Posted August 19, 2010 by

Farmers will harvest more corn than wheat this year in Kansas, according to Dan Piller at the Des Moines Register—a trend that's changing the state's traditional ag identity. Even crop-stressing record heat hasn't put a damper on the maize bonanza.

When I lived in Iowa, I always liked watching the crops change as I drove west. The greens of corn and soybeans would give way to golden wheat (and sunflowers, when I was lucky) as the land got drier. It wasn't real diversity, but at least it was different, a recognition that different land calls for different crops. Drought-resistant transgenes and increased irrigation—driven by demand for corn—have changed that. Of course it's not just Kansas; Nebraska and other dry-land regions have also upped their corn production.

Far be it from me to say one monoculture is better than another, but it's yet another sign that we're moving in exactly the wrong direction: toward less diversity, rather than more.

Posted August 19, 2010 by    Madeline Kastler   

Food and HealthHealth

One of the best places to find fresh, healthy food is your local farmers market. Our current food stamp program uses Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards (a kind of debit card) which were designed primarily for supermarkets. As a recent Community Food Security Coalition report found, there are a number of social, economic and technological challenges to expanding EBT use at farmers markets. Fortunately, a growing number of farmers markets around the country are overcoming these hurdles.  

This week, IATP along with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, the City of Minneapolis, Hennepin County and the Minnesota Department of Health announced a new program to expand EBT use at three of Minneapolis's largest farmers markets. Now that these farmers markets accept EBT cards, the challenge is to let EBT users know about it and take advantage of what these markets have to offer. As an added incentive, Market Bucks coupons matching the first $5 of purchases by EBT users, will be available at the markets. See more details in our press release below: 

Innovative Program Provides Incentive for Low-Income Minnesotans to Shop at Three Minneapolis Farmers Markets, Eat Healthy

[MINNEAPOLIS] Recipients of food assistance can now use their EBT cards to purchase affordable, healthy and tasty food at the Midtown, Minneapolis, and Northeast Farmers Markets in Minneapolis. These markets will also encourage EBT users to eat well by offering an incentive—Market Bucks coupons, which will match the first $5 an EBT user spends on fresh produce at these markets with an additional $5 in Market Bucks. That amounts to $10 in produce for the first $5 spent.

“Midtown Farmers Market was the first market in the Twin Cities to accept EBT cards,” says Jessica Ward-Denison, of the Midtown Farmers Market. “The Market Bucks program has already nearly tripled the number of EBT customers at the Midtown Market, compared to last year. We’re excited to see EBT services launched at the Minneapolis and Northeast Markets this summer, and equally grateful that community partners sponsored the extra incentive so more people can come out and purchase delicious, affordable food!”

According to a recent Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota (Blue Cross) study, only 15 percent of Minnesota adults eat the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables daily. That means the vast majority of people are falling short of a balanced diet. The Market Bucks promotion provides greater access to fruits and vegetables, which can help people maintain a healthy weight and stay well. Access is especially important to EBT recipients, who don’t always have affordable fresh produce nearby— the closest stores may be convenience stores with little or no affordable and fresh produce.

“We’re all invested in this effort because we care about the health of Minnesotans and building healthier communities so that the healthy choice becomes the easy choice,” says Dr. Marc Manley, Chief Prevention Officer for Blue Cross. “With more than 60 percent of adult Minnesotans overweight or obese – and at risk for a host of serious diseases and conditions that drive up health care costs – access to affordable, fresh produce is an important step toward addressing the obesity epidemic.”

The program is the result of a unique community partnership between the three farmers markets, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, the City of Minneapolis, Hennepin County, the Statewide Health Improvement Program of the Minnesota Department of Health,
and the Communities Putting Prevention to Work initiative of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

The partners also kicked off a promotional campaign aimed at welcoming EBT users to the farmers markets. The campaign features multi-lingual outreach at the markets and in the community, advertising on the radio, buses, and at transit stops, and signage at markets to make it easier for EBT shoppers to navigate the markets.

