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Thomas, W.Va.: The Town the Arts (Re) Built



The Purple Fiddle. Photo: Purple Fiddle Facebook page

The downtown of this town of 600 sat nearly vacant until a music venue and artists began to create a new economic future for the former coal town. A new guide from the National Association of Governors says arts and culture can be part of rebuilding economies in rural communities.

The city of Thomas, West Virginia, like a lot of municipalities in the Mountain State, owes its initial development to coal.

Today, however, the downtown of the small town in eastern West Virginia has redeveloped in response to another economic sector – arts and culture.

“All over West Virginia the arts and culture economy, coupled with outdoor recreation and tourism, are just growing,” said Emily Wilson-Hauger, program director of Woodlands Development Group.

The trend is national, according to a National Governor’s Association “action guide” that describes how rural communities can build on culture and art to renew distressed economies.

In Thomas, the downtown was nearly lifeless before artists started establishing businesses, Wilson-Hauger said. The effort to rebuild picked up in the early 2000s with the launch of a local music venue, The Purple Fiddle, whose founders saw opportunity instead of decline.

“There was the Fiddle, an antique shop and a bar. That’s it. The rest of the buildings were empty,” Wilson-Hauger said.

“Then a few artists started to trickle in after the music scene developed, young artists that were getting priced out of Pittsburgh and D.C. and wherever else,” she said. “A couple of these artists moved in and rented downtown space really cheap, they lived upstairs.”

A staircase mural created by high school students in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, for the town’s May Festival of the Arts. Eureka Springs is one of the rural communities profiled in a new National Governors Association guide on arts and economic development. Photo: Eureka Springs City Advertising and Promotion Commission for the National Governor’s Association Rural Arts Report

Wilson-Hauger, whose organization has helped the downtown to plan and find funding, said there’s a new enthusiasm in the town.

“More and more artists started moving in and we ended with the crazy, amazing mix of people in town. Artists and friends of artists. They could rent or buy these buildings really cheaply, and many are still process of fixing them up.”

Thomas isn’t the only town in the region that has improved a local economy with arts and cultural development.

“I’ve seen this happening in other parts of our region (Appalachia) heavily focused on the arts and economic opportunity through the arts and revitalization,” Wilson-Hauger said. “These artists are shaping the communities they’d like to see, really revitalizing community around the arts. And it’s important to say that there was already a great arts tradition, a great music tradition here to build on. This gives it a little boost.”

The sector is a significant economic engine in many rural communities, according to the National Governors Association’s new guide on rural development and the arts. Economically “struggling rural communities have found new life through smart public policies that boost the creative sector,” the guide says.

Among other examples, the guide reports on Montana’s Artrepreneur Program, which includes 10 months of entrepreneurial training for rural visual artists, and southwestern Virginia’s “Crooked Road,” a heritage music trail with venues for traditional gospel, bluegrass and mountain music. The guide says these programs have injected millions of dollars into their state’s rural economies.

In Thomas, local leadership combined with technical assistance and access to capital helped ramp things up, said Wilson-Hauger.

“The artists formed a volunteer non-profit organization focused on downtown revitalization, so we help with their planning efforts, provide technical assistance to the group and still are really helping them implement some of their bigger projects,” Wilson-Hauger said, explaining her organization’s role.

“In more recent years, we’ve been able to provide direct technical assistance to some of those building owners to help with their pre-development costs, architectural services, etc. to get them up over the hump and get the buildings up to par,” she said. “Then we come in with the CDFI (community development financial institutions) and provide lending. We’ve lent to a number of galleries and some of the artists themselves.”

Rural CDFIs provide loans, capital and financial products to rural communities that are underserved by traditional banks. Woodlands Community Lenders (WCL) works in Barbour, Randolph and Tucker counties in North Central West Virginia. Since 2012, the nonprofit lender has provided more than $1.4 million in loans to the region, helping to launch 20 news businesses and provide working capital for 50 established entrepreneurs.

“We found our spot in this mix in a very organic way, and that’s with lending, technical assistance and planning help,” Wilson-Hauger said.

