Monday, December 31, 2012

Agriculture + rural architecture = agritecture



By Krista Hulshof, Founder of VELD architect

Architecture is about more than pretty buildings.
As a young architect, my training was really about problem solving,
design thinking, sustainable technical training, and yes, aesthetics.
Rural spaces can benefit from these skills, too.

When I tell people I am an architect I usually get a response of awe. Most people associate architecture with building tall flashy buildings, and although some “starchitects” get those projects and those roles, I want to work in my childhood communities, with farmers and the rural community.

I grew up on a dairy farm and loved it, but for some reason I always knew I wanted to be an architect. So I went to the “big” city of Waterloo to study at one of Canada’s premier architecture schools. Upon completing my undergrad degree and starting my masters, there were a lot of ideas and projects in the architecture world focused around food and urban farming. Being a farm girl, I was disappointed with the lack of knowledge about farming and where people’s food comes from, so I set out to create a sustainable farm project that started with an actual rural farm. My colleagues were designing vertical farms that I thought were “pie in the sky”, but those city slickers had one thing going for them: no preconceived notions. I spent many months breaking out of my box of what farming “had” to be, so that I could create a sustainable farm. 

Woven Lea Farm from author's "agritecture"thesis

My goal for my thesis was to apply my new background of architecture to my old understanding of agriculture. Having spent four years learning how to design energy efficient buildings, I was amazed that this technology was not being translated to the rural construction industry. But sustainability means more than energy—it also relates to the economic, cultural, and ecological aspects of agriculture.  I spent 12 months researching, diagramming, calculating and of course designing my sustainable farm. 

Through those 12 months I dreaded the approach of graduation and the real world. I wanted to make a career out of designing farms, but what farmer hires an architect? There were only a few agriculture projects that I knew of that involved an architect, such as fifth Town Cheese, and the University of Guelph Diary research farm. 

Inventing the role of "agritect"
 
Nevertheless, after graduation, I took the leap and started my own architecture firm that specializes in “agritecture”. My goal is to bring passive heating, cooling, ventilating, and lighting technologies to farmers and rural communities, to reduce energy costs, and create more sustainable farm buildings. I bring an outside view and big picture thinking to a farmer. I strive to help find efficiencies and wasted possibilities, and help with long term planning. I want to create a more sustainable agriculture industry one barn at a time.

Mason Lane Farm (from deLeon & Primmer Architects)
Farmers are meeting more stringent building codes, municipal regulations, and policies that need navigating and negotiating. I also know that many rural policies are not up-to-date with the realities nor the needs of the communities and farmers they serve. Architects are trained to assist with precisely these issues, helping farmers creatively negotiate and design to minimize burdens, and meet standards. 

I also feel there is a role for me to play in agritourism. Agritourism is about creating a brand and an authentic experience for visitors, with limitations. Just because the farm smells does not mean the general public wants to experience the full force of the manure tank! Designing an agritourism experience to be fun, exciting, safe, efficient, and unobtrusive is important, and putting this puzzle together is the role of the architect. The rural community has a great opportunity now to present themselves in the best possible manner to the general public and urban culture.


As an architect I would be remiss if I didn’t mention aesthetics. You might be thinking to yourself, “here comes the artsy fartsy part”, but there is a reason we all draw a red gambrel roof barn with a green tractor and fences when we think of "rural" as children. There is a collective understanding of the rural landscape as a place in harmony with nature, beautiful, and peaceful.  As we continue to lose traditional bank barns, we destroy our own rural culture and the rural landscape. 

Building for the future
 
My design intent is to create buildings that are true to materials, site specific, and culturally sensitive. I combine traditional and contemporary architecture to both tie our rural landscapes to history and show off our modern future. Farmers, through every barn they choose to design and build, shape the image of the rural landscape. With the help of good design they can leave a legacy for many generations just as past generations have left us a rich history.

Architecture in my practice is about the design of buildings, big or small, and helping people live and work in effective, beautiful, and sustainable spaces.
 
While many people worry that the rural population is declining, I am one example of farm kids that are coming back to their communities with more creative and professional skills than ever before. It is a great time to be involved in the rural communities, where young professionals can have a bigger impact in a smaller pond. 

Krista Hulshof is an architect with a strong interest in agriculture and sustainable building design. She is an avid cyclist as a way to enjoy the rural landscapes on Ontario, Canada. Check out her services at http://www.VELDarchitect.com. You can follow her on twitter @VELDarchitect, keep up with information, ideas and trends at theagritect.wordpress.com, like VELDarchitect on Facebook, or be inspired on Pinterest.

Visit RUPRI and the Rural Futures Lab for more research, policy papers, and news.

Images provided by the author.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Climate change and rural adaptation "Down Under"

By Geoff Cockfield, Associate Professor at University of Southern Queensland (Australia)

Earlier this month, some Australian news media ran articles about a future in which average temperatures would increase by six degrees. Previously discussed scenarios were generally limited to ‘plus two’ to ‘plus four’ futures. But with the failure of efforts to curtail greenhouse gas emissions, evident in the very modest progress on mitigation from the latest UN climate talks in Doha, and rapid industrialisation in China and India, more dramatic change is being considered.

In Australia the ‘Millennium’ drought of 2002-2009 provided a picture of what such a future might be like, at least for us. Since 1970, rainfall trends have generally conformed to climate change models that suggest less rainfall in the southern and western areas, with some increases in the tropical and sub-tropical areas. If current trends continue, they will contribute to the reshaping of rural areas.

Climate Change Hotspots in Australia
Source: WWF, click on the image to enlarge.

Rural trends in Australia

The demographic trend is to fewer people on farms, in small agriculture-dependent towns and in remote areas, other than where there are mining projects. Higher temperatures, less water for irrigation and large high-tech farms will leave an even more sparsely settled inland. Already, 80 percent of people live within 100 kilometers of the coastline, with 64 percent of those in five major metropolitan areas. Climate change will add to the reasons for people to move.

