Opioids: A Conjured Crisis

U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack

U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack scolded the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine about opioid abuse on Friday.

The institution is not doing enough to train its soon-to-be health professionals on an opioid abuse epidemic that claims thousands of lives a year nationally, Vilsack said, according to the Cedar Rapids Gazette.

The university just got the word about its role in the opioid abuse epidemic last week. According to the article,

After Vilsack’s remarks, UI Health Care medical affairs vice president and dean of the medical college Jean Robillard told The Gazette the institution does plan to make changes in the way it teaches med students about prescribing opioids. He said the UI received information on it from the White House earlier this week.

Vilsack oversees the White House Rural Council, established by executive order on June 9, 2011 by President Obama. Opioid abuse is on a long list of maladies that impact rural communities. It is one issue among many the council hopes to address.

News media and politicians have made much of opioid abuse. Facts suggest at 28,648 (2014) annual deaths related to opioids — including heroin, hydrocodone and oxycodone — abuse is not a leading cause of death in the United States. It’s not even among the Centers for Disease Control’s top ten causes of death, with heart disease, cancer, chronic lower respiratory disease, unintentional injuries and stroke being much more prevalent.

What gives?

Fanning the embers of opioid abuse into a raging wildfire serves the interests of Big Pharma and its minions in the U.S. Congress. The opioid epidemic represents another opportunity for corporations to mold government in a way that serves their interests.

We’ve seen this before with methamphetamine abuse. Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town by Nick Reding makes the case that it’s less a drug’s addictive propensity than a combination of economic policy, government complicity with Big Pharma, and corporate policies that are behind the degradation of rural communities like Oelwein, Iowa, the subject of his book.

The short version is when meth had its fiery burn into the media atmosphere, corporations used it as an opportunity to control importation of key ingredients to a profitable cold medicine in a way that led to many small-scale meth lab busts in Iowa, and the rise of methamphetamine trade among Mexican drug cartels. The opportunity regarding opioids may be a little different, but why wouldn’t Big Pharma want another bite from the apple?

It is ironic that Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign, part of the “war on drugs,” was window dressing to her husband’s economic policies that drove the underlying causes of abuse and addiction, not only in small towns, but throughout the country.

People suffer from many types of addiction and neither government nor the insurance companies that drive health care are doing much to address them. opioid abuse is an issue, yet the bigger issue is related to the growing divide between the richest Americans and the rest of us, corporate influence in government, and a K-12 education system that inadequately prepares children to sustain themselves in a society where corporations have the upper hand.

Opioids? Schmopioids! Let’s have a conversation about appropriate school curricula, something Vilsack addressed Friday in a weird, special interest kind of way.

~ Written for Blog for Iowa

Posted in Politics, Social Commentary | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Not Quite A Tornado

This gallery contains 4 photos.

The rush of summer events is almost too much. August’s four jobs, combined with kitchen-garden work has been a constant whirl of activity. The lawn is showing my priority. It is long and tangled — a nesting place for rabbits, … Continue reading

Gallery | Leave a comment

An Iowa Onion Trimmer

Curing Onions

Curing Onions

Between picture perfect onions and the compost heap lies an opportunity.

A friend grows onions using organic practices as part of a Community Supported Agriculture project. Onions are harvested from the field then dried in the greenhouse for storage. Sorting, trimming the tops and roots, and removing excess skin comes next.

As an experienced onion trimmer I work for farmers I know and trust. My compensation is an hourly rate above the current minimum wage plus all the seconds I can use. It’s a good deal, so I take it when offered. For an hour or two after a full time job at the home, farm and auto supply company, and on weekends after a shift at the orchard, I work in the onion shed.

Onion Trimming Work Station

Onion Trimming Work Station

The work is seasonal and temporary. Cognizant of potential competition from other itinerant workers, I work as quickly and as well as I can. The daily chore serves as respite from an intense schedule of lowly paid work that provides income destined mostly to corporations in exchange for stuff needed to operate the household: utilities, insurance, taxes, fuel and the like. I will have worked 100 days in a row by the November election — I’m not complaining, just sayin’.

At the end of each shift in the onion shed, I take home ten or more pounds of seconds. I remove the bad parts in our kitchen and am left with half the original amount in fresh onions. There’ no long term storage for these so they go into the ice box until used. If left on the counter, bad spots would quickly re-emerge.

Onion Shed

Onion Shed

I made and canned the first batch of vegetable soup with three pounds of fresh onions and a bit of everything on hand from the farm and garden. By the time the onions at the farm are in storage, there will be enough canned vegetable soup put up to last until the next growing season. Soup that can make a meal.

