this generation and future generations. An early meeting with a Sandhills irrigator taught me something I will never forget.
In my formative years at the Center, I had the great fortune of working with Jim Wolf, a successful rancher and banker from Albion, Nebraska. Jim helped form a group called the Sandhills Resource Council to challenge irresponsible irrigation development on fragile Sandhills soils.
An irrigator himself, Jim knew the difference between responsible irrigation development on appropriate land and irresponsible development where the land was suited only to grass. Jim worked with me in understanding the federal tax incentives for irresponsible development.
In the early 1980s, when I testified at a field hearing of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee on agricultural tax policy, I asked Jim to testify with me. We sat with several Congressmen in the Sioux City Stockyards, including South Dakota Representative and future Senate leader Tom Daschle, who then was nearly as wet behind the ears as me.
Jim spoke about irresponsible irrigation development, and I spoke about the tax provisions that subsidized it, while helping the largest farms squeeze out smaller operations and beginning farmers. Daschle asked Jim whether he supported my proposals to curtail certain tax breaks that even family farmers used to reduce their tax burden.
Jim said yes and afterward told me something I will never forget. He said that he had been successful and had benefited from those tax provisions, but supported curtailing them because it would be good for his community. Jim understood his stake in his community and knew that his true interest was tied to the good of the community – the common good.
Jim’s words reflect the wisdom of the ages. The renowned theologian Martin Marty, preaching recently in West Point, Nebraska, for the town’s sesquicentennial, shared the same message from the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah. The prophet told the Israelites as they languished in Babylon to seek the welfare of the city in which they exiled, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
As Marty told us, that wisdom guided the pioneers, founders and builders of communities across rural America. We’ve reflected that wisdom in one of the values that guides our work – conscience that balances self-interest with a commitment to the common good.
We don’t claim to represent the narrow self interests of rural people. We work to build a future based on values that reflect the best in rural people, for in that lies the common good and the true interest of rural people. | Chuck Hassebrook
'Wheels of Fortune' report drew thoughtful conclusions and national attention
The Center for Rural Affairs’ 1976 report 'Wheels of Fortune' was written five years before I was born and 31 years before I came to work at the Center. And before I sat down to write this newsletter article, I had heard of the report, but had not read it.
The report was intended to spur debate about irrigation trends in Nebraska. It worked.
Rather than being an outright indictment of irrigation, the report examined the impact of center pivot irrigation development on the ownership and control of farmland and water rights in the state. The report found that center pivot irrigation was a more capital intensive form of irrigation, and the popularity of the method was driving concentration of land by non-farm investors.
'Wheels of Fortune' told a story. We used our research skills to find out who was investing in irrigation and on what kind of soil in Nebraska counties most impacted by irrigation development. The report named names and substantiated the facts.
Knowing the controversy that was likely to follow publication, we put three family farm irrigators on the committee that oversaw the production of the report. They helped us analyze the data, and when that data showed that the growth of center pivot irrigation was resulting in an increase of absentee and corporate control of Nebraska farmland, they stood with us behind the report. Together we warned that irrigation development by non-farm investors was a threat to the social, economic, and political institutions that built Nebraska’s rural communities:
Traditionally, rural Midwestern communities have placed a very high value on equality and independence and self-reliance. These values have shaped a social structure which is relatively free from class divisions. This will change under the emerging pattern of ownership which we have described here. The classic urban-industrial divisions between ownership, management and labor are already apparent in many of the larger farms in Holt and Dundy County.
The report also warned of the environmental implications of corporate control of farmland:
We found that existing development has nearly exhausted suitable soils in the western part of [Dundy] county, but that ambitious plans to develop delicate soils were nonetheless present. There is a very strong correlation between development of such soils and investor ownership, and nearly all of the requests for electrical service for future irrigation development on Class VI soils in Dundy County have been submitted by Investor-owned farms.
'Wheels of Fortune' drew attention from the Washington Post and the New York Times, but its impact might best be measured by the rueful description given it in the newsletter of the Nebraska Society of Professional Farm Managers and Appraisers: “It appears,” the newsletter reluctantly reported, “to have been professionally done.”
The debate over both water use in the West and corporate control of our agricultural assets continues to this day, driven to an even more fevered pitch by the surge in biofuel production and unprecedented commodity prices. Any thoughtful citizen wishing to understand the environmental, social, and economic implications of this debate should return to this 1976 report. The lessons are timeless. | Brian Depew
Sense of mission and purpose drives Center for Rural Affairs’ staff and work
Thirty-five years is a long time. That’s how long the Center for Rural Affairs has been standing up for rural America. In fact, our official birthday was Sept. 5. And like anything that’s been around that long, we’ve changed some.
