Anita Brown Graham took part in "Revitalizing the Rural Economy through Infrastructure Development," a session at the 2011 National Rural Assembly in St. Paul, MN.

10:30 a.m., June 30

“…a critical farm bill”

The Center for Rural Affairs did a little comparison. The Nebraska advocacy group tallied the money from federal farm programs that went to the 20 largest farms in 13 large agricultural states. And then it counted the money spent on development in the 20 rural counties with the largest population loss in those same 13 states.

It turned out that the federal government, through the farm bill, spent twice as much on the 20 richest individual farms in each state than it spent on the 260 most troubled counties.

“That’s just wrong,” said CFRA’s Chuck Hassebrook. “It doesn’t reflect America’s priorities.” Things aren’t improving as the Congress takes up the 2012 farm bill, Hassebrook said.

From 2003 to now, rural development funding has dropped. The Obama administration’s proposed rural development budget is down 29% from real spending in 2003. The House budget committee has passed a budget that has cut rural development funding by more than a third. “Critical new programs that create genuine opportunities in rural communities won’t be funded,” Hassebrook said.

He and CFRA have made a proposal: Limit payments to the largest farms. Put caps on direct payments to the largest farms. Diminish crop insurance subsidies as farm income grows.

Then, take $100 million a year from the savings — one half of one percent of the total cost of the farm bill — and put it into a Rural Renewal Initiative. Allow that money to be allocated by the Secretary of Agriculture to support small businesses and to create or fortify water, environmental and communities facilities programs.

“If we got aggressive about those things (limits on subsidies), we might be able to invest a bit more in rural communities,” Hassebrook said.

“It’s times like this, where we’re in the most critical period, when it’s time to set your priorities,” Hassebrook said. “It’s up to us, to act in concert.”

Bill Bishop


 10:30 a.m., June 30
Wiring Rural America

What’s up with the presentation on building broadband networks having Internet troubles? Ironic, yes, and illuminating.
When absentee presenter Wally Bowen of the Mountain Area Reform Network (MAIN) tried to call in over Skype, no sound came through.
Sean McLaughlin of Access Humboldt, having trouble setting up his presentation, joked that he didn’t have adequate broadband access in the hotel conference room. Bowen soon flipped the right switch and was coming through loud and clear.
But these were minor inconveniences, eventually resolved. What about the handful of people in the room who said their towns don’t have broadband at all? What about the woman whose dialup connection goes out with the rain?
If your town doesn’t’ have reliable telephone service, forget high speed Internet.
Without adequate access, “How do people have a voice?” McLaughlin asked.
Fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) networks are “the new electricity of this century,” said Mark Erickson, who started Renville-Sibley Fiber to the Home/Farm/Business, a budding local network. But Erickson and others are running into difficulties and opposition on multiple fronts:
* Local non-fiber providers are resistant of new competition, and FTTH will be hands-down faster than older technologies.

* It’s hard to get right-of-way to lay down fiber networks. This process often involves dealing with city and state governments, who may not be immediately cooperative.

* It’s not easy to get local community support.
“You need somebody in your community who will be a champion,” Erickson said. “A local champion [or] a local piñata.”

It’s clear that the current infrastructure is anything but adequate for rural America. 

But long-term potential of broadband networks for rural areas is quite promising. Perhaps McLaughlin had the best analogy. He lives and works in rural northern California and calls his business plan “Digital Redwood Wireless,” after the trees so iconic of that region. The “roots” of his plan are wire-line networks, the “trunks” are community anchor institutions like local government, and the “canopy” is wireless access.
McLaughlin says his organization is building a “media ecosystem for sustainability….Things that are thousands of years old might be a good model for sustainability.”

Alex Bloedel


9:00 p.m., June 29

“Now you have to hit the road”

Wednesday night the Rural Assembly gave awards to heroes of rural Minnesota. There were eight people awarded, and for those of us from elsewhere, it was impressive that Minnesota could find such a long list of people who truly lived heroic lives.

Orville Freeman’s wife Jane was one of the eight. She recalled campaigning with her husband when he ran for and won the governor’s office.

“We were fortunate because there was no television,” Jane Freeman recalled. “We had to travel the state.”

Anne Kanten served as deputy secretary at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. She said she didn’t know if she would speak, but that her preacher said she should let the spirit move her.

The spirit moved.

“The farm and the land and my faith were all tied together in the 1950s,” Kanten began. She said that during the tough times on the farm in the early 1980s she had to “hit the road,” and she took jobs in the cities.

“But I was always proud to say, I am a farmer,” Kanten said. “And I want to assure you that I am a farmer.”

Kanten said that when she was appointed deputy secretary at the ag department in the early 1980s, the St. Paul newspaper ran a headline saying, “Governor Appoints Radical Woman.” Kanten recalled, “I always thought that was a pretty good word, and I have tried to live by it.”

Kanten said her children are now running the farm. Her son lives in the farmhouse where she lived. She was so proud to say that her daughter could drive any piece of machinery found on the farm.

And she had some advice for the Assembly. “You’ve had three days to listen and learn,” she said. It was time now for everyone to go back to their homes and to tell the story of rural America.

“Now,” Kanten said, “you have to hit the road.”

Bill Bishop


Daily Yonder’s Bill Bishop, Alex Bloedel and Shawn Poynter covered the three days of the National Rural Assembly in St. Paul, MN, a gathering of 300 rural advocates and national leaders June 28-30.

Also, Center for Rural Strategies has compiled a library of up-to-date materials on rural transportation, youth, broadband, native nations, education, environmental justice, and more.

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