With the concurrent harvest of tomatoes and basil from our garden, I plan to make and can pints of marinara sauce using a simple, four-part recipe of tomatoes, onions, basil and garlic. Onion trimming blocks out time from vegetable processing, and some good ones will head to the compost bin before I can get to them. I am hopeful about getting a dozen pints of marinara sauce canned.

The life of an itinerant low wage worker lies on the margin between harvest and the compost bin, That’s true for a lot of professions, not just onion trimmers. If you think about it, that’s where we all live our lives in the 99 percent of the population that isn’t wealthy.

I’m okay with working a job with friends doing work that directly impacts our family’s sustainability. It may be easier to take a big job with responsibilities and varied compensation, but I’d rather deal with the questions like whether something can be made of each onion I encounter.

The pile of second represents hope in a tangible and meaningful way. What’s life for unless that?

~ Written for Blog for Iowa

Posted in Farming, Local Food, Work Life | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Looking To 2020

Wind Rows Near Iowa City

Wind Rows Near Iowa City

The sobering news of the NBC/Marist poll released last week is Hillary Clinton leading the Republican candidate in Iowa by only 4 points (41-37) among registered voters.

In Iowa electing Hillary Clinton president will not be a slam dunk.

If one lives elsewhere in the country, the news was better. Clinton leads the two-way and four-way presidential races nationally and has multiple paths to 270 electoral votes needed to win the election.

Both major candidates remain unpopular. “In Iowa, 36 percent of registered voters have a favorable view of Clinton, versus 58 percent with an unfavorable view,” wrote Mark Murray on the NBC News website. “While Trump is at 31 percent positive, 64 percent negative.”

Clinton is polling well, as she has since announcing her candidacy April 12, 2015. The election is hers to lose, and every indication is she is taking nothing for granted. What mitigates the positives is every conversation I have with voters becomes dominated by how terrible Clinton’s opponent is. He is, and if you feel that way, volunteer or donate to Clinton’s campaign, even if you don’t like her.

Of Iowa’s 1,937,225 active voters, only 615,357 (32%) were registered as Democrats on Aug. 1, 2016, according to the Iowa Secretary of State. Republicans aren’t doing much better at 649,579 (34%). Based on registrations, it should be a fair fight for either party to build a constituency to elect a candidate in Iowa.

It’s not a fair fight, one made worse by the quadrennial Iowa Caucuses. Where to begin about that?

Let’s start with the quote attributed to Albert Einstein, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”

Who wants to be insane? None of us who volunteer to work for political campaigns.

I want something that doesn’t exist any more. When my father canvassed for JFK before the 1960 election he used mimeographed sheets made at the union hall. There was a diagram of a generic neighborhood where he recorded the names of voters to help him (and presumably others) keep track of where the election stood. When Kennedy won, we felt our family had contributed significantly to the victory even though he did not win Iowa’s 10 electoral votes.

Deviation from this inclusive, local technique has long been a practice. I associate it mostly with Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign, although others perfected it. Targeted canvassing has been my bone of contention with the Iowa Democratic Party. The practice has broken down neighborhoods in favor of demographic dissection. It isn’t healthy for working together with neighbors to improve our lives, something that should run concurrently with politics.

It’s no secret a large percentage of people seek to avoid conversations about politics and hide their political leanings behind a no party registration. What matters more to those with whom I’ve discussed it is participation in a society in which politics plays a minor role. More engage in politics during the presidential years, but spend the rest of their time living, working and volunteering. It’s the glue that holds what’s good in society together. The current caucus process with two dozen candidates roaming the state and spreading their minority views works against the warp and weave of a just society.

I believe the Iowa caucuses have seen their best years. Jimmy Carter had the right idea after Democrats changed the nominating process in response to the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Carter just showed up and met people, as he famously did during the Iowa State Fair. Today, politics has been co-opted by the media and the state fair is a timely example, with a dedicated political soap box sponsored by the Des Moines Register. It’s not unlike any of the other fair exhibits. The nadir of the state fair soapbox for Democrats in recent years was Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz giving out of touch speeches.

The caucuses are getting too large, making it difficult for organizers to find appropriate venues. In our precinct it was a challenge to hold people’s attention until the delegates were selected, after which they bolted and the caucus chair couldn’t fill committee slots for the county convention. Logistics aside, the Iowa caucuses place an inappropriate emphasis on presidential politics almost two years before the election. There is more to life than who’s president. We survived Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. We will survive whoever the electorate picks in November.

The opportunity to change this year’s process passed with the state convention and the page turns to the 2020 presidential cycle. Political activists want Iowa to be the first caucus in the nation, but they don’t represent our best interests. They are just one more special interest looking out for themselves. Politics is much broader than the people who caucused for Senator Ted Cruz, the Republican caucus winner in Iowa.

It is time for politically active people to get involved in a way that broadens the electorate and is more inclusive. However, if they don’t heed the message, we’ll find something else to do, raising money for our favorite charities, donating garden surplus to the food bank, and advocating with our elected officials for what is right — regardless of party.

People care about who’s president, but not so much they will set everything else aside. No one wants to be the target of political canvasses. Given the opportunity neighbors will join together to resolve pressing issues, including electing a president. This year presidential politics serves more distraction than help.

~ Written for Blog for Iowa

Posted in Politics | Tagged | Leave a comment

Summer Of Weird Normal In Iowa Politics

Farm to Market

Farm to Market

This has been a summer of weird normal, especially for people who follow politics.

Given a presidential contest where many, including this author, predicted Hillary Clinton would be our next president before she announced she was running, nothing has happened to change that potential outcome. If anything, we are more confident than ever she will be our next president.

The focus has been on down ticket races… somewhat.

Last week Michael Barone of the Washington Examiner picked Cedar County, Iowa as a bellwether of the presidential race.

“The Washington Examiner has selected 13 key counties to watch in eight target states with 114 electoral votes that have been seriously contested in recent elections,” Barone wrote. “Each county has the potential to indicate who will carry these states.”

Cedar County owes its place on this list to the fact that it has come uncannily close to mirroring the Democratic and Republican percentages of the target state of Iowa in the last seven presidential elections, never varying more than 1.3 percent from average. Thus it voted 52 to 47 percent for Obama in 2012 and 54 to 44 percent for him in 2008; it voted 50 to 49 percent for Bush in 2004; and in the exquisitely close election of 2000, it went for Al Gore over Bush by a plurality of exactly two votes.

Mirroring percentages is one thing, however, based on my personal contacts with voters in Cedar County during the 2012 election, mirroring is not relevant to current races.

The Iowa Democratic Party placed an organizer in Cedar County this cycle, and if 2012 represents the best efforts to turn out votes for President Obama, 2016 will be even better for Hillary Clinton. That also benefits state-wide candidates Dave Loebsack, and to some extent, Patty Judge. Cedar County voters are willing to split the ticket. Expect them to do so in November.

Democrats are running out of time to nominate a candidate in Iowa House District 73, which includes Cedar County. For practical purposes, the clock ran out a week or so ago.

The Iowa Secretary of State filing deadline for state and federal offices is 5 p.m. on Friday, August 19, and in order to nominate a Democratic candidate, the state party would have to call a special convention that included Muscatine, Cedar and Johnson Counties where the district is situated.

There are plenty of potential candidates, however, those who ran in recent cycles are not interested, and no one else has come forward.

While there has been talk of a write-in candidate, the handicap of not being on the ballot will be a long shot in defeating incumbent Rep. Bobby Kaufmann.

The largest group of voter registrations in Cedar County is no party. On Aug. 1, the Secretary of State reported 3,128 Democratic, 3,792 Republican, and 4,414 No Party active, registered voters. Having worked the district, I don’t put much stock in these numbers. A house candidate from either party could win the district because of no party conversions, the City of Wilton, and six precincts in more Democratic Johnson County.

What makes August part of the summer of weird normal is the lack of political talk about almost anything but the Republican nominee for president. It is normal that a lot of voters activate during presidential election years. What is weird is a combination of things including regular people cozying up to Donald Trump; people who would bleed Democratic if cut saying they won’t vote for Hillary Clinton no matter what; and controversial issues, including climate change, abortion, school funding, incarceration rates, water quality and government spending, being sidelined to watch the national political show.

Life is going on, arguably not in a good way.

~ Written for Blog for Iowa

Posted in Politics | Tagged | Leave a comment

Can Hipsters Stomach The Truth About Avocados From Mexico

Photo Credit: Avocados from Mexico

Photo Credit: Avocados from Mexico

Can consumers buy avocados from Mexico at the grocery store, or in prepared guacamole with impunity?

Probably not.

Last week’s article “In Mexico, high avocado prices fueling deforestation” by Associated Press author Mark Stevenson explained why.

Americans’ love for avocados and rising prices for the highly exportable fruit are fueling the deforestation of central Mexico’s pine forests as farmers rapidly expand their orchards to feed demand.

Avocado trees flourish at about the same altitude and climate as the pine and fir forests in the mountains of Michoacan, the state that produces most of Mexico’s avocados. That has led farmers to wage a cat-and-mouse campaign to avoid authorities, thinning out the forests, planting young avocado trees under the forest canopy, and then gradually cutting back the forest as the trees grow to give them more sunlight.