Thirty-five years ago we worked out of an old storefront with a leaky roof, a few second-hand desks, a manual typewriter, and not enough phones. Now, we work out of a new building with state-of the-art technology and plenty of phones (some days, it seems like too many).
Thirty-five years ago we railed against banks whose lending practices were detrimental to family farmers and ranchers. Fifteen years ago we became a lender in our own right—lending money, $5 million and rising, to entrepreneurs seeking to start up small, rural mainstreet businesses.
We make no claim of always being right, but we’ve always done our homework.
- Who Will Sit Up With the Corporate Sow? our prophetic, 1975 report on the industrialization of hog production.
- Wheels of Fortune, our 1976 report that spurred debate about irrigation and corporate farming in Nebraska.
- Half a Glass of Water (1990), a critical and substantive review of economic policy in the rural Midwest and Great Plains.
- Trampled Dreams: The Neglected Economy of the Rural Great Plains (2000).
- Swept Away: Chronic Hardship and Fresh Promise on the Rural Great Plains (2003).
- Oversubsidizing and Underinvesting, a 2007 report analyzing USDA farm program payments and rural development funding in low population growth rural communities.
Yes, we’ve changed some, but through it all one thing remains true. We have stood steadfast in defense and in support of family farmers, ranchers and rural communities. Not just when it was easy, not just when it was popular, but, more importantly, when it was difficult and even when it was so unpopular we stood alone.
In 1982, we played a crucial role in passage, by a vote of the people of Nebraska, of the nation’s toughest anti-corporate farming law, Initiative 300.
We stood in defense of I-300 and other states’ corporate farming laws for nearly 25 years, and despite losing that law in federal court, we are still fighting to make the will of the people of Nebraska heard on this issue.
Just this year, in a Congressional rush to judgment over passing a farm bill that failed to include meaningful reforms of farm programs and livestock markets, we said no, we will not support a farm bill that allows and even subsidizes the destruction of family farming and ranching. We stood up for rural America and opposed the bill.
I’ll never forget a letter I read once that said, “It is better to spend a lifetime in rightful struggle, and lose, than spend one day in the hell of unprincipled compromise.” In 35 years we’ve won many battles, and we’ve lost our share too. But we have clung to our principles and drawn courage from our convictions.
None of us were here 35 years ago, although some days, like the day we knew reform was dead in the 2008 farm bill, it feels like we’ve been here a lot longer. Some days, I have to admit, we get a little disheartened.
But a light that burns in rural America always brings us back. From Florida to Alaska and from Maine to Hawaii... throughout the South, the Northwest, New England, the Rocky Mountains, the Midwest and Great Plains... rural people are working and fighting to create a future for themselves and their communities. A future of new ideas, of thriving family farms and ranches, and of vibrant rural communities.
Rural America is still standing. A little bruised and battered perhaps, but not bewildered. Rural America is still standing and looking toward the future. How could we do any less? | John Crabtree
Positive change in Rural America begins with proactive rural Americans
We must offer a future vision. We must be the entrepreneurs. We must volunteer our time.
The key to changing the course of history in rural America is winning the hearts and minds of our fellow rural people, and working with them to take control of our future. That is one of the most critical lessons of the 35-year history of the Center for Rural Affairs.
It sometimes seems the solution must come from Washington. After all, a core part of the problem is misguided federal policy that subsidizes the destruction of family farming and fails to invest in our future. But there are two fundamental reasons we must start by engaging our neighbors in exploring and bringing about the changes that can revitalize rural America.
First, federal policy can never by itself guarantee us a better future. Better policy can increase opportunities for small and midsize farms, provide resources to rural communities to revitalize themselves, and help rural small businesses get started and thrive. Good policy can provide us the tools, but it is up to us to use them.
We must be the entrepreneurs to respond to the opportunities to start new farms and businesses. We must volunteer our time with our neighbors to launch the initiatives to revitalize our communities. We must offer a future vision for our community to the next generation. If we don’t come together locally to chart a plan for our future, if we tell our children there is no future in rural America, and if we focus our schools on educating them to leave, it will become a self-fulfilling prophesy.
