Category Archives: Reporter’s Notebook

On the ‘Jon Stewart Rescues a Bull’ Story

I wrote a feature on Farm Sanctuary’s 30th anniversary for the June 1 Ithaca Times. This portion on the ‘Jon Stewart rescues a bull’ story and the Stewarts’ and other celebrities’ relationship to the organization was cut for space. 

Stories featuring public figures as beloved as Jon Stewart, animals, and crazy happenings in New York City are destined for internet attention. All three of those came together on April 1, when a one-year-old white-faced bull on his way to a livestock market in Queens escaped and took a ramble through the campus of York College.
The bull, later named Frank Lee after the Alcatraz escapee, was tied up and tranquilized by NYPD officers, then sent to the Animal Care Center of Brooklyn. Numerous videos from onlookers of that “arrest” are online, with incredulous, incisive commentary like “It take the whole NYPD for some damn cow?” and “He about to buck the shit out of them.”
That story in itself would be enough to garner some pageviews, but it gained real notoriety when outlets found out that former Daily Show host Jon Stewart came to New York in a van with trailer, along with his wife Tracey to feed Frank some hay and drive him to Cornell’s veterinary hospital for a check-up before relocating to the Watkins Glen Farm Sanctuary.
A short video shot by Tracey of her husband, in ball cap and retirement beard, feeding Frank hay made the rounds, and the “Holy Cow!” and “No Bull” headlines proliferated across the web.
“Everyone Wants Jon Stewart to Return, But He’s Just Saving Escaped Cows,” was the Esquire headline. At New York magazine, “Queens Bull Escapes to College, Gets Rescued by Jon Stewart,” and the New York Times, always nuanced, led with the more accurate “Bull in Queens Is Captured, and Jon Stewart Chauffeurs It to Freedom.”
After Farm Sanctuary national shelter director Susie Coston got the call from New York a bull needed a home, calling Tracey Stewart, the nonprofit’s newest board member, to pick up Frank was a practical decision.
“I called the Stewarts because they’re an hour away, with a truck and trailer,” Coston said. “By the time I get there, he’d be all stressed out. Of course, it turned into ‘Jon Stewart rescues a bull.’”
Taking in a large farm animal who made a break for it in New York City isn’t a new happening for Coston. At any one time, somewhere between 50 to 100 of the approximately 500 animals at Watkins Glen are rescues from the city’s live markets. Queenie, another resident cow, also made her escape in Queens.
“Most people don’t realize there are thousands of farm animals in New York City,” Coston said. “They’re herd and flock animals that don’t do well alone, and they go crazy.I know people who go into a coma when they get there, saying ‘Oh my god, why am I here?’”
As a practical matter, when Frank first arrived at Farm Sanctuary, “no one was hanging out with him,” Coston said – a bull can inseminate a cow for up to four weeks after castration. Now, Frank the steer is integrating himself into the herd; he’s easily recognizable in the pasture, with his white face and bantamweight stature compared to most of the other bovines.
The Stewarts will be opening a fourth Farm Sanctuary location in 2017 on their 12-acre farm in Monmouth County, N.J. Animals will be provided from Watkins Glen, according to Coston, with the property housing about a half-dozen cows, a few pigs, sheep, goats, a couple horses, and up to 50 chickens.
Tracey was already an animal advocate and discovered Farm Sanctuary president Gene Baur’s first book at a beach house in New Jersey, which led to their association. Stewart has written a book, Do Unto Animals, and has related merchandise like notebook sets, fine art prints, and tote bags.
“Everyone has transformative moments,” Tracey said in an interview reprinted in Sanctuary magazine. “For some, it’s discovering CrossFit; for others, it’s finding religion. For me, it was cows.”
Help from celebrities is nothing new for Farm Sanctuary. Tom Scholz, of the band Boston, has his name on the sheep barn in Watkins Glen; comedian Kevin Nealon sponsored the visitor’s center; and celebrities as varied as talk show host Ellen DeGeneres to hip hop mogul Russell Simmons, and Game of Thrones actor Peter Dinklage have supported the sanctuary over its 30 years.

Photo by Lyndsey Hewitt. Frank the Bull is at left, with Farm Sanctuary shelter director Susie Coston at right.

Inpatient Detox Not So Much In The Ithaca Drug Plan

Another story on the Ithaca drug policy. This was all reported in two days after the plan rolled out, but the story ran another week later. The not-for-profit heads quoted below were a bit offput by the plan’s rollout: the short of their complaint was “We’re working on more solutions … but we don’t go around announcing projects until the funding is worked out.” Photo is of the Dick Van Dyke Center in Seneca County, which, from what I hear, has no connection to the actor Dick Van Dyke. 

A lack of places to go for people to get off addictive substances is a common complaint around Ithaca. Tompkins County has neither an inpatient detox facility nor a crisis walk-in detox. The perception, at least, is that one must be court-mandated or fail out of an outpatient program like those at the Alcohol & Drug Council (ADC) or Cayuga Addiction Recovery Services (CARS) to get a spot in an inpatient detox – the closest of which are in Syracuse, Binghamton, Elmira, and the state-run Dick Van Dyke facility in Seneca County.

Take this quote from someone in the “business” focus group convened to give input to the new Ithaca drug policy for an example of this frustration: “Most people addicted to heroin are going to be on Medicaid. In order to get into in-patient, you have to fail out of outpatient … They need to have three or four dirty drugs screens before they can qualify to get into inpatient, which is where they needed to be initially, which can take 3-4 months.” Or read our June 2014 feature on the heroin epidemic “No Question It’s Gotten Worse” on, which features the frustrations of several people in recovery.

“Insurance is probably our biggest struggle with the inpatient (facility),” said Monika Taylor, director of chemical dependency services at Crouse Hospital, Syracuse, which hosts a 40-bed unit. “There’s supposed to be parity with behavioral health and primary health, but I don’t know if that’s fully happening quite yet.”

Once a patient does get into treatment, sometimes the insurance company might only end up covering a few days of treatment, Taylor said.

“You hardly ever see 28 days (of treatment) anymore,” said Rich Bennett, director of the Ithaca Rescue Mission. “You have to ask if it’s worth it to go into treatment for a week, and then whatever jobs and relationships are there might go away.”

Nevertheless, when someone walks into the Rescue Mission and says “I can’t take it anymore, get me into treatment,” Bennett said they do their best to get someone help because their attitude might “drastically change in three days.”

ADC has been in talks “for a while” with New York’s Office of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Services (OASAS) to bring an inpatient detox to Ithaca, according to executive director Angela Sullivan. For now, ADC offers what they call “intensive outpatient” programming, which includes three three-hour meetings a week along with medically-assisted treatment for most of its clients trying to get off opiates – a number which has increased from about 5 percent of people calling them their primary drug in 2011 to about a third of the approximately 500 people ADC served last year.

As a state-certified provider of addiction services, ADC does have to reveal a positive drug test to probation or social services, whoever the referring partner might be.

“We do not automatically discharge someone for a positive test,” Russell said. “That is an old school myth that I don’t even think was true 10 years ago. When someone tests positive there’s always a conversation.”

Bill Rusen, CEO of CARS, found the lack of detox options in the Ithaca Plan to be its most objectionable omission.

“Imagine (Cayuga Medical Center) without an ER,” Rusen said. “When CMC was being built, they might have said we’re going to have shamans in there, it’s going to be fantastic. We’re going to have aromatherapy, an ICU, cancer care, cardiac care, but we’re not putting an emergency room in. If you’re having a heart attack you’re really not too interested if the shaman shows up. In this unfair, fallen universe we live in where there’s not enough time, energy, or resources for everything I think the first choice has to be a detox.”

CMC did host a detox until 2009, but “it’s a loser” financially, Rusen said. “You have to have a nurse and a medical person on duty all the time, even if they never saw a patient that day. Even insurance which pays better than Medicaid doesn’t pay enough to cover the costs.”

Rusen said he’s had a proposal “sitting around for about two years” to cover a walk-in outpatient detox, which would cost about $150,000 a year to cover staffing.

Though there’s no inpatient detox for Ithaca in the new plan, one of the recommendations is a 24-hour crisis center, which would serve as a place for law enforcement to bring intoxicated people without going to the CMC ER, a place with short-term temporary beds for people waiting an inpatient bed, and a safe “chill out” spot for people to go rather than being inebriated in public.

At the moment of crisis, the idea for the 24-hour center is to replace trips to the CMC ER, which cost the hospital, Bangs Ambulance, and Ithaca police $413,526.91 in 2015, according to the plan – one of the very few hard numbers included in the report, and one that CMC has made clear is not sustainable.