“Even where they aren’t visibly cutting down forest, there are avocados growing underneath (the pine boughs), and sooner or later they’ll cut down the pines completely,” said Mario Tapia Vargas, a researcher at Mexico’s National Institute for Forestry, Farming and Fisheries Research.

Why does it matter?

Deforestation plays a key role in the release of greenhouse gases. Carbon stored in trees and other vegetation is released into the atmosphere as forests are converted to avocado plantations.

With the advance of climate change, securing adequate water to produce the fruit has increasingly been an issue in avocado growing regions. A video posted by the World Bank explained the problem and how farmers are coping. It’s pretty simple. In recent years there has been less rainfall in Michoacan, desiccating the soil. Farmers divert rainwater runoff to retention ponds for use during dry months. Avocados require twice the water of pine forests they replace, depriving downstream users of an essential resource.

If that’s not enough, these particular forests are part of the Monarch butterfly wintering grounds. Deforestation impedes the butterfly’s evolved life cycle.

You may have seen one of the web ads featuring celebrity chef Pati Jinich promoting avocado use for the trade association Avocados from Mexico. Here is an example:

When encountering these ads, I found Jinich endearing and her tips helpful. That is, if I were a user of avocados, something she and the trade association is trying to change with the promotion. My experience with guacamole has been a tablespoon served on the side of Mexican food with other condiments, so not much.

One doesn’t always know what to do about stories like Stevenson’s. How extensive is the deforestation problem in avocado growing regions? How will downstream users react to deprivation of water from the mountains? How are workers treated on avocado plantations? Can we live without Monarch butterflies, and will another plot of forest gone really make the difference for this pressured species?

I don’t know, but here’s a relevant question raised by Joanna Blythman in The Guardian, “Can hipsters stomach the unpalatable truth about avocado toast?”

“When we pick up a fashionable import like avocado,” Blythman wrote, “we need to be sure that it not only benefits our personal health and well being, but also that of the communities that grow it.”

The issues around deforestation are well known. To the extent avocados add to the problem users should be driven to do something.

That may be as simple as asking the server to hold the guacamole.

~ Written for Blog for Iowa

Posted in Environment | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Perhaps It Was a Sign

Water Damaged Memorabilia Drying

Water Damaged Memorabilia Drying

For the first time since we covered our foundation with earth in 1993 we had water downstairs after a heavy rainfall.

Perhaps it was a sign.

As soon as we discovered the problem, we reacted. Later in the day I bought a 20-inch fan at the home, farm and auto supply store to circulate air as the cement floor dries. It’s muffling out every other sound as I write.

Most of our storage items are on pallets, and planning paid off. About half a dozen boxes on the floor did get damp. We caught it soon enough to remove the contents and dry papers out before getting ruined. My musical instruments were also on the floor, but they were dried off before wreckage.

Casualties included a small collection of Franklin Mint items, a box of letters from pre-email days, and a banker’s box full of political memorabilia going back to when I worked on LBJ’s 1964 campaign. It looks like everything will be okay.

We don’t plan to build an ark, and must figure out what is happening then take action. By the end of today, I’ll inspect the wall inside and out and develop an action plan. I’ve learned to pay attention when nature and the forces behind it give us a sign.

The last thing we needed was one more thing on the Big Grove do list. On Thursday I made a schedule at the home, farm and auto supply store during a break. It must now be modified.

Weekend Schedule Draft

Weekend Schedule Draft

With such a schedule it is hard to relax. In fact, it is easy to see why people turn to methamphetamine to get through everything that needs doing in 24 hours. Maybe I need to pull a couple of all nighters, as a substitute since I eschew meth and stimulants except coffee.

A friend of mine who attended Georgetown University continued the collegiate practice of pulling all nighters well into the 1980s as a way of catching up with things that could not be delayed. The trouble is there is no “next day” for me to crash with my constant schedule through the end of the apple season.

Mine is the situation of any low wage worker, and I don’t see it being fixed in the U.S. by the “fight for $15,” an advocacy effort to raise the minimum wage. I will suck the pap of life dry with constant activities regardless of economic status. What would help from government is hard to accomplish: universal health care; bolster Social Security so our pensions will be there;  and preserve and protect the commons. It doesn’t seem like too much to ask.

Onion Trimming Progress

Onion Trimming Progress

Meanwhile, the onion trimming is going well. Instead of crossing the lakes after work, I head East on Interstate 80 to Highway One and spend a couple of hours in the nearby greenhouse.

I’m about a third of the way through summer onions, after which I’ll do storage onions. The crates are custom made and have slats in the bottom for aeration. As part of my compensation I keep the seconds, so there are plenty of onions in our house for the next few weeks.

It’s all part of sustaining a life in a turbulent world.

Posted in Home Life, Local Food | Tagged , , | Leave a comment