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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

About Last Night...

On the evening of January 29 we, again, had an April or May type storm in the dead of winter. This is the second one this winter and it is really beginning to unnerve us. This one swept through the southeast US last night like the arc of a baseball bat chasing a hanging curve ball. It hit Glasgow about 7:40 and caused extensive damage from one end of our system to the other. Several poles were broken, several earth anchors gave way which allowed guy wires to drop into energized conductors.

At the peak of our problems we had about 500 homes and businesses without electric power. It could have been much worse. We still have major portions of our transmission network out of service as repairs are made to damaged facilities from the November 5 storm. If we had suffered a broken pole on one of our remaining transmission line segments, most of Glasgow would have been without power for many hours. However, we were very lucky (so far) and that did not happen, even though we did lose downguys on a critical transmission pole near Dana Corporation that we are crafting a plan to repair as this is written. Some of our customers remained without power for about 8 hours as we used our forces and folks from our contractor, Bowlin Energy, to replace broken poles.

As usual, one of our chief problems was, again, the extensive fencing, landscaping, and outbuildings that folks have placed in their backyards. I have said this before on this very blog, but I will say it again. When utilities are placed in back yards there is only one way for the residents to increase their chances for reliable electric power and broadband services; they must refrain from constructing barriers that make it impossible for us to get access to those facilities! It would help the community immensely if everyone would take a look at their yard and notice where the poles and conductors are that serve their home and make plans for allowing access to those facilities by large trucks. One thing is certain. Sooner or later we are going to be forced to visit every pole in every yard. If you cannot see a way for us to get to that pole, well, we probably can't get to it and that does not bode well for your whole neighborhood!

As I said, it could have been a lot worse. This morning we have gotten calls from several of our neighboring utilities in Bowling Green and elsewhere. They still have folks without power and are asking their neighbors to send help. In our case, except for several homes which were damaged to the point that they need a carpenter or electrician before electric power can be restored, we had everyone back in service by 4 a.m. Hopefully, we can get some relief from this intemperate weather over the next couple of weeks so we can affect much needed repairs to our system. We will be working on that. You can be working on making your backyard ready for us to get in!
Sunday, January 20, 2008

The White Album Makes Me Hungry

You say you want a revolution
Well you know
We all want to change the world...


Please excuse me while I speak to my contemporaries. By that I mean the baby boomers, the folks who were born in the 50's ballpark and are having birthdays with what seems like enough candles to light a ballpark. I seem to recall us saying we wanted a revolution. Well, have success and comfort blunted the attraction to that song we used to sing over the roar of our glass pack mufflers? If there is still any glimmer of hope for our generation to bring about some of the change we felt so strongly about in the days of eight track tapes, I am about to suggest a way for us to join hands and do a lot more than sing Kum Ba Yah. Perhaps we missed, or ignored, our other chances to make a better world, but there is still an opportunity to make a better Glasgow.

For those of you who don’t want to read too far before finding out what I’m talking about, here is the deal; this is an epistle about the idea of a creating a sustainable local food economy and the concept of turning Glasgow into a community of raging “locavores.” There is a world of information out there about what becoming a locavore means. You can read books by Kentucky’s own Wendell Berry, or Bill McKibben (Deep Economy is one of the best), Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma is a great place to start), or Barbara Kingsolver (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle is wonderful as well.). You can also click on this link and watch a great episode of Now on PBS to learn more about the concept in much less time that it will take you to read any of these great books (but they are well worth the time), but on to why this is such a perfect outlet for our generation’s long-silenced zeal for upheaval.

You say you got a real solution
Well you know
We'd all love to see the plan...


Glasgow is far from being a big city. Some lament that condition and many seem intent on making constant progress toward reversing our lot, but perhaps we are already just about the right size; maybe even a perfect size for the infrastructure we have in place relative to our population. My suggestion is that this might be a tremendous advantage for us, not a weakness to be corrected. In fact, my theory is that we can save ourselves from the sort of turmoil we are subjected to when we lose hundreds of jobs because some distant corporate board decides they can make more money by closing their business in Glasgow and moving it to Mexico or China or somewhere else that simply increases their profits. I see an opportunity to create a perpetual motion economy where we train folks here to run agriculture businesses here to sell goods to residents here. One that works for us, instead of us working for a distant them.

Our infrastructure virtually created Glasgow. By most accounts, it was a free flowing fresh water spring in the midst of fertile farming and hunting land that first sparked the community of Glasgow. Ready access to essential elements of life has always been the basis of communities. The big spring soon attracted residents which in turn attracted businesses to serve those residents. Roads became necessary to move folks around between the spring, the homes and the businesses. Before long the spring alone was not enough and the residents thought it wise to create a water utility to help democratize access to the water. It is certain that those same folks decided to own the water utility and own the roads that formed the basis for the City of Glasgow.

Once a city had taken root, the residents also chose to employ their own sanitation, police, fire, and other emergency service workers and utilities. It only made sense for these things, so important to life and happiness in Glasgow, to be owned and controlled and operated solely for the benefit of the residents. Local ownership made a lot of economic sense as well. The fact that the city drew the residents together and made them nearly captive customers of these services made it practical to finance and expand the services. It was easy to predict the demand for the services as the utilities knew just what services they would be required within the community. When you can accurately predict a stable demand, business decisions come easily.

By the late 50's that same line of reasoning made sense to apply to another service rapidly being classified as essential for health and happiness, electric power. As discussed in a very recent post, by 1962 that idea became a reality with the creation of Glasgow’s own electric power utility, the Glasgow EPB. Most of us remember that idea also expanded into cable television in 1988 and then on to internet access and other services made possible by the community ownership of a modern broadband network. Some might think we already own and control all of the services we really need. We own our water and sewer systems and roads. We have our own police, fire, EMT’s, and landfill. We have our education and health care covered with our own independent schools and a community hospital. We are self-sufficient. What else could a community possibly need to assure its ability to deliver health and happiness to its residents? Well, what about something to eat? Oh yeah, there is that issue that nags us about three times a day.

You can’t tell it by looking at a large segment of the people in Glasgow, including me, but we live in sort of a food desert. Fifteen thousand souls in our city count on Houchens Industries (#140 in the Forbes list of largest private companies, located in Bowling Green), Food Lion (owned by Delhaize Group in Belgium), and Wal-Mart (the pride of Bentonville, Arkansas) for our daily bread. Even though Glasgow is the county seat of Barren County, which is one of the most productive agricultural areas in Kentucky, practically none of the food found in the stores of these three companies comes from here. Rather, our corn, grain, poultry, dairy, and beef products get combined with diesel fuel on a tractor and then a truck leaving Barren County for some distant processing facility where they are turned into finished products and wrapped, canned, or otherwise packaged. Then those packages trickle through several different trucks and warehouses before finally being delivered back to Glasgow at the end of a very long food chain. While we are not like the disaster victims huddled around a helicopter elbowing each other for an allotment of food relief, we are dependant on tractor-trailer trucks and privately owned retail stores for our food.

Of course there are a few exceptions. Glasgow has a couple of nice little farmers’ markets during the summer and we are blessed with a few Amish farmers who deliver us some wonderful fresh produce a couple of days a week during the summer (and those days can resemble the hectic scenes of panic at one of those helicopter food drops!). But, generally, Glasgow, like thousands of other cities and towns across our country, has lost the ability to feed itself. We eat what we are offered by the corporations. We eat what we are told to eat. This is a subject which is far too vast, and my expertise is far too inadequate, to be well addressed here, but the books and resources mentioned above(as well as outstanding articles like these) hold the following stunning points about the nature of our present food delivery system:

• 50 percent of the world’s assets and consumer expenditure belong to the food system as well as half of the jobs.Modern agriculture produces a lot of food and produces it cheaply but that comes through relentless consolidation and concentration. Four companies slaughter 81 percent of American beef. Cargill, Inc., controls 45 percent of the globe’s grain, while its competitor Archer Daniels Midland controls another 30 percent.
• 89 percent of American chickens are produced under contract to big companies usually in broiler houses, like we have a few of here in Barren County, some of which are up to five hundred feet long and hold upwards of 30,000 birds.
• Four multinational companies control more than 70 percent of fluid milk sales in the United States.
• Wal Mart is now the largest seller of food in this country.
• Tractor makers, agrochemical firms, seed companies, food processors, and supermarkets take most of what is spent on food, leaving the farmer less than ten cents of the typical dollar spent on food.
• In North Carolina there is a pig operation so large that the porkers produce more monthly fecal waste than California, New York, and Washington combined.
• 70 percent of the water used by human beings goes to irrigate crops and the demand for water to irrigate crops on land that is only able to be productive because of this irrigation has tripled in the last fifty years.
• The average bite of food we eat has traveled fifteen hundred miles before it reaches our lips.
• In much of the world, 40 percent of the truck traffic comes from the shuttling of food over long distances.
• The ubiquitous soybean, which we can find in one form or another in two thirds of all processed food, is generally subsidized about 70 percent with our tax dollars. The same is true for high fructose corn syrup. Essentially, we are subsidizing Cheetos with our taxes.
• In the 1930's a family might have spent a third of its income on food; middle class Americans now spend more like a tenth.
• If you buy a loaf of supermarket bread, the farmer gets about 6 cents of each $1 you spend. If you pay $1.57 for a head of lettuce, chances are the farmer got about 19 cents of that.

All of these facts are quoted to lay the foundation for the primary question posed by this post. The people of Glasgow have repeatedly decided that the control of certain essential elements of life is too important to be left to the whims of private companies controlled by distant boards and stockholders; so why, given the frightening facts listed above, are we not concerned about controlling what we eat? Streets, landfills, electric power and cable television are all great, but we could not enjoy them for long without regular inputs of food. Virtually all of us are just three corporate board meetings away from having practically no groceries for sale in Glasgow. Even more scary, we are only one diesel fuel shortage away from being hungry. It is just not like us to be so vulnerable.

Large cities like Louisville, or even Bowling Green, pretty much have to accept these risks because their ratio of population to farmland is too far out of whack, but maybe Glasgow is different. Barren County contains 491 square miles of land. By the time you eliminate lakes, rivers, cities, roads, parks, etc., about 400 square miles remain. According to this website the average farm in Barren County consists of 120 acres. If that is right, there must be more than 1,500 farms in Barren County! In my mind, if we started the process of trying to establish self sufficiency in our food supply, those farms represent 1,500 businesses that we might help grow and flourish. If each of those farms responded to our new desire to become “locavores” by producing food products for use right here at home, and hired one new employee, that would be the same as us picking up the paper to learn that a new manufacturer is coming to Glasgow to hire as many people as presently work at R.R. Donnelley. Those 1,500 businesses would be green as well. The agricultural process is nearly 100 percent solar. Farmers convert sunlight into protein and calories. There is no better business for us to attract. Further, if we do this right, their customers will be us! Vast amounts of fuel would be saved because the food is not going to travel fifteen hundred miles before we eat it. Best of all, our local farm businesses would be getting almost all of our food dollars instead of the measly few cents they get today.

Such a pivot in our normal economic development efforts would not occur overnight and it could not occur from the efforts of any single individual or any single agency. Rather, such a move would have to be embraced by all local officials, boards, agencies, and citizens, but that would not be too difficult if we put our mind to it. A very small group of folks took about five years to convince this community to give birth to the idea of a locally owned and operated electric utility in the 50's. Are we not up to the same sort of project today? We would need to get our IDEA folks thinking more about developing a sustainable food economy than about convincing new companies to come here and consume more resources. Development of farm industry would need to become more important to us than building spec buildings in the hope of luring another automotive parts supplier. We would need some inspired leaders to start working out relationships with local farmers, restaurants, grocery stores, local schools and hospitals and other people who eat food. We might even need a government-owned building to house year round space for producers and consumers to exchange food for dollars. We would need political activists to lobby our state government and federal government to relax any restrictions that might make our idea difficult to implement. We might need government subsidized meat processing facilities. We would need to also be able to work with our local high schools, vocational/technical schools, and Western Kentucky University to get courses taught which would lead our young people toward sustainable local agribusinesses instead of the sort of agriculture we generally practice today that mainly benefits the likes of Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland. We would have to go at this like we are hungry and afraid.