Winning good policy is a critical step in taking control of our future, but even that must start close to home. Many key policy decisions affecting rural America are made in the congressional agriculture committees, which are dominated by rural representatives. Other committees addressing the critical issues of health care and tax policy are chaired by senators from Iowa and Montana, with high-ranking members from North Dakota, Wisconsin and Kansas. The Appropriations Committee that divides up federal dollars includes a Nebraskan and others from across rural America.
We have the representation in Congress to shape a better policy. It is up to us to fulfill our responsibility as citizens in a democracy to get them working for us, by working with them, and, in many instances, demanding better.
If you are reading this, you are probably one of the good citizens who contacts your congressman, lends an active hand to local initiatives or both. You, together with our board and staff, are the Center for Rural Affairs. And together our most critical work is engaging our neighbors, demonstrating to them that we can make a difference, and working with them to build a better rural future.
We can count on the good help of a significant number of supporters who live in metropolitan areas. We need their very important helping hands also.
But change must start close to home, in the hearts, minds, hands and voices of rural people. | Chuck Hassebrook
Putting rural in the national media spotlight
I spent a recent Sunday reading 28 years worth of articles in The New York Times that quote, reference or were penned by Center for Rural Affairs’ staff. It took all day. Since 1980, the Center for Rural Affairs has made the pages of the nation’s leading newspaper 33 times.
In one of the first articles, the Times deemed the Center one of the “most provocative new critics of big farming.” The article highlights three organizations that the writer calls “unorthodox” and who are “raising questions that tend to be neglected by the agricultural establishment.” The 1980 article reads:
The Center for Rural Affairs in Walthill, Nebraska, (pop. 900), according to an Agriculture official, is “the best public interest group in the country on agriculture and rural issues.” That judgment owes much to the personality and energy of the Center’s director, Marty Strange, whose casual, blue jeaned manner belies his sharply honed analytical approach to agricultural issues.
The article goes on to reference early reports by the Center including "Wheels of Fortune" and "Who Will Sit Up With the Corporate Sow?" as well as Center work exposing lending and tax incentives that fueled early consolidation in agriculture.
Since the Center for Rural Affairs first rose to attention in The New York Times, hardly a single year has passed without our work appearing in the paper, including two full-length op-eds, one by founder Marty Strange and one by current director Chuck Hassebrook.
But, if we measure the media success of the Center by articles in the Times alone, we sell ourselves short. In just the last few years, our work has been covered in a number of additional national and international outlets including the Economist, Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, and the Los Angeles Times. From the Midwest’s Des Moines Register and Minneapolis Star Tribune, to the legislatively-influential Congress Daily, to California’s San Francisco Chronicle, many prominent regional papers cover our work as well.
Our work is also covered frequently by news distributors such as Reuters, the Clear Channel Network, and the Associated Press, the primary national news source for the rural media. These distributors, coupled with our own direct distribution to over 1,000 small daily and weekly papers across the Midwest, means our work appears regularly in rural papers as well.
For 35 years, the Center for Rural Affairs has worked to build the credibility needed to be seen by local, regional, and national media as a knowledgeable source and trusted voice of rural people. Our track-record speaks for itself. | Brian Depew
Leadership found in grassroots values
Whenever the staff talked about salaries at the Center for Rural Affairs, the organization’s cofounder Marty Strange used to say, “If you are keeping count, you are falling behind.”
I think he meant that if we were focused on the size of our salary, we had lost sight of why we had come to the Center. Our staff is bright, well educated and talented. Most could make more money elsewhere.
But we enjoy some offsetting benefits. We have the privilege of coming to work each day to fight for the things we believe in—and we get paid for it. Most people aren’t so lucky.
Our staff needs to make a living, so we strive to share the financial sacrifice fairly. We limit the gap between the top and bottom salary, so the highest paid has generally made no more than about twice the lowest paid. And the Center provides an excellent benefit package, including fully paid health insurance and a health savings account.
But we strive to focus on what we give through our work and how it helps rural America take control of its destiny, rather than what we get for it.
That spirit of giving back also motivates our grassroots supporters—an essential element of the Center. Democracy thrives on citizens who give freely of their time to strengthen their nation and community and work for the common good. They take time away from their jobs or businesses to testify to their legislature, meet with members of Congress, and serve on boards, often at personal financial cost.
Like our staff, they enjoy the reward of knowing that they have given back. Citizen leaders don’t get involved in the Center to gain power and prominence, any more than our staff come to pursue money. They ask not what have I gained, but rather, what have I contributed.