There is money available for this kind of diversion right now, according to Rusen and Russell, in the form of the Delivery System Reform Incentive Payment (DSRIP). The idea of DSRIP is to reduce avoidable hospital trips by people on Medicaid 25 percent in the next five years, with up to $6.42 billion available statewide.

“I assume this center is going to piggyback on (DSRIP) a little bit,” Rusen said.

Trump Is Unafraid and Unashamed

From the press release bin, last fall. I gotta give this guy a call. The choppy copy & paste is unintentional, but seems to fit the material. 


Tuesday, 27th, 2015

November 1st, 2015, from 4-6 PM at Elmira’s First Arena in

Elmira, New York.



Unveiling Of The huge 7×15 Foot

Presidential TRUMP Painting

By Artist Julian Raven

Why Vote TRUMP?

Why vote MANDELL for Mayor of Elmira?


This is an INVITATION for the press to get a ‘sneak

preview’ of the dramatic and inspirational 7 x 15 foot

‘Unafraid & Unashamed’ at the Artist’s studio

( in downtown Elmira.

To set up an appointment please call Media Barker’s

Trump acrylic portrait/painting on canvas

Mr. Tom Brown @ 607- 331 – 7933

The Deadline Cometh

Wrote this column on a Tuesday morning because I thought we had some opinion page space to fill in the Times. We did not. It might run sometime. It might not.

This column is written on deadline. It must be written very soon, or it will not exist.

Newspapers, like the one you hold in your hands, still have deadlines. On Tuesday here at the Times and Finger Lakes Community Newspapers office, the work reaches a focused pitch as 5 p.m. comes closer and our 10 papers must be sent to the printer in Williamsport, Pa.

How sharp my editor’s words for my late copy will be today, I don’t yet know. It will depend on the other writers, freelancers mostly, all of whom have talent and knowledge in their field. Most of whom are prone to sometimes turn in stories that are too long or too short, missing a photo, that need a fact-check on some arcane reference or Latin phrase.

Or the question will come: “Do you have anything else laying around?” A fresh half-page has opened up, demanding fresh copy, and we have no wire service to provide filler. Rewriting a press release is a last resort. So an offhand meeting remark by some official on an in-progress project gets a follow-up call, or at least a close interpretation of its supporting documents, and 400 words on the subject appear in the paper.

The reporter must be grateful for deadlines, for without them, none of his work might exist. What us clock-driven moderns call procrastination is a specialty of his. An idea, a phrase, stored in the dark closet of his mind is safe in there. Exposed to light via print, it becomes everyone’s possession. Better for the idea to rot in obscurity than be found banal or skipped over by the reader. Better to leave it on the shelf than to open the door one night and find the hoard empty, with only canned conventional wisdom left over to heat up for the readers. Only hacks of the Murdoch or Sulzberger line can stomach serving that cancerous stuff for long.

Anyway, some procrastination is good for creativity, says one of those recent studies that confirm our vices which the American press is so good at disseminating. Sometimes procrastination even pushes one to clean the house, or take a look at bills going unpaid, an activity which quickly puts one back to real work. And whether procrastination, “time-wasting,” is a vice depends on whether the feeling behind it is one of contemplation or acedia – apathy, to be “without care.” The difference is between the olive-munching Greeks speculating on the nature of existence, and that modern cry “I’m bored – give me something, anything, to do.”

Our service agencies at their best can only honestly answer modern longing with things to do. The progressive ones go beyond suggesting “get a job, any job,” but their mandate to keep everyone safe and healthy, perfectly normalized, does not include an instruction manual to make active, engaged, reaching minds. Trained to go to work and then be entertained for generations now, it’s no wonder that the American has no idea what to do with off hours. There are so many hours, with only a few lucky ones still getting 40 hours of repetitive tasks to do for decent pay these days.

The deadline is a holdout from more industrial days, when one’s work might have been hard and exploitable, but at least you knew when you had to work. Most of my colleagues’ deadline pressures have dissipated into the 24/7 news cycle, that terrible rolling deadline, when any happening, anywhere, needs written up immediately to capture web traffic that no one has yet figured out how to make pay.

There’s more to say, but this column must end. Two more stories to write today.

