Elkhorn Valley, NE, 1-27-11

Winter is cold but beautiful. Not too far west of Omaha the sunsets can be spectacular.

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Why I Love Nebraska Women

Recent events in my personal life have led me to reflect on my beliefs concerning the role or roles women play in the life of everyday Nebraska farmers and ranchers. Some thoughtless comments and a few virtual slaps across the face (Facebook has become a buffer between my mouth and women’s hands) have led me to take a step back and redefine my respect for the woman’s role in Nebraska farm families.

In 2007, Nebraska ranked 49th in principle ownership of farms by women. Nebraska had a rate of female ownership of 8.4%. Second to last in the nation might make a few women’s rights advocates cringe. It might make more than a few agricultural advocates cringe as well. Unfortunately, these are the first numbers anyone ever sees and also the last. This is why I really don’t like statistics for these things. While it is good to gain a baseline for reference, you have to dig much deeper to attain a real world idea of what happens day to day. I am not a statistician or expert on minority demographics. I will let the good folks at www.agcensus.usda.gov dissect the numbers and present a report. I can speak from personal experience what women outside principle ownership roles contribute. I can reflect on experiences of friends and family to relate the pride of plains women and their often underappreciated yet vital roles in the farm and ranch family.

I am a farm child of the 80’s. I am way too young to remember the insanity that was the Farm Crisis from anything but a child’s eyes. I did not know what interest rates, loan defaults, futures index’s, or trade deficits were. I did know what kind of tractors I preferred, who Ronald Reagan and Willie Nelson were and what breed of cattle was best. I could ride a horse, lead a show calf, shoot a gun and catch a fish. Masculine activities taught to me by my mother. She also taught me to read, write, pray and cook. She had too because dad was busy. That certainly is not to fault him. In fact, it is to praise him for doing what too many fathers in other segments of our society simply refuse to do: provide for their families. The older I get, it becomes a source of pride for me to say that my mother sacrificed so many years of her youth to make sure my sister and I had the experiences and perspectives we needed to grow up as proud Nebraskans. It didn’t matter if it was one of the worst times in history to be a family farmer, it didn’t matter if she was a woman and she was teaching us dad things while doing mom things. Dad was busy and agriculture transcends gender.

Nebraska is the state of Willa Cather and Mari Sandoz. Independent thinking females are part of our heritage. In Nebraska women don’t need to prove ownership because they take ownership of their own lives and their own families. While the altruistic view of the American Farm Wife might be apron strings and pies cooling on the window sill; that simply isn’t reality. At least it is not reality to the women of the plains.  Out here there is no such thing as standard or average or normal. Every day is different and with each day comes a different skill set. It simply isn’t unusual to start the day as cook or nurse, and end the day twenty hours later as veterinarian or plumber.  Farm and ranch women are mothers, accountants, spiritual advisors, psychiatrists, and coaches.

While in some parts of the country it might still be cute to fight the little arguments for women’s rights or re-declare the independence of women from men, here in Nebraska our mothers and sisters and wives do it every day.

We Aren’t So Different…You and I.

I had a conversation with my sister the other night about music. I made the comment that I just need to find a nice hipster chick to spend my time with. The subject matter quickly took a left turn onto the highway of complaint about folks who do not know the difference between “hippie” an d “hipster”. If you are not familiar with the vast differences, just trust me, it is a big deal. But the larger point is that it got me thinking about the misconceptions of “Conservationist” in the Nebraska vernacular.
I grew up a farmer and ranchers son. Reagan is still my guy. G.W. Bush (years 1-6, not years 7-8) is still my guy. I learned to drive a pickup by pulling through pasture gates when I was like five years old. Somewhere deep, deep down is a guy that looks like the Marlboro Man, flying a Black Hawk helicopter directly into an organic food vendor in one of New York’s Five Burroughs. But come on! Really, the other part of me (thankfully the dominant side) understands that agriculturists have enemies and we have friends and sometimes that line is a little blurry.
Certainly there are organizations that are out to significantly challenge or even destroy the commercial agricultural practices that have made us prosper on the plains. Most of these guys and gals are completely out of the left field bleachers and will never get anywhere with their cause. A few, however, are dangerously linked to the mainstream groupthink. It is because of these few that often times organizations and individuals holding mutual values and goals with farmers and ranchers are so often misinterpreted.
The push for more “Ag-vocacy” is warranted and ultimately, I think, a good thing. The one point often missed by pundits is that a conversation is a two way (speaking and listening) exercise. Farmers and ranchers need to tell their stories while remembering that the folks we are speaking to have stories of their own. Also, there has to be understanding that many of those stories will be things you do not agree with, and it is not up to you to change that person’s mind. If you are going to share your story of agricultural stewardship then understand who your enemy truly is and be open to real dialog with those who are truly friends. Agriculturists have been on the defensive so long it is easy to overreact to questions about production, or comments made carelessly and having no bearing beyond personal preference and lifestyle.
Some folks might think I am crazy, but being in favor of legalizing marijuana does not qualify someone as a left wing nut. Similarly, verbally challenging someone who prefers to eat organic produce versus commercially grown products might not be a great idea. I encourage everyone to peel a layer or two off the conversation before making a judgment call as to whether or not some “hippie gonna shut you down!” Often times you will find yourself a great hunting or fishing partner that wants nothing more than for you to do what you have been doing all along: take care of what God gave you.
Invite concerned conservationists to a local fundraiser for Pheasants Forever or Duck Unlimited or simply find out what his or her interests might be. The offer to allow someone to photograph wildlife on your CRP acres or to help feed a bottle calf can go a long way to opening up a partnership between conservationists and agriculturists. But a word of caution: there are groups and individuals out there that do not have your best interests in mind; be optimistically cautious with anyone wanting to tour your farm or ranch. A guy in a Black Hawk helicopter might just dominate that person’s ego and he may want to target your non-organic food stand.