Though the organization got involved through affordable housing development, Wilson-Hauger said that Woodlands Development Group decided to help support the arts because of the sector’s role in leading downtown revitalization. “We’ve focused on a three-county area and kept our organization small on purpose. We have good and effective local relationships with county governments, city governments, volunteer groups, non-profit groups and other institutions.”

The local efforts have also been spurred with funding from U. S. Department of Treasury’s CDFI Fund, Housing and Urban Development money, Trans-federal Highway Administration money that comes through the West Virginia Division of Highways for trail building, EPA money for brownfields projects that clean-up vacant lots for parks with a lot of arts components, Department of Agriculture Rural Development programs, the Economic Development Administration and the Appalachian Regional Commission.

Recreational infrastructure is also part of the plan. The decommissioned railroad that runs past downtown Thomas has been converted into a biking and walking trail.

This article was originally published by the Daily Yonder.


Telling the Story of Small-town America, without Donald Trump



Photo: David Bernabo

When two Minnesota writers busted a star reporter for German magazine Der Spiegel for skewering their town with fabrications, it affirmed the worst stereotypes about condescending city journalists wading into the heartland.

But you don’t have to make stuff up to worry about how your reporting on small-town America is going to be received. Since the 2016 election, the tension on main street between storyteller and subject has polluted public discourse and trust during a difficult and vulnerable time. Getting the story exactly right is always hard.

That’s why I was so nervous a few Fridays ago, when filmmaker Dave Bernabo and I drove 75 minutes southwest of Pittsburgh, to Moundsville, W.Va., for the premiere of our feature documentary about the town.

The movie, which is available online, will debut in New York on Jan. 14 and in Pittsburgh at the Carnegie Museum of Art on Jan. 17. But the Moundsville performance was the one I was nervous about. For the first time in my two-decade career in journalism, on publication day, I would be facing my sources.

Small town

Dave and I were two city intellectuals, blue dots floating into a red town, and we’d committed to answering questions from the audience after the movie.

Our goal with “Moundsville” was to tell the economic biography of a classic American small town— a place out of a Jimmy Stewart movie — and show how it had changed and how it was coping, in a way that illustrated this moment in American history.

Moundsville, pop. 8,494, was the perfect fit. Its industrial boom included dozens of factories, including the Marx toy plant, which made the Rock’em Sock’em robots. Now it enjoyed a typical service economy, anchored around a Walmart, a hospital and a prison. And in the middle was the Grave Creek Mound, a prehistoric burial site left behind by hunter-gatherers who roamed Appalachia thousands of years ago, and a sure mark of time’s insistence on change.

Moundsville is the seat of a county that had voted 73.1 percent for Donald Trump in 2016, compared to 22.1 percent for Hillary Clinton, so, yes, maybe we’d reveal something deeper about the Trump phenomenon, but that wasn’t the primary goal.

Instead, we wanted mainly to tell the truth about the past, present and future of an iconic small town in a way that avoided nationalist nostalgia or liberal condescension. By focusing on shared history, without getting distracted by Washington politics, we’d show that Americans can still have common reality-based narratives that lay the groundwork for healthier debate.

We spent almost a year reporting, filming and editing. The approach we developed was to select the most thoughtful residents we could find, and let them tell the story. Our characters included a waiter, an archeologist, a paranormal collector, a toy historian and the poet laureate of West Virginia.

When we asked about politics, the answers were almost always clichés, copied and pasted from cable news. We made a decision: No Trump.

When we finished in November, we got an offer from Phil Remke, one of the main characters in the movie, and now the mayor of Moundsville: How about premiering at the Strand, that boxy red-brick theatre at the end of Moundsville’s main street, Jefferson Avenue?

The Strand opened in 1920 and seats 400. When Moundsville flourished, it hosted traveling plays and vaudeville acts. These days, it welcomes everything from bluegrass concerts and musicals for kids to The Rocky Horror Picture Show and stand-up comedy. It also hosts birthday parties and dance recitals.

We booked a Friday night and set ticket prices at $5, and then worried if anybody would show up.