The Medical Treatment Options for Opiate Addicts

Here’s the original story I wrote on medically-assisted treatment recommendations in Ithaca’s much-written-about drug policy; it was cut down a bit on the end for print, since Vivitrol wasn’t mentioned in the mundanely-named “Ithaca Plan.”  I thought it worth fleshing out what exactly the issues with these treatments are right now, since no one else was doing it, and especially since in a lot of places recommending something like a methadone clinic would raise hell all on its own (hello, Williamsport!). This story ran as part of our March 2 cover package, a week after the plan’s official release. Photo is mine, of Nicole Pagano, who has an honest-to-goodness soda counter in her pharmacy. 

Beyond the potential “supervised injection facility” for heroin addicts not yet taking steps to recovery, there are many more recommendations in the new city drug policy for new and increased services to help those who want to get and stay off dope. A large part of building the comprehensive “recovery-oriented treatment continuum” the plan proposes is getting people access to what’s called “medically-assisted treatment” – that is, drug treatment that help dull cravings for the dangerous street stuff.

Mayor Svante Myrick said last week that one of the plan’s “low hanging fruit” could be convincing more physicians to prescribe Suboxone – the brand name for a combination of buprenorphine, an opioid, and naloxone, which deters use by injection. Under federal regulations, a doctor can only prescribe the drug to 100 patients at a time.

“If the mayor has a special relationship with the president and he would like to sign an executive order to lift the cap, that would help,” said Dr. John Bezirganian, one of four doctors in Tompkins County currently certified to prescribe Suboxone.

Bezirganian has a private psychiatry practice and is medical director for county mental health and the Alcohol and Drug Council (ADC). Since he started prescribing Suboxone about 15 years ago, he’s treated 520 people with the drug – about 20 of his initial patients are still with him today.

In earlier days, if someone came to him off the street and asked for Suboxone, he told them to go to the ADC, and then he could generally promise to get them onto the drug once they graduated from treatment. Because of the limit on prescriptions, now he has to make choices about his patients.

“To some extent I’m playing God a little bit, but I have to pick the best available people,” Bezirganian said. “If I have to make a choice of a single mother who’s sober and working against someone dabbling in other drugs. A young single guy might say that’s not fair. And it’s not fair. But that’s the way it goes.”

The original limit was 30 Suboxone patients per practice, “but they raised it to 100 because no one was signing up,” Bezirganian said.

A special Drug Enforcement Agency number must be issued for a Suboxone provider. There is a seven-hour course to get certified on the drug, some of which is mere “hoop-jumping training,” Bezirganian said. More so than the training itself, he thinks that more doctors don’t participate because of the effect they think prescribing Suboxone might have on their private practice.

“I think many primary care doctors would be fine if they have five people they like and can do it for them, but they don’t want 30, 50, 100 people coming in the door saying ‘Hi, I want Suboxone,’” Bezirganian said. He gets four or five calls a week, and keeps a few spots open in case someone in special circumstances, like pregnancy, needs the drug.

“If I had the spigot open it’d be limitless,” Bezirganian said. “If all doctors could prescribe it, I don’t know how big it would be.”

Nicole Pagano of the Green Street Pharmacy said she has developed a “good working relationship” with ADC and Cayuga Addiction Recovery Services (CARS) since she opened her shop in 2010.

“I can spend hours and hours and hours on the phone to figure out insurance,” Pagano said. “We try to work out insurance ahead of time. Sometimes we can use coupons for the medication to help someone cover the cost for the first few days … If we can’t treat someone today, they might be lost tomorrow.”

Pagano strives to foster a “judgment-free zone” at GSP; she said many people going on Suboxone are in a situation where they’re afraid of losing their children.

“With no other disease do you have the pharmacist look at you like, ‘Oh, another one of those,’” Pagano said. “Everyone who comes in here is dealing with something … One day of heroin use is more dangerous than a lifetime of Suboxone.”

People in recovery dealing with the aide of methadone right now have to leave Tompkins County to get their treatment. The Ithaca Plan recommends adding a methadone clinic here or even, as Myrick has floated, a mobile unit to distribute the drug.

Monika Taylor, director of chemical dependency at Crouse Hospital, Syracuse, said that there are currently seven patients commuting from Tompkins County on a daily basis to the Crouse methadone clinic. Her clinic can serve up to 650 people at any one time under state regulations, with a waitlist about nine to 12 months long and about 350 people deep right now. The program admitted 265 people in 2015, its most in a year since opening in 1975, and is serving about 550 people at the moment.

The only issues that can move someone up the wait list are either pregnancy or being HIV positive.

