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Distress Grows For Ohio Valley Farmers As Trade Deals Stall

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Barry Alexander with a handful of yellow soybeans. Photo: Liam Niemeyer/Ohio Valley ReSource

This story was originally published by the Ohio Valley ReSource.

West Kentucky Farmer Barry Alexander doesn’t have an answer on when the Trump administration will reach a trade deal with China, now a year into tariffs that have hamstrung some Ohio Valley industries.

Listen to the story from the Ohio Valley ReSource.

Alexander is optimistic these continued negotiations will be worth it, but his plan in the meantime lies in massive, silver storage bins on Cundiff Farms, the 13,000-acre operation he manages.

He pulls a lever, and out tumbles a downpour of pale yellow soybeans.

Video: Liam Niemeyer/Ohio Valley ReSource

“These beans have been in here since Halloween day,” Alexander said. “The large bin on the right, that’s 350,000 bushels. The next-size bins down, that’s 180,000 bushels. To give reference, a thousand bushels is one semi-truck load.”

He’s been trying to hold onto about half of his soybean and corn bushels, waiting to see if he can sell for a better price before he’s forced to start planting again in early April.

Crop prices have crashed partly because of Chinese tariffs, and the losses have put a strain on some farmers he knows.

Barry Alexander, a lifelong west Kentucky farmer, in his small office. Photo: Liam Niemeyer/Ohio Valley ReSource

“There are farmers that have decided to retire because they didn’t want to work through these things now. We’re to that point,” Alexander said.

Alexander said he’s survived in part because his sprawling farm has resources to work with: eight full-time employees, two new $550,000 combines he traded up for, and the storage bins to help ride out bad crop prices.

“Our large structures are not cheap, but financially for our farming operation, they’re a necessity for us to do what we do,” Alexander said.

Farmers like Alexander are coping with losses from tariffs and a continuing trade war, and it’s not clear when it will end. A March 1 deadline for negotiations with China was delayed indefinitely by President Trump, and an agreement with Mexico and Canada that Trump signed in November has yet to be ratified by Congress. The retaliatory tariffs on U.S. crops and dairy remain, compounding problems caused by overproduction and low crop prices, and small farmers are suffering the most.

Massive, steel storage bins, half-full with grain, on Cundiff Farms in west Kentucky. Photo: Liam Niemeyer/Ohio Valley ReSource

Size Matters

“If you look at all the large farmers, these guys have the storage facilities to wait out bad prices,” Kent State University-Tuscarawas Agribusiness Professor Sankalp Sharma said. “For a lot of these small guys…they couldn’t actually store their commodity, they still had to deal with those lower prices.”

Sharma and others argue grain prices have been low for five years because farmers are overproducing, and tariffs are only making the situation worse.

“The United States soybean harvest this year in general was just crazy. There was a bumper crop, and prices were down because of that,” Sharma said. “This was just your classic demand and supply situation.”

Both Ohio and Kentucky set records for soybean harvests in 2018: 289 million bushels and 103 million bushels, respectively. This is up significantly compared to two decades ago, when Ohio harvested 162 million bushels and Kentucky harvested a little over 24 million bushels in 1999.

Farmers are also becoming more efficient than ever before — Ohio set records in 2018 for most corn and soybean bushels produced per acre.

Oversupply problems haven’t been limited to grains, though. Small dairy farmers are also dealing with excess supply and tariffs, with hundreds of cases of extra milk being dumped at Ohio Valley food banks.

Farms At Risk

Greg Gibson’s operation is small, but his family has made it work for decades. He milks 80 cows at his dairy farm in Bruceton Mills, West Virginia, and he took over the operation in 2002. The past year of tariffs hasn’t been easy.

“Everything’s down. Historically, if milk price is down you can sell some corn or you could sell some replacement animals are something,” Gibson said. “But nothing has a lot of value to sell right now, so it’s really hard to generate any additional revenue. And a lot of that is because of the trade problems we’re having.”

Like many Ohio Valley farmers, Gibson is receiving payments from the $12 billion in federal relief from the Market Facilitation Program intended to to help those who suffer losses from tariffs.