“We know that price and access are common barriers to eating healthier, and this program works to remove those barriers,” says JoAnne Berkenkamp at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. “Expanding EBT usage at these markets not only means more Minnesotans are eating healthier, it provides another market for local farmers to sell their produce. Already the results are promising.”

When the market season ends, the partners will engage in an evaluation effort to assess the program and capture lessons learned. As a pilot program, the evaluation will inform decisions about future efforts.

“In the future, we’d like to continue to see increased use of farmers markets and more people eating fresh fruits and vegetables,” says Gretchen Musicant, health commissioner of the City of Minneapolis. “We’re all invested in this effort because we care about healthy communities.”

# # #

 

Posted August 18, 2010 by

Midwest Rural Assembly (MRA)Rural Development

The challenges of providing adequate health care for rural residents has been a common theme throughout the Midwest Rural Assembly. Stephanie Larson of the Center for Rural Affairs discussed how the recently passed health reform law could benefit rural communities.

Many farmers are self-employed and must travel great distances to find health care. There are too few doctors in rural areas. Additionally, one in five farmers has medical debt. Larsen outlined several provisions in the new health care law that will help address these issues. 

Many aspects of the new health care law will take affect in 2014; however, some aspects of the law will be implemented more immediately. As of July 1, 2010 insurance companies must permit adult children under the age of 26 to remain on their parents insurance plans. Additionally, patients who fall into the Medicare “donut-hole,” a gap in prescription drug coverage that patients must cover out of pocket, will receive $250 to apply to drug costs that would not be otherwise covered. Also starting July 1, the government, at either the state or federal level depending on the state’s preference, will create “high-risk pools” for people with pre-existing and chronic conditions who have been uninsured for six months or longer. 

September 23, 2010 is another important implementation date of the health reform law. Larsen reported that after September 23, insurance companies will no longer be able to use rescissions, a term that refers to denying patients health insurance based on previous health conditions or errors in paperwork, even if their premiums have been paid. 

Additional aspects of the law will continue to be phased in beginning in 2011 and continuing through 2014.  Some of these aspects relevant to rural communities include incentives for health care providers to increase primary and preventive care, incentives for doctors practicing rural medicine, a 50-percent discount on drugs that fall into the Medicare prescription drug benefit program donut-hole, and a provision that will require nearly all Americans to obtain health insurance either through programs like Medicare or Medicaid, government provided vouchers, or private coverage. 

By Wade Hauser

Posted August 17, 2010 by

Midwest Rural Assembly (MRA)Rural Development

Thinking regionally and strengthening VVasqconnections with urban centers are essential to strengthening economic activity in rural communities, Victor Vasquez, U.S. Department of Agriculture Deputy Under Secretary for Rural Development told participants at the Midwest Rural Assembly today.  

Vasquez talked about the need to think regionally on economic development, and to institutionalize that thinking in policy discussions. In particular, it's important for rural communities to strengthen connections with larger cities. "When it comes to food or fuel, you can’t walk into a store without finding something that has a relationship to rural America," said Vasquez. "The next few years are going to be tough due to the budget situation. We’ll hear more about what we can do to improve and how we can work together."

Vasquez outlined the key areas of focus for the USDA's Rural Development program in the next several years:

1. Local and regional markets for farmers through the Know your Farmer, Know your Food program. "We’ve seen nothing but success."

2. Expanding broadband access. It will make rural communities more competitive economically. "It’s not just about technology. It’s going to change the nature of education for children who live in poor, rural communities. It will change how they perceive education and the world."

3. Renewable energy. The Department is working closely with the Department of Energy and other partners to reduce and eliminate U.S. dependence on foreign oil. "Ultimately, this is how we view our natural resources and the environment and do things in a better way." He anticipated an enhanced level of collaboration with DOE that could result in more announcements supporting energy efficiency in the months to come.  