Fulfilling the code

Media coverage of post-industrial towns tends to focus on economic poverty. This plant closed. This number of jobs were lost. Less discussed is the loss of culture. Factories with good jobs attract educated people with disposable income. An economy based on service jobs at the Walmart, the prison and the hospital offers less of a base to support theaters, museums and bookstores. “People have less money to spend, and it’s mostly older people,” Sadie Crowe, the young part-time general manager of the Strand, told me.

As soon as I got to the Strand on opening night, an hour before the show, I knew we’d be OK. There was a line.

We sold 146 tickets, mostly to people in their 50s and older. The box office tally “blows any other movie we’ve had this year out of the water,” Ms. Crowe told me later.

John W. Miller, a Pittsburgh-based writer and former Wall Street Journal reporter (pictured), has made a feature documentary about the town of Moundsville, W.Va. with Pittsburgh filmmaker David Bernabo. Photo: Matt McDermit/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

The audience went quiet with concentration when the movie started. We got some laughs.

Then came a scene where a young Latino man talks about “racism in Moundsville.” A hush. Later, there was another conspicuous silence when Bill Wnek, a retired teacher, blames plant closures on capitalism. Local factories are bound to close “if you can get it cheaper somewhere else,” he says.

I was worried when the lights went up and it was time for the Q&A.

Suzanne Park, the director of the shuttered West Virginia State Penitentiary, now a tourist attraction, took the microphone. “Thank you for not making this political,” she said. “We didn’t know if we could trust you, because, you know, big-city journalists,” she said. “But you were balanced, and we appreciate that.” Others raised their hand. They had all liked the movie.

After the premiere, I discovered that we had fulfilled a code developed by some anthropologists. Presenting a finished work to the subject “is about respect, but it’s also about interaction, collaboration and growth,” University of Pittsburgh anthropologist Loukas Barton told me.

For example, native communities that Mr. Barton has studied in Alaska “have used my work in negotiations with other landowners,” he said. “Self-knowledge can give a community political power.” There’s a long history of outsiders “using and abusing the history of a place for their own purposes, and you’d don’t want to do that,” he said.

Shared history

I called a handful of locals for more conversation.

Like Ms. Park, others thanked me for not making the movie about Mr. Trump. It didn’t bother them that we had presented Moundsville’s decline, as well as problems with the gas industry and Walmart. They know things are hard; they just don’t like being lectured to, they explained.

“We all have opinions about politics and history will judge,” said Rose Hart, founder of a charity called Appalachian Outreach. “But both parties are so dysfunctional it’s better to stick to reality.”

By offering a shared history, the movie “makes it easier for us to talk about how to improve the town,” said Steve Hummel, a collector of haunted objects.

Gene Saunders, the town’s first and only African-American mayor, has a key role in the movie, explaining the discrimination he grew up with in the 1950s. “A lot of people here didn’t know Moundsville was segregated,” he said. “Your movie told them.”

Mary Britt moved to Moundsville six years ago to accompany her husband, who got a job at the local hospital. “I just liked learning more about the town,” she said. “You told a lot of stories that even people here don’t know.”

And she, too, thanked us, for avoiding the T word.

“I bet 90 percent percent of the people at the premiere voted for him,” said Ms. Britt. “But they don’t want an outsider telling them about it.”

A few weeks after the premiere, Ms. Crowe, the Strand’s manager, emailed to say people in town liked the movie so much that the theater will screen it twice more, at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m on Jan. 19.

And on Facebook, one town resident declared she was downloading “Moundsville” — as a Christmas gift.

This story was originally published by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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Q&A: Music Professor and Geologist Share How Geology Shaped W.Va.



Seneca Rocks was fromed during that final assembly of the supercontinent Pangea when a sandstone layer folded to such a degree that the layers were turned vertical. Photo: Brittany Patterson/West Virginia Public Broadcasting

A geology professor and music professor spent four years together traveling through West Virginia thinking about rocks.

Their journey is documented a new book titled “Roadside Geology of West Virginia.”

