Rural America

Friday, Apr 21, 2017, 10:00 pm  ·  By John Collins

American Cows are Eating Skittles and Other Reasons Why the 2018 Farm Bill is Important

(Image: Google Images / Rural America In These Times)

In January, a flatbed pickup truck filled with only red Skittles® crashed on a highway near Beaver Dam, Wis. This prompted the Mars Corporation to issue a statement explaining that the theoretically strawberry flavored candies had been rejected at the factory for lacking an “S” (for Skittle® not strawberry) and were en route to becoming cattle feed. Headlines of the spectacle briefly captured public attention. Then, cursory inquiries revealed the practice is not uncommon.

Snopes, the world’s urban legend fact checker, verified the story’s authenticity and traced the candy-to-farm phenomenon back to 2012—a time when federally subsidized demand for ethanol (and a bad drought in the Midwest) had caused the cost of a bushel of corn to double. Searching for more affordable alternatives, some cattle farm operators discovered that the high fructose corn syrup found in imperfect candy could pad feed, sustain livestock and save big bucks. 


Wednesday, Apr 19, 2017, 6:30 am  ·  By Steven Conn

Peas in a Pod: The “Inner City” and 21st Century Rural America

(Image: Travel Studies / USDA ERS)

It wasn’t that long ago that we talked about the “inner city”—those pockets of urban America where poverty seemed intractable and social cohesion disappeared—as tangles of pathologies. The story went approximately like this:

Deindustrialization meant the contraction and collapse of the economy in urban neighborhoods like North Philadelphia and South Chicago. Which, in turn, led to a massive loss of jobs, particularly among those least able to deal with the economic dislocation. A whole host of social problems followed once the paychecks stopped coming: people lost their homes or could no longer pay the rent; other community institutions which depended on those people with the paychecks died too—grocery stores, banks, hardware stores, movie theaters and more; families themselves struggled and many fell apart; drugs became an appealing alternative for those who couldn’t see much of a future for themselves. Those who had the resources and the ambition to get out did. Those who had neither stayed.

Today, rural America has become the new inner-city. It isn’t a perfect analogy, of course, but let me play it out a bit because the comparison might help us think about whether anything can be done about these new inner cities.


Monday, Apr 17, 2017, 5:00 am  ·  By Rural America In These Times

A New Book Reminds the Next Generation of Farmers that “Farming Has Always Been A Political Act”

Compiled and released by the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, Letters to a Young Farmer: On Food, Farming, and Our Future is a collection of letters and essays to future farmers.   (Photo:

The United States is in an agricultural bind. Farmers are retiring at alarming rates, profits are down, and starting a new small farm takes guts and money. The next generation faces mounting debt and a lack of affordable farmland, but also inherits a growing public weariness of dominant production models that rely on ecological shortsightedness to keep bad food cheap.

With or without the infrastructure in place, there is demand for healthy food that doesn't require a war on nature to produce. New farmers are rising to the challenge, but they need all the support they can get.

The Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, in Terrytown, N.Y., is a non-profit organization working to promote sustainable, community-based food production. This includes operating a farm, CSA, restaurant and educational resource center that’s open to the public. Last month, the Center released Letters to a Young Farmer—an anthology of essays and letters by influential farmers, writers, and leaders in the sustainable food movement. Writing to inspire the next generation of farmers, contributors include Barbara Kingsolver, Bill McKibben, Michael Pollan, Dan Barber, Temple Grandin, Wendell Berry, Rick Bayless, Marion Nestle and 24 others.