Small farms are squeezed by the dairy crisis. Photo: Nicole Erwin/Ohio Valley ReSource

Gibson appreciates Trump’s efforts to renegotiate trade deals, and like Alexander, is cautiously hopeful about the prospects of new trade deals.

But he said he’s also disappointed in Trump because the payments are not nearly enough to recoup his losses. He says milk’s price has plummeted nearly a dollar per hundred pounds of milk sold and the payments only reimburse 12 cents of that.

“I would have rather him said ‘I got to do this. You’re going to take the hit. Sorry.’ Don’t promise me you’re going to take care of me and then don’t,” Gibson said.

Some commodity associations including the National Corn Growers Association and the National Milk Producers Federation have called on the Trump administration in past months to bolster what they call lackluster relief payments.

Gibson’s squeezed budget has had him extend paying off his farm loans and put off paying several repair bills. He’s also had to put up his 150-year-old family farm as collateral for his loans.

Farm lenders say Gibson’s situation isn’t unique right now. Senior Vice President of Agricultural Lending Mark Barker helps oversee lending for Farm Credit Mid-America, which serves most of Ohio and Kentucky.

“Are we doing things differently? Well, sure,” Barker said. “Because we have customers coming in now and telling us ‘I’m struggling at this point. I’m challenged.’”

Barker said while most people are making their loan payments right now, the rapidly increasing amount of debt farmers are taking on to deal with depressed prices is concerning, especially for smaller operations.

“It seems like the larger producers, you think about their equipment and everything else, they’ve got some added advantages,” Barker said. “It doesn’t mean the smaller producer is necessarily ‘out,’ but I do think they got more challenges in this current environment.”

U.S. Department of Agriculture economists predict nationwide farm debt will reach $263.7 billion in 2019, levels of debt not seen since the 1980s farm crisis, when thousands of farm families defaulted on their loans amidst a trade embargo with the Soviet Union and high loan interest rates.

New Farmers

Tom McConnell leads the Small Farm Center at West Virginia University’s Extension Service and tries to help small farms succeed, in a state that has the highest proportion of small farms in the nation. He’s lived through the 1980s farm crisis and saw many dairy and beef farmers lose their farms.

He said one solution for small farmers to withstand these depressed prices is to switch to crops that bring a higher value, like vegetables. But those can be more labor-intensive, and the transition can be difficult.

“If you’ve been in a family that has milked cows or grown row crops for three generations, and I suggest you grow three acres of sweet corn and five acres of snap beans, there will be some resistance to that,” McConnell said.

McConnell said it might take a new generation to redefine what a successful small farmer business model can look like.

One of those younger small farmers is Joseph Monroe, who moved from Indiana to central Kentucky to raise beef cattle and grow tomatoes and greens. Monroe believes a way forward for smaller farms is to find ways to work together to sell products and have a greater market impact.

“I think there needs to be some pioneers and some examples out there of how to draw up a contract to work together,” Monroe said. “I think we need to throw all the darts and see what hits.”Share on Twitter

This story was originally published by the Ohio Valley ReSource.

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Want to Tell the True Story of Appalachia? Join the Appalachian Advisors Network

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Photo: David Smith/100 Days in Appalachia

During the 2016 presidential election cycle, Appalachia became the focus of an onslaught of national and international news coverage. Outlets parachuted into the region looking for stories that perpetuated generations old tropes of our communities. They got it wrong. But in 2020, we have the opportunity to help them get it right. 

100 Days in Appalachia, born out of that 2016 election, is calling on Appalachians to join us in an effort to provide greater context to media outlets who want to cover our region ahead of the 2020 election. So, we’re creating the Appalachian Advisors Network and we’re asking for your help to do it.

The Appalachian Advisors Network will help national and international news outlets better understand what is happening in our communities. The network will be made up of real people, doing real work on-the-ground.

Even though they’re important members of communities, we’re not looking for Mayors and CEOs– the kinds of people that reporters usually contact for comment. Instead, we want to create a network of workers, grandparents, students, volunteers– the people that don’t usually get a chance to shape media coverage of their communities, but whose feelings and insights are a much better representation of them.