“It’s challenging for people to understand we can have a wait list with capacity,” Taylor said. “The problem is when you admit someone into treatment a lot goes into that – methadone is a controlled substance and it requires pretty close monitoring. For the first three weeks or so there’s daily assessment of somebody in that induction phase to get to that therapeutic dose where they’re neither sedated nor going through withdrawal.”

Most people in treatment of opioid addiction do receive some kind of medically-assisted treatment, according to Angela Sullivan, executive director, of ADC. About 33 percent of ADC’s approximately 500 patients last year were admitted for opiates as their primary drug – up from about 5 percent in her first year, 2011. Of that 33 percent, about 27 percent of their total patients received some form of medical assistance.

Heroin-assisted treatment is also mentioned in the plan as something to be explored – providing addicts who don’t respond to Suboxone or methadone with synthetic heroin is a “last resort,” though, according to Peter Schafer of the New York Academy of Health.

One medical treatment unmentioned in the plan is Vivitrol, the brand-name for naltrexone, an opiate blocker that also treats alcohol dependency, which can be prescribed by any doctor and requires a monthly injection.

Alkermes, Vivitrol’s parent company, is “going to every county and pushing it in jails,” Bezirganian said. Because of serious interactions with opiate use, “they tell you only to prescribe it to people who are highly motivated, like an anesthesiologist with a drug problem or people on state parole,” the doctor said.

In an ideal world, Bezirganian said that Suboxone would be widely available for people no matter what other recovery steps they’re taking.

“Some people aren’t that interested in the whole recovery thing, going to groups, which is part and parcel of coming to an agency,” Bezirganian said. “For people coming in using lots of heroin, you could start them on a good dose and lower it over time. You can let people detox themselves.”

Police Not So Pleased With Shooting Heroin, Legally

Here’s the law enforcement angle story about the “Ithaca Plan,” the drug policy rolled out by Mayor Svante Myrick in late February 2016. This story ran as part of our March 2 cover package, a week after the plan’s official release. Image is that week’s cover illustration, representing the “four-pillar” plan, by Marshall Hopkins. The sheriff’s quotes were contributed by my colleague Jaime Cone, who also did a fantastic interview for the issue with the fantastically named Herebeorht Howland-Bolton.  My portion, with IPD Chief Barber, was completed in-person at Island Fitness, a gleaming palace of ellipticals and weights on the Ithaca waterfront; the chief saw me walking outside along the Inlet while working out and he gave me a call. We’d been playing phone tag, and he was leaving for vacation the next day. Score one more in favor of aimless walks. 

The supervised injection facility for heroin users proposed as part of Ithaca’s new municipal drug policy garnered lots of media attention, but not much in the way of praise from local law enforcement leaders.

Tompkins County Sheriff Kenneth Lansing said his department was not consulted in the development of the drug plan.

“We all know that people that are doing things they shouldn’t be doing are paranoid, and I’m just not sure how safe they’re going to feel going to a facility that’s going to allow them to do this,” Lansing said about the injection facility. “There are hurdles with the legality to look at. Nothing against the mayor; I think he’s doing a hell of a job, no doubt about it, and the plan has some great ideas. I just can’t accept [the injection facility], and I can’t support it.”

Ithaca police Chief John Barber said that as “an officer of the law, I have to uphold the law.”

“I applaud Mayor Myrick for coming up with a plan that’s not business as usual,” Barber said. “I don’t agree with all aspects, but [the plan] could do a lot of good and ultimately save lives.”

Even if the injection facility comes to be at all, it’s certainly not happening immediately. The facility does have the backing of Gwen Wilkinson, the Tompkins County district attorney, but as Myrick said at the Feb. 24 press conference the city has “no interest putting time and resources into something that will be shut down a couple days later.” Getting the power to open such a facility will likely take a legal change or at least the governor’s support, the mayor said.

One major recommendation in the “Ithaca Plan” does not face any legal hurdles: starting a“law enforcement assisted diversion” (LEAD) program. The LEAD concept was pioneered in Seattle in 2011.

The “diversion” in LEAD means that police can use their discretion to “reroute people into the intake process, rather than court,” Barber said. One of the findings in the Ithaca Plan is that drug courts “are not a sufficient solution” because of the strict requirements like total abstinence from substances.

The gist of the LEAD idea is to get people struggling with addiction some help, rather than adding to their complications by further entangling them in the criminal justice system or taking them back to the emergency room for one more night that doesn’t solve any of their underlying problems.