Unselfish leaders are true leaders. They are essential to democracy. A people focused solely on their selfish interests don’t have the capacity for effective self government. Self government depends on citizens and leaders who understand they are part of a larger community and society in which they have a stake and to which they have obligations. It works best with unselfish leaders who give back.
And so it is with the Center for Rural Affairs. It is founded on people—on a staff and board and on grassroots supporters across the nation—who take their reward in the satisfaction of giving back, of advancing what they believe in. And we are all really quite fortunate to be part of it. | Chuck Hassebrook
The next 35 years: creating opportunities and facing challenges
We spent the last year in the newsletter reflecting on 35 years of work at the Center for Rural Affairs. Since the Center began in 1973, rural America has changed significantly. The number of farms, the farm population, and the overall rural population have all declined.
Agriculture has become more consolidated, and, in livestock production in particular, corporate control limits the opportunities for family producers. Big box stores in nearby urban areas brought stiff competition to rural Main Street, and we lost many grocery stores, hardware stores, and other small businesses that populated our towns 35 years ago.
These losses were not the result of inevitable decline, and they did not occur without warning. Commissions convened by the USDA, grassroots activists across the country, and reports from the Center for Rural Affairs all raised cautions along the way. In some cases, the warnings were more prescient than even we imagined they would be.
If both we as rural people and the policymakers that represent us had taken heed of these warnings and adjusted our policies, strategies, and directions in response, rural America would be better off today. While that is a hard fact to reconcile, it does not mean we have done our job poorly.
Rural advocacy has changed state and federal policies, helped awaken new interest in small farms, and provided communities with the skills and information to take control of their own destiny. Our work has also created opportunity for small and midsized family farms in high value markets and helped launch many successful small businesses. We have proven that decline is not inevitable, and that together we can create opportunity in our communities. Undoubtedly, rural America is made stronger by our collective achievements.
Together, we have ensured that rural America will live to fight another day, and one thing is certain about that fight—the next 35 years will be decisive.
As we look forward to creating a vibrant future for our communities, we must be willing to chart a new course for our advocacy. Let’s build on what is working, shed what is not, and keep evaluating our strategies. When things are not working or victories are too small, we must be vociferous about changing course and developing new approaches.
Approaching a small town in western Nebraska last summer, the welcome sign caught my eye—Cody, Nebraska: A Town Too Tough to Die. The residents of Cody have the right idea. The perseverance, determination, and creativity of rural people will carry us forward. It is up to us to take destiny into our own hands and declare that we are not content to settle for the status quo.
In the coming months we will begin an in-depth look at the opportunities, challenges and battles that will define the next 35 years in rural America. They include:
Building an economy that works: We need rural economic development that supports widespread ownership and creates genuine opportunity for rural people.
Our efforts must involve new agricultural and natural resource-based ventures while also harnessing the power of new technology to bring “knowledge economy” jobs to our communities. Regionalizing our food system and finding ways for farmers and ranchers far away from urban markets to tap into the renewed food economy is one key. Creating new ways to turn our natural resources into economic drivers while also sustaining our environment for future generations is another. At the same time, we must work hard to develop new opportunities around broadband-based businesses.
An economy built on a diverse set of ventures can help ensure opportunity for rural people.
Building communities that work: Community is a bedrock of rural America, but just as we must revitalize our economy with new ideas, our rural communities must embrace fresh perspectives as well.
Communities that are successful in the coming decades will not be defined by whether they are rural or urban, but instead by what they offer their residents. Communities with strong schools, opportunities for recreation, access to broadband internet, and initiatives to bring cultural attractions will succeed. Rural communities are well positioned to build on current strengths and become the most attractive communities to live and work in during the coming decades.
Rural communities also must embrace people of diverse backgrounds. One example is new immigrants who are already bringing renewed promise to some rural communities. We must welcome these and other people into our communities.
Fighting for policy that works: It is long past time to establish a national rural policy to revitalize rural communities through new initiatives and reforms to existing policy. Public policies that support small business and entrepreneurship while helping to build our communities, sustain our environment, and support the health of rural people have great potential to enhance rural community viability.
No single policy solution and no single new program will revive all of rural America. Every community has different strengths and different needs. Communities need tools and resources they can employ in innovative ways at the local level and policies that support them. In the coming years we must find new ways to fight with a collective voice for both state and federal policies that help create vibrant rural communities.
The Center for Rural Affairs intends to be at the front line of the battles that will define the future of rural America between now and our 70th anniversary in 2043. We hope you will join us as we seek to create an economy, communities and policies that work for rural America. | Brian Depew