Listen to This…

I always have trouble answering this question: “What kind of music do you listen to?” To the casual passer or friend of a friend that is a really tough question to put into concise terms. I sometimes forget that the general person on the street has no idea what Red Dirt music is, or Texas Country for that matter. I could say country, but too often I am concerned that the asker might interpret me, the answerer as follower of the watered down, hack laden genre of music emanating from the FM airwaves of Anyplace, Midwest. Rock doesn’t work because it has become such a huge genre of music. Also the more conventional thinkers would then relate me to the glitter t-shirt wearing throngs that idolize nearly talented members of the one-line-and-no-story society such as Nickleback. That simply will not stand. Alt-country is close but then people just figure I am some out of work fiction author turned activist pot head. So I typically utter, “I like pretty much anything…” which is complete crap. Rarely is it easier to tell the long version of why I appreciate the Red Dirt sound.
I remember the first time I ever sang along with the radio. I don’t know how old, maybe 3 or 4. I was sitting in the backseat of my parents Brown S-10 Blazer (no car seat!) peeking between the front bucket seats on HWY 34 outside Lincoln, right next to the Kawasaki Motors plant. I must have been humming along or something and my mom looked back and said, “You know you can sing if you want to. That’s ok.” The song was Dixie Road by Lee Greenwood. I remember that because I assumed I was going to get slapped when I sang the line “LA lights burn like hell”, but apparently cursing was ok if you were singing it! I was thrilled. I learned every song on the radio. I have never had the talent but I really didn’t care. That’s not what it was about. I found out music just makes me feel good, or bad, or sad; music makes me feel.
So from country greats of the 80’s and 70’s, my mother moved my sister and me on to some of the great 70’s rock and folk artists. Bob Seger, Neil Young, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen and many others made appearances on our audio journey through childhood and adolescence. Mom always stressed that it wasn’t about how loud a song is, but what the artist was saying. I soon discovered grunge and post grunge in the mid 90’s. I fell in love (musically speaking) with the guys like Eddie Vedder, who could put together the damp, wet sounds of Seattle with the heart felt folk-rock imagery of Neil Young. I came to appreciate music that was off the beaten path. Music that all my buddies did not love because it wasn’t loud enough, or because the emotions expressed were more than simply anger and joy.
It was, however, in college that I discovered music that would change my life. The summer of 2002 I was Recruitment Chair at my fraternity, Alpha Gamma Rho. Visiting our Lincoln, NE chapter that summer was a person who would become my music mentor. While sitting in the living room of the down stairs suite, nursing a miserable hangover, Delvin Higginson handed me a burned copy of several pirated songs. All that the disc said was “Red Dirt” scrawled in black Sharpie. I already knew some Great Divide. But that was really the only exposure any of us north of Kansas had to the poetic, grungy-folky-dirty-rock expression of country music I would come to love.
Now several years later, I’m sitting in a coffee shop in Omaha trying to explain what kind of music I listen to. I just want to thank Delvin, and my parents, and any friend who has ever handed me a cassette or disc and said, “Listen to this… I think you’ll like it.”

HSUS and Nebraska: Where To Next?