The ‘long dry’ as well as the wages paid in the burgeoning mining sector accelerated the long-term trends of farm aggregation and the replacement of labor with large-scale machinery, especially in Western Australia where the dry years continued through 2011 and 2012. Farmers are reducing livestock numbers, especially sheep, with some farmers especially affected by having to shoot starving animals during the worst of the drought. The economic effects of the decrease in livestock numbers flow through regional meat processing businesses and contractors such as shearers, accelerating the overall decline of small rural towns.

The hot conditions, which disproportionately affect the elderly, will tend to leave some inland areas as places to work for periods of time, rather than places to live in the long term. Other disadvantages could include greater exposure to mosquito-borne diseases such as Dengue and Ross River fevers, as the tropics ‘expand’ south and the increasing costs of energy and transport as a result of the new national carbon tax (http://www.carbonneutral.com.au/organisations/the-carbon-tax.html).


Threatened water supplies

This coastal and urban migration will place even greater pressure on urban water supplies. During the Millennium drought, the five mainland state governments all developed desalination plants for each of their major cities. These have however, proved costly to build and run. From 2007, the Federal Government promoted the use of recycled water. However, there remains a real resistance to full-contact uses of this water, illustrated by the resounding defeat of a recycling proposal in my home city of Toowoomba in a referendum. The problems of desalination and recycling led some state governments to seek more water from river systems, including those providing most of the water for irrigated crop industries.

Irrigation in the Murray Darling Basin is a source of
contention among conservationists and farmers.
Source: The Guardian

The Millennium drought highlighted long-term conflicts over water, especially around Australia’s most agriculturally important river system, the Murray-Darling Basin. The rice industry, an important exporter in the central Basin areas, was in virtual shutdown for two years because of the shortage of irrigation water. The dry conditions also increased political negotiations to manage water allocations in the Murray-Darling Basin, which crosses four states. The negotiations resulted in a process whereby the Federal Government will ‘buy’ back water licenses, which will reduce irrigated crop production in some areas and further reduce the size of some regional economies.

There are some, including in the Opposition political parties, who argue that there is still scope for an expansion of irrigated agriculture in the northern areas, effectively reconstructing Australian agricultural geography.  However, scientific and economic reviews are cautious given the erratic rainfall, uncertain environmental impacts of development, and the remoteness of suitable sites.

Rural adaptations in Australia

The early signs of climate change are driving various adaptations. There is research on animal and human housing insulation, alternative energy strategies for rural and remote areas, and alternative crops and crop production. Mitigation policies, such as carbon tax provide opportunities for carbon farming, including land management for conservation purposes that will yield income. This may be especially important for Aboriginal communities managing traditional lands. In addition, rural areas will provide the sites for other forms of energy generation, including solar and wind, although there are some local objections to wind farms.

Source: AhramOnline
The prospects for rural leadership on adaptation are somewhat hindered by a reluctance to acknowledge that there is any such problem as climate change. In survey after survey, including in the US, there appears to be higher levels of ‘skepticism’, actually outright disbelief in some cases, of climate change in rural areas and especially amongst farmers. Perhaps this goes with the tendency to political and social conservatism, an anti-green tendency, or the fear of the existential threat of climate change.

Yet rural people are good at adaptation, being so exposed to natural events and volatile markets and perhaps the incremental nature of climate change will encourage innovation and adaptation that is couched in terms of addressing the existing issues that afflict rural areas.
  • Do you see the same issues and dilemmas in the US, or at least in some regions?
  • How do you think the US political system is coping with water conflicts?

Geoff Cockfield is Associate Professor in politics and economics at the University of Southern Queensland. His research areas include rural policy, climate change adaptation and natural resources management. Before working in a university, he worked in agriculture and in rural journalism.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Superheroes in training: Envisioning a new future for agriculture

By Melissa L. Lamberton, research assistant at Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture

Introduction to the Superheroes in Training series

Graduate students are the unsung heroes of sustainability. As universities publish new research about innovative practices to create healthier and more resilient agricultural systems, grad students often toil behind the scenes, sitting at a lab bench, spending long days in the field, crunching numbers and writing reports. Although you won’t find them fighting crime in red capes or leaping tall buildings in a single bound, I call these students superheroes—people who work against the odds to make a better world.

Stefen Gailans is a Superhero in Training
(photo courtesy of the Leopold Center)
The Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture tells the stories of some of these students in a new series of vignettes called “Superheroes in Training” on our Facebook page. I asked graduate students involved in research projects funded by the Leopold Center to talk about their work, their inspirations, and their visions of the future.

These students help the Leopold Center pursue its mission to identify and reduce the negative environmental and social impacts of farming and develop new ways to farm profitably while conserving natural resources. The Center funds research projects in ecology, marketing and policy as wide-ranging as developing local food systems, finding ways to protect waterways from pollution, and helping landowners include conservation practices in farm leases.

The interview below, with Ph.D. student Stefan Gailans, illustrates how the students we work with envision a future for agriculture that not only protects the environment, but also supports the livelihoods of farmers and invigorates rural communities. As Gailans says, more people making a living in rural areas means more people caring for the land. After all, that’s what “sustainability” means—sustaining ecosystems as well as people—and that’s why we think superheroes can be found in the research lab.


 
Superheroes in Training: Meet Stefan Gailans

The Leopold Center is proud to introduce Stefan Gailans, designer of alternative cropping systems. This interview is part of a series, "Superheroes in Training," that spotlights students who are involved with Leopold Center research projects and work to create a more sustainable world.

Stefan is a Ph.D. student in Crop Production & Physiology and Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University.

Stefan in his natural habitat
(photo by ISU student Rosie Olander)
  • Where is the place you call home?
Now a full-time resident of Ames but originally from Mequon, Wisconsin (north of Milwaukee).
  • What is your research, and why is it important?
In a nutshell, my research lab investigates alternative crop production and alternative cropping systems—apart from corn and soybean these systems include crops like canola, wheat, and red clover. Expanding the suite of crops grown can potentially reduce the risk of pest outbreaks in our cropping systems in Iowa. Winter varieties of canola and wheat included in the alternative systems serve as cash grain crops as well as cover crops that aim to reduce soil erosion and leaching during the “off season.” Basically, maintaining a high level of agricultural productivity while being more environmentally benign.
  • What got you excited about studying this topic?
I got excited about this kind of research when I realized the intersection between agriculture and the environment many years ago. As one who cares for wildlife habitat, outdoor recreation, and productive agriculture, I find this intersection is very important.
  • Describe a favorite moment or surprising lesson learned.
When studying or conducting agricultural research, one is subject to the time clock and whims of Mother Nature. And one cannot get too hung up or frustrated by this. Having set target dates for certain field operations (planting, sampling, harvesting, etc.) is unrealistic—these need to be more like moving targets for the goals to be attainable. As a technician once told me when I first started out, “That’s agriculture.”
  • What's your dream job?
My dream job would include opportunities to reach out and educate students, community members, and farmers alike as to this important intersection between agriculture and the environment. Communicating the importance of both agriculture and the environment is of key interest.
  • How do you spend your time when you're not out saving the world?
I spend a lot of time listening to music and going to see local music live with my friends. I’ve also recently gotten into science fiction literature, primarily the works of Isaac Asimov. I also enjoy fishing and, as per the seasons, very much enjoy hunting for waterfowl and pheasant.
  • If you could make one change to make the world more sustainable, what would it be?
I’ll draw a bit from my previous answer here. In some of his novels, Asimov portrays a world (not necessarily positively or negatively) where nearly all humans live in dense population centers with very few working the land with many machines to grow and produce food. I would much rather see the opposite of this. The more people in rural settings, the more people there are to care for agriculture and the environment.
  • Who is your favorite superhero (real or fictional) and why?
I always liked Batman because he didn’t have any super power conferred to him by virtue of being an alien or some random accident. Sure, Bruce Wayne has a lot of money and seemingly unlimited access to resources, but when it comes down to it, he’s just a human being who had to work really long and hard to achieve superhero status.


Melissa L. Lamberton is a research assistant at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and a candidate for a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing and Environment at Iowa State University. She is interested in how poets, writers and artists can communicate about science to create a better future for people and the environment.

Read more Superhero in Training stories on the Leopold Center's Facebook page.

Visit RUPRI here.

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Rural Differential: Drilling down into the data

By Kathy Miller, RUPRI Program Director

We are introducing a new monthly blog post that will focus on "the rural differential". Each month, we will focus on a particular social, economic, or demographic indicator and examine what the data shows us about rural America.


For this very first edition of The Rural Differential, I thought we should talk about data in general. Where do we get data for rural America?

While most national data sets do include some geographic comparison level (mostly metropolitan and nonmetropolitan), we often need to drill down to small area data, usually county level, to really understand the conditions and trends in rural America. This allows us to not only see national level trends, but also differences across regions and states. Plus, small area data lets us create maps. Maps often tell the story better than any table, chart or graph.

So where do we go for small area data? Mostly, we use the American Community Survey (ACS) from the U.S. Census Bureau.


American Community Survey, you ask? Haven’t heard of it? This is the way the Census Bureau collects all the detailed information – everything from housing conditions to ancestry.

That information used to be collected in the once-a-decade long form, but we needed more timely data to understand conditions and trends, and to make decisions about how to spend federal dollars. A study by the Brookings Institution found that over $400 billion in federal dollars is allocated based on ACS data. Instead of collecting this information once every 10 years, the Census Bureau is now collecting the data continuously, and then aggregating over time for accurate estimates that are much more frequent.

Sounds great, no?

Well… there’s a bit of a catch to “frequent.” In lots of rural places, data has to be collected over a lot longer period than in more populated places in order to obtain a reliable estimate.. In most counties, in fact, it takes five years to get a reliable estimate.

So, think about a large county in the West. We’re already averaging data over a large geographic space, but now we’re averaging it over time as well. And think about what a five year span can represent: 2005 to 2009 had some good years and some really bad years in it.

Frequency of ACS estimates by county (click to see an enlarged map)
So, while it’s true that there is absolutely an inequity between rural and urban places. Urban areas have more timely data, let’s be clear that this doesn’t outweigh the overall benefits of the ACS. The bottom line is that this data is indeed more timely. Even if we can’t get annual estimates for all places, at least we’re seeing more current and more accurate data.

It’s not perfect data – there’s no such thing as perfect data – but for understanding rural America, this data is absolutely essential.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Youngest Guy in the Room

By Warren Vaughan, Senior Planner for a county development district in SW Montana
 
I am in my mid-30s, and have worked in local government for the past eight and a half years. For the first two years, I made the rounds - the daily grind of permitting, the phone calls with people asking about zoning, the front counter work with the public. I enjoyed it, but I also struggled: I had gotten a degree in land use planning because I loved the idea of building community, not processing permits as a low-level bureaucrat.
 
Then I got lucky. A convergence of events led me to suddenly being the primary facilitator of three separate community planning processes across our large and rapidly growing county in Montana. I have spent the past six years working directly with citizens groups and local nonprofits on first-ever community plans, new sidewalks, sewer infrastructure, and a two-county economic development district.
 
A community meeting in SW Montana
And through all of it, one very personal fact is always apparent to me: I am the youngest guy in the room.

I often wonder where everyone else is - out starting businesses, out raising families? Certainly, the challenges of becoming civically engaged in my mid-30s are very apparent to me. I work full time, am raising my own family, and am enrolled in a doctoral program. Juggling it all is a complicated experience.
 
The author and his daughter
As someone who is directly involved in day-to-day activities of civic engagement, I think about how community work best gets done in today’s world. Sure, we have our share of Rotary Clubs and American Legions, but most of those organizations are aging and being replaced by local professional organizations.

Rather than focusing on community work, the local associations I see are often not tied to civic service but rather provide venues for people making business and professional connections. Because a significant part of my job involves economic development, I heartily support these sorts of associations...but I also recognize that something is lost. And it isn’t just my own experience: civic engagement, nationally, looks very different than it used to.

Civic engagement in America

Historically, Americans have been civically engaged on multiple levels. Alexis de Toqueville, the most well known early commentator on democracy in the U.S., famously described Americans as constantly forming, dissolving, and reforming local groups to deal with local issues [1]. One of the consequences of all this association, argued Toqueville, was that we were literally practicing democracy at all levels of society. Importantly, the practice of democracy was scalable. Learning how to take part in civil dialogue at the dinner table allowed for a healthy exchange of ideas over a game of cards. The skills that allowed friends to discuss the local politics of the day could work during one’s tenure on the school board; then, what worked on the school board or Lion’s Club could work as a city council member. Moving up, those skills, in turn, would also work in state legislatures and even on a national scale.