In the following interview Danielle Nierenberg, the president of Food Tank and an expert on food issues, speaks with Stone Barns Center CEO Jill Isenbarger about the book and why it’s important:


Wednesday, Apr 12, 2017, 6:27 pm  ·  By Mark Trahant

Some Tribal Economies Depend on Resource Extraction, But These Days that Doesn’t Translate into Jobs

According to the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC), Indian lands hold an estimated 30 percent of the nation’s coal reserves west of the Mississippi and 20 percent of known oil and gas reserves in the United States. But, especially in the case of coal, even if fewer environmental regulations revive the industry, automation has significantly decreased the need for jobs.   (Photo and Infographic: Honor the Earth / FiveThirtyEight)

A couple of years ago a tribal leader showed me an abandoned lumber mill near the village of Tyonek, Ala. The company promised jobs and, for a couple of decades, there were jobs. But after the resource was consumed, the mill closed, the company disappeared, and the shell of the enterprise remains today.

This same story could be told in tribal communities across North America. Sometimes the resource was timber. Other times gas and oil. Or coal.

The lucky communities were left with a small toxic dump site. More often there was major cleanup work required after (plus a few more jobs). In the worst case scenario, a Superfund site was left behind requiring government supervision and an even greater restoration effort. But all along, and in each case, the accompanying idea was that jobs would be a part of the deal. There would be construction jobs to build the mine, pipeline or processing plant. Then there would be truck driving jobs moving materials, a few executive jobs (especially in public and community relations) and, of course, the eventual supervision of the cleanup (especially if the tribal government had its own environmental protection agency).

That was the deal. But it’s one that is no longer true. Now the resource is extracted, pipelines are built, and toxic waste is left behind—and the promised jobs are limited to the initial construction jobs.


Tuesday, Apr 11, 2017, 7:00 am  ·  By Karen Eppley

Are Charter Schools the Solution to Rural School Closings?

Transportation is one of the many difficulties facing small rural schools.   (Photo: Mark Goebel / Flickr / Creative Commons)

The recent appointment of Betsy DeVos as secretary of education has brought rural schools into the national conversation in ways never seen before. At her confirmation hearing, DeVos said that guns might have a place in schools in order to protect from “potential grizzlies” in places like Wapiti, Wyo.

While the comments about grizzly bears and guns were well-publicized, there was considerably less talk about how DeVos’ pro-charter school agenda could play out in rural communities like Wapiti.


Saturday, Apr 8, 2017, 5:00 am  ·  By Terry J. Allen

Undocumented in Vermont: The Hidden Life of a Migrant Farmworker​

Carlos, an undocumented worker in Vermont, feeds cows on a dairy farm.   (Photo: Terry J. Allen)

“Hey, come on in,” I told Carlos. Silhouetted by summer sun, he stood at the front door of my Vermont house.

“No,” he said pointing to his work boots, heavy with mud and manure. “But can you help me?” Carlos was one of the estimated one to 2,000 undocumented, mostly Mexican migrants employed on the state’s dairy farms. The actual number, like most of the workers who entered the country illegally, is hidden. 

Carlos (not his real name) had come to Vermont after a year working construction in Texas, where even gringo bosses speak some Spanish, and where he could blend into the large Latino diaspora and its familiar culture. Vermont is an alien world, with dark winters and light people. When the dairy workers venture off their isolated farms, they stand out and apart. But in an unparceable blend of Yankee pragmatism and ordinary decency, many Vermonters, including police and officials, quietly welcome and often protect them. The farm hands form an essential part of the economy, and truth be told, offer relief from a monotonously white population that tends tolerant and leans smug. 

I met Carlos several years back when, as part of an informal volunteer network, I’d occasionally ferry migrants to medical appointments or to supermarkets, where they buy the kind of calorie-rich junk and processed food that horrifies kale-munching locals. I helped fill out forms enabling them to wire money to family in Mexico, lending my name and return address, and wondering what the IRS would make of my sending thousands of dollars to small towns in Tabasco and Chiapas.