West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s energy and environment reporter Brittany Patterson sat down with the authors, West Virginia University music professor emeritus Christopher Wilkinson and geologist Joe Lebold, to learn more about how geology has shaped the Mountain State and why this unlikely duo wanted to write about it.

Listen to their conversation below.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Christopher, I’d like to start with you. You’re a professor emeritus of music at WVU. Can you tell us a little bit about why you wanted to help write a book about West Virginia’s geology?

Wilkinson: There are several reasons why. One reason is our common interest in the state’s geology. I had the opportunity to sit in on Joe Lebold’s geology of West Virginia class. [Writing this book together] provided the opportunity to put all of those interests together in the state and the geology, the science and so forth.

And Joe, you’re the geologist. Why put together a roadside guide of geology in West Virginia?

Lebold: Well, I find that often some of the more interested folks in geology are actually not geologists, they come from different walks of life. But geology is a fairly accessible science, you can see it everywhere. And it really piques the interest of the general public and people like Chris.

West Virginia is called the Mountain State. And, as you write, we associate West Virginia with coal a lot of the time. But I think one thing I took away from your book is you argue if you widen the lens and look into our past, there’s a lot more to the state. Can you talk a little bit about what are some of those major geologic processes that have really formed the West Virginia that we know today.

Lebold: Probably the most significant geologic event to shape West Virginia was the assembly of a large supercontinent called Pangea, about 250 million years ago. And this event deformed, bent and broke the sedimentary layers that were already in place, recording environments that had existed for, you know, some 300 million years prior to that event. And basically produced the pattern that well, I guess, weathering erosion took to create our landscape.

So, this book is meant to be sort of a guide for motorists driving through our state. I’m wondering if you could take me on a little journey. What might be some things that folks might see driving through West Virginia?

Wilkinson: Well, let’s start with listeners who might be traveling I-64 between Charleston and Huntington. Either direction, take your pick, you’ll find yourself traveling in an unusual valley, unusual for a couple of reasons. First of all, it is a very straight valley and you don’t find many of those in West Virginia. Secondly, it’s a valley that no longer has the river that created it and to understand how that valley came to be how it lost its river and the resulting topography is one example [you’ll find in the book].

I’ll give you a second example. You’re driving south on I-77, the West Virginia Turnpike, and you’ve come up south of Beckley. You’ve climbed flat top mountain, you have paid your tolls at the toll gate, and further east, you’re beginning a descent. You can look straight ahead south and you will see on the horizon a ridge running almost at right angles to the route of the highway you’re on. All of a sudden, there’s the seemingly immovable barrier of this ridge. And what it does is it marks the boundary between two of the major topographical geological provinces that divide the state of West Virginia

One place I wanted to talk about that I think a lot of folks might be familiar with is Seneca Rocks. Can you talk a little bit about what happened there geologically, that led to this formation.

Lebold: Well Seneca Rocks has a very troubled history. It actually started out as a horizontal layer sandstone, just like every other sedentary layer. But during that final assembly of the supercontinent Pangea, that layer, like many others, was folded…but folded to such a degree that the layers were turned vertical. So, when you approach Seneca Rocks, people tend to think of it as a tall cliff, when in reality you’re actually looking at the top of the sedintary layers.

Wilkinson: And what is interesting to consider about that is naturally anyone who approaches that formation from the west looks up to the summit. In fact, those rocks are heading down and will descend more than a mile under the ground before they then once again become flat as they head west.

In the years that you guys spent working on this and traveling the state thinking about geology, are there places that you came across that really surprising or really cool?

Lebold: Probably the most surprising were the southern coalfields. You know, we certainly do have hills and hollers up here in the northern part of the state, but down south, the valley walls basically turn the landscape into a maze. Essentially, every time you turn you’re confronted with a wall of trees that just rises to the sky, and that’s why the folks in those hollers tend to only see the sun for a very short period of time every day as it dips beyond the valley wall.

Wilkinson: For me, one of the most dramatic locations is a lookout point that overlooks the Germany Valley. This is on Route 33 south and east of Seneca Rocks, and you see the area where those rocks were once connected to the layers to the east, all of which has been a hollowed out valley that was originally solid rock. And to understand the forces at work, and the millions of years it took for the for the present topography to be created was very inspiring.