4. Better land management. USDA oversees tens of thousands of acres of public land. The agency is studying how it can work better with the communities around that land, along with state and local governments, to increase economic development and better manage the land.

After outlining these key priorities, he returned to the need to think regionally, like the Midwest Rural Assembly is already doing. When asked how those outside the USDA can help support the efforts of the agency, Vasquez urged participants to continue to educate people about the importance of agriculture and rural communities to the economy and the country. "We need to convince people that agriculture and people in rural communities are a huge part of this economic engine" and continue moving forward.  

 

Posted August 17, 2010 by

JusticeMidwest Rural Assembly (MRA)Rural Development

The small town of Milan, Minnesota is trying an innovative approach to reduce it's energy burden. At the Midwest Rural Assembly today, Cheryl Landgren of the Greater Milan Initiative and IATP's Shalini Gupta told participants about setting up the first rural sustainable energy utility (SEU) to help reduce the town's energy costs while supporting larger community goals of job creation and population retention.

Homes and buildings in rural communities like Milan often use a lot of energy and are a high cost for rural residents. Winter heating bills are particularly tough on low-income residents. The Greater Milan Initiative is now setting up an SEU: a model developed by the Center for Energy and Environmental Policy at the University of Delaware. SEUs create long-term community infrastructure around reducing energy usage and costs and promoting energy production where it is used.

The Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy at IATP is continuing work with the Greater Milan Initiative to get this new SEU off the ground. Look for more details soon.

Posted August 17, 2010 by

Midwest Rural Assembly (MRA)Rural Development

Thinking about getting back to your roots and farming/ranching? Well you might get help from an unlikely place—the farm bill. The 2008 farm bill established several new loans and grants specifically designed for beginning farmers. There might be something for you whether or not you are looking to go organic.

Traci Bruckner (Center for Rural Affairs) sat down with several of us at the Midwest Rural Assembly to talk about provisions in the last Farm Bill focused directly on beginning farmers and ranchers. She mentioned the Land Contract Guarantee Program, Direct/Guaranteed Loan and several other programs directed towards sustainability.

She cited a South Dakota grass-fed beef rancher who was able to get reimbursed for 90 percent of his expenses to establish his grass forage, new fencing and a watering system for each paddock through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP).

But it may not be that simple. Lou Anne Kling and Loretta Jaus mentioned that some farmers who were eligible for various conservation programs were denied grants. And that is where the expertise of Bruckner comes into play—she works with farmers/ranchers to help them navigate the sometimes convoluted realm of Farm Bill grants and loans. 

So if you are thinking about starting up a farming or ranching operation the farm bill might be a great starting place. And if you are starting to look at the Farm Bill then Bruckner is a great resource.

By Andrew Gross

Posted August 17, 2010 by

Midwest Rural Assembly (MRA)Rural Development

The flooding in rural Iowa was terrible for the cattle, the corn and the people, but what about the wastewater treatment systems? Joe Dvorak and Dennis Siders from the Midwest Assistance Program have been thinking about Midwest wastewater system for years. At the Midwest Rural Assembly yesterday, they led a learning roundtable session to talk about the problems that rural Iowa faces and the water infrastructure challenges that we all face.

The day-to-day problems of aging infrastructure, lack of funds, declining budgets, and losing knowledgeable and skilled certified operators are all of major concern. Dvorak and Siders also noted that many small communities simply pay a flat rate for water coming into the town on a main pipe, but a lot of that water is lost to inefficient distribution systems and even holes down pipe from the main pipe meter. In a world where water is becoming the new oil, water inefficiency is no longer an option especially for rural communities.

