Sam Burnham, Curator
You've probably seen the Deportation Bus by now. While you may not have seen it in person you've likely seen a Michael Williams ad or a news story about the school bus turned campaign slogan that is making the round in the Peach State. The gray and white bus is labeled "Follow Me To Mexico" and "Warning: Murderers, Rapists, Kidnappers, Child Molestors (sic), and Other Criminals on Board." It is the metaphor that the gubernatorial candidate has hatched to represent his take on illegal immigration.
And I get it. It is proven that there is some criminal activity among the illegal population in the state. There is some gang activity. There have been murders and rapes. There have been DUIs that led to serious injuries and deaths. And people are not being unreasonable to believe that a total disregard for immigration law hints at lawlessness. We should enforce our laws strictly and consistently. We should have zero tolerance for serious crimes and property damage from illegal aliens. I'll not dispute that for one minute.
But the Deportation Bus is not the only bus in this conversation. There are other buses involved. In the next month or so, in the fields of Crisp County, people will line up and begin cutting watermelons. They'll pass them from person to person until they arrive and a specially customized bus. The top is cropped off save what provides shade to the driver. the seats are removed to form a makeshift truck bed as high as the bottoms of the windows. They pile it slap full to the brim with watermelons and then it pulls off to the market while a newly returned and empty bus pulls up to take its place. And they relay the buses all day. It is not unusual to be following one, have one behind you and have several of them pass you in a row heading the other direction. That's a typical Cordele Rush Hour, except it lasts all day.
The trick is, the workers in the fields are most likely illegal aliens. Many of them have likely come to the area after the peach or onion harvests, or maybe even both. These aren't jobs that machines can do. But they are vital jobs to our state. Agriculture is our top industry. We are the Peach State. Georgia is, by law, the only place where Vidalia Onions can be grown. Crisp County is known as the Watermelon Capital of the World. It is more than a business, this is who we are as a state.
Let's be honest for a minute. These aren't "American jobs" being "stolen." You're not about to work all day picking watermelons in the South Georgia sunshine. I know I'm not. It's a labor intensive, sweaty, hot, low-paying job. No one is getting rich off the watermelons. Despite being the number one producer of watermelons, Crisp County is the poorest in the state. And if you see the grocery store prices on a water melon and then you see the labor and transport involved, you see what the problem is. If you want to pay $15 for a watermelon, then the farmers can pay the harvesters more. But you don't want to pay $15 for a watermelon any more than you want to spend all day picking watermelons in the hot Georgia sunshine. I know I don't.
Consider this. You're not going to find a bunch of murderous gangsters in the fields. They don't want to be out there either. They can make more money selling drugs, pimping prostitutes, robbing people, kidnapping for ransom, whatever gangsters do. A person who spends all day picking watermelons is going to go home, eat dinner, spend some time with their family, and go to bed. They don't have a lot of time for foolishness. They have to spend all day tomorrow filling old school buses with watermelons. These are typically honest, hardworking people who took a chance at a better life. And the may not even want to stay here forever. They understand the Economy of Place, they love their homes and want to go back. But by working in our fields they can earn a better life back there.
I'm a third generation American on one branch of the family. My great-grandparents fled the onset of communism in Eastern Europe in the latter days of World War I. They went through Ellis Island, completely legal and by the books. So I understand the desire to flee. But I also understand the need to have it done legally. What we don't have in place is a true and functional guest worker program where farmers can go through legal channels to hire crews to pick crops. Such a program would allow for background checks, medical screenings, or other safety measures that would ensure that the workers are the sort of people we want to come in. The who;e process could be above the table. Clean and legal labor for the farmers who need it. And workers could follow the seasonal work as the year progresses. That's really a win-win for everyone.
So let's save the deportation hyperbole for those who really do fit the descriptions on that bus. Let's find a way to allow some honest dads to take care of their families and probably help their hometown economy in the process. Let's be strict about our laws but let's pass wise laws to be strict about. Let's keep those watermelon buses rolling. It's getting to be summertime. And it is tough to beat a cool slice of watermelon on a hot summer day.
By Sam Burnham
This story was born atop a wood table alongside gas station food. I'm not talking the gas station biscuits we've discussed on Twitter, I'm talking country fried steak, mashed potatoes with gravy, and Fordhook Lima beans. But this isn't a food critique. So I'll shelve that talk for now.
The establishment in question sits adjacent to a paper mill and coal-fired power plant. So just about everyone else in there eating was driving some sort of truck. Some guys haul pulpwood in and others hauling coal ash out. That is where the story got interesting. A conversation on outgoing coal ash, some headed to become a cement ingredient, the rest to specially designed landfills, grew into this article.
As we talk about jobs and the land we live in, the rivers we fish on, the air we breathe, and what we leave our kids, I think this is a discussion we need to have. We don't need a lot of Greenpeace slogans or chanting or left-wing politics, but we do need some realistic talk about this coal thing. In all the talk of President Trump ending the War on Coal it is easy to pick a side, Left of Right and stand there. It is another to see what this means in reality and make a decision independent of political parties altogether.
So I'm looking at one plant. Just a small portion of a major utility in The South. Plant Hammond in western Floyd County, Georgia came on line back in the 50's. It was pretty advanced for its time and helped to electrify rural areas of Georgia in the post-war era as well as providing some solid, good paying jobs in the northwest Georgia area. But technology has changed. The Southern Company has begun to diversify its generation facilities. Hammond has become a sort of peak usage reserve generation plant. Basically, they only operate when there is the heaviest use on the system. Often when they fire up Hammond's boilers it's to meet demand for The Southern Company's customers in Mississippi or Alabama. It may even be to sell power to another agency such as Oglethorpe Power or perhaps a local co-op.