To me, the premise of this book is really to show that West Virginia was shaped by geology, and I’m wondering how you hope that it might affect people who come across it?

Lebold: Well, quite simply the hope is that people will have a greater awareness or appreciation of the long history of this place we call West Virginia that began long, long before people ever set foot here. Probably one of the most interesting things to realize is that the record of that history is still here, and it can be read on every outcrop, every road cut. You can see the … essentially the evidence for all the different places that West Virginia’s resembled in the past.

Wilkinson: Well, again, to go back to a point that Joe made earlier. For me the appeal of this science, not being a scientist, is it is something to be appreciated by the naked eye. This book intends to create informed naked eyes so that those who are looking understand what they are seeing.

This story was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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For Farmers, the Impact of Florence Will Linger for Years



While the storm strikes and when recovery begins, we’ll hear a lot about Hurricane Florence. But the toughest times for the region’s farmers will likely come long after the reporters and TV cameras have gone home. Scott Marlow, a “farm-crisis advocate” who has worked with farmers after 16 previous hurricanes, tells us what to expect and – just as important – when to expect it.

As Hurricane Florence brings flooding to Southeastern states, the Daily Yonder spoke at length with Scott Marlow of Rural Advancement Foundation International-USA (RAFI) to discuss the potential impacts on farmers, rural communities and the environment.

RAFI has launched an education and aid program to assist farmers before, during and after Hurricane Florence. RAFI works primarily in North Carolina and in Southeastern states, but also has national programs. The organization expects the work of hurricane recovery to continue for years to come.

Marlow is a farm policy and rural economic development expert, as well as an experienced one-on-one farm financial crisis advocate. This is the 17th hurricane Marlow has experienced as a disaster recovery worker. Marlow is based in Pittsboro, North Carolina, in the state’s Piedmont region.

The interview is presented here and has been lightly edited for length and clarity. The Daily Yonder’s Bryce Oates recorded the interview.

DY: How are things holding up there for now?

Marlow: It’s OK so far. We’re far enough inland that we just have a windy and cloudy day for now (Thursday, September 13, 2018). At this point, you can tell as much from Weather Channel and media coverage as we can.

DY: Tell me about the efforts that RAFI has going to educate farmers and rural people about what’s coming.

Marlow: One is that we work directly with farmers extensively on disaster recovery. Obviously, if there’s important things to be done in direct response or relief, we’ll help out the best we can. We generally kick in during that transition period from relief to recovery. Our experience with disaster recovery is that there are a set of federal programs that people can get access to, but if they don’t do the right things in the days right after the hurricane, they won’t be eligible. They’ll lose that opportunity.

In the big picture, this hurricane is coming in what was already a very difficult time from the farm financial viability perspective. We run a Farm Advocacy Program where we work with farmers in financial crisis, farmers all levels and scale, from two acres to 20,000 acres and farmers of all sizes in between. It’s row crop farmers, vegetable farmers, there’s chickens and hogs, all kinds of farmers. Part of the story here, as we’re waiting to see what happens with the storm, is that we already have a full caseload of farmers dealing with financial stress because of agriculture prices. For the last year, we’re seeing conventional commodity farms in larger numbers coming to us because they couldn’t get loans, couldn’t cash flow, because of low prices.

“What we know going into this disaster is that the number of farmers who need our help is going to go up very soon.”

We’re one of very few folks across the country who goes to farmers, sits down with them at the kitchen table, go through the shoeboxes of receipts, go through the paperwork and we help them come up with a plan to navigate the circumstances so they can keep owning their farm and their home.

A couple of things about disasters to know. One is that federal disaster programs tend to support large-scale commodity producers more than they support either livestock farms or the direct market and specialty market farmer. A disaster takes all of the resilience of the system. It’s going to tap and max out all of your money and resources. You’re probably not going to have any financial resilience left. Those folks who’ve followed our advice, frankly, the farmers doing direct marketing, adding value, selling specialty products, the farmers that have diversified away from commodity farming, those folks are less likely to have disaster programs that work well for them. And, even if the programs could work for them, this group of farmers is less likely to sign up for them or even know that the assistance programs are there.