As a member of the Appalachian Advisors Network, you’ll help the rest of America, and the world, better understand what Appalachia really is and the  issues, concerns, hopes and fears of the people who live here.

What’s required:

Be willing to answer a few questions from 100 Days in Appalachia each month about your life and your community in the lead up to the 2020 election.

Be willing to talk to a reporter if they are interested in covering what’s happening in the region.

Members of the Appalachian Advisors Network will receive a stipend.

If you’re interested, fill out this form.

Cell Preferred
Describe your work, study or activities in your community.

 

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Appalachia’s Deep History of Resistance

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Becky Crabtree sits chained in her 1971 Ford Pinto, suspended over a trench at a Mountain Valley Pipeline construction site on her property in Monroe County, West Virginia. Photo: Appalachians Against Pipelines

Protest runs through the region’s veins like coal seams through the mountains.

When a group of Kentucky miners decided to block a coal-laden train from leaving a bankrupt mine in July, they weren’t just laying claim to missing paychecks.

The miners in Harlan County won attention across the United States for their willingness to put their bodies on the line for their beliefs. In doing so, they’re invoking the long-entrenched spirit of civil disobedience and direct action in the Appalachian Mountains. The mine wars of the early 20th century led to the rise of American unions in the 1930s and 1940s, but it’s not just coal miners who have laid claim to a history of activism.

The first day of the Harlan County train blockade, July 29, 2019, also marked the 89th day of a 24/7 protest in Kingsport, Tennessee, over a monopolistic health care provider’s move to downgrade a hospital’s emergency services and close its neonatal intensive care unit, where sick newborns are treated.

And July 29 was the 328th day of the Yellow Finch Lane tree-sits in Montgomery County, Virginia, where two anonymous tree-sitters and a small support camp block construction of a 303-mile, 42-inch wide pipeline being built to move natural gas from the fracking fields of the Marcellus and Utica shale formations in northern West Virginia to a terminal just north of Danville in southern Virginia. From there, the gas would be sent on to the East Coast, and perhaps overseas.

These ongoing actions aren’t recent aberrations. In 2018, more than 20,000 teachers in all of West Virginia’s 55 counties went on strike for two weeks to secure better pay and benefits—and in the end were successful. That action inspired similar teacher strikes in Kentucky, Oklahoma and elsewhere.

In the mid-’00s, activists trying to stop mountaintop removal coal mining—a form of surface mining that uses explosives to blow off ridge tops to expose underground coal seams—regularly took part in direct actions, chaining themselves to equipment, disrupting stockholder meetings, and blocking access to mine sites and facilities.

These activists run the gamut in terms of age, class, race, ethnicity and hometowns. Women tend to be more prevalent in these actions than men, but everyone shares the frustration of fighting against a system that feels rigged, where other options are blocked, and the only thing left to do is to fight using one’s body.

New generations join the fight for their rights

The depth of Appalachia’s activist tradition can be seen in Becky Crabtree of Lindside, West Virginia. Crabtree grew up near Bluefield and went to work as a teacher in McDowell County in 1975. The year she started, local teachers, including her mother, went on strike for better pay, but Crabtree was afraid of losing her new job.

“When I didn’t sign to go out on strike, teachers I loved and respected circled my car and asked why I wasn’t going to go out on strike,” Crabtree said. “It was my first grown-up job, and I told them I had agreed to work. They explained to me I had to go out on strike, and I understood. We stood together and had to go out on strike.”

The teachers struck again in 1986, and Crabtree, now with 11 years of experience, became much more involved. By 2018, she was a substitute teacher, and she didn’t go to Charleston to rally with thousands of others at the State Capitol, but she watched the children of those who did. She also took to the streets with signs of support for the striking teachers, standing with her mother and her daughters—three generations of West Virginia teachers—encouraging car drivers to honk their support.

