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Farming Documentary; For Hamp Arts Center, a New Home; Vermont Yankee Decommissioning: A 60-Year Wait?; We Can Raise the Minimum Wage!; For Whom the Pike’s Tolls; and more

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Wednesday, October 30, 2013
A still from Root Hog or Die

Newly Restored Documentary Spurs Conversation About Valley Farming

e_SDLqMaybe it’s a hard way of life, but in some ways it’s quite satisfying,” Bernardston farmer Louise Taylor says in a voiceover, over footage of herself feeding her calves.

“When we came here, we came on what you’d call a shoestring. And it has been a struggle ever since we’ve been here. And to have withstood this many years and not had to stop, it’s been gratifying,” Taylor continues. “I think some people don’t get any thrill out of having to pull hard to make both ends meet. But I found it fascinating.

“Good thing I do,” she adds, deadpan.

Taylor was one of a number of farmers from Western Massachusetts and southern Vermont interviewed by filmmaker Rawn Fulton of Bernardston for his 1973 documentary Root Hog or Die. The title comes from an old expression about the importance of self-reliance (a hog who can’t root out food for himself isn’t long for this world), something Fulton’s subjects knew plenty about. Throughout the film, the farmers he interviewed—most of them elderly, or at least weatherworn, with Yankee accents right out of central casting—talk with quiet but unmistakable pride about their lives’ work, while underplaying its challenges, all evidence to the contrary.

Not long ago, Fulton came across his old film and digitally remastered it. On Nov. 3 at 4 p.m., it will be screened at Northampton’s Academy of Music. Tickets are $15 and will benefit five local organizations—the Trustees of Reservations, Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA), the Kestrel Land Trust, the Hilltown Land Trust and WGBY—that are sponsoring the event. (For ticket information, go to www.academyofmusictheatre.com.)

The hour-long documentary, filmed in black and white, shows local farmers at work through the seasons, from maple sugaring in early spring through plowing and then harvesting their fields, to chopping wood on a snowy day in preparation for winter, with occasional breaks, like a trip to a cattle auction and square dancing at Bernardston’s Old Home Day.

Intercut with those images are intimate conversations with individual farmers, as they discuss, with nostalgia, the “old days” and lament the loss of a way of life that sustained their families for generations; one man notes how hard it is for young people to get started in farming, now that even a small farm costs $150,000 or $200,000.

In a press release announcing the Northampton screening, Fulton talked about the film topic’s resonance today, as the region attempts to hold on to and redefine its rich agricultural tradition: “The farmer shapes the land, and the land shapes the farmer. It’s how they work together—which is why this film has such relevance,” he said. “This is a way for us to re-access people who are long gone and how they saw the world. What’s special about this is, we’re now trying to reinvent our sense of what this way of life can be.”

After the screening, a group of local farmers will take part in a panel discussion and question-and-answer session, and audience members can meet Fulton. More information can be found at www.buylocalfood.org.•

 

For Hamp Arts Center, a New Home

After a difficult search, the Northampton Center for the Arts has found a new home in a building at 33 Hawley Street. In a small city with many artists deserving of playing or exhibition space who need an alternative to the local commercial venues, that’s important not just for the moment, but for the future—not just for the sake of local color, but for the local economy.

The Center’s 30-year lease in the old Sullivan School on South Street ran out four months ago. The search for a new headquarters began much earlier, and took the Center’s leaders down many paths that proved to be dead ends. They experimented with the possibility of buying their space in the Sullivan building, but the rules developed by the condominium association operating there made it impossible for the Center to have the visibility it needed for exhibitions and other events.

Two bids for space in churches didn’t work out, in one case because some parishioners were uncomfortable about plans to share space with an arts organization. An attempt to get space in the Roundhouse near City Hall ran into trouble because the city was in litigation related to an adjoining property.

Now, at last, the Center will have a space of its own in the 25,000-square-foot Universal Health and Fitness building on Hawley Street. The Northampton Community Arts Trust just bought the building for $1.5 million by securing loans and donations, and has launched a capital campaign to help pay back the loans as well as rehab the building. The plan is for the building to house a black box theater and a permanent headquarters for the Center for the Arts, and to serve as “a multi-use arts hub of affordable spaces for imaginative exploration and experimentation, rehearsal, presentation and arts administration,” according to the Trust’s website.

The Trust formed in 2010 in response to the increasing financial difficulty experienced by local artists who wanted to live and work in Northampton. The Trust, comprising the Center for the Arts, the Northampton Arts Council and other groups, has as its vision the permanent presence of a productive arts community in the city. As Richard Wagner, president of its board of directors, told the Daily Hampshire Gazette, “We want to be an organization that establishes itself in the community for more than just our generation.”•

 

Vermont Yankee Decommissioning: A 60-Year Wait?

Writing on the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant in Brattleboro last year, UBS financial analyst Julien Dumoulin-Smith speculated on why the reactor’s owner, Entergy of Louisiana, might continue to operate the plant though it was no longer profitable enough to justify the cost of getting it up to post-Fukishima safety codes.

“What could keep Entergy from shuttering the plant is liability costs related to the decommissioning of the plant,” Dumoulin-Smith wrote, “and whether it would have to immediately begin cleaning up the site upon closure or if it could mothball Yankee until the decommissioning fund accrues enough cash to get the job done.”

Since that writing, Entergy has announced its intention to close down the plant during the fourth quarter of 2014, and “mothball” is the key concept in the game plan Entergy is trying to put in place for the time after closure. Instead of “mothball,” however, the word Entergy uses is SafStor, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s term for stopping operations at a nuclear plant and letting it lie—removing crucial components, or not—for up to 60 years.

The nuclear industry claims that there are good reasons for letting a plant sleep for decades before it undergoes a full-scale decommissioning. One is that workers will be safer if some of the radioactivity has decayed before they begin dismantling the plant.

In the case of Vermont Yankee, however, it seems clear that one of the advantages of SafStor has to do with a shortfall of $77 million in the plant’s decommissioning fund. The estimated cost of decommissioning Vermont Yankee is $620.8 million; the fund only has $543.2 million. The shortfall might be corrected given a long time.

Meanwhile, some residents of Vermont, New Hampshire and Massachusetts who live near the plant are afraid that in a period as long as 60 years, Entergy will be able to avoid the decommissioning. “If, after 60 years, there’s not enough money, the company can just declare bankruptcy and walk away from it, sticking Vermonters with this carcass,” Arnie Gundersen, a technical consultant to anti-nuclear organizations, told Fairewinds Energy Education. Others fear that Entergy might go out of business.

Gundersen also believes that the endgame Entergy devised for the plant was partly masterminded by the nuclear industry, and that the company had likely decided to close the plant even as it was still fighting in court against attempts by the state of Vermont to shut it down. (The state lost the final round of that battle in appeals court on August 14, just 13 days before Entergy announced that it would close the plant.)

On the legal side, Entergy was assisted by the industry, in Gundersen’s view, because the industry wanted Entergy to show Vermont and other states that they could not win legal battles over the issue of safety because that issue comes under the purview of the NRC. And the company’s victory will also make it difficult for Vermont to fight it over safety issues after the plant is closed, Gundersen said.• —SK

We Can Raise the Minimum Wage!

If Rosie the Riveter turns up on your doorstep this Halloween, don’t just toss a Snickers into her plastic pumpkin—at least, not until you’ve signed the petition in her hand.

MotherWoman, the Hadley-based support and advocacy group, is dispatching a team of volunteer trick-or-treaters dressed as the iconic World War II factory worker to collect signatures in support of two ballot initiatives proposed for next November. One would raise Massachusetts’ minimum wage incrementally over several years, to an eventual $10.50 an hour in 2016 ($6.30 for tipped workers). The other would allow employees of companies with 12 or more workers to earn paid sick days, to be used for their medical needs or those of a family member.

The clipboard-toting Rosies—including local college students, parents and workers—will hit the pavement in Amherst, South Hadley and Northampton with their petitions. Supporters of proposed ballot questions have to collect 68,911 signatures to be submitted to local election officials by late November and then to the Secretary of State by Dec. 4. If they meet that threshold, the state Legislature has until May 7 to enact the proposed law; if lawmakers don’t act by that date, initiative proponents would need to collect another 11,485 signatures by July of 2014 to see their question on the November ballot.

For more on the sick days issue, go to www.masspaidleave.org; for information on the campaign to raise the minimum wage, go to raiseupma.org.• —MT

 

An Eye on Our Congressmen

Does one of the Valley’s Representatives to the U.S. House work harder than the other? Ultimately, that’s impossible to say. But Govtrack.us offers a factoid worth reading, and it makes clear that Rep. Jim McGovern of Worcester, whose Second District stretches from Central Massachusetts to Athol, Amherst, Whately and Wendell, has Rep. Richard Neal of Springfield, whose First District includes the Berkshires, beaten all hollow when it comes to showing up for roll call votes.

During his years of service in Congress—from January, 1997 to October, 2013—according to Govtrack, McGovern missed 176 of 11,519 roll call votes, which is 1.5 percent of those votes, .8 less than 2.3 percent, the median among the lifetime roll call voting records of representatives currently in the House. Neal, on the other hand, missed 939 of the 15,817 roll calls that have taken place since he joined the House in 1989, or 5.9 percent—well above the median and nearly four times the percentage that McGovern missed.• —SK

 

For SNAP Recipients, Not a Happy Thanksgiving

There’s bad news for the 325,306 households in Massachusetts that use SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps) in Massachusetts: even though the government shutdown ended, their SNAP benefit will be reduced as of Nov. 1.

