Trustees, trusties escape from city prisons

Did you ever have to make up your mind?
You pick up on one and leave the other one behind
It’s not often easy and not often kind
Did you ever have to make up your mind?

We’ve got a nice half moon and a couple of stars winking through the clouds speeding across the predawn sky.  Now that we’ve found some reliable trustees, there are a few lights visible down the valley.

cropped-10339652_10100872905228271_1020660451501372842_n.jpgTrusties is what we all are here at Meadowcreek.  It’s like we have been doing hard time and we finally accumulated enough good behavior that the warden trusts us to live outside the prison as long as we work hard and keep our noses clean.

So we are dirt poor, and always watchful for the big boss, but at least we get to live in a pretty spot.  Meadow Creek  has cut deep through the Ozark Plateau for lord knows how many years.  The layers and layers of various sorts of sandstone  are cut down to the granite base in a few spots.  You can only see the granite when the water is low.  But even then thegranite layer is  always wet.

There is always water flowing in Meadowcreek.  Sometimes you can’t see it because it is flowing below the limestone boulders and the chunks of harder rock, often coated with sand stone.  The year round springs and seeps keep the water coming.

Any water which isn’t soaked up by the trees and meadows and crops ends up in the Little Red River.  The lower reaches of the Little Red got dammed in  the early 1960s when the civil engineers were having a hay day in the US.  They built the interstate highway system and dams everywhere.  John F. Kennedy dedicated Greers Ferry Dam on October 3, 1963, on his way to his assassination on November 22.

The flow of the Little Red River was uncontrolled for millenia.  Civil engineers and boating enthusiasts took advantage of the horrendous floods of the 1930s to convince Washington to build dams everywhere. In 1938, Congress passed the Flood Control Act, which authorized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build dams on most of the country’s major free-flowing river systems. North Arkansas’s White River basin, which includes the Little Red River, was among the chosen waterways. Verdant, diverse valleys were turned into biological deserts overnight.

Somehow Meadow Creek and the upper reaches of the Little Red were spared.  Our long narrow valley would be easy to dam and would make a nice spot for suburbanites to bring their speed boats and Bass Masters to have tournaments.  People still occasionally suggest it.  Luckily the country is too poor (in money and spirit) for anything like that to happen soon.

The money, energy, and engineering zeal of the US in the 50s and 60s was countered by a flailing, anarchic back to the land movement.  Meadowcreek, in its early years, was one of the foremost outposts of that movement.

Most of the back to landers failed in the 70s and 80s because they threw out the baby with the bath water.  Reacting to the excesses of industrialism in the Eisenhower/Kennedy/Johnson years, many tried to go back to a tribal life.  But most back to land-ers were city folk with no skills and often no desire to learn them.

They wanted peace and love and a simple life style.  They sometimes got it, but most often what they got was the grinding poverty that is the fate of most in our area.

To live surrounded by serene pastoral beauty with no money is the fate of many rural Americans. Meadowcreek lies at the intersection of three of the poorest counties in Arkansas.  Searcy County, Arkansas, has been well-known mostly for being poor and scenic since it was first established in 1835.  Located in the highest part of the Ozarks (the Boston Mountains), the remote beauty of the region is accompanied by less attractive aspects: poverty accompanied by corruption.  The poorest people in the county have often raised cash by selling their votes.  Estimates are that as many as a third of the votes in one general election were paid for in Searcy County.[1]

One legal suit did result in a consent decree admitting to the pervasive and ingrained corruption while denying personal culpability. In other words, no one was convicted of anything.  As in many places in the world, corruption and poverty are commonly found together.  In Searcy County and adjacent regions of Van Buren County this has certainly been true. Searcy County as a whole had a 2010 poverty rate of 23.7%; in some census tracts all but a few retirees are below the poverty line.

Most youth who find work find it outside the county borders in bigger cities to the South (Conway, Little Rock), West (Fayetteville) and North (Harrison, Mountain Home, and Springfield, Missouri).