So the answer is, well, complicated. Dvorak and Siders are clear: “keep track of your water.” And although the motto is simple, the implementation is anything but easy. Small communities are not keen on mandating water meters on end-usage sources because of the added cost. Plus local governments are not even charging the actual cost of the water usage because they don’t want to add any additional costs to struggling individuals. However, Dvorak and Siders maintain that through simple steps such as monitoring usage and plugging leaks to keep wastewater out and clean water in, small towns can lower their costs and conserve one of our most important resources.

Addressing water infrastructure in rural communities is very difficult, complicated and possibly expensive but still less than the cost of doing nothing.

By Andrew Gross

Posted August 17, 2010 by

Midwest Rural Assembly (MRA)Rural Development

At a learning roundtable at the Midwest Rural Assembly titled, "Broadband Regulation: What Title II Reclassification Means to Rural America" we tried to answer some tough questions: What does broadband access mean to rural America? How do different rural communities think of broadband access? What costs do rural communities bear that the urban areas don’t? Although, these questions are of central importance to rural America they are of little importance to the future of broadband. Why? The topic of broadband regulation has largely become a question of jurisdiction.

Pursuant to the 1996 Communication Regulation Act, the question of whether or not the Federal Communications Commission has regulatory authority over broadband has been anything but clear. Is broadband a communication service and therefore regulated by Title II or is it an information service and therefore not required to comply with Title II regulation? Without answering this question we won’t be able to talk about the more difficult questions of what to do about broadband access in rural locations, according to Parul Desai (Media Access Project) and Edyael Casaperalta (Center for Rural Strategies). We discussed the National Broadband Policy (proposed FCC regulation), but both Desai and Casaperalta stated that even if they thought the new policy to be wonderful, it will be locked up court because it’s impossible to know if the FCC has the regulatory authority to enact any of its proposals.

Desai and Casaperalta advocated for the importance of FCC regulation on broadband and mentioned some other possibilities to increase rural access to broadband. But in the end this roundtable was dominated by a single theme: The FCC needs to make clear its regulatory authority over broadband. Until this happens all wheels are simply spinning.

By Andrew Gross

Posted August 16, 2010 by

Midwest Rural Assembly (MRA)Rural Development

"I felt like I had nursed a low-grade feud with where I grew up" for many years, Debra Marquart told participants at the Midwest Rural Assembly in South Souix City, Iowa this morning. Marquart is an English Professor at Iowa State University and author of the book, The Horizontal World: Growing up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere.

MidwestRuralAssembly108

The book, spurred by the death of her father and wanting to understand more about the North Dakota town where she grew up, is the culmination of 14 years of research in small town libraries, cemetaries and interviews. Marquart left the small town of Napolean at age 17, but always carried the photo of the long road leading to her house with her. She went to college, toured with rock bands and then found teaching. The book documents her journey to learn more about the hometown and farm she grew up on but didn't pay attention to during much of her childhood spent working on the farm. As she described it, people there "lived on the narrow margin of life."

Her great grandfather emigrated from Russia in 1886 and built a large house with a balcony to look out over his acreage with the hope that future generations of his family would live on the land. But growing up in the 60s and 70s, Marquart couldn't wait to leave.

Marquart's book highlights one of the central themes of the Midwest Rural Assembly: How to engage young people in ways that they see the value of small towns and the land—before they leave. Several of the panels here later this afternoon will look at this challenge more deeply. Marquart was optimistic, describing how her hometown has actually grown in the last ten years. Many people are returning who left when they were younger. Others are attracted to some of the same traits that brought her great grandfather to North Dakota: low housing and land costs and a connection to the land. 

Posted August 13, 2010 by

Midwest Rural Assembly (MRA)

One of the big focuses at next week's Midwest Rural Assembly will be on retaining young people. One of the leading afternoon sessions on Monday will feature young and inspiring leaders from the Midwest talking about the challenges of living in rural communities, and solutions for addressing those challenges. Check out this excellent story by Public News Service on the Midwest Rural Assembly and its focus on strategies to retain young people. 

More on the Midwest Rural Assembly next week! 




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