That’s because a rise in SNAP benefits that dates from 2009 will sunset on Oct. 31. Here’s the history: though most people think of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 as a bailout for banks and large corporations, it also contained some benefits for the less well-heeled, such as a $45.2 billion boost to the SNAP budget. That raised benefits for a family of four from $588 a month to $668 a month.

But that increase was slated to end, and it ends this week. President Obama’s budget would have extended the higher benefit levels until next March, but the extension is bogged down in budget disputes. So a family of four will see its benefit decrease to $632 as of Nov. 1. And that’s not even related to proposals by House conservatives for a future cut of $39 billion to the SNAP program.

In Massachusetts, the percentage of households using SNAP is 12. 9; in Maine, 17.77; in Vermont, 14.67; in New Hampshire, 8.28; in Connecticut, 12.01; in Rhode Island, 15.43.• —SK

 

For Whom the Pike’s Tolls

For Western Mass. drivers, the free ride is over: earlier this month, the state reinstituted tolls on the western part of the Mass Pike, 17 years after they were eliminated. As of Oct. 15, the cost of traveling the entire length of the formerly exempt portion of the Pike—from Exit 6 in Springfield out to Exit 1 in West Stockbridge—is $1.75. The newly reinstated tolls are expected to generate annual revenues of $12 million to $15 million.

The return of the tolls has hardly been embraced by folks from this part of this state, given how much more state attention and finances are accorded projects in the eastern part of the state (we’re looking at you, Big Dig) than out here. But a proposal by one Berkshire lawmaker would soften the blow a bit for western drivers who log the most time on the Pike.

At deadline, state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli (D-Lenox) was planning to file legislation to create a discount for Berkshire County residents who commute via the Pike for work or school, similar to discounts now offered to some residents in the Boston area. The legislator recently told WAMC reporter Jim Levulis that he hopes to see a discount of at least 50 percent off the regular rate.

But passing the bill won’t be easy; Pignatelli told WAMC that Secretary of Transportation Richard Davey is cool to the idea. “He flat out just said, ‘I do not like discounted programs,’” Pignatelli said.

While Pignatelli supports the return of the tolls as a way to fund road work, he told the radio station that he considers the Berkshire commuter discount fair given that similar discounts are already in place in the eastern part of the state.• —MT

 

GE Salmon Opponents Target Grocery Stores

As federal approval of genetically engineered salmon seems “imminent,” according to Friends of the Earth food and technology specialist Dana Perls, FoE has mounted a campaign to keep it out of grocery stores, especially those that tout their commitment to sustainable seafood. The poster fish for GE salmon comes from Massachusetts; it’s the AquAdvantage salmon produced by AquaBounty of Maynard.

The AquAdvantage salmon comes with a gene from the Chinook salmon, which, says its producers, “provides the fish with the potential to grow to market size in half the time of conventional salmon. In all other respects, AAS are identical to other Atlantic salmon.”

But environmentalists are concerned about genetically engineered salmon for several reasons, one being that the fish might escape into wild water and breed, eventually producing, in numbers, large salmon that will be more aggressive than other salmon and damage other fish populations. Ron Stotish, CEO of AquaBounty, calls that “a ridiculous assertion” that is “totally unbased in fact.” He adds that “the record of the science is clear: our fish are all female, they’re all sterile.”

But James Geiger, assistant regional director of the Fish and Wildlife Service for the Northeast region, told the Boston Herald that AquaBounty’s sterilization process “is not 100 percent.” And the federal Food and Drug Administration has refused to allow AquaBounty to raise the fish in pens in the ocean off Maine.

There’s also an issue of energy expenditure in producing the fish, since the brood stock is farmed on Prince Edward Island, then the eggs are flown to Panama to grow to adulthood. In addition, in 2009, Friends of the Earth points out, there was an outbreak of infectious salmon anemia on AquaBounty’s farm on Prince Edward Island. But the problem wasn’t serious, according to Stotish.

“Every salmon producer in the world, including Norway and Scotland, has had an occasional bout with ISA,” he told the Advocate. “The analogy is one person with a cold in an airplane. It’s a common virus. We solved our problem in three months and we were certified clean. We have better biosecurity than anyone in the industry.”

But AquaBounty’s protestations have failed to reassure consumer advocates that the fish will not damage the environment, and that they will not be unhealthy for consumers. Consumers’ Union points out that the FDA will likely approve the fish for sale though only six have been tested for allergenicity, and those tested “actually did show an increase in allergy-causing potential,” CU says. Other research points to exceptional levels in the salmon of a growth hormone experts at the National Institutes of Health believe may be carcinogenic.

So far, Friends of the Earth and other groups have gotten Target, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and dozens of grocery chains around the country, as well as some local stores like Berkshire Co-op Market, to promise not to sell genetically engineered seafood.• —SK

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