Citizens of Red Owl Speak Out! Sam Hurst Talks Back
Wednesday, 25 March 2009 14:05
EDITOR'S NOTE: In December, Sam Hurst wrote a lengthy article about how South Dakota planned to use federal infrastructure funds in rural communities. The story featured a little country bridge across Red Owl Creek, and challenged the citizens of Red Owl to discuss alternatives to spending $400,000 on bridge repair. The response from Red Owl was loud and angry. (see comments in the archive: "South Dakota's Bridge to Nowhere"). Sam Hurst responds below.
For more information about population trends on the Great Plains, see Eric Abrahamson's review of the most recent Census data, "Is There Hope for the Rural Great Plains" in the "News Briefly..." section of Dakota Day.
Sam Hurst--Twenty years ago, two scholars from Rutgers University in New Jersey, set out to explore a century of population trends on the Great Plains-from the first days of the homestead movement to the modern welfare economy. The research led Frank and Deborah Popper to fundamentally challenge the scholastic legacy of Frederick Jackson Turner and the unifying themes of western history. Books were written about the Poppers. They became television news celebrities. They were even featured on the front cover of New York Times Magazine. The same research also made them the most vilified varmints in the struggling rural ghost towns of the Great Plains. I know just how they feel.
Until recently, most history of the American West was built on the foundation of Frederick Jackson Turner's "Frontier Thesis". Turner argued that American society had been created by an energetic people, striving ever westward, into an unknown frontier. It was the harsh struggle against nature and this constantly changing frontier that molded the unique American character, the rugged, self-reliant, individual.
But at the end of the 19th century, Turner argued, a tapestry of small towns and cities stabilized the frontier and become the dominant force in the economy and culture of the American West. The frontier was closed. A different personality was ascendant. The colorful cowboy and the fierce Indian might continue to live in popular folklore, but immigrant farmers, shopkeepers, and steady churchgoers would actually build the towns of Aberdeen and Huron, Selby, Union Center, and, of course, the little hamlet on Red Owl Creek that I have made the subject of so much local angst.
Turner's "frontier thesis" was first presented to a gathering of the American Historical Society in 1893, during the Chicago World's Fair. His later book, The Significance of the Frontier in American History, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1933. Turner influenced an entire generation of western historians.
As Frank and Deborah Popper plowed slowly through piles of Census data from the 1970's and 80's, they discovered a new reality staring back at them from the numbers. Yes, Rapid City was growing, along with Gillette, Laramie, Sioux Falls. But the rural counties of the Great Plains were not anchored with the stable, prosperous, small towns that Turner predicted. They were actually losing population, bleeding population. The frontier was making a comeback.
Turner had defined the frontier as any place with fewer than six people per square mile. The Poppers discovered that huge expanses of the Great Plains, and hundreds of small towns, were reverting back to frontier population densities.
The small Meade County community of Red Owl was, by all accounts, a booming little town in the 1920s. But eighty years later, when results from the 2000 U.S. Census were tallied, only 29 people lived in eleven households, spread out on ranches across a thirty-six square mile township. By Turner's standards, Red Owl, with a population density of 1.2 persons per square mile, was deep frontier.
The legacy of the 20th century settlement movement has been the emergence of a dysfunctional welfare economy in which the conservative rugged individualism of frontier farmers and ranchers was grafted onto a system of expansive government subsidy. The very people who looked down their noses at urban welfare recipients, or labor unions, or federal bailouts for the auto industry found themselves dependent on the largesse of hard working taxpayers from the industrial centers of Ohio, Michigan, New York, and California. Crop subsidies and insurance, disaster payments, the Conservation Reserve Program and myriad small assistance programs hidden in the farm bill, below-market grazing fees for those lucky enough to have public lands grazing permits, subsidized government loans for land, artificially cheap gasoline, subsidized schools and rural health services; one huge tangle of welfare to support a culture that increasingly hated the very government that propped it up!