Area young folk who choose not to migrate to big cities can apply for one of the few openings as timber cutters, seasonal cashiers in tourist shops or canoe haulers.  A few become rock haulers. The main gainful occupations of area residents are cattle farming, timber-cutting and crude wood products.  Since the Buffalo National River was established just North of us, some seasonal jobs and income have been provided through canoe rentals, cabins and sales of tourist food and supplies.

Viable businesses outside tourism and timber are rare.  We helped a local young farming couple  (Falling Sky Farm) build a new processing facility which received the ultimate compliment for an area business:  “It’s as nice as a canoe rental place.”

Canoe rental businesses were not always seen as the epitome of economic progress. Our area has a long history of production of high quality food due to its unique soils and climate.  Searcy County was known as the strawberry capitol of the world shipping thousands of tons of strawberries every year through Flintrock Strawberry Growers Association.  Competition from industrial strawberry producers in states with abundant migrant labor caused a slow decline in strawberry production until even the annual Strawberry Festival was discontinued in the mid-1980s. People forgot what a real strawberry tastes like and bought the pretty red things that look like strawberries.

Another of our projects in the area, a milk processsing cooperative, was hijacked by some unscrupulous locals.  They established a privately owned glass bottle dairy at Marshall, but it failed, as our pro formas showed it would.  Unlucky for them, they stole our ideas before we had done the analysis showing the concept was untenable.

Just about the only manufacturing plant in Van Buren County is one we helped establish, Grassroots Farmer Cooperative.  They are doing a great job selling various cuts and types of meat produced by local farmers.

The poverty  of the area reaches its pinnacle in the rugged area where the three counties come together.  Meadowcreek is about equidistant from Marshall, the county seat of Searcy County, Clinton, the county seat of Van Buren County and Mountain View, the county seat of Stone County.

The Little Red River and its tributaries have incised deep valleys in the this area.  The Little Red drains the South side of the Boston Mountains.  The North side flows down to the famed Buffalo River. Gravel roads and low water bridges link most residents, but also become impassable after any heavy rain, ice or snow.  When roads are passable some residents are still as much as 75 minutes to the closest grocery selling fresh, local food.  The 2010 census estimated 15,985 people (6731 households) live in this food desert comprising the poorest part of some of the poorest counties in Arkansas.

The poverty and isolation of the area has resulted in a severe food desert which stretches over the contiguous portions of these counties (see http://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/food-access-research-atlas/go-to-the-atlas.aspx).  At the center of this food desert are our facilities at Meadowcreek.  The last grocery store in the area, at Arlberg five miles down the road, was wiped out by a flood which destroyed the town in 1933.

Many residents live an hour or more from the any sort of grocery store.  A total of four stores in the three counties sell fresh vegetables.  However, nearly all the produce is imported from California, Florida or Mexico and tastes pitiful like all produce bred to be shipped thousands of miles. As in most food deserts, other stores selling food offer far fewer choices of fresh vegetables and fruit.  Except for the far away grocery stores, all other retail food outlets in the area are convenience stores attached to gas stations.  Our visits to these rarely finds any fresh fruits or vegetables—not a single leaf of lettuce, cucumber, or head of broccoli or cauliflower.  Sometimes a few ripe tomatoes will appear when a gardener has a few extra and the store owner lets her sell them on consignment.

Even healthy foods with longer storage life, such as apples, high-fiber bread, eggs and smoked turkey are usually only available in the four groceries far outside our area.  It’s easy to find a bag of chips and a bottle of soda, but impossible to find fresh black berrries or blueberries—even though we grow some of the best in the state.

The good news in our area is that dedication to agriculture and appreciation of the taste and quality of locally grown produce continue among some of the people.  A statewide school garden program chose Searcy County as a demonstration site and Searcy County government is continuing to support the program as the grant-funded program ends.  Due to their dedication to farming, a number of families produce food in abundance but most have difficulty finding markets.  Some have established successful food businesses but only by marketing outside this rural county with few retail outlets for fresh local food.

We’re trying to fix all that.  Come and join us.

===============

[1] Glaze, T., 2011. Waiting for the Cemetery Vote.  University of Arkansas Press.

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