Wednesday, Apr 5, 2017, 11:25 am  ·  By John Collins

USDA Authorizes Emergency Grazing on Protected Lands After Fires Burn Millions of Acres in 3 States

A rancher in Kansas uses a front end loader to move the carcasses of cattle killed in recent wildfires.   (Screen Shot: New York Times Video / Nick Oxford)

Massive wildfires that began on March 6 have scorched millions of acres across Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. Entire towns were evacuated, homes and farms were lost, and seven people died. Along the Texas panhandle, 340,000 acres burned, making it the third-biggest blaze in Texas history. The fire that raged along Kansas’ southern border with Oklahoma was the state's largest ever.

Fueled by extremely dry conditions, high winds and low humidity, the fast-moving flames killed thousands of cattle and livestock. Some ranchers have reported the loss of entire herds; others are only beginning to assess the scope of the damage. In total, nearly 1.6 million acres of American pastureland has been charred black. For many, the aftermath is surreal. 


Thursday, Mar 30, 2017, 5:06 pm  ·  By Rural America In These Times

Pennsylvania Dept. of Environmental Protection Sues Towns for Trying to Protect Their Environment

In 2016, chemicals detected in the state's drinking water prompted the Pennsylvania Medical Society to call for a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing.   (Photo: Ecowatch)

Fracking injection wells, which blast millions of gallons of water mixed with chemicals deep underground to expand fissures in the rock, have triggered earthquakes and polluted drinking water in several states. In order to prevent energy corporations from dumping toxic wastewater in their communities, two Pennsylvania townships drafted local constitutions banning the practice. 

Providing another example of how far down the corporate rabbit hole state and federal governments have gone, on March 27 the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP)—the state agency with the mission “to protect Pennsylvania's air, land and water from pollution and to provide for the health and safety of its citizens”— sued these townships for interfering with the oil and gas industry. 


Tuesday, Mar 28, 2017, 12:00 am  ·  By Leon Fink

Coal Country vs. the Arts Community, Says Who?

The Quecreek Mine Rescue Memorial, near Somerset, Penn., in March.   (Photo: Susan Levine)

Last weekend, amidst much talk in the media of the proposed Trump budget, my wife and I were crossing Coal Country on a car trip from Chicago to Washington DC, and we happened to stop for the night in the town of Somerset, Penn. Quickly, we learned that the area contained not only the crash site of Flight 97 (the famous “third plane” on Sept. 11, 2001) but also the Quecreek Rescue site where in July 2002, nine miners, trapped for more than three days in a collapsed and flooded underground pit, were saved by a heroic intervention combining the expertise of the federal Mine Safety Health Administration, area machine shops that fashioned an emergency drill and a National Guard helicopter. 

To mark these unrelated but closely-occurring events, local entrepreneurs have even established a “Tragedy and Triumph” bus tour across Somerset County.  Whereas the National Park Service has erected an impressive memorial complex in honor of the Flight 97 victims, a simple but moving monument by Zanesville, Ohio sculptor Alan Cottrill—and funded by contributions from a variety of local citizens and businesses—commemorates the Quecreek rescue operation.  The monument pictures a sitting miner, his pickaxe to the side, with a book in one hand and an apple in the other. 


Friday, Mar 24, 2017, 6:00 pm  ·  By Mark Willsey

To Upend Corporate Agriculture, Americans Need to Understand Basic Farm Policy

Farmers should not have to plow 20,000 acres of rented land just to make a living.   (Photo / Caption: Nicholas Tonelli / Truthout)

Nearly all of Trump's electoral wins were in rural districts, many of which are made up of farming communities. This is where Trump thrived. I have seen it firsthand: I have lived in the city, worked in manufacturing and I'm now a farmer in a small farming town in Central Illinois.

For the progressive movement to make inroads in communities like mine, it needs to put forward a serious plan for how the U.S. government can stop subsidizing corporate farms and instead return the land to small family farmers who work the land. Farmers should not have to farm 20,000 acres of rented land just to make a living.

To move toward a future in which progressives are able to put forward such a plan, it's crucial for everyone in this country—including city dwellers—to gain a basic literacy about the agricultural shifts that have taken place in the United States and what it would take to move away from corporate agriculture on a mass scale.