You tell me it's the institution
Well you know
You better free your mind instead...


Some of this activity is already happening. We have already mentioned the nice work already under way by the folks at our local Green Market Cooperative. In fact, if any of this resonates with you at all, you should attend their upcoming information meeting on January 24 at 6:30 p.m. at Calvary Baptist Church. If you can’t be there, watch for a video of the event on our Cable6 shortly thereafter. But even though these folks are pushing forward with an element of a solution, and even though we do have a few very nice farmers’ markets around town in the warmer months, the problem is much bigger than that which can be solved by these efforts.

Our efforts at economic development over the last several years have concentrated on simply attracting industry whom we then hope will employ local folks and be successful selling their widgets in a world economy. We are not abundantly successful at that because of several factors. We are not on an interstate highway. We are not on a main line of the railroad. We do not have abundant cheap labor. We do not have a lot of the shopping and restaurant options that seem to attract folks to move here, and we are not able to influence the world economy to be kind to local industries. But this idea of developing a sustainable local economy hits us right in our sweet spot. We are a small population surrounded by abundant, productive farm land that is already set up to produce many agricultural products. We are hungry. Our population is certainly going to stay hungry no matter how cheap labor is in Mexico or China. We have abundant large vacant retail buildings suitable for serving locavores.

So the question becomes, do we have enough baby boomers who are still looking for a way to upset the establishment and create a revolution? Would we like to live in a Glasgow that has a plan for surviving even if it were suddenly cut off from the outside world? Are we willing to put this plan in place and use it, in combination with our other excellent infrastructure, to attract folks to our community? Does it not follow that folks would like to live somewhere that has a plan, instead of just somewhere that has the same chain restaurants and big box stores as thousands of less prepared communities? I hope so. The idea of using Barren County resources for the benefit of Barren Countians is just the sort of revolution I want to be a part of! Will you join me?

Don't you know know it's gonna be alright
Alright Alright!
Monday, January 14, 2008

Grab Your Remote and Dream

Couch potatoes, unite! Some of the greatest television programming available all year is about to start its legendary six day run. Yes, it is time for the Barrett-Jackson Auto Auction on SpeedChannel (that is channel 112 on our system). Ladies, please excuse your husband while he sits transfixed on the television for the next several nights. If you could come around fairly often and wipe the drool off his face, that would be mighty nice as well.

The Barrett-Jackson Auction takes place in Scottsdale, Arizona every year at this time and, for those of us infected with an unhealthy interest in all things automotive, it is simply a little bit of heaven right here on our television screens. For more information about the times, please click on our “What’s On” site and check it out. This is a nifty little feature of the Glasgow website that many folks on the EPB team contribute to each week. This website is where we try to help you sort through the tons of programming available each day by giving you a “heads up” on the stuff we think is worth watching (in other words, this is what we will be wrestling the remote away from others in our house so that we can watch). If you’ve never paid any attention to the “What’s On EPB’s Cable” link right in the middle of the Glasgow home page, this is what you have been missing. You can find the programming coming up on Cable6 as well as some of our personal favorites to help you with your viewing decisions. Give it a look!

Anyway, back to the Barrett-Jackson Auction, this event features the most unique, most collectible, most unaffordable-for-the-common-man vehicles on the planet. They strut them across the stage like the models in a Victoria’s Secret fashion show and the male of the species is similarly hypnotized. As they roll up the ramp (the cars not the models) many older guys start frothing at the mouth and bidding at the billfold and, within a couple of minutes, the gavel comes down and one person’s fantasy is transferred to another. It is pure poetry and a lucid dream which you simply must experience. Gasoline is too expensive to waste it in civilian modes of transport, but these cars are worthy of $100 per barrel oil!