I think we can all agree that puppy mills are deplorable. We can all agree that dogs and cats are not commodities and, like all companions are due a high level of respect and dignity. In Nebraska we have had our share of commercial dog breeders that have been shut down, suspended, banned and even arrested and charged for non-compliance an d/or cruelty an d neglect. Nebraska does have laws in effect that regulate commercial dog and cat producers with a license fee and annual inspection. In fact, LB494 “requires animal health care professionals” to report any and all instances of animal neglect or cruelty encountered or observed while in a professional capacity. Other states have similar laws which are having fair to moderate results in closing down and charging the worst puppy mills.
It is understandable that this is a very sensitive issue with most Americans. We have all had a cherished pet at one time or another. Cat, dog, goldfish…in my case I had all three as well as some darling show cattle while in 4-H. It tugs at my heart strings too. But what Wayne Pacelle is asking Nebraska’s citizen’s to contribute is, though smartly veiled, cash and support. This is an understandable move for an organization looking to bring awareness to a troubling issue. But what is the real issue Wayne Pacelle and HSUS is looking to address? I have a couple questions I would like HSUS to address before we give him money.
After scanning the HSUS website, which is quite well put together and smartly worded, I found no listing of USDA inspected commercial pet producers. I also had trouble finding any verifiable information from any source as to how many commercial pet producers are operating in Nebraska. Certainly I found some websites that were willing to give unverifiable data. So my first question to Wayne Pacelle and HSUS is this: How big is this problem? A logical first step in identifying any problem is to quantify the challenge at hand. You can quote the number of farrowing units in Ohio and Florida quite readily from memory, but can you tell me how many puppy mills are in Nebraska?
Mr. Pacelle is asking locals in Lincoln and Omaha to give money and support to his organization on the premise that puppy mills must go. I agree. Unlicensed, unregulated commercial pet producers are bad for our Nebraska community. But what if the problem isn’t as big as he claims it is? The HSUS website gives only this vague statement:
“For many reasons, The HSUS does not publish a list of known puppy mills. There are literally thousands of puppy mills in existence all over the country, and most of them are not required to register with any one agency. There are so many unregulated puppy mills that to publish a list of the known or “problem” mills may give the public a false impression that any establishment that is not on the list is “safe.” Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, some problematic puppy mills have been known to change their names and locations frequently to evade their reputations.”
Do they have some sort of documentation to support this claim of “thousands”? To assume that the general public is too ignorant to understand that a “list” is less than empirical seems insulting. But to make a blanket statement that all commercially licensed pet breeders are most likely bad seems unfair as well and I would never support that. The point is Nebraska state laws may be more effective than any of us believe in preventing neglect and abuse. If that is the case, here is my second question to HSUS and Pacelle: What happens to my contribution once puppy mills are shut down? I certainly don’t support his many past statements with regards to shutting down commercial livestock production in America and most educated Nebraskans feel the same. There are mountains of evidence to suggest that laws pushed by HSUS in Missouri, Ohio, California, Arizona and Florida actually led to more cruelty and less safeguards for companion animals and livestock, and ultimately led to a greater burden on already shrinking numbers of local and small producers. In fact, the American Kennel Club had this to say regarding their opposition to the, now infamous, Missouri Proposition B:
“These terms [as] defined in Missouri Proposition B do absolutely nothing to improve the wellbeing of animals; instead, it would add excessive expenses to responsible breeders who strive to produce well-bred family pets.”
You can read the entire statement at: http://www.akc.org/news/index.cfm?article_id=4200
So now, after offering up what appears to be, at best, a faulty ballot initiative the Missouri legislature is undergoing the costly process of repealing a law that was narrowly passed (51% to 48%) by voters based on misleading information led by lobbyists from the HSUS and Mr. Pacelle.
So why bother with putting the time and effort into laws that don’t provide adequate protection to the group identified as the primary target? I guess time will tell. But my hunch is that what Mr. Pacelle is after is much bigger than the welfare of a few cute puppies. I imagine it has to do with comments like these which he now denies, despite cited and verifiable sources:
“We have no ethical obligation to preserve the different breeds of livestock produced through selective breeding …One generation and out. We have no problems with the extinction of domestic animals. They are creations of human selective breeding.” –Animal People News, 1993
“If we could shut down all sport hunting in a moment, we would.”–Associated Press, Dec. 1991
“We would be foolish and silly not to unite with people in the public health sector, the environmental community, [and] unions, to try to challenge corporate agriculture.” –Animal rights 2002 Convention, July 2002
“We are going to use the ballot box and the democratic process to stop all hunting in the United States … We will take it species by species until all hunting is stopped in California. Then we will take it state by state.” –Full Cry Magazine, 1990
When asked by Mike Adams in a June 30th 2009 interview for Bovine Veterinarian, whether the HSUS planned to approach any other states with initiatives concerning livestock production practices similar to the restrictions in Ohio, California and Florida, Wayne Pacelle simply answered, “We’re looking at various places.”
Does anyone think it is a coincidence that the two of the most recent states (Missouri and Nebraska) to be identified as primary targets of puppy mill legislation are also two of the largest livestock producing states and have largely disproportionate urban/suburban to rural populations? I think if we look close enough at Mr. Pacelle’s record and the HSUS history, we can see a pattern of very accurate foreshadowing directly from the charismatic Front Man’s mouth. And now there a series of meetings scheduled for Nebraska and Paul Shapiro (director or HSUS’s Factory Farming Campaign) has been brought into the debate.

Just East of Wahoo

Taken early autumn, 2010. I was on my way to Wahoo to jam with good friend Jason Janssen.