If Frank and Deborah Popper had been content to sit at their computers and crunch the Census numbers, they would have won substantial academic acclaim, but they would not have provoked such bitter hostility. Instead, they suggested that the citizens of the rural Plains look on their fate as an opportunity. Maybe the re-emergence of the frontier was an opportunity to invent a new economy more suited to the realities of the land.
They popularized the now infamous idea of the Buffalo Commons, a region that would revert to nature, with a new economy organized around eco-tourism, wildlife ranching, and healthy food production. The Buffalo Commons was a metaphor that blended imagination with the harsh demands of the landscape.
The fact is that the Poppers were open to a wide variety of new proposals, and at the center of their thinking was the belief that whatever emerged from a debate about the land it would have to come from the bottom up, from the citizens of the prairie. If those who owned and worked the land refused to change, the slow bleed of young people would continue. The gap between the rural areas and the cities would continue to widen. The land would slowly be taken over by absentee owners and large-scale enterprises. But if small communities took some initiative, used their imaginations, offered proactive ideas, they might have a fighting chance.
The idea that two intellectuals from New Jersey were challenging the economy of the modern cattle kingdom was just too much for the locals. "How dare they...!"
The Poppers would come into town, and report the cruel, relentless numbers of decline for all to see. With no positive numbers of their own, rural communities fought back with nostalgia and sentimentality. This was Sarah Palin's "Real America" fighting back. These were people who measured their dedication to the land one blizzard, one drought, one anecdote about the old days, at a time. But sentimentality didn't change the numbers.
The Poppers were amazed. They didn't create the declining economy of the northern Plains. They didn't force young people to leave Red Owl. They were simply the messengers of the obvious.
That's when I came to Red Owl.
In my report "South Dakota's Bridge to Nowhere: The Debate No One Wants to Have" I suggested that spending $400,000 to rebuild the bridge across Red Owl Creek was a poor use of federal stimulus money. I asked people to consider that the bridge had outlived its usefulness. And I concluded that rather than spending the money on bridge infrastructure, members of the local community might consider other, more imaginative, more 21st century ways to spend almost a half million dollars. Rather than being the passive dependents of a welfare economy, the citizens of Union Center, Enning and Red Owl (such as it is) had the opportunity to re-invent their communities...if they had the courage to ask hard questions.
You would have thought I strangled grandma and choked the baby. "How dare he?!" came the chorus. Defenders of Red Owl's virtue rallied to her defense. One man called "this little BS story" a "hatchet job." Another letter protested; "I just can't get over what an idiot this man is." One writer called me "indolent", and suggested, "...it sickens me that Mr. Hurst has displayed such an absolute negligence in writing the truth."
Local boosters listed all the reasons that the bridge was essential to the life of the area. Ranch children crossed it on their way to school. Worshipers crossed the bridge on their way to the little Catholic church on Sunday. Ranchers crossed it on their way to the feed store in Union Center. Several of the responses to my article asked me to search my soul. They were smudged with nostalgia, sentimentality, and cherished memories. "The most responsible and determined people come from the rural communities...Most of the families are hard working ranchers and farmers who bust their butts from sun up to sun down...who do you think works to feed the cattle for that burger you eat, or the wheat in your bread, or the corn in your ethanol gasoline in your fancy car you can barely afford?...ranchers are the backbone of South Dakota." One letter summed it up best: "I feel very sorry for you, Mr. Hurst, that you are not capable of seeing past your own greed."
I am humbled, though I doubt that any one of these folks has ever spent a hard shift in a steel mill, or a ten-hour day in a meat packing plant, or for that matter endured the stress of being a third grade teacher in an over-crowded, under-funded inner city school. Their pride is matched only by their arrogance about the lives of others.
Humbling me does not change the numbers or the reality that continues to close in around the good citizens of Red Owl. This week comes a devastating report from the National Cancer Institute. Americans are killing themselves prematurely by eating too much red meat. King Cattle will scream and yell. But as long as South Dakota ranchers are hooked to the system of feedlot production, they are on the losing end of history...and the obesity epidemic. "Who do you think works to feed the cattle for that burger you eat?" one letter writer asked. The response comes back from consumers. "The meat you sell us is crap."