Rachel Campbell, left, and Davin Miller, elementary school teachers in Charleston, were among the thousands who demonstrated for better pay and benefits at the West Virginia State Capitol in 2018. Photo: Mason Adams/YES! Magazine

That summer, Crabtree also protested construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline across her Monroe County sheep farm by chaining herself to her 1971 Ford Pinto—the same car the other teachers surrounded in 1975—which was placed on concrete blocks straddling the pipeline trench.

“I had done all the things I knew to work the system,” Crabtree said. “I had been to town meetings. I had spoken at pipeline-sponsored gatherings. I spoke about it on TV. We collected petitions. We had a case lined up to go to the U.S. Supreme Court about eminent domain, but they chose not to hear it this year. We had done everything we knew to do. It was all I could do, was to put my body across the pipeline.”

Ultimately, Crabtree said she disrupted about a half-day’s worth of work by pipeline crews before she was arrested and removed from the Pinto. She was charged with obstruction, but the charge was eventually dismissed.

Taking a stand—or a sit—against fossil fuels

Crabtree’s action marked just one episode in a substantial campaign against the Mountain Valley Pipeline. Tree-sitters placed their bodies in the way of pipeline construction in Monroe County, West Virginia, and Franklin, Giles, Montgomery and Roanoke counties in Virginia. The longest-running tree-sit is near the town of Elliston on Yellow Finch Lane, where, as of September 2019, tree-sitters and a support camp have been in place for more than a year.

On the day the Harlan County miners began their train blockade, the Yellow Finch tree-sit was preparing for the possible arrival of federal marshals, because the pipeline company had asked a judge to remove them. That morning, a bulldozer roared on the opposite slope of the narrow hollow as protesters made breakfast and talked about what might happen later. The judge ultimately declined to remove the protesters, who remain in the trees to buy time while other activists pursued legal and regulatory avenues to halt construction.

Miners and their families play cornhole while blocking railroad tracks to prevent train loaded with coal from departing a mine near Cumberland, Kentucky, until they receive pay for their work from their employer, Blackjewel, which abruptly filed for bankruptcy in July. Photo: Mason Adams/YES! Magazine

The anti-pipeline movement grew largely from organizing efforts that were developed more than a decade ago to fight mountaintop removal in central Appalachia. Erin McKelvy, who works with the group Appalachians Against Pipelines, grew up outside Blacksburg, Virginia, and took part in Take Back the Night rallies with her mother, a professor at Virginia Tech.

McKelvy found another mentor in Sue Daniels, a local mountaintop removal activist who took her along on a 2004 trip to Inman, Virginia, where a 3-year-old boy had been killed in his sleep by a flying boulder blasted from a nearby surface mine. The two joined with others to plan what became known as 2005’s Mountain Justice Summer and the beginning of a protracted campaign against coal companies.

The training sponsored by Mountain Justice taught McKelvy about direct action, preparing for legal fallout, speaking to media, and the importance of centering local leaders and voices.

Direct action, McKelvy said, “is a necessary tool in the toolbox. When regulatory agencies say yes to things that are in clear violation of the charters they have to protect air, water and the environment, and when there’s so much momentum behind the sort of toxic death culture status quo, sometimes it takes physically getting in the way of those things that are destructive and dangerous to actually get anywhere.”

Making business work for communities

Numerous Yellow Finch tree-sitters cited the Dakota Access Pipeline protests of 2016 and 2017 at Standing Rock Indian Reservation as a galvanizing moment for them. That event also has inspired other actions, including an around-the-clock protest at a hospital in Kingsport, Tennessee, that as of September 2019 stretched beyond 140 days.

Dani Cook grew up in Bristol, which straddles the Tennessee-Virginia line, but was living in Charlotte, North Carolina, when she traveled to Standing Rock and spent five days with a group of military veterans supporting the protest. The experience left a lasting impression, so when Cook learned that the neonatal intensive care unit at Holston Valley Medical Center was scheduled to close as part of the hospital being downgraded as a trauma center, she took to the street.

“When I came out here, I was by myself,” Cook said. “I had no clue if anyone would come with me. All I knew is that what’s happening here is so wrong, we just have to do something. At first, I thought that was emails and phone calls. I thought it was 450 people showing up at the [public] hearing. I thought, surely when the state hears from nurses and doctors and the community, it will do something. When that didn’t work, all I knew to do was to make it physical.”

Dani Cook of Kingsport, Tennessee, protests the closure of a neonatal intensive care unit at her local hospital by Ballad Health, a regional nonprofit hospital company. Photo: Submitted by Dani Cook

Cook stationed herself on the sidewalk in front of the hospital and started talking about the plan set in motion by the hospital’s owner, Ballad Health. Before long, she was joined by other people, and since then they’ve been a constant presence on the road in front of Holston Valley, waving signs, asking motorists to sign petitions and waving to honking cars.

“Our protest is 90 percent women,” Cook said. “We have probably eight or so men who are here. Right now, it’s four of us women and one man out here. That’s pretty much the norm.”

Women take the lead throughout history

That dynamic—of women taking leadership roles and driving direct action—appears throughout Appalachia, both geographically and throughout history.

“Women putting their bodies on the line—because that is really what they’re doing— has been a historical pattern,” said Jessie Wilkerson, a professor at the University of Mississippi and author of To Live Here, You Have to Fight: How Women Led Appalachian Movements for Social Justice. “They always center what I and other scholars call ‘caring labor.’ They’re really emphasizing the labor that it takes to sustain life, to take care of other people, to take care of children, to take care of the environment, to take care of their communities.”

Wilkerson’s book was inspired by the Brookside Women’s Club of Harlan County, Kentucky, which played a pivotal role in the ’70s strike whose memory has been stoked by the train blockade. That’s just one example of women taking the lead in direct action.

Ollie “Widow” Combs, for example, placed her body before a bulldozer at a strip mine above her Kentucky home in 1965, leading to her arrest and inspiring future movements such as Mountain Justice, 40 years later.

Kentucky residents also picketed over potential hospital closures in Hazard, Harlan, Middlesboro, and Whitesburg in the early ’60s. Those protests eventually resulted in the establishment of numerous community-based clinics as part of Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” programs.

“Often the story is told as the federal government swoops in and is telling people what to do, but in fact, this came from protests around Washington, D.C., and in the region because of the hospital closures,” Wilkerson said.

That action has echoes today in the Holston Valley protests.

Colorful signs adorn two tree-sits on property near Elliston, Virginia, where protesters have blocked construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline for more than a year. Photos: Mason Adams/YES! Magazine

Wilma Lee Steele, a resident of Matewan and a board member for the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum, fought coal and gas companies as a landowner whose property was dramatically affected by both. She said that today’s activists increasingly connect their fights with the labor actions found throughout Appalachia’s history, such as the West Virginia mine wars, an escalating series of labor showdowns that culminated in a 1921 declaration of martial law when thousands of miners faced off against law enforcement and private detectives on Blair Mountain. That vibrant connection between the past and present, Steele said, is a good thing.

“There’s things happening in West Virginia,” Steele said. “You see communities doing something. It can be hard to see, but underneath is a wave.”

Crabtree, the teacher whose car was surrounded by striking teachers in 1975, remembered what she felt as she sat chained to that same car 43 years later, waiting in the early morning mists for pipeline crews to arrive.

“There’s nobody in sight,” she said. “Just the shadows of the trees. It’s not quite daylight but it’s not dark. It was one of the most peaceful moments of my life. That’s real important to me. There was absolutely no fear. I knew logically that no jury in Monroe County would convict me of a crime for sitting on my own land, and I was doing the right thing. It’s a wonderful feeling, of doing the right thing.”

This article was funded in part by a grant from the One Foundation. It was originally published by YES! Magazine.

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Congress Hears Testimony From Chemical Company Executives On PFAS Contamination

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The Chemours facility, formerly the DuPont company’s site, in Washington, West Virginia. Photo: Glynis Board/WVPB

This article was originally published by the Ohio Valley ReSource.

Executives from three major chemical companies — DuPont de Nemours, Inc., The Chemours Company and The 3M Company — testified for the first time to Congress about widespread contamination from the group of nonstick, fluorinated chemicals broadly called PFAS.

The so-called “forever chemicals” persist in the environment, are linked to ill health effects, and have been found in numerous water systems in the Ohio Valley.

The hearing — the third on PFAS contamination by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform’s Subcommittee on Environment — explored the extent to which companies that make PFAS chemicals knew about its impacts on human health and the environment and how they should be held accountable. 

“These companies with us here today have screwed up and we need to hold them accountable for doing so,” said Committee Chairman Rep. Harley Rouda from California. “I hope the people representing those companies here today will admit their mistakes so that we can all move forward and achieve what I believe is our common goal: to clean up contaminated sites, stop exposing innocent people to toxic chemicals and making sure that all Americans have clean water and clean air.” 

Concern over PFAS contamination has grown nationwide. The Environmental Working Group estimates the drinking water systems of more than 700 communities are contaminated with PFAS. Perfluoroalkyl chemicals were used to make nonstick products and are found in some flame retardants including firefighting foam. 

Company executives called to testify focused on internal efforts to address concerns over PFAS in the face of major high-profile lawsuits and settlements over contamination in West Virginia and Minnesota. All expressed support for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “action plan.” The agency in February proposed a series of regulatory steps to address PFAS contamination and cleanup

Lawmakers in both parties criticized EPA for not moving swiftly enough. Congress is considering amendments to its 2020 defense spending bill that would speed up EPA’s timeline and regulate the entire class of PFAS chemicals. 

Company executives were split over how PFAS chemicals should be regulated, although none supported broad legislative action to regulate all 5,000 PFAS chemicals. 

A representative from DuPont went the farthest. Daryl Roberts, DuPont’s chief operating and engineering officer, told the House subcommittee the company welcomed specific regulatory actions, such as listing two PFAS chemicals, PFOA and PFOS, as hazardous substances under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, or CERCLA, also known as the Superfund law. 

“We support legislation to list PFOA and PFOS, and only those two, as hazardous substances under CERCLA. That’s further than the other companies here are willing to go today, but that’s what we believe is correct,” he said. “What we know about those chemicals is that they’re bio-persistent. That’s enough to know that there’s a clear concern for those chemicals within society at this point in time, and we feel for that reason they should be regulated.” 

DuPont no longer makes PFAS chemicals. It split off its fluorinated chemicals business in 2015 to Chemours. A representative from Chemours said that company did not support such regulation. Chemours and DuPont are engaged in litigation over the split. Chemours argues DuPont misrepresented the environmental liabilities associated with PFAS chemicals. 

3M’s Senior Vice President of Corporate Affairs, Denise Rutherford, doubled down on her company’s claim that there are no negative health effects from PFAS exposure.

“When we look at that evidence there is no cause and effect for adverse human health effects at the levels we are exposed to as a general population,” she said. 

That didn’t sit well with some Democrats, including New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who said this position goes against findings from government agencies and 3M’s own scientists. 

The federal government’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry says some studies in humans with PFAS exposure have shown: effects on growth, learning, and behavior of infants; an increase cholesterol levels; effects on the immune system; and an increase in the risk of cancer.

The hearing began with testimony from two attorneys whose lawsuits against DuPont and 3M unearthed thousands of internal company documents that showed both companies knew the chemicals were dangerous to human health and the environment for decades, but didn’t tell its employees or federal regulators.

Rob Bilott, an Ohio-based attorney who successfully brought a class action lawsuit against DuPont for its dumping of PFOA, sometimes called C8, near its plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia, told lawmakers he and his team for 18 years have funneled scientific studies from within DuPont to EPA that enumerated the health risks associated with exposure. 

In 2012, an independent panel of scientists — the C8 Science Panel — concluded drinking PFAS contaminated water was linked with six diseases, including kidney and testicular cancers.

The group looked at all existing studies and conducted new ones on 70,000 impacted community members from around the Parkersburg area. 

“This independent scientific review has occurred. Unfortunately EPA has not acted,” Bilott testified. “We have more than enough evidence.  We should move forward and protect the public.”

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