In the midst of current price crisis, we came into this situation carrying a very full load. What we know going into this disaster is that the number of farmers who need our help is going to go up very soon. We know that this is going to cause extreme levels of stress across rural communities. We know that in a farm crisis following a disaster, there’s going to be a really significant mental health crisis. Really serious cases of depression, of domestic violence, of substance abuse. We crank up our most in the days when the politicians and the media have left. When we take on a farmer’s case, it is often a two- or three-year commitment from us.

The second level of our work is that we work with partner organizations on the ground out there to build their capacity to serve the farmers in their community. We have a whole series of resources available not just to individual farmers, but also the people that work with farmers, both about the programs that are available and about how to work most effectively with the farming community.

“Disaster programs expect farmers to be at their most organized best at the point where their lives are at their worst.” 

DY: So what has your experience shown you about working with farmers in disaster recovery?

Marlow: In the days after a disaster, whether a farmer is able to keep their farm or lose their farm is often dependent on them navigating very complex and separate state and federal programs that can provide them resources for their recovery. But you have to have two things happen. You have to have the information about available programs, and you have to be really, really organized. Disaster programs expect farmers to be at their most organized best at the point where their lives are at their worst. You’re expecting someone whose house is flooded out, who is trying to find their animals, who’s trying to put their lives together again, and probably whose relatives are in the same situation, you’re expecting them to deliver their tax records for the last several years. You’re expecting them to have a documented farm production history.

There are lots of public information sources about how to make it through the storm itself, and that’s critically important. What we focus on is the things you need to doing just before and during this disaster is to make sure that as you go down the pike you’ll best be positioned to successfully navigate the disaster programs. Often that means determining whether you’ll be farming or not over the next two or three years. The thing we focus the most on is the importance of documentation. We urge people to go out and take pictures just before the hurricane comes in. We push people to take lots of pictures, as many as possible, from all possible angles, documenting the “before” picture of the farm and before the clean-up work happens.

Now, obviously, the storm surge and the winds, they’re very dangerous. But what’s worse in our experience, say with Hurricane Matthew and Hurricane Floyd, is the flooding of the rivers and streams afterword. Part of what’s scary about this storm is that it’s going to sit on us and it’s likely to dump huge amounts of water. All of that water has to get back to ocean, and it’s going to flood while it’s on its way back. With Hurricane Matthew, it took six or seven days depending on the location for the rivers to crest. So you’re talking about the worst damage coming a week after the initial storm comes through.

DY: What kind of damage, over the longer-term, do you see during this kind of large-scale flooding?

Marlow: A little bit more on the financial resiliency side. … By working with farmers over the long haul, we know it’s not just that they’re going to have a hard time during the next few months getting rebuilt, just like the other households in the region. Lots of people are going to be having a hard time. Part of what we know is that we’re going to see a real bump in farm foreclosures in around two years. Chances are that immediately following a hurricane, banks and others are going to work with people, they’re going to have sympathy. You’ve just been through a hurricane, so you cut them some slack. There’s a lot of things banks do, and they often do them aggressively, which is great, to help people get through this moment. But once that moment passes, there is nothing left. The hurricane took all of the financial resilience right out of the system. It took their savings, it took their retirement away, if they have them. And instead of making money during that time, they lost money. They lost sales or equipment, maybe animals. They lost stored feed, all of the things it takes to farm.

There are going to be heavy crop losses, and thankfully some of that will be covered with crop insurance. That’s good, but just like health insurance or car insurance, it doesn’t get you all the way back.

DY: And they lost crops, I’m sure. It’s still harvest season in North Carolina, right?

Marlow: It’s underway. A lot of peanuts are still in the field, and if peanuts sit under water for a long time, that’ll be awful. Flooding in these soils is about volume but also about duration. How long are the crops under water? A lot of the cotton is still out there. Most of the soybeans are still in the field. Sweet potatoes are going to be a real issue, depending on the region. There are going to be heavy crop losses, and thankfully some of that will be covered with crop insurance. That’s good, but just like health insurance or car insurance, it doesn’t get you all the way back. And with prices down anyway, the crop insurance payments are going to be lower because the payment is tied to the market price of agricultural commodities.