Photograph by Kestral Aerial
Toqueville’s work has cast a long shadow. In 2000, Robert Putnam put him back on the map with Bowling Alone, Putnam's account of the decline of social capital in America [2]. Putnam argued that that strong ties and face-to-face interaction in groups created democracy from the ground up. Putnam warned that civic engagement had been on the decline since the 1960s and suggested that any discussion of democracy needed to get serious about social capital and civic engagement.

So what changed since the 1960s? Theda Skocpol, a sociologist from Harvard, provides an historic view [3]. For one, the types of groups Americans join today are different than the ones they joined 50 years ago. Membership in volunteer-driven organizations like the Rotary Club is on the decline, while professionally run organizations with centralized headquarters are up. Single-issue groups are replacing broad associations based on socializing. Vietnam caused a generational rift in community organizations based on military service.

 The upshot of it all is that the character of our civic engagement began looking a lot different. The result, according to Skocpol, is a “diminished democracy”. 

Moving forward

So what’s to be done about this? If we take seriously the idea that a thriving civic life is key to our success as a democracy, then what do those of us working on rural policy issues do about it? How do we encourage a new kind of civic engagement, one that takes into account the realities of striking political polarization, digital communities, and a modern life that leaves little time to get involved in issues larger than oneself?


Public trails in the author's home county

One thing I do know is that civic engagement in politics in my own community looks very different than it did just four years ago. Our local and state tea party group has largely come to dominate my county’s politics, and the process by which they’ve done so is worth understanding. In contrast to many of the political groups involved statewide and locally who depend on professional staff, mailers, and requests to contact legislators at key times, our local tea party group consists of ordinary people who track political issues, are placed on planning commissions, and have been elected to local office.

Regardless of how one feels about the politics involved, the fact remains that this is civic engagement happening on a capacity not seen in 50 years. The process is worth our attention as professionals involved in rural policy and development.

On a professional level, I swing between valuing civic engagement as an end in itself and just wanting to get things done as a professional. The challenge is that local work is inextricably bound up with the national conversation. Sitting down with someone week after week at meetings to try and hammer out local solutions for and by local people simply isn’t going to work if the larger public sphere has been taken over by a divided national conversation, and I often question whether the endless night meetings build social capital or simply entrench positions.

A personal choice to participate

In the end, I find the question of civic engagement a deeply personal one. What does it mean for me to engage in the larger questions of today’s society? How can I effectively move beyond my own self and my private concerns to connect with larger values of community and hope and faith? How do I, as an employee of local government, conduct myself at a time when much of the public sphere is dominated by debates over the value of government?

These questions extend to larger ones about youth engagement. How do we engage people younger than me in questions about the common cause? Youth turnout in the past couple of election cycles has been encouraging, but civic engagement goes beyond casting a vote at the ballot box. 

To quote Robert Bellah, “democracy means paying attention” [4]. In my mind, that means understanding that every one of us is embedded in layer upon layer of relationships, and recognizing that how we engage in these relationships has systemic impact on our civic life and democracy. As challenging as it is in these days of hostile political discourse, we’re all going to have to start paying a lot more attention. I don’t want to be the youngest guy in the room anymore.

I don’t have ready answers, but on a personal level, I put myself firmly in Toqueville’s shadow: I believe civic engagement is the practice of democracy. As I survey my own life as a father, a husband, a brother, a son, a friend, and a professional who deeply cares about the future of my own community, I am moved by the idea that my relationships are part of the practice of democracy. That, indeed, is a powerful idea.


References

[1] Toqueville, A. de. (2003). Democracy in America. In V. Hodgkinson & M. Foley (Eds.), The Civil Society Reader. Hanover: University Press of New England.

[2] Putnam, R. (2000). Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon and Schuster.

[3] Skocpol, T. (2003). Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

[4] Bellah, R., Madsen, R., Tipton, S., Sullivan, W., & Swidler, A. (1991). The Good Society. New York: Knopf.


Warren Vaughan works in community and economic development for local government in Montana. When he finds the time, he squeezes in work on a PhD in collaboration and community at Fielding Graduate University. His favorite thing in the world is getting distracted by his wife and three year old daughter. He can be reached wvaughan [at] email.fielding.edu.

Photo credits: Landscape photographs (including Kestral Aerial photo) courtesy of Gallatin Valley Land Trust. All other images provided by the author.


Visit RUPRI here or the Rural Futures Lab here.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

RUPRI Policy News: Rural Health Care

By Jocelyn Richgels, RUPRI Associate Director, Policy Programs

Rural health care policy is getting a rare surge of national attention. Two leading health care policy institutions, the Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPac) and the Institute of Medicine (IOM), have released major reports that touch on rural health policy from two important angles. MedPac examines health-care policy that influences rural providers’ decisions and beneficiaries’ access to care, while IOM studies payment policies that are affected by the differences in cost of providing care across the geographic spectrum.

These reports are likely to have an influence on rural health payment considerations well into the future. Major health care organizations with an interest in rural health care policy, such as the National Rural Health Association, have weighed in with numerous studied reactions to the reports’ findings. Both Houses of Congress have reviewed the reports, staff have questioned the authors and will ponder how, if at all, report findings will factor into future health care policy legislation. 

Each report was undertaken to respond to different charges from policymaking bodies. However, both reports addressed geographic variability in health care across this country, albeit for different purposes.  

Medicare Payment Advisory Commission (MedPac)
MedPac is the independent Congressional agency that advises Congress on issues affecting the Medicare program. It released its biannual report in June, with Chapter 5 devoted to “Serving rural Medicare beneficiaries.”  MedPac last included a rural-focused chapter in its 2001 report and has released reports on rural-specific policies in the intervening years. Congress required that the Commission report on rural access to care, quality of care, rural-specific payments to hospitals and the adequacy of Medicare payments to rural providers.


The factors that affect access to care and the quality of care across the rural-urban continuum has a large research base and is better understood with each new study. This report, however, highlights variations across regions in the country.

Click on the image to see a larger version.
Source: MedPac Report, chapter 5, page 132
MedPac finds less variation across rural-urban places within regions than across different regions (see Table 5-7 above), particularly in access to and volume of care. The geographic variations across regions are noticeable in rural physician-to-population ratios, in the volume and utilization of care across regions, and the use of post-acute care, such as skilled nursing facilities and home health care. For people familiar with the variations in poverty, wealth, and health care status across different rural regions of the country, this finding from MedPac may not come as a surprise. The question now is whether there is enough research to understand why these variations exist, and whether and how much influence policy can have on evening them out. 

One area that federal Medicare policy already tries to address is geographic differences in the cost of providing care, through geographic adjustments to fee-for-service Medicare payments. Payments in high-cost and low-cost areas are increased and decreased respectively, relative to the national average.

Institute of Medicine (IOM)
The IOM is the independent health division of the National Academy of Sciences. IOM was charged through the Affordable Care Act to produce two reports on improving the accuracy of the data sources and methods used for making geographic adjustments to Medicare payments for both hospitals and physicians.


IOM’s major recommendation is that physician payment areas be transitioned to the same current payments areas as hospitals, which are divided into 441 metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) and statewide non-metropolitan statistical areas. Given that MSAs are established based on resident populations and employment commuting patterns, payment rates based on existing known labor markets is the rationale for moving physician payment rates to the same structure as hospitals. The report also argues that using the same labor market definition for both hospitals and payments is in line with increasing integration of hospital and physician care settings and movement toward Accountable Care Organizations, where hospitals, physicians and other providers are jointly responsible for care delivery. 

The effect of payment changes on rural providers was an explicit consideration of the IOM, because as the report points out, the current physician payment areas were partly designed to attract providers in nonmetropolitan areas through payment calculations. Under this MSA/non-MSA approach, nonmetropolitan provider payment areas would see a decrease between 2 and 3 percent, under slightly different payment structures, while large metropolitan areas would increase payments by less than 1 percent to about 1 percent. IOM also found that “geographic areas used for payment adjustment are large relative to the locations of specific underserved populations. Thus, geographic payment adjustment is a blunt instrument for resolving these more localized disparities and is not sufficiently targeted to be an appropriate use of resources.”

As the federal government continues to consider unprecedented actions to address the country’s deficit, while at the same time new policies of the Affordable Care Act continue to be implemented, these reports from two respected institutions are well-timed to add to the policy considerations. Expect to see continued analysis and counter-analysis of both reports by rural health research and policy analysis institutions to add to this growing body of knowledge.


Visit www.rupri.org for more rural policy news.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Pairing local foods with innovative investing

by Jan Joannides, Executive Director, Renewing the Countryside


As little as five years ago, when Renewing the Countryside was promoting local farmers and a sustainable food system in Minnesota, people asked: Is there really a demand for local foods? Today, the demand is clear. The local-food movement is alive and well in Minnesota. Farm-to-school programs are growing. Mainstream grocery stores are promoting local products. And food councils are popping up across the state.

Today the question on people’s minds is: How do we grow the supply of sustainably grown local foods?

We are fortunate, in the north central region of the U.S., to have a strong base of seasoned, sustainable farmers who are willing to expand their operations. We also have a number of new farmers interested in filling the gaps. Other entrepreneurs see opportunities in processing and distribution. However, many of these people struggle to pull together the resources and financing to move their operations to the next level.

Featherstone Farm in MN invested in new energy infrastructure.
Photo: http://featherstonefarm.com
As has often been the case for new or sustainable farmers, financing from traditional banks and farm credit agencies is not often available for “alternative” crops or practices, or at least without substantial collateral. But practical financial options must exist for sustainable farmers if they are to meet the growing demand for local, accessible, sustainably grown food. We think that more farmers will stay in business and new farms will get launched if we can develop a network of lenders and investors with cash ready to invest in land, livestock, equipment, or a new product line.


Where do our personal investment dollars go?

At the same time, when saving for retirement or college, many of us in the Heartland send our money to the coasts to be invested in what, for many, seems like a black box. We are often dependent on a few large investment companies, often identified by our workplace or our bank. We know little about how the money is invested or the values of the companies who are receiving the money. While socially responsible investment funds are an option, these still take money out of local communities and use rather simplistic criteria to choose where the money is invested (i.e. weapons and tobacco are bad, but high fructose corn syrup and poor working conditions are OK). Local farms and small agricultural businesses, so vital to long-term health and security, never see a penny of this investment.


Even if we wanted to invest in our local communities—and more and more of us do—there have not been very many mechanisms for doing so beyond buying locally, making donations, and volunteering.

Ideas for innovative investing

The Slow Money movement has created a national dialogue in regards to how we, as individuals, invest our money – especially in regard to food. “Slow Money” is a term coined by Woody Tasch, who wrote a book of the same name. Tasch had been the financial director at a large foundation where he was disturbed that the mission and goals on the grantmaking side of the foundation were at odds with its investment strategies. The foundation made grants that helped improve community health and social equity, but the primary criteria for investing their funds (which provided the interest that they used to make grants) was the rate of return—regardless of where the money was invested. Tasch set out to change that within his foundation and then began talking about this issue more broadly.

The tenets of Slow Money that resonate within the sustainable agriculture community and local foods movement are:
  • Invest in real places, people and enterprises close to home, starting with food
  • Invest patiently and with a long-term goal of building healthy enterprises, communities and ecosystems
  • Measure success by the world we create and the health of our soil, not just by profit
  • Fix our economy from the ground up

Slow Money-style mechanisms are currently at work in the sustainable agriculture community and are on the rise. Every year in Minnesota alone, thousands of people purchase CSA (community-supported agriculture) shares. People invest at the beginning of the season with the understanding that they will share the rewards (boxes of food) and the risks (less food if the season is bad).  But research suggests that there are opportunities to expand the number of innovative financing strategies. What better way for an ethically minded consumer to make both a difference and, perhaps, a decent return than by investing in a farmer? It’s already happening all over the country, and in our own backyards. Recently we have seen:
  • A sheep farm and artisan-cheese enterprise raise hundreds of thousands of dollars from friends and community members to save their farm from foreclosure;
  • A mid-sized fruit and vegetable farm raise $160,000 in loans from CSA members, food co-ops, and friends to install solar panels on their buildings; and
  • A direct-market farmer raise enough upfront capital from his customers to increase the size of his beef herd.
 It is important to note that this is not only happening at the individual farm level. In 2007, when flooding hit southern Minnesota and Wisconsin farms, the community of eaters that shop at natural food stores rallied support and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to help the region’s sustainable food producers who were devastated by the floods.

While not farm- and food-focused, a group of banks in Minneapolis and St. Paul have developed Socially Responsible Deposit Funds (SRDF). A customer can designate that her money, whether in a savings account or CD, be part of the SRDF. These funds are then used to provide loans to small, community-based businesses. They receive the same interest rate as their non-local counterparts within the bank, but customers are assured the funds are assisting local businesses.

Imagine redirecting all or part of your personal or community resources to those who need them most while also providing avenues for meaningful connection to the local economy. We currently have a unique window of opportunity to identify new investment pathways. The low rate of returns on investments, anti-Wall Street sentiment, and growing interest in local foods may provide the right conditions for radical change.
 
 
What innovative strategies are you seeing in your community to finance diversified farm and food based business?
 
Will we, as a society, be able to shift at least some of our assets away from the dominant model of investing in the stock market?
 
 
Resources
 
Pons, E. and Long, M. Promoting Sustainable Food Systems through Impact Investing, 2011.
 
Tasch, W. Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money: Investing as if food, farms and fertility mattered, Chelsea Green, 2008.
 
Shuman, M. Local Dollars, Local Sense: How to Shift Your Money from Wall Street to Main Street and Achieve Real Prosperity, Chelsea Green, 2012.
 
 
Visit RUPRI at http://rupri.org and the RUPRI Rural Futures Lab at http://ruralfutureslab.org

Monday, October 15, 2012

Rural Theater in a Democracy

By Dudley Cocke, Director of Roadside Theater
[This blog post originally appeared at HowlRound on September 30, 2012, and is published here with their permission.]


We know that, in the aggregate, incomes and life expectancies in rural America are significantly lower; infant mortality rates and drug abuse significantly higher. Presently there is insufficient attention to such disparities—per capita federal spending remains persistently lower in rural communities and only 1 percent of private foundation giving in all categories reaches rural nonprofit organizations. We also know these disparities persist in a grinding recession that has affected middle and working class and economically poor people regardless of geography.

I direct Roadside Theater, a part of Appalshop, in the rural central Appalachian coalfields. As one of the nation’s handful of rural professional theaters, Roadside has never wanted to be isolated as a special case, nor has it wanted its rural region to be separated from the fortunes and misfortunes of the rest of the country. Roadside’s stalwart collaborators over the past thirty years have been actors and musicians in the South Bronx, African American storytellers and musicians in New Orleans, and young and old tradition bearers in Pueblo Zuni, New Mexico. With Pregones Theater, Junebug Productions, and Idiwanan An Chawe, Roadside continues to make new plays, co-productions that are often bilingual and always intended for the entire community.

Corn Mountain/Pine Mountain, a play created and toured with
Idiwanan An Chawe of Pueblo Zuni, New Mexico
Rather than make a special case for rural theater, I wish to make a plea for the democratic arts.

Roadside’s regional audience in the mountains of eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia, northeastern Tennessee, and southwestern Virginia is low income and working- and middle-class people from all walks of life and of all ages. The theater also tours—so far to communities in forty-three states—reaching an audience whose demographics match those of our regional audience. Six years of national tracking in the 1990s by AMS, an independent research firm, found 73 percent of Roadside’s audience earned less than $50,000 a year and 30 percent of those earned $20,000 or less. This demographic is close to the inverse of the national norm for professional theater in which 80 percent of the audience comes from the wealthiest 15 percent of the population.[1]

Red Fox/Second Hangin', performed in a tent in rural Appalachia 
Red Fox audience
Alexis de Tocqueville begins his 1835 magnum opus, Democracy in America, by declaring, “No novelty in the United States struck me more vividly during my stay there than the equality of the conditions.” In his chapter “Some Observations on the Theater Among Democratic Peoples,” he states that “Drama, more than any other form of literature, is bound by many close links to the actual state of society,” and he goes on to argue that “Only in the theater have the upper classes mingled with the middle and lower classes, and if they have not actually agreed to receive the latters’ advice, at least they have allowed it to be given. It has always been in the theater that the learned and the educated have had the greatest difficulty in making their tastes prevail over that of the people and preventing themselves from being carried away by them. The pit often lays down the law for the boxes.” De Tocqueville concludes by stating, “An aristocratic theater may survive for some time in a democracy, sustained by the traditional tastes of some, by vanity, by fashion, or by the genius of an actor. But soon it will fall of its own accord, not overthrown but abandoned.”

While today overwhelmingly attended by the wealthiest adults, theater in the United States. once had broad appeal. In the 1820s, New York City’s African Company was presenting Macbeth and Othello (both popular in Shakespeare’s time with rich and poor alike) as well as The Drama of King Shotoway, which called for a US slave rebellion. (As the African Company became increasingly popular with white New Yorkers, the Company’s producing director, Mr. Brown, found it necessary to restrict them to one section of the theater because “some whites did not know how to behave themselves at entertainments designed for ladies and gentlemen of color.”)[2]

From 1900 to 1940, the indefatigable Virginia Fabregas—the First Lady of the Mexican Stage— performed for rural and urban Hispanic communities across the United States with a touring company of fifty, including a full orchestra. During the same period, the seeds of the Little Theatre Movement were being sown in upstate New York by Cornell University’s Alexander Drummond, who believed every community deserved a theater to stage its local life. By the 1950s, the Little Theatre Movement had spread across the country, often through partnerships with state agriculture extension agencies. Here is Robert Gard, one of the national leaders in this movement, reflecting on his life’s work in 1992 at Cornell University, his alma mater, in what was to be his last public presentation:

As I stood thinking, the Great Butternut Valley that was all around me turned golden in the afternoon light. I looked at the hills, and suddenly my spirit was filled and lifted with a clear knowledge. I knew that there must be plays of the people filled with the spirit of places, and my aimless activities assumed meaning. I felt the conviction then that I have maintained since—that the knowledge and love of place is a large part of the joy in people’s lives. There must be plays that grow from all the country sides of America, fabricated by the people themselves, born of toiling hands and free minds, born of music and love and reason. There must be many great voices singing out the lore and legend of America from a thousand hilltops, and there must be students to listen and to learn, and writers encouraged to use the materials.[3]

From 1935 to 1939, the Federal Theatre Project started to lay out a commons where artists, unbounded by geography, could mix. In the Federal Project’s first two years, it sponsored more than 42,000 performances, reaching an audience of more than 20 million Americans in city and hamlet—65 percent of whom were seeing a live play for the first time. On one day alone, October 27, 1936, twenty-two productions of Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here opened simultaneously in seventeen states and in three languages. The Federal Theatre Project’s national director, Hallie Flanagan, boiled down the federal agency’s mission to “national in scope, regional in emphasis, and democratic in attitude.” In her 1940 memoir, Arena, Flanagan remains proud of the Federal Theatre Project’s public stand against reactionary political currents roiled by geographic, racial, class, and religious prejudice.

After the Second World War, the Black Arts Movement, inspired by the civil rights movement, took the lead in the vision of theater of, by, and for the American people by sparking similar arts movements among Chicanos, Appalachians, and Asians. And despite living with the legacy of genocide, Native Americans continue to inspire us all by perpetuating their sacred and secular performance traditions in which entire communities participate.

For these various movements, the central policy issue was how to level the playing field so that all US cultures would have an equal chance to express themselves, to develop, and, inevitably, to cross-pollinate. Despite this shared democratic agenda and a common adversary of mono-cultural elites, seldom did the different advocates of this policy of cultural equity join as one to press for their cultural rights; rather, each group typically fought alone, mimicking established patterns of social segregation.

A performance of Betsy, a collaboration with
Pregones Theater of the Bronx, New York
Whenever diverse groups did start to pull together in solidarity, the powerful interceded. This was the case in 1939 when Congress (with the aid of the Justice Department and the FBI) closed the Federal Theatre Project; the Project had been too successful advancing theater that crossed lines of race, place, and class. The 1965 enabling legislation for the National Endowment for the Arts states its purpose “to support the development and growth of the arts throughout the United States and to provide opportunities for wider appreciation of the arts and the encouragement of excellence.” For an analysis of the NEA’s fate in the culture wars launched in the 1980s by right-wing power brokers, see The Unreported Arts Recession of 1997.

It is an axiom of power that who controls the culture, controls the story a nation tells itself. So it is especially important that the arts contribute to a national rededication to creating a level playing field across all sectors of society. Will the rural voice be heard in the coming story the nation tells itself about itself? And will that voice rise up with the voices of others presently segregated and muted? That is the promise of art in a twenty-first century democracy that seeks a more perfect union.

_________

[1] A 2002 national poll by the Urban Institute found that 96 percent of respondents said they “were greatly inspired and moved by art.” However, only 27 percent said that artists contribute “a lot” to the good of society. National surveys (including those by the League of American Theatres and Producers and the 1991–1996 Wallace Foundation-sponsored AMS survey) consistently report that professional theater audiences are 80 percent white and originating from the top 15 percent of the population, as measured by income and education levels.

[2] Branch, William. Black Thunder, an Anthology of Contemporary African American Drama (New York: Mentor Books, 1992).

[3] For the full text of Gard’s speech and historical detail related to popular theater see Roadside Theater’s publication, From the Ground Up: Grassroots Theater in Historical and Contemporary Perspective.


Dudley Cocke is director of Roadside Theater and has toured its original plays to 43 states and performed in cities from London to Los Angeles. He has recently directed Zuni Meets Appalachia for the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian in New York City and Washington, DC, and he is currently developing Betsy, a musical theater collaboration with Nashville jazz musicians. Dudley has taught theater at Cornell University and the College of William and Mary, and often speaks and writes as an advocate for democratic cultural values.


Images provided by HowlRound and the author.


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Monday, October 1, 2012

(Local) Food for Thought: A Value Chain in Action

By Natalie Woodroofe, 30 Mile Meal Project
For the last two years I’ve been collaborating with non-profits and entrepreneurs in Appalachian Ohio to expand our local foods economy. My work centers on developing a regional brand that promotes local food producers and related businesses and increases consumer awareness and support for these enterprises.
The 30 Mile Meal Project—the most local of locavore initiatives in the U.S.—currently partners with 135 farmers, processors, specialty food producers, farmers and retail markets, food events, and eateries within a thirty mile radius of Athens, Ohio. Underwritten by the Athens County Convention & Visitors Bureau, and with significant program support from ACEnet, the Project provides marketing tools (logos, taglines, etc.) and a web-based searchable map that assists locals and visitors in locating these partners.

Our blog provides an up close look at the people, farms, and businesses we work with. We host a calendar of events and a Facebook page, keeping folks up to date on what’s happening and organize showcase events, including 30 Mile Meal Month (July) and Restaurant Week. The Project owes much of its success to the hundreds of people who have been widening and deepening our food system over the last 25 years.

So What Does a Local Foods Economy Look Like?

A robust local foods economy provides consumers with less traveled food, greater traceability, increased food security, and the pleasure of supporting our friends and neighbors. It also increases the food dollar share that goes directly to the farmer or producer, keeping more of the food dollars spent circulating within a region. Here in Southeast Ohio, enterprises within our food value chain generated nearly $40 million in revenue for farmers, processors, restaurants and retailers in 2011.
Sustainable food systems seed the usual supply chain with financial, social and environmental values as the chain travels from production to waste and back again. The chart below illustrates the evolving model in our region.
Change agents

The arrows indicate the connections and flow back and forth between the components of the value chain. At the center are those that work individually and collaboratively to support the system. Our Change Agents are predominately nonprofits with missions centered on some aspect of local food economies, access and justice. Key players include:
  • Appalachian Center for Economic Networks (ACEnet) which operates a kitchen incubator and provides a range of entrepreneurial and market access supports;
  • Rural Action’s sustainable agriculture and zero waste programs;
  • Community Food Initiatives’ (CFI) Donation Station program which provides people with limited resources access to fresh local foods, while supporting local farmers;
  • Appalachian Staple Foods Collaborative that is scaling up localized production of bean, grain, oil seed and perennial nut staple foods; and
  • Athens Food Policy Council, comprised of movers and shakers across the value chain.

Producers & technical assistance, training and education 

Our food production comes from 1500+ farms as well as community, institutional, school and home gardens. Support for farmers on Good Agricultural Practices, season extension, high tunnel growing, and organic practices is provided through Rural Action, County Extension Offices, and Ohio Ecological Food & Farm Association. 

ACEnet focuses on value-added product assistance (see the Food Venture Center below). Consumer education in foodways, including canning and other methods of food preservation, is provided by CFI and the Athens County Extension Office.

Processing

Processing requires significant investments in infrastructure, and we are fortunate to have ACEnet’s Food Venture Center. The Food Venture Center, a kitchen incubator, currently has 197 value added producer tenants who generated $28 million in annual sales during 2011 and created 137 full-time/self-employment jobs, and 991 part-time jobs.
ACEnet's Food Venture Center
Shagbark Seed & Mill Company contracts with regional farmers to grow beans and grains, mills the grains, and utilizes local entrepreneurs to produce pastas, breads, chips and crackers from these crops. Plans are underway to process oils from locally grown seeds. Shagbark is also assisting The Wingnuttery, a start-up nut processing operation.

Snowville Creamery processes milk from grass fed cows, and pays its farmers a premium above government mandated market prices, and its workers, a living wage. The region also includes several on farm cheese-making operations, as well as breweries and winemaking operations.
Distribution/marketing

The region’s local food enterprises are promoted through two brands:
  • 30 Mile Meal serves as an umbrella brand for the food producing, selling and serving community and
  • Food We Love brand, launched in 2000 by ACEnet, for specialty foods and farm products.
The brands leverage economic impacts and motivate behavior changes towards local purchasing by producers, retailers and customers.

Distribution/transportation

Getting food to markets can be daunting for small producers. Snowville Creamery distributes dairy products across Ohio and as far east as Washington, D.C. Its trucks frequently carry other producers’ foods to Columbus and other larger markets, utilizing ACEnet’s Food Ventures Center to cross-dock products. Rural Action recently acquired a refrigerator truck that aggregates producer lots and delivers them to restaurants, colleges, and hospitals in Ohio and West Virginia.

Distribution/sourcing

Consumers and restaurants have many ways to source their food. For those in need, CFI’s Donation Station provides fresh local foods for pick up twice a week by 35 social service agencies and community-based nonprofits. In 2011, over 60,000 pounds of food was distributed via the Donation Station. CFI, through its Edible Athens initiative, has also identified fruit and nut trees in the city of Athens that can be gleaned by the public.

The Athens Farmers Market is one of the nation’s best, operates year-round and has the highest use of EBT benefits in the state. Nine other seasonal farmers markets are spread across the region.
Wares at the Athen's Farmers Market
We have three CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) that serve the local population and the Columbus area. The Athens Hill CSA partners with other local producers to provide baked goods, cheeses, milk and other foods not grown by the CSA operator.

The Chesterhill Produce Auction, supplied by Amish and other local farmers, is a welcomed option for those seeking larger amounts of produce for preserving or institutional use. Rural Action also operates Country Fresh Stops, a program that brings fresh produce to convenience stores in underserved areas designated as food deserts by USDA. ACEnet has forged relationships with major grocery operations and many of our regional producers wholesale their products to Kroger and Whole Food stores throughout the Midwest. Several locally owned food markets also carry local products.

The Consumption component includes the various consumers of local foods - individuals, restaurants, schools, medical and correctional institutions, businesses, and feeding programs.

Waste and nutrient management refers to the traditional and innovative ways in which farm and food waste is managed and often recycled through on-farm management, solid waste districts, and restaurant and institutional composting. Jackie O’s Pub and Brewery not only grows many of the vegetables and herbs used in its menu, it also uses spent grain from its brewery operation for their pizza crusts and gives the rest to a local farmer to augment his cows’ feed. The Brewery then purchases the farmer’s meat for its kitchen.

Now in the early stages of development, The Compost Exchange is a privately owned Class II compost facility that collects coffee grinds from local eateries, leaves from the city of Athens, and other agricultural waste with the aim of producing specialty soil amendments that will nourish the next cycle of crops.

Next Steps: Helping Other Regions Build Local Food Economies

The impact and the collaborative nature of our value chain draws interest from others that are building regional food systems. We provide technical assistance to other regions wanting to launch their own 30 Mile Meal and are currently working with folks in Youngstown and Licking County, Ohio and Huntington, West Virginia.

In July, we hosted our first Real Food • Real Local • Real Good Institute, three days of workshops, panel discussions, networking and off-site tours. Seventy eight people from 7 states participated. Many of our 30 Mile Meal partners shared their expertise as farmers, restaurateurs, processors, value added producers and nonprofit leaders.
The Institute affirmed our sense that we have another "home grown" product we can offer: our collective wisdom in how to build and nurture a local food system. We can share the challenges, possibilities and lessons learned, as well as on-site opportunities to "see it for yourself". If you are interested in technical assistance to build or strengthen your food system, contact me (30milemeal@gmail.com).

Reclaiming our food systems not only connects growers, businesses, and consumers, it builds community resilience, job opportunities, and expands farmland preservation, food safety and environmental accountability. Eating primarily within our own food systems, we nourish ourselves and a more sustainable future.

  • Do you have the capacity to map your food system?
  • What are the ‘low hanging fruits’ that could be harvested to energize your region in strengthening your local foods value chain?

Natalie Woodroofe is a consultant currently managing the 30 Mile Meal Project. She previously served as the founding director of the Women’s Rural Entrepreneurial Network and as the Association for Enterprise Opportunity’s Rural Initiatives Director, overseeing two national Rural Learning Clusters funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

Images provided by the author.

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