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News, notes, and observations from the James River Valley in northern South Dakota with special attention to reviewing the performance of the media--old and new. E-Mail to

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Family farms are just a memory.

I was farm editor for a daily newspaper in the early 1960s in a town that called itself "the farm equipment capitol of the world."  During that time, the big story was the potential demise of the family farm.  There were two contending theories about the future of farming circulating through colleges of agriculture and farm organizations.  One camp warned against the danger of integration for farming.  The other camp promoted integration.  

Farms were being integrated into the corporate food production system.  The mantra of the food integrationists was that farming was a business, not a way of life, and if you want to survive as a farmer, you'd damn well better treat farming like a business. These advocates were intent on replacing agriculture with agribusiness.  One of the loudest voices was Earl Butz, the dean of agriculture at Purdue who became Nixon's Secretary of Agriculture.  His advice to farmers was to  "get big or get out."

Butz is probably best remembered for his observation on why the GOP had a hard time getting the black vote:  “I’ll tell you what coloreds want. It’s three things: first, a tight pussy; second, loose shoes; and third, a warm place to shit. That's all!”  Tonight Show host Johnny Carson got a lot of material from Butz's quips.  He called him Earl the Pearl.  Butz was eventually fired.

But Butz's vision of farming prevailed.  There are few working farms left that are not dependent upon a place in the corporate scheme of things for their survival.  

When banks began making loans to farmers a major source of their income, they promoted what they called "capital farming."  It involved maintaining a revolving loan account that provided the banks with a steady stream of interest and farmers with a never-ending debt.  The farm equipment industry cooperated by designing high-tech and high-cost equipment that required loans to obtain and maintain.  Farmers found themselves in a cost-price squeeze.  The cost of farming--of equipment, seeds and chemicals, land, etc.--was rising.  The price obtained for crops and livestock has been on a downward trend since World War II, so increased production could ostensibly make up for weak prices.  The farms got bigger, more specialized, and more dependent on high-tech equipment and bank loans to pay for it.  As consequence, agriculture has been fully integrated into the corporate scheme of production.

That change was accompanied by a cultural change in rural America.  Farm organizations and extension agents scolded those who thought of farming as a way of life.  They warned them that they would fail if they did not think of farming in business terms.  The emphasis coming from colleges of agriculture and farm organizations was no longer on crop and animal science, but on business management schemes.  To make farms manageable in a business sense, their operation was modeled on factory production.  

The fact of the matter is that farmers have always had to manage the financial aspect of the operations to stay in business.  The irony is that those who managed to stay out of debt were less vulnerable to financial failure than those who went big and accrued large debts to sustain their operations.

An aspect of the conversion to industrial farming is the switch from general farming to more specialized agriculture.  General farms were based on the idea of self-sufficiency.  All the food for a family was grown on the farm.  My dad was raised on a farm, but went to work for the Post Office.  However, my uncles on my mother's side operated three farms near the community where we lived. During my childhood the work on the farm was arduous and never-ending.  Those farm families milked cows, raised beef and pork, kept chickens for eggs and meat, rotated crops between corn, soybeans, oats, hay, and pasture land.  In addition, they had huge gardens from which produce as canned, later froze when freezers came on the market.  They planted outside rows of corn fields with potatoes.  Some years the prices for livestock and crops were low, but there was always a generous supply of food, and the farms survived the depression and World War II.  A basic aspect of   farm management was subsistence, and avoiding debt.  

Industrial farming is the rule now.  During the years I have traveled the 18 miles to my work studio on the James River, I have watched the land change from agriculture to industrial production.  Where I once passed by herds of cattle and sheep, there are only rows of corn and soybeans, and an occasional field of hay.  Where once I saw farmyards alive with children and teenagers gathered about cars, I now seen only an occasional person on a lawn tractor.  The conversion to industrial farming has changed the culture of the countryside.  Agriculture and the lifestyle it supported has been displaced by a lifestyle commensurate with corporate life.

As a farm editor, I saw the change coming.  During editorial meetings some of the editors brought up the question of maintaining a farm section when less than three percent of the subscribers were actively engaged in farming.  Many of the stories I wrote came out of discussions with county farm extension agents, but they were becoming fewer in number.  The Farm Bureau was making a noticeable emphasis in farming as a business rather than as a life.  When I left the newspaper, the farm section was eliminated and farm stories were carried as feature stories.  And as many of my colleagues in agricultural journalism changed jobs or retired, they weren't replaced.  

At the same time, my relatives on the farms were eliminating aspects of farming.  Milking twice a day was a limiting activity, so the milk cows were sold off--except for one that an aunt insisted be kept to supply  her cooking needs.  It was easier and cheaper to buy eggs at the supermarket, so the chicken flocks went.  The same was true with the garden produce, so the gardens were turned into lawns or cropland.  Livestock operations were also curtailed.  The children on those farms had pursued college and off-farm careers, so the farms were purchased by neighbors in the process of "getting big."  

This process had changed the nature and the culture of farming and the geography of farmland. That change is shown in the declining number of farms  in our state and locality.   Between 2012 and 2017, South Dakota lost 2,000 farms.  Here is a county listing for northeast South Dakota:

              Number of farms in northeast South Dakota

County name
Brown County
Campbell County
Day County
Edmunds County
Faulk County
Marshall County
McPherson County
Potter County
Spink County
Walworth County
South Dakota

So, on my commute to my place on the James River, I not only do not see families bustling around in the farm yards, I no longer see livestock or pasture land.  Where once I saw fields of wheat, flax, alfalfa, clover, sun flowers, and grazing livestock, I now see endless rows of corn and soybeans.   But I also see a system of agriculture that is no longer self-sufficient.  Those rows of mono-cultured crops are bonds that tie the land to banks, huge corporations, town supermarkets, crop insurers, and the land is managed by people in board rooms in the Trump Towers of the world.  The agriculture that once gave immigrants and workers a way to climb out of poverty and oppression and put many people, such as  my cousins through college, is not even a possibility.  In the corporate scheme of things, there is no place for independence and self-sufficiency.  

There are farmers who tried to take advantage of the advances of science and technology by incorporating them into their farming operations, but farm consolidation and business rules have eliminated that option.  Farming no longer offers an opportunity to build a life for a family.  It is a business, which demands that you get big or get out.

If you want the experience of a family farm, you'll have to buy a Terry Redlin painting.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

They beat kids, And then came the press.

In the Native American tradition, children are sacred.  Black Elk gives the reason they are so regarded:  "Grown men may learn from very little children, for the hearts of little children are pure, and, therefore, the Great Spirit may show to them many things which older people miss."  Another Native American proverb notes that children ask questions for which the wisest and most knowledgeable adults do not have an answer.    Black Elk further explains the purity of children:  "

"But the children are closer to the truth. Have you ever noticed how quickly they can let go of resentments? Have you ever noticed how free they are of prejudice? Have you ever noticed how well the children listen to their bodies? Maybe adults need to be more like children."
Our culture regards children as "innocent,"  but that is a misleading term.  It is accurate in the sense that children are not "guilty" of anything because they have not acquired the cognitive level that gives them a knowledge of what guilt is.  It is more accurate to describe children as being uncontaminated.  They have not acquired the guile, connivance, greed, and lust for power that drives the adult world.  But anyone who has had children knows they possess instinctive ploys to avoid punishment and restrictions.  In other words, they lie.  And they know they are lying to avoid consequences unpleasant to them.  But we tend to excuse those lies as a part of childhood, because they do not come from resentment, prejudice, or malice.  Those are contaminants they acquire from the culture around them.  Those are the traits that much of adult culture is formed around.

There are children who are troublesome from birth.  We spend a lot of time arguing about whether these problem children result from nature or nurture, from inborn tendencies or traits they learn from the society around them.  All children go through difficult stages.  That is part of being a child.  But many children are "problem."  They have difficulties that require special treatment.  Those difficulties range from matters that can be dealt with in special education classes to ones that result in institutionalization.  The institution may be one for developmental issues or be a detention center, what we used to call a reform school.  Whatever their purpose, their function and their end results are the measure of their worthiness and success.  It is disheartening to learn of their failures.  The latest news of failure comes from Plankinton, SD, which has quite a history of dysfunction.  

In the late 1990s Gov. Bill Janklow, without telling the state legislature, decided to turn the Plankinton reform school into a Marine-style boot camp.  He claimed he could do better at dealing with troubled youth than their parents.  Fourteen-year-old Gina Score, an overweight child with a history of shop-lifting, came to the Plankinton boot camp on a Friday in July 1999.  By the following Wednesday, she was dead.

The staff had taken a group of the girls out on a forced run during which Gina struggled.  After returning, Gina collapsed, and attendants, finding no alarming symptoms, decided to wait out the episode.  However, as the siege progressed she showed a temperature of 108 F. and died of what a doctor said was the worst case of heat stroke he had ever seen.

As a result, the Plankinton detention center was closed in 2000.

In 2004, the state contracted with a private corrections firm, Cornell Companies out of Houston, Texas, to reopen the facility.  In May, the company received its first inmates.  But in August it notified officials that it could not afford to operate.  Cornell said it cost $179 per inmate per day to function, but the state was authorized to pay $125.27.  Cornell closed the detention center down in the fall.

In 2006, the state contracted with another company in the jail-running business, Clinicare Corporation headquartered in Milwaukee, Wis.  It named its iteration of the Plankinton facility the Aurora Plains Academy.  Its website presents the place as a full-scale mental health facility offering therapy for everything from addictions to the full gamut of mental disorders.

The Aurora Plains Academy has burst into the news again, however, as a juvenile detention operation.  This time the news is an investigative report published by South Dakota News Watch.  The source of this investigative report is significant for who did it and the journalistic procedures with which it was done.

South Dakota News Watch is a nonprofit community journalism organization composed of former and current news executives associated with major media, mostly newspapers, throughout the state.  It publishes stories that the legacy media do not have the resources or the nerve to publish.  Bart Pfankuch, a former editor of the Rapid City Journal, wrote the series of stories that detail the abuse of residents at the Aurora Plains Academy.  Often such stories in the legacy media keep names and details confidential in order to protect sources from embarrassment and retaliation. When stories do not contain the documentation that confirms them, they lose credibility, no matter how diligently reporters may verify their sources.  Events happen to real, identifiable people.  Events reported about anonymous people remain anonymous.  They supply no defense to accusations of "fake news."  Mr. Pfankuch follows a rule of journalism that once prevailed in naming the victims of abuse and neglect at the Aurora Plains Academy and quotes his sources and shows photographic evidence.  The events he relates are testified to by real people with real identities, and that gives his account power. 
[I point out, parenthetically, that when I was a young reporter, the rule was to identify anyone named in a story with name, age, and address.  The reason  was that  the more precisely  a person was identified, whether an actor or witness in the story, the more credible and reliable the story.]

The South Dakota News Watch series not only provides news about a state-supervised program, it brings journalism in the state to a level that has notably been lacking in the state's media.  The timidity and lack of journalistic enterprise was embarrassing.  Bill Janklow publicly cowed the press, which was reluctant to investigate and report on him.  Janklow sued Viking Press and author Peter Matthiessen  for libel in a suit that was initially dismissed, appealed, and eventually dismissed again.  Janklow's efforts, while unsuccessful, did intimidate the state press to be very, very careful.  A lawyer in the case called Janklow's tactics "censorship by libel suit."  The News Watch seems to break out of that state of fearfulness which has  held the South Dakota press in its grip for so long.  That is not to say that the News Watch will be infallible, as its secretary recently made a rather remarkable journalistic blunder.  Nevertheless, The South Dakota News Watch is a step forward and away from the spinelessness and sometimes embarrassing groveling that has characterized the state's press in the past.  The local Aberdeen press has even run its series on the Aurora Plains Academy.

The press, however, is restrained in its pursuit of facts.  The South Dakota Legal Code gives government officials unusual authority to withhold and suppress information.  And the state has no freedom of information laws, as do most other states, whereby the press and interested people may apply to obtain state records of performance.  Another obstacle is the extreme application of privacy rules.  When government agencies misperform, officials can routinely cover up the misdeeds of their departments by saying they cannot provide information because they are not permitted to discuss personnel matters.  The head of the company that runs Aurora Plains Academy took this course in responding to Bart Pfankuch's story on the Academy:
"As with any treatment facility like Aurora Plains Academy we are prohibited by law from publicly disclosing information about the activities, treatment and actions of residents because of their rights to confidentiality."
But Bart Pfankuch's details of mistreatment with documented names and statements by people involved are difficult to counter with vague denials.

And that gets to the substance of the series.  Black Elk provides an insight into the untarnished natural state of children.  But the science reported by the American Academy of Pediatrics shows how children can be harmed:
"Research has shown that striking a child, yelling at or shaming them can elevate stress hormones and lead to changes in the brain's architecture. Harsh verbal abuse is also linked to mental health problems in preteens and adolescents."
That is precisely the kind of treatment that the South Dakota News Watch series records.  Young people who are committed to detention facilities need to witness and be treated with the most benign and curative behavior on the part of their attendants.  Instead, they are given demonstrations of anger and meanness which reinforce the negative tendencies in their personalities.  They are schooled in malice and acting out, and provided a script for how to behave in future situations. 

I am fortunate to know people who are experienced and respected in dealing with young people with problems.  They stress how such problems have to be met with people who are firm in their benignity and highly educated in how to apply that firmness.  As one of them put it to me, the last thing these kids need is examples of how to be an asshole.

Bart Pfankuch cites people who work hard to provide the kids in their charge with constructive and healing treatment, but it is the mistreatment they receive that has the lasting effect on the inmates.  There aren't that many people out there who are interested in a profession of guiding young people out of troubled lives.  But there are some, and there is a body of science and experience that informs the profession.

The jobs in detention centers are not respected and the pay is geared more for barroom bouncers than for skillful therapists.  To be effective, juvenile detention centers must focus on helping young people, not punishing them.  But as long as detention centers are run by for-profit companies, the bottom line will require to hire cheap, not hire qualified.

The South Dakota News Watch has presented the citizens pf the state with a vivid, detailed examination of a problem that has long existed in the state.  Now that the state has a press that reflects one its perennial problems, it has a chance to make some informed changes in the way it treats juveniles.  And those charges can be part of a national effort.

I hope the News Watch will follow through on keeping us informed.

Friday, June 21, 2019

It's a stench that once released never goes away

Highmore, South Dakota, had a parade to celebrate Old Settlers Weekend, and what received the most attention was the float described in the Facebook post above.  The float was made by a person named Jeff Damer.  It portrays Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama locked up in a cage with Donald Trump outside being president.  And, of course, it had a large flag for Trump in 2020  and small American flags fluttering below it, to demonstrate that Trump has defeated America.  An endorsement of Trump is an open announcement that the endorser rejects the principles of liberty, equality, justice, and decency that the founders tried to create a nation to serve.  The portrayal of locking up political opponents is a straightforward expression of neo-Naziism.  

Many residents of Highmore and other observers protest that the float does not represent the values  of most of the people of the town.  It does not characterize the place.  It is just one malicious person expressing his First Amendment right.

Unfortunately, that is not how such a portrayal works.  I found out how such expressions work on a town some years ago.

About 15 years ago, some politicians from North and South Dakota proposed creating a think tank that would deal with issues facing the northern plains.  It was conceived partly in response to the study that claimed that human culture on the Great Plains was not sustainable and proposed returning them to a Buffalo Commons.  The idea of a think tank to study the issues on the Great Plains and define solutions to the problems gained considerable support.  Money was made available for a feasibility study and to arrange the actual ground work.  As the originators of the proposal were from the Dakotas, a market research organization was hired to detail all the considerations required by such a think tank and to recommend a location in the Dakotas.  The research firm came up with a list of university towns in the Dakotas where the think tank could ally itself with the resources of a higher education facility, one of the major considerations, and do its research.  Aberdeen was on the list.

A research team came to Aberdeen, as it did other towns, and made an intensive survey of the town's possibilities for supporting such a research enterprise.  At the time, my spouse and I were working for organizations that had offices in the same building.  We were also connected with advocates of the think tank proposal and were asked to help find a place with office equipment where the research team could conduct its survey of Aberdeen.  We were able to provide office space and telephone and computer services.  I was able to look over the shoulders of the research team to see how such a survey was conducted.

During that time, the local newspaper sponsored an internet chat board where people could comment and discuss affairs of the community.  As such comment sections do, it attracted trolls who posted scurrilous, vicious, and defamatory comments.  The research team took what I thought  was an inordinate interest in such comments.  I said that such comments did not represent or characterize the vast majority of the people of Aberdeen.

The team members said that was not the point of consideration.  When looking for a place for a client to build, whether a building or an organization, the environment is crucial.  A team member pointed out that a consultant would never recommend situating a client on a site contaminated with radiation, near a livestock confinement operation with noise and the reek of manure, near a town dump, or factory exuding noxious fumes, or any other source of despoliation.  The same applies to the intellectual and moral environment.  A community may largely be composed of upstanding and reasonably intelligent people, but a few malicious, abusive people contaminate the mental environment in ways that nullify the work of people of good will and good effort.  Intellectually benign and productive people find that the malignant atmosphere around people of ill-will is not one in which they wish to live and work, and such a negative influence can nullify their positive efforts.

Aberdeen was not selected as the site for the think tank.  In fact, the consulting team concluded that no place in the Dakotas had the necessary qualities and intellectual environment in which a think tank could successfully operate.  The project was abandoned.

The malicious float in the Highmore parade put an ugly, indelible stain on the community.  It is one the people must live with, even though it detracts from their efforts to lead good and productive lives.  All the apologies and denials the good people make will not remove the blemish from their town.  Some will move away and others will refuse to move there.

The perpetrators of malice will insist that they were simply exercising their First Amendment right.  They do not seem to understand that people have a concomitant right to reject and condemn their speech and to avoid the people who are the source of such malice.  

Many old settlers came to the frontier to escape the oppression and offenses in established communities.  A reverse of that migration is that people now move to large population centers where they join in counteractive groups that reduce the effects of malice.  But there is a national problem.  Donald Trump is a malicious and dishonest person who has odiously stained the whole nation.  Rather than reject his constant lying and his defamatory abuse, he has followers, such as the float-builder in Highmore, who revel in his malice.  Learned people contend that Trump does not offer a political choice, but that he and his followers are systematically destroying democracy.  Trump is the failure of the great American experiment.

Many people I know are seriously looking for places they can move to that retain the American qualities of liberty, equality, justice, and decency.  The other alternative is a violent revolt.

Highmore is a place most of us would avoid, but as goes Highmore, so goes the U.S.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States