“We can’t, and neither can the hospitals, take these frequent fliers—the people who are constantly taking up the professional facilities,” Lansing said. “The hospital doesn’t have the time or the staff to deal with that, and other than putting them in a cell by themselves there’s not much that we at the jail can do. It’s a very difficult thing, withdrawal.”

In July 2015 Albany became the first New York city to approve the concept, and it has since received at least one grant of $70,000 from a private foundation to hire a staffer.

The memorandum of understanding passed by Albany’s Common Council to start their LEAD program calls for a protocol-making committee made up of representatives from law enforcement and relevant county and city departments, like mental health. Non-profit service providers and the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York City nonprofit that played a large role in writing the Ithaca Plan, serve at will on the committee in an advisory role.

In July 2015 Barber attended meetings on the LEAD concept hosted by the White House. He said at the Feb. 24 press conference that he came back “renewed” after seeing how a plan could be “put together for a specific person, and then it’s working.”

Barber couldn’t provide numbers offhand, but said that people with drug problems are responsible for well over half of property crimes in Ithaca.

“People who are addicted are stealing to support their habit,” Barber said. “There are a small number of people in the community who are in and out on a regular basis, and the way we approach it now is not working.”

“Police officers are in the field every day building a rapport with people,” Barber continued. “[LEAD] is really another form of community policing.” •

Learning the Back-to-the-Landers

This interview originally ran in the Feb. 17 Ithaca Times. I thought the story near the end about Cornell brass submarining a grant proposal was pretty fascinating. My photo – these Q&A “speakeasy” interviews appear with the subject as a cutout, so we’ve been doing our best to avoid the person-standing-against-wall shot. Green and I foraged in the Agway on a zero degree day to find a prop that worked and we ended up with a wagon. My production guy didn’t like me, because there was no brick wall background. Alas.

The Groundswell Center for Local Food & Farming is going through the first leadership change in its history this month, with the retirement of founding director Joanna Green. Elizabeth Gabriel, who operates Wellspring Forest Farm with her husband Steve in Mecklenburg and was the founding director of Common Good City Farm in Washington, D.C., will replace Green as executive director of Groundswell, which focuses on educating potential farmers in sustainable agriculture practices.

After Green took an early retirement from Cornell Cooperative Extension in 2008, where she worked with the farming alternatives program, she put in lots of unpaid time to help launch Groundswell. The center started offering classes in 2010 after receiving funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) beginner rancher and farmer development program. Groundswell, which is part of Cornell’s Center for Transformative Action, now offers numerous courses on everything from pasture management to marketing, and has an incubator farm where aspiring farmers without land can get a start.

The Ithaca Times sat down with Green to talk about her work with Groundswell.

Ithaca Times: How did Groundswell come about?

Joanna Green: It grew out of EcoVillage, where I used to live. We had always done a lot of sustainability education—West Haven is a beautiful farm, a really well run organic CSA, and they did a lot of great educational work. There was more demand than they could fulfill and still farm, so we started about making a non-profit institute for sustainable agriculture. The farmers weren’t going to build a non-profit, and EcoVillage had its own education agenda. In 2008, EcoVillage held a fundraising dinner and raised a few thousand dollars, and in 2010 we started programming.

IT: In your view, what’s been the overall mission of the Groundswell Center since it began?

JG: Increasing diversity in agriculture. And one of the challenges is we are a predominantly white region. There’s a matter of expectations on both sides: people in the agriculture world aren’t used to thinking about [diversity] or might not realize there’s interest from people of color in farming. In communities of color, in some cases, there’s a stigma attached, especially with African-Americans, where their historical role in agriculture is one of being exploited.

There is a growing movement to farming. It’s an honorable occupation that has a lot to do with sovereignty today. People don’t want to be dependent on a food system that’s poisoning them. If you’re not involved in producing food, you’re subject to a system that’s just feeding you junk and contributing to massive health problems.

IT: How do you go about increasing interest in farming from a diverse group of people, then?

JG: The challenge of those of us who are white and in institutions primarily led by white people is how do you actually do the work that engages and eventually turns power and resources over to people of color. The most basic thing is building relationships. In working for 20-some years in Cornell in agriculture, almost all of my colleagues and farmers—the whole world—was white. If we take on the mission of changing the face of agriculture and don’t have personal relationships, we can’t get very far. The organization has to build credibility and trust based on personal relationships. All the setbacks are learning opportunities for us. Coming to understand power we have as white individuals, the learning curve is painful sometimes.

IT: What places in life are those taking classes at Groundswell coming from?

JG: We’ve had anyone from their late teens and early 20s from any number of places, some really impoverished and some affluent college graduates. At the other end of the spectrum there are people in their 50s or 60s wanting to do something totally different in retirement or as a second career. We have a lot of midcareer people thinking, ‘I can’t keep doing what I’m doing.’ At least one couple with adult children who have started farming in T-burg moved to the Finger Lakes from Tennessee to do this. It’s people who want to farm but need to learn.

IT: And what do the prospective farmers who come through your doors learn?

JG: One of our most intensive courses is farm business planning, which we give every winter. There are 80 or 100 people who have taken it, and a substantial portion of them go into business. A lot of them come into this endeavor with little financial management skills, so we provide a much greater chance of succeeding by giving a realistic picture of what they’re up against.

For the same reason farming is super challenging, it’s super rewarding with those for which it’s a good fit. It’s a small segment of the population who’s really cut out to succeed in farming. It’s not a failure on anybody’s part or on Groundswell’s part to expose people to farming and our programs and they decide it’s not for them. And we have people who say what I really want to do is homestead, have a big garden, a little bit of livestock, but I’m not going to try and make a business of it.

IT: How have you seen support for sustainable agriculture education change over the years?

JG: The demand’s been increasing over the past 10 or 20 years. The USDA has supported development of all these different variations in farmer education nationwide. We have to reinvent a training system that fell apart over the last 60 or 70 years. It used to be farmers grew up on farms, and there was a natural organic learning process they went through. Then the [agricultural] colleges started taking on a lot of that—but all the practical how-to-farm stuff was gutted. It became all biotech, aimed at the large industrial model of farming.

The following questions are online exclusives! (There’s no limit to space on the Internet.) 

IT: Do you have any personal experience with institutions orienting themselves more toward that industrial farming model?

JG: At Cornell, we had a civic agriculture program under the direction of Thomas Lyson [a professor of sociology]. The Kellogg Foundation was pushing in the ’90s for sustainable agriculture to get a foothold in the land grant universities, and we had a grant written for three years and $750,000. Kellogg sent a team to meet with us to see if we had the support of the institution, if it was a wise investment. And a dean came into the meeting and said Kellogg shouldn’t bother putting their money here. They should invest the money into dairy manure management research. The Kellogg people were shocked. That was a low point in my career.

IT: What do you plan on doing with your increased free time in retirement?

JG: I’m going to play in my garden. Do more music. I’m going to step back from a lot of stuff and reinvent myself. I’m a good grant writer, but Elizabeth is someone who can put Groundswell on a footing where its not so dependent on the federal grants. I’m really confident in all the younger energy coming into the field and I’m going to embrace my role as an elder now. I’ve tried to model to staff and coworkers that being a human being is really important. There’s more to life than a job.

Raza Rumi on Pakistan, Terrorism, & Free Expression

This interview originally ran in the March 23, 2016, Ithaca TimesYou can read Rumi’s account of the March 2014 assassination attempt in an essay on entitled “On the run,” and find more of his writings on his website:  Photo by Diane Duthie. 

Raza Rumi left Pakistan for the United States nearly two years ago. An attempt on the journalist’s life made by armed militants on March 28, 2014 left his driver, Ghulam Mustafa, dead, and him feeling unsafe in his home country.

On the evening of the attack, Rumi was leaving the Express News television studios after an Urdu-language news and commentary broadcast. He had moved to Pakistan’s second-largest news network a few months before, the latest step in an increasingly visible media career that had earned him a spot on a Taliban-authored hit list of journalists and writers for expressing reformist views.

Last September Rumi began a two-year residency hosted by Ithaca City of Asylum at Ithaca College. This semester he is teaching an honors class on the history and culture of South Asia and a class in journalism research. He published Delhi by Heart: Impressions of a Pakistani Traveller in 2013.

The Ithaca Times sat down with Rumi to talk about his work—in past, present, and future—the state of Pakistan, and his impressions of the United States so far.

Ithaca Times:You took an unorthodox path into journalism. Tell us a little bit about your background and how that informs your work now.

Raza Rumi: I was a civil servant in Pakistan, and then got into international development. I was with the Asian Development Bank for nearly a decade, during which time I began to write for Pakistani papers. I was enjoying it so much, getting so much feedback, that I said, ‘Let’s give it a try and make it into a kind of career.’ In 2008 I took a leave from the Asian Development Bank and started editing the Friday Times, a liberal weekly newspaper in Lahore … My background gives me an immense edge in terms of commentaries and analysis. I write with that experience; I know which parts of government talk to each other, how transactions come into effect.

IT: What are the restrictions on freedom of expression in Pakistan?

RR: There are red lines which journalists must not cross. You can’t be critical of the military intelligence agencies of Pakistan. You need to be very careful what you say about religion and Islam, because of the power of the Islamic clerics and militant, violent groups like the Taliban and Pakistani Taliban affiliates. You can’t call for the repeal of the blasphemy law in public. You can call to change the procedures, amend it, review it. But the blasphemy law is said to uphold the sanctity of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad, so even to challenge that you’re seen as a kind of heretic.

IT: What are the uses of religion for the power structure in Pakistan?

RR: A good way of maximizing political capital is to use Islam. They say, ‘I’m a good Muslim politician, for people who are faithful, practicing Muslims.’ The military has used it even more since the dictatorship [of General Zia-ul-Haq] in the ‘80s, which used Islam to strengthen their rule for a decade. He kept telling Pakistanis he was here to enforce real Islam, to turn Pakistan into a greater Islamic country, and he took it to another level. During that time Pakistan was using jihadist groups to seek influence in neighboring Afghanistan, with the U.S. and Saudis as part of that project. … The use of Islamic militant groups is part of state policy. That’s what I was trying to challenge every evening with my own show and other shows as well, every evening for hours.

IT: And you were talking about reforming the blasphemy law and the state at the time you were attacked?

RR: I was commenting a lot on that when, in 2012, I started engaging with broadcast media more. I had been writing about these issues since 2005 in English, but there’s a limited readership. On a TV channel there’s the mass media effect of millions watching and noting what was being said. Toward the end of 2013 I was getting a lot of feedback from a lot of people. I was engaging people with what I had to say, but also getting a lot of threats, particularly on social media, on views about Islamic extremism and criticizing the state. … My ideas were getting more traction. I tried to be cautious always, but I had given up all my careers for freedom of expression to get this sort of kick and engagement. I feel like journalism has to guard and stand for the public interest, and use the most powerful and important means to achieve that.

IT: How do you compare the media climates in Pakistan and the United States?

RR: TV is the same format, the same sensationalization. Generally journalists are safer in the U.S., and media has far [broader] limits to criticize religion, policy, and politicians. The one similarity I would say is on national security, in terms of policy and objectives, by and large the mainstream media follows what the Pentagon, White House, and CIA say. The Iraq war is a great example: there was hardly any criticism of that when the U.S. went to Iraq—even the New York Times supported the invasion. Almost a decade later we know it was a disastrous thing to have done. It destroyed Iraq, there were no weapons of mass destruction found, and it led to the growth of groups like the Islamic State. And now the U.S. wants to fight them again. In Pakistan also, being critical of national security is taken as an act of being unpatriotic.

IT: What projects are you working on during your time in Ithaca?

RR: I’m working on a memoir about the last few years, about my work, about almost being killed, and my ideas of what it means to be a public engager. I did one third of the writing the last freezing winter locked up in this house, and I didn’t go anywhere. Now I plan to, hopefully by summer—fingers crossed—to finish a first draft. Once that’s out of the way I want to work on other book projects, including one on international development.

/endprintversion. Internet extras below, in which the interviewer drops the pretense that he actually asked those exact questions to get those exact answers. 

On the feelings of the Pakistani public toward extremism and violence:

Rumi: The majority of Pakistanis don’t support violent extremists. Since 2004 they have been attacking Pakistanis and have killed more than 50,000 civilians and military personnel. When I was engaged in journalistic work, terrorism had gotten beyond control. That was why my voice was loud and heard, because I was saying this terrorism is our own doing. The Pakistani government created these proxies to control Afghanistan, to attack India. Our policy needs to change that we view national security as acting through these proxies. It’s not too much different from what the U.S. did in many parts of Latin America, setting up the Contras groups to do regime change …

So the story is the Pakistani public by a large number does not support these kinds of policies, but they are influenced and controlled through the public opinion, and the media majority echoes the line of the Pakistani military.

(The military) tells us ‘The West is going to take away our nukes. The U.S. bombarded Iraq and Afghanistan and