It is great fun to develop opinions about just how the bidders got lucky enough to be able to pay stratosphere-puncturing prices for these dream machines. I guess some of them might have bought a winning lottery ticket. Others, perhaps, just married very well. Still others probably are in the process of spending the inheritance left them by some dear departed parent who really never dreamed their son would be blowing the money on a 1969 Z28 Camaro or a Ferrari 250 GTO. Finally, there are those that I figure really can’t afford the car at all. They just got a ticket to the event and somehow got caught up in the bidding frenzy, lost sight of the solid boundary between desire and reality, and wound up in the Barrett-Jackson cutting room with nothing but an over-extended credit card and amnesia about the bidding process. I assume those guys wind up missing in action after the Barrett-Jackson security forces get through with them. I wonder if they get to hear the Ferrari at full howl for a few seconds before they disappear. If so, it might have been worth it.
Monday, January 7, 2008

Fifty Years Ago Today

In a regular meeting of the Glasgow Common Council on January 7, 1958, City Ordinance #811 was passed unanimously. That ordinance created the Electric Plant Board of the City of Glasgow, but that was far from the end of the story.

While it was fairly easy for the City Council to create a new board and appoint some folks to fill it (initially it was Irby Lee Redford, Dr. William H. Bryant, J.B. Galloway, Luther Wells, and Dr. Lynn Mayfield), actually purchasing the facilities of Kentucky Utilities (KU) who was the incumbent electric utility in Glasgow at the time, was much more difficult. The voters of Glasgow had to decide the matter, and, as those of you old enough to remember will attest, that process was so controversial and hotly debated that it made our recent “moist” vote seem no more complicated than the question of “plain or extra crispy” at the KFC drive-though window by comparison. The question, posed during the height of the cold war and the creeping socialism paranoia of the late 50's, was whether the EPB, an arm of local government, should condemn the facilities of a private company and take them over to be operated by the new municipal entity, the Glasgow EPB. That question, painted on the canvas of 1959, was quite controversial!

The first time the issue was placed on the ballot, it was voted down by a very thin margin. Still, the local folks who felt it clearly would benefit the city of Glasgow in the long run if they owned their essential infrastructure, like the electric power network, refused to accept defeat. They placed the question on the ballot again the very next year and this time it passed, by a similarly razor-thin margin. But, again, that was far from the end of the story.

Once the results of the election were validated, the long process began of determining the value of the existing KU system. That required a lot of time in court, but finally a price was set, the EPB arranged to borrow the money, and the deal was done. The EPB officially opened its doors for business in January 1, 1962. But, still again, even that was not the end of the story.

The forty six years since the EPB actually opened for business have also had their share of drama, even though things were basically peaceful until 1987 when we opened discussions about enhancing our electric network with a broadband network capable of adding cable television, real-time electric power data, computer networking (just because no one had heard of the internet in 1987), and telephone service to our menu of services. Many of you will remember our decision to build a broadband network and to compete with the incumbent cable television and telephone companies and those of you who remember our creation in 1958 probably think that the latter decision was very similar to the initial one - and you would be correct. Still, even after fifty years of hard work by local folks determined to provide better services to the people of Glasgow than what we could expect from a private company, more interested in making distant stockholders happy than local customers, our story is still not at an end.

The beautiful thing about our fifty-year story is that it reinforces the belief that, even in a world where it appears that corporations have annexed our state and federal governments and that we are left helpless to get anything done that does not meet with the approval of the rich and powerful corporations that call the cadence by which our elected representatives march, a few folks with a big idea in a small community can bring their idea to fruition. Fifty years ago there were certainly those who proclaimed that a local government had no business trying to operate such a complicated and expensive network. There were also certainly rich and powerful corporations of the day trying to smash the idea with their wealth and influence. Now that is a story that is still not at an end as well . . . but, at least here in Glasgow at the EPB, we are still carrying the battle to them! With your continued support, this battle will continue for the next fifty years.

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