It’s going to be even tougher for farmers on a smaller scale or who sell on alternative or direct markets instead of a straight commodity price. Unless they’ve done a heck of a job documenting the value of their non-commodity production, the disaster programs are set up to pay based on those mainstream commodity prices. The Livestock Indemnity Program, as an example, pays a set price per animal for losses that the farmer might see. If I’m raising beef calves and selling down at the auction barn, that animal has a very different value than if I’m selling a finished animal, having it processed and selling it by the cut through a direct market. The disaster assistance funds are based on the wholesale commodity price. There’s huge difference, and a much bigger income loss to the direct market farmer.

DY: What about the environmental risks to the region? There are millions of pigs concentrated in the region. There are millions of gallons of sewage out there in the region’s industrial hog operations. There’s been a bit of coverage about this leading up to the storm.

Marlow: Let me explain it in terms of nutrients and nutrient flow. You’ve got this giant output of nutrients from the Midwest and elsewhere that comes to us in the form of grain. That grain flows into places, like Eastern North Carolina and the Delmarva Peninsula, which have a very high concentration of livestock and poultry, of CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations). Think of it as a big stream of nutrients flowing into these regions, and those nutrients flow out in the form of meat. Some of those nutrients gets cycled around again, applied as crop fertilizers, but there’s a lot of nutrients that remain. That nutrient flow is very fragile.

Now, a lot of the conversation is going to be about individual farmers. What’s going to happen on individual farms? What are farmers going to do? A farmer (who operates a CAFO) has very little flexibility. They take out very large loans, north of a million dollars, on a facility that is specifically designed by the industry, as well as how the facility will be managed. Remember that 97% of chickens and more than 50% of hogs are owned by the industry. These farmers never even own the animals. But if the animal dies, and how to handle the waste, that’s on the farmer. That’s their responsibility.

I know many individual farmers who do the best they can, who work as hard as they can, who treat their animals with respect. But there’s only so much they control. They can’t control the weather. They can’t control the hurricane. These farmers are part of an industry that says, for the sake of efficiency, you have to put as many animals as possible into these facilities. That relates to the nutrient issue, the loading rate of soils, the carrying capacity of the land.

DY: I’ve been reading about how the industry is preparing for the storm by lowering the lagoon levels. What’s the point of that?

Marlow: It is true that the hog industry learned a lesson in Hurricane Floyd. They applied more of the lagoon waste before Hurricane Matthew, and there was much less damage. But what happens is that hurricanes cause a big disruption to the system. The industry shuts down for a time, shuts down the processing plants (Smithfield has already closed the largest pork processing plant in the world), and what that does is it stops the flow of nutrients out. You’re not shipping and processing animals any more. This overextends the carrying capacity of the system at the same time there’s flooding happening. Those nutrients are primarily nitrogen and phosphorus, but also heavy metals. What a lot of people don’t understand is copper, zinc and arsenic are added as growth regulators in food. So these nutrients and heavy metals are going to go somewhere. Some of that is going to get picked up by plants, some of that is going to flow back to the ocean. Some of it is going to stay in the waterways and land in rural communities.

The problem is, you can’t put the number of animals, the number of hogs and chickens, into Eastern North Carolina and collect all the nutrients. We can talk about the technology applied by individual farms, we can talk about the way individual farmer manage, but we don’t hear enough about how the industry itself and the state encourages the huge concentration of animals in parts of this state. We don’t talk about the ways they fight any limits to those numbers. If I’m an individual farmer, my ability to impact the overall outcome of the flooding is limited.

But the overall impact to the environment and to communities is going to be caused by the aggregated volume of all the farms together, not the individual farmer. The aggregated nutrient load is the problem, and that is at the feet of the industry and state. It’s the choices made by the industry and the state not to allow any limits on their production and to encourage concentration.

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