Barry M. Popkin, a professor of global nutrition at the University of North Carolina, was blunt in his comment to the Washington Post: "This is a slam-dunk to say that, 'Yes, indeed, if people want to be healthy and live longer, consume less red and processed meat.'"
Ranchers are not used to being talked back to.
The bridge to Red Owl is not the issue. Of course it will be re-built. It serves President Obama's interests to claim that he cares about the "little people" in the countryside. It serves Governor Rounds' interests, because he knows there are hundreds of little bridges and little roads on the state's infrastructure repair list. The last thing he needs is a bunch of local citizens saying they would like to spend rural economic development money in new, more innovative ways.
We are in the 21st century, now, not the 19th. The nation is in turmoil. The economy has collapsed. This is no time to put our heads in the sand and hide behind memories of yesterday. So here are my questions to the citizens of Red Owl.
--How many local jobs will be created to rebuild the bridge? How much money from the bridge project will stay in the community? Is this a "stimulus" project that puts money into the pockets of local ranchers, or a contractor from Rapid City? Could be money have a broader impact, and stimulate the local economy, if it was used to pay ranchers directly to fight invasive weeds, replant native grasses, restore stock dams, and improve wildlife habitat?
--If you want to develop a micro-economy around ecotourism, as State Senator Rhoden says, "Give people a real ranch experience", then why are you so critical of the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, or the Wilderness Society? Why do you talk trash to the very people in the cities who might come to your ranches? Do you think it makes sense to despise the people you are asking to support you? That is precisely the relationship you already have with taxpayers around the country; Love the subsidies, hate the government.
--How will you make your meat healthy? Are you ready to challenge the economy of feedlot production? Does it make you rich, or make you a slave to processors? Could you raise your beef on grass, and butcher it at Sturgis Meats under a custom label? How much would a marketing campaign cost? Oh, say, the cost of a bridge?
--You have sun and wind in Red Owl. Have you considered a micro-utility? Have you explored how wind and ranching might work together? Could you build a small production facility in Union Center and supplement the income of local ranchers building small-scale wind turbines and solar generators for farms and ranches?
We are in a time of hard choices. Do you want a bridge or healthy grasslands? Do you want a bridge, or do you want to fix the school in Enning? Do you want a bridge, or a marketing program for healthy beef? Do you want to reach out to new relationships? Or, do you just want to whine, put your head in the sand, and celebrate the good old days?
I'll stop with that.
Just cut to the chase (if you don't have time to read the whole thing) and respond to the last 6 paragraphs where you are being asked a set of specific reasonable questions.
Your rebuttal so far is clearly intellectually dishonest. As far as making a positive contribution on behalf of your community, you would have been better off not to write anything.
You say that we county folks do not know what real work it. Sir what are you doing right know other than sitting on you butt writing articles that are full of manure.
Come to Red Owl and we will show you that we work just as hard as any other American.
My mother is a teacher at Faith High School and they don't even have a school. They go to school in trailer houses, so how about instead of speading our hard eraned tax dollars on the already built schools in Rapid we use it to build Faith a new school.
We do not have our head in the sands. This is our way of life.
First and foremost, your response to my comment about the people in these communities being hardworking is not only offensive, but proves to these people that very few people know a hard day's work anymore. Yes, working in a steel mill or butcher shop is a difficult job. But so is ranching. Ten hour days are a vacation to most of these people. Why don't you discuss this with them at two in the morning during a blizzard when they are trying to keep their cattle alive, or birthing calves? Or how about in the summer when they spend hours upon hours haying or fixing fence? They do more physical work in one day than most people do in years. They are the backbone of our nation, whether or not you choose to believe it.
Second of all, if you really think that coming back at us with "red meat" is going to offend us you are seriously mistaken. If people have a problem with beef, then don't eat it. You can't sit here and tell us you have never ordered a steak or gone to the local butcher shop and bought meat? Have you ever had a glass of milk? Which by the way studies have shown that low fat milk can help people to maintain a healthy weight. Not to mention the fact that ranchers raise a lot more than just cattle. How about chicken? Do you eat chicken? Or how about pork, turkey, potatoes, and bread? Do you just not eat? A majority of grocery items come from rural communities like Red Owl. Without these communities and all of your imports you would starve. Even if you don't eat meat, I am sure that you consume some product made by a rural community with each meal.
It is sad that you feel that you have to respond to us with talk about Census, population, or research that was published in major magazines as proof that your point is valid. If you want proof that you are incorrect, I have no problem showing you, real physical proof. Not words that someone wrote that may have been as ill informed as you are. Spare us the bullcrap. We are not uneducated, and we are definitely not naive. You can write as many articles as you want about studies, or red meat, or how the rural communities are disappearing. The simple fact is that those people are still there, living breathing human beings that matter to a lot of people.
You tell us to be more creative with the 400k? Would you like us to paint all of our houses, or how about invest in some landscaping so that the one time you drive through our area a year you can think it looks "pretty." That bridge is the center for commerce in that community, it provides us with transportation for school buses, ambulances, and fire trucks. I honestly believe if as many people in the country were as passionate about their community's safety that we would live in a much better world. Yes I agree that technology has taken longer to reach rural areas than it has in the cities. But I also challenge the fact that it is such a bad thing. What will you do someday if you no longer have a cell phone, or email, or electricity? I guarantee the people in that community, as well as many other small communities, will know how to survive. And won't it be sad if they are the ones saving people like you, who know little about their struggles yet continue to badger their way of life. Technology is making its way to these communities, and at some point I am sure there will be more windmills, and more economically friendly ways to produce crops. I agree one hundred percent that those things are important, however I also know that a majority of pollution comes from large cities, not from small rural communities.
I firmly believe that an apology should be issued to the people of this community, as well as to all rural communities as you have offended not just 29 people, but everyone who has ever lived or known someone who grew up in the "frontier" as you so call it. It is sad that you waste time researching articles that someone else has written. Maybe you should spend some time in this community, and learn how these people live. Maybe you should go pull some calves in a blizzard, or spend all day on a tractor in the hot sun. Then maybe you will understand how hard these people work, and how disrespectful it is to read something like this article.
If you do not want Ag subsidies, then get the government to abandon their cheap food policy. I am all for getting no government payment, but that is for ALL of us. You too are subsides in your buffalo venture and many other ways. How much buffalo meat did the government buy from you and other producers?
Why not point out that you are a producer of buffalo and want all cattle gone so they do not compete against you and others who raise buffalo? You sir, are a liar.
You are probsably one who endorses the policies of FDR who started all this subside mess.
You asked for a point by point response. I will do my best.
1) The local economy will be boosted significantly if you broaden your view of local economy. Those of us who live here realize to our chagrin that our lifestyle depends on our ability to get to town. Many of the ranch wives in the area have jobs in Sturgis, Rapid City, and other towns in the area. Part of the money that will go back to those areas will end up in the pockets of ranch families.
2)Groups like the Sierra Club are not interested in working with Ranchers for conservation. They fail to understand that ranchers are typically good conservationists, as they depend on the land health of the land for their livelihood. If groups like the Sierra Club are interested in working with ranchers, they will have to prove it. If the evidence presented in such publications as Range and others are accurate, these conservation groups will not be content until domestic animals have been removed from the land. Moreover the Endangered Species Act makes ranchers quite suspicious of conservationists because of the dangers that act presents to private property determined to be "critical habitat."
3)Ranchers would happily challenge a feedlot approach to beef production if the consumer is willing to pay the cost. There aren't many people who are willing or able to buy even ground beef at that cost. The better approach is to do away with corn subsidies, making it too expensive to feed to cattle, as corn seems to be the culprit in making red meat unhealthy. Approach the ranchers of Red Owl, though, and they would be happy to provide you with grass fat, hormone free beef from their own freezers. Unfortunately, it will be the consumer, not the producer, who will change the feedlot system.
4) As yet, wind energy has not proven to be financially feasible. The cost of installing the wind turbines and the infrastructure necessary to make them useful outweigh benefits. The state has shown no interest in helping to mitigate such costs, not has the federal government. Perhaps that will be one of the silver linings of the current administration. Happily, though, there are private investors with the money to begin the process of creating wind towers in the area. The ranchers have already begun benefiting from that project. The story with solar power is similar, but is even less feasible than wind.
So, Mr. Hurst, it isn't as though none of us have considered each of the points you have made. We have. They just don't pencil.
You deride the people of the community for their sentimentality, but there are times when values more important than money need to be preserved. That is what they are trying to tell you.
Believe it or not, I think Sam is really on your side here.
Rdennis, I'm not 100% positive, but I don't think Sam Hurst is either raising or marketing buffalo anymore. But he did, for quite a few years. That noted, I think he probably knows and appreciates exactly how hard South Dakota ranchers work.
mjl, in what way do you think Sam has "slandered" the people of Red Owl?
By suggesting that they may be intelligent enough to think of better ways to use $400,000 than to build a bridge?
I have to say that in reading some of these screeds, I can't help but picture an angry lynch mob with masks over their faces, even as I believe in my heart that the people who wrote these things are almost certainly not really like that.
It would be refreshing to see future comments take a more civil, thoughtful tone.
Because surely good people of the Red Owl community would be much better served were the commenters to do so.
As it sits so far, one has to wonder whether the name of the town shouldn't perhaps be "Red Neck" instead of "Red Owl."
That said, I think it's generous of Sam to go ahead and publish your comments anyway.
He obviously doesn't have to.
Have you spoken with District 29 State legislative representatives about wind energy and their record of voting to support Community Based Energy Development (C-BEDs)? Ranchers in eastern Meade are faced with Phase II TransCanada Keystone pipeline concerns. Who are our state representatives throwing in with, foreign tar sands developers or Meade County entrepreneurs?
Fine way to get us to agree with you. By making fun of us. You, like so many others that are not from the rural areas, seem to think you are more intelligent than us. Perhaps others choose to not use their names because they don't want you calling them up and making fun of them. How do we know that Bill Fleming is your real name? You give us now reason to agree or even like you.
In the first place, it was not the people of this area who called for the bridge to be fixed or replaced. As far as I can tell, the bridge is fine, but in the cover your butt attitude of the government these days, they have taken it upon themselves to do this project. Not us. If you can't get the story right, why would you expect any of us to agree with you or Mr Hurst?
And I only start to think people might possibly be stupid when they behave that way, as you seem to have chosen to do with your post. But even then, I usually give them the benefit of the doubt for perhaps having a bad day.
Tyler, first of all you can't expand on a definition of local economy. It is what it is. Red Owl and surround communities.
Secondly, if ranchers and farmers in general were the great conservationists they claim to be there would be no need for the Endangered Species Act, CRP or similar subsidies. The Great Plains and prairies of this continent have been over-grazed and over-tilled for over 150 years.
Third point. There are tons of people willing to pay top price for grass-fed beef. There is local producer here that can't produce enough of the stuf to satisfy local demand and I live in a community of 10,000. Sam's point is to be innovative, take some risks, explore some markets beyond IBP.
Finally, wind energy done in a cooperative fashion IS in fact very efficient. My guess is that solar done similarly in SD would be even moreso.
One of the things that the original article missed was a true challenge. A challenge for the people of South Dakota to be better than the rest of the nation. To truly innovate beyond where they are now. Because to be brutally honest, if you don't if 25 or 50 years it won't matter.
So now folks blindly react to Mr. Hurst like they did to the Poppers. Perhaps they don't realize that many of the folks who reacted negatively to the Poppers -- including some elected officials who made political hay out of attacking them -- have since apologized and admitted they were right. One town even honored them with a parade and a play.
Don't shoot the messenger. Pay attention to their research and use it as an opportunity to reinvent yourselves instead of trying to preserve a nostalgic myth that is no longer sustainable. Just as our cities cannot continue to operate they did 50 years ago, the Great Plains cannot either.