The aging plant is just not vital to Georgia Power's operations any longer. As the road is being cleared for expansions to continue on nuclear fueled Plant Vogtle and natural gas becomes more affordable and easier to access than coal, modernizing a plant like Hammond starts to make less and less sense for a stockholder operation like the Southern Company. It's not a big secret that Hammond is close to joining sister facilities such as Plant Yates and Plant Kraft in being decommissioned and demolished. At normal operation, the coal pile at Hammond sat high and level from one end to the other - 30 days of coal for regular operations. This week a meager pile sits at the front end, just under the chute, while a small stack remains for the length of the rest of the pile. A rough guess at the size suggests it might last 4-5 days.
But here is one major reason that this is not necessarily a bad thing. Coal ash. This is a broad term being given to the solid byproduct of burning coal for power. The new air quality scrubbers take the particulates out of the exhaust from the plants. This material used to fly up the chimneys and out into the air high above the plants to be scattered by the wind. This material is now collected and hauled off on dump trucks to be dumped. This is an additional cost to the use of coal in generating electricity. This makes natural gas and renewables more attractive since the byproducts are easier and cheaper to deal with.
And let's face it, I don't really want to be breathing stuff you can haul in a dump truck. I also would prefer that it isn't necessitating landfills and eating up real estate that could have much better purposes. So the old way is not a great choice and the new way might be even worse. This is not helping me want to see a coal-fired revival. To be honest, I don't think it is making the southern Company want to see it either. They are following market pressures and real estate prices into a future in which coal just doesn't make much sense.
And I know that there is a concern for the miners and the life that they've led as well as their prospects for the future. That is a very real concern that those of us who care for the people of rural America will have to deal with. But I'm afraid the miners and their families have found themselves as pawns between rival factions for their own gain and never them pawns'. Same old story we've always heard. Finding an economy to help these folks make their own way seems to be a better option.
Honestly, I don't think it matters if the Clean Power Plan stays or goes. I think it is just a political football for the two factions to kick around to make us think they are doing something. In reality, they're just wasting our time and money. The point is, coal is on the way out of the electricity business. And that's just reality.
I leave with the words of John Prine singing of a place close to his heart and a land that will never be the same. I used to think it was environmentalist whining. I know better now.
When I was a child my family would travel
Down to Western Kentucky where my parents were born
And there's a backwards old town that's often remembered
So many times that my memories are worn.
And daddy won't you take me back to Muhlenberg County
Down by the Green River where Paradise lay
Well, I'm sorry my son, but you're too late in asking
Mister Peabody's coal train has hauled it away
Well, sometimes we'd travel right down the Green River
To the abandoned old prison down by Airdrie Hill
Where the air smelled like snakes and we'd shoot with our pistols
But empty pop bottles was all we would kill.
Then the coal company came with the world's largest shovel
And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land
Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken
Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man.
When I die let my ashes float down the Green River
Let my soul roll on up to the Rochester dam
I'll be halfway to Heaven with Paradise waitin'
Just five miles away from wherever I am.
By Sam Burnham
While the mainland was either taking a knee or cussing about the people taking a knee, the people of Puerto Rico were running around int the dark try to find something to feed their kids.I was blindsided today by stories of American citizens sitting in a sweltering airport waiting on relief flights to arrive. They were too scared to go outside where it was noticeably cooler because they might miss out on the relief flight. There are also stories of people lined up at depleted gas stations, just waiting for a tanker to arrive to fill up the empty storage tanks. This is not some random third-world country were talking about. These are American citizens.
Without going into a major history lesson, Puerto Rico, like our federal government, is loaded down with debt. With a struggling economy and crumbling infrastructure, they weren't really ready for the lesser impact of the season's earlier storms. They we most definitely not ready for Maria.
But I read an article from the New York Times Monday night and it just slapped me. I was sitting there staring at all the things ABG stands for lying in crumbles on the ground in Puerto Rico. I knew it was rough. I knew the storm had hit them and their electrical grid was struggling. But when I saw this quote by Jose A. Rivera, a farmer in Puerto Rico, it hurt my heart, made me feel just terrible. “There is no more agriculture in Puerto Rico. And there won’t be any for a year or longer.” I'm sitting here looking at a Spanish-speaking version of South Georgia that has just been decimated in a matter of hours.
Puerto Rico has a four century history of agriculture. They industrialized after World War II, just like the rest of America. That industrial economy collapsed, just like the rest of America. But Puerto Ricans went back to the farms. They were having a bit of a farm-to-table renaissance and agriculture was becoming a way of life for many people once again. While the island still has to import 85% of its food, they were on a track to lessen that. If their food production allowed them to begin to sell that food (plantains, bananas, sugar, coffee, etc) to the mainland, it could help offset the cost of the food they have to have shipped in. This could become a major industry for the island.
But the storm leveled all the agriculture they had, Trees are gone and their produce with them. Even if they started back today, which they can't, they would still be months, perhaps years, from being back on the right track. They have got to get the storm and the destruction behind them so they can begin to rebuild. With their economy as it is, they can't do that alone. They are going to have to completely rebuild their electric and telecommunications grid. They are going to have to rebuild the majority of homes and businesses. Most of the island is starting from scratch.
The government is sending aid and that's great but 1) it's the government and 2) it's the government. So here are some handy-dandy links to reputable charities working on relief to Puerto Rico if you'd like to help these folks get some more help getting on their feet. I think they want to walk on their own, let's just help them stand back up:
United for Puerto Rico (led by the First Lady of Puerto Rico)
Hispanic Federation "Unidos"
Catholic Relief Services
Save the Children focuses relief on families with children
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire