Rural America

Monday, Sep 18, 2017, 6:30 am  ·  By Rural America In These Times

In Rare Public Appearance, Smokey Bear Ignores Climate Change ... Just Waves

September 8, 2017—Smokey, a mascot for environmental responsibility, waves at Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue during a speech about wildfires.   (Image:

On September 14, the U.S. Forest Service, which manages 193 million acres of public lands, announced that the cost of fighting this season’s massive wildfires in the Pacific Northwest, Northern Rockies and elsewhere had exceeded $2 billion dollars—making 2017 the agency’s most expensive year on record.

According to the Department of Agriculture (USDA), which oversees the Forest Service:

“At the peak of Western fire season, there were three times as many uncontained large fires on the landscape as compared to the five-year average, and almost three times as many personnel assigned to fires. More than 27,000 people supported firefighting activities during peak Western fire season. The Forest Service has been at Preparedness Level 5, the highest level, for 35 days as of September 14, 2017. Approximately 2.2 million acres of National Forest system lands have burned in that time.” 

In order to cover the cost of “continuous fire activity” and “an extended length of the fire season,” the Forest Service has been forced to borrow funds otherwise allotted for its land management and fire prevention initiatives. Without speculating as to why we’re seeing more and more wildfires (i.e. avoiding the subject of climate change entirely), Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and Tony Tooke, the recently appointed Chief of the Forest Service, are calling on Congress to change the way the Forest Service’s emergency firefighting efforts are funded. 


Thursday, Sep 14, 2017, 6:00 am  ·  By Robert W. Klein

Not Covered: Why Our National Flood Insurance Program is (Also) Underwater

September 12, 2017—A flooded neighborhood in Bonita Springs, two days after Hurricane Irma hit Florida.   (Image: Twitter)

Editor’s Note: The following analysis was first published shortly after Hurricane Harvey devastated a large portion of South Texas (killing more than 70 people and costing yet-to-be-tallied billions of dollars in flood damages) but three days before Hurricane Irma made landfall at Cudjoe Key, in the lower Florida Keys, on the night of September 10. Before hitting the U.S. mainland, Irma tore a path of destruction through numerous islands in the Caribbean.

In Florida, search-and-rescue operations are still underway, entire neighborhoods have been destroyed and millions of people statewide are without power. Meanwhile, residents who heeded evacuation warnings are anxiously awaiting the chance to return to their homes and businesses—in some cases, only to find out what little the storm left of the structures and possessions they left behind.

In both states, even with hypothetically unlimited financial assistance, rebuilding the infrastructure that’s been lost will take years. Unfortunately, a majority of these losses are uninsured. Worse still, the federal program established in 1968 to help people recover from catastrophic flood damage is already $25 billion in debt. 


Tuesday, Sep 12, 2017, 11:00 am  ·  By John Cromartie

Rural America’s Population Declines for the Sixth Straight Year

An old abandoned farmhouse.   (Image: Light Channel / YouTube)

The number of people living in rural (nonmetro) counties stood at 46.1 million in July 2016—14 percent of all U.S. residents spread across 72 percent of the Nation’s land area. The rural population declined by 21,000 between July 2015 and July 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s latest population estimates, the sixth consecutive year of modest population losses. Although many rural counties have shown population losses for decades, this is the first period on record of overall rural population decline.

The Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service (ERS) researchers and others who analyze conditions in “rural” America most often use data on nonmetro areas, defined as counties outside the commuting zones of cities of 50,000 or more. Population growth rates in rural counties have been significantly lower than in urban (metro) counties since the mid-1990s, and the gap widened considerably in recent years. Between 2006 and 2016, annual rates of population change in rural areas fell from 0.7 percent to below zero, while urban rates fell only slightly from 1 to 0.8 percent.


Saturday, Sep 9, 2017, 12:00 pm  ·  By John Collins

Native Youth “Paddle to Protect” Minnesota’s Water from Another Enbridge Pipeline

A drone shot of the 250-mile "Paddle to Protect" demonstration making its way down the Mississippi.   (Image: Jaida Grey Eagle)

On August 12, a group of six indigenous teenagers and four adults from different tribes in Canada and the United States met at the headwaters of the Mississippi River, in northern Minnesota’s Itasca State Park, and set out on a 250-mile canoe trip to protest Enbridge Inc.’s latest endeavor—a so-called “replacement” of its aging Line 3 pipeline. The goal was to raise awareness about the danger the project poses to water quality, sacred wild rice beds and First Nation tribal sovereignty.

Enbridge—a multinational energy transportation company that operates the longest network of oil and liquid hydrocarbon pipelines in North America—is headquartered in Calgary, Alberta. It specializes in moving diluted bitumen, a heavy crude oil from the Athabasca tar sands, to oil refineries in the United States. 

With unfortunate frequency, however, sections of the company’s sprawling 50,000 miles of pipe rupture, burst or otherwise leak their contents into some of the continent’s most ecologically sensitive areas. In 2010, for example, a 40-foot portion of Enbridge’s 6B pipeline broke near Marshall, Mich., sending more than one million gallons of the planet’s dirtiest fuel gushing into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River—the so-called “Dilbit Disaster” remains one of the largest inland spills in U.S. history, but it’s far from an isolated incident.

Enbridge’s existing Line 3—1,097 miles of 34-inch pipe that travels from Edmonton, Alberta, southeast through Saskatchewan and Manitoba before crossing a corner of North Dakota and 300 miles of northern Minnesota and ending at a terminal in Superior, Wis.—was originally constructed in 1967. The company’s new effort involves phasing that old line out, leaving it in the ground and building an entirely new version (this time with 36-inch pipe). Where the oil ultimately ends up and how it gets there—whether by truck, ship, train or another pipeline—is also the subject of controversy. 

On September 2, three weeks and 250 miles from where the "Paddle to Protect" demonstration began, a crowd of family and friends gathered on a warm Saturday afternoon at the Big Sandy Lake recreation area in Aitkin County, Minn., to welcome the kids as they finished the last leg of their journey. 


Tuesday, Sep 5, 2017, 6:00 pm  ·  By Tracy Frisch

Small Towns in New York and Vermont Share a Water Contamination Crisis, But Not an Official Response

Rensselaer County N.Y.—Once rated the best-tasting water in the state of New York, the groundwater that supplies the village of Hoosick Falls with drinking water is heavily contaminated with perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), an industrial chemical that has been linked to cancer. In July, a local manufacturing plant near the water supply was designated as a federal Superfund site.   (Image: Pure Water Gazette)

It was around Halloween in 2015 when Michelle O’Leary moved north from Columbia County, N.Y., to a Hoosick Falls fixer-upper with her husband and two children.

Before the family bought their first home here, O’Leary says, she investigated everything from the local school system to crime rates, the sex offender registry and local weather statistics. She even learned that Hoosick Falls’ drinking water had been rated as the best in Rensselaer County in 1984.

But two weeks after the family settled into their new home, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared that the Hoosick Falls tap water was unsafe to drink because of contamination with perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA—an industrial chemical that has been implicated in cancer, developmental problems and endocrine disruption.

“My happiness was ripped out from under me,” says O’Leary.

She and her husband had unknowingly chosen a house “smack dab” in the middle of several toxic sites, including two Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics factories and a shuttered Honeywell plant, all of which used PFOA for decades before production of the chemical was phased out a few years ago.

In late July, the EPA officially added the Hoosick Falls Saint-Gobain plant to the federal Superfund list. The designation allows federal resources to be directed toward a cleanup effort, although the scope and timetable of that effort remain to be determined. State officials say a filter system installed last year to remove PFOA has made the village water safe to drink again. But the groundwater that supplies the Hoosick Falls water system, which serves 4,000 customers, remains heavily contaminated with PFOA as well as vinyl chloride and dichloroethylene. For now, many people in Hoosick Falls still choose to drink bottled water, though free supplies of it ended on September 1.


Friday, Sep 1, 2017, 5:00 pm  ·  By Craig Tovey

A Biologist and Systems Engineer Explains How Fire Ants Organize Themselves to Survive Floods

(Image: Custom / KHOU)

Drop a clump of 100,000 fire ants in a pond of water—or flood a huge area of Texas that’s infested with fire ants and drive them out of their nests in large groups. In minutes the clump will flatten and spread into a circular pancake that can float for weeks without drowning the ants. Drop the same clump of ants near a plant on solid ground. They’ll climb atop each other to a form a solid mass around the plant stem in the shape of the Eiffel Tower—sometimes as high as 30 ants tall. The ant tower serves as a temporary encampment that repels raindrops.

How and why do the ants make these symmetrical but very different shapes? They depend on touch and smell—not sight—to perceive the world, so they can sense only what’s very close to them. Contrary to popular belief, the queen doesn’t issue orders to the colony; she spends her life laying eggs. Each ant controls itself, based on information gathered from its immediate vicinity.

As both a systems engineer and biologist, I’m fascinated by the ant colony’s effectiveness in diverse tasks, such as foraging for food, floating on water, fighting other ants and building towers and underground nests—all accomplished by thousands of purblind creatures whose brains have less than one ten-thousandth as many neurons as a human’s.


Tuesday, Aug 29, 2017, 10:00 pm  ·  By Jessica Wang

Regeneration: One Way or the Other, Millennials Must Learn How to Farm


Polyfaces—a documentary directed by Lisa Heenan and Isaebella Doherty—goes deep behind the scenes of Polyface Farm, a celebrated family-run operation located in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. The film explores Polyface’s unique back-to-basics farming techniques and gives a colorful look at Joel Salatin and his family as they lead the effort toward sustainable farming and slow food.

Prizing transparency, environmentally friendly practices and the production of chemical-free, “clean” meat and eggs, Polyface offers a striking alternative to the prevailing model of industrialized crop farming and corporate agribusiness. Salatin has been named the “most innovative farmer in the world” by TIME magazine, and was featured in Michael Pollan’s best-seller The Omnivore’s Dilemma and the 2008 documentary Food, Inc.

Currently, less than 10 percent of the nation’s 2.1 million farmers have transition plans to pass their land and business to the next generation, and much has been made of the looming crisis of America’s aging farmer. But at Polyface Farm, Sheri Salatin, daughter-in-law of Joel Salatin and marketing director at the farm, has seen firsthand the growing interest in sustainable farming from the youngest generations. So in July 2014, she launched Eager Farmer—an online resource specifically meant to bridge the generational divide and give American agriculture a new way forward. 

The following interview has been slightly edited.


Monday, Aug 28, 2017, 11:00 am  ·  By Rural America In These Times

Climate Change Isn’t a Hoax and Coastal Communities Need an Infrastructure Plan

Aug. 27, 2017—Stranded elderly residents up to their waists in floodwater wait for help at an assisted living facility in Dickinson, Texas.   (Image: Timothy J. McIntosh)

As of Sunday evening, flights in and out of Houston, Texas were grounded. All major interstates were closed and freeway off-ramps in the nation’s 4th largest city were being used as boat launches for official and unofficial rescue efforts. In smaller communities like Dickinson, residents with flat bottom boats, trying not to hit their props on submerged cars, were using social media to track down neighbors—including senior citizens and stranded pets—who needed help evacuating. Coastal towns such as Rockport and Port Aransas are “void of functioning infrastructure” and will be for weeks or months.

But this is only the beginning.

On Sunday morning, the National Weather Service (NWS), not known for hyperbole, called the amount of rainfall in South Texas “beyond anything experienced.” Later that afternoon, Tropical Storm Harvey, currently expected to keep bringing rain through at least Wednesday, had already dropped a mind-boggling 11 trillion gallons of water. Some meteorologists now expect that volume to double. 

In short, when all is said and done, this may very well end up being the worst flooding event in U.S. history. But as the right criticizes the left for politicizing tragedies, and the left criticizes the right for refusing to acknowledge that climate change contributes to these tragedies—nothing changes the fact that living at or near sea level is increasingly dangerous.


Wednesday, Aug 23, 2017, 12:00 pm  ·  By Emeline Posner

“They’re Hollowing Out Rural Communities”: Why We Need to Oppose Corporate Consolidation

A conversation with Austin Frerick, candidate for Iowa’s 3rd congressional district Democratic primary.   (Image:

Across all financial sectors—whether it’s telecommunications, energy, transportation, tech or agriculture—the largest multinational corporations are actively seeking to consolidate their global power by acquiring their competition. “Merger mania,” as it’s known on Wall Street, is not a new development, rather a perennial economic phenomenon. But while lucrative for a company’s shareholders and CEOs, history has shown us time and time again that unopposed monopolies are almost always bad for society-at-large.

On the farm front, as we’ve discussed on numerous occasions, last September Monsanto announced its intention to merge with Bayer in a $66 billion deal. If the merger goes through, Monsanto-Bayer would dominate the chemical and seed markets alongside Dow-DuPont and Syngenta-ChemChina—the four other global agriculture and chemical giants expected to merge by the end of the year. As a result, American farmers, who have seen seed prices rise and incomes fall within the last decade, would face yet higher prices and less choice. While farmers continue to speak out against the deal, many incumbent politicians remain silent.

Austin Frerick wants to go to Congress as representative of Iowa’s 3rd congressional district, which covers the southwest corner of the state, including Des Moines. To get there he is running in the 2018 Democratic primary, and stopping monopoloies is on of the central planks of his campaign. Frerick, 27, a former economist at the Department of Treasury, is part of a wave of younger progressives running for office as Democrats. He sees anti-trust issues as part and parcel of a progressive political agenda. Frerick also supports single-payer healthcare, a $15 minimum wage, reproductive rights, campaign finance reform and a universal higher education system. RAITT spoke with Frerick about Monsanto, corporate charity and rural communities.   


Monday, Aug 21, 2017, 8:00 pm  ·  By Rural America In These Times

NAFTA Redux Looks a Lot Like TPP: Family Farm Groups in All 3 Countries Slam Secret Trade Talks

Demonstrators dressed like wolves at a 2015 protest in Seattle, Wash.   (Photo: John Duffy / Common Dreams)

On Sunday, officials from the United States, Mexico and Canada wrapped up the first round of talks regarding the “modernization” of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)—the economic treaty inked in 1994 that, depending on who you ask, either “lays the foundation for economic growth and prosperity for all North Americans” or has, in fact, exploited workers in all three countries, suppressed wages and outsourced environmental destruction.

President Trump, a vocal critic of NAFTA economics on the campaign trail, made no mention of the talks last week, but the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP)—an alliance that “works locally and globally at the intersection of policy and practice to ensure fair and sustainable food, farm and trade systems”—did. 

IATP criticized government officials' refusal to allow input from the actual farmers any new deal will affect and maintained that the direction of the talks continues to favor multinational corporations instead of working people—not unlike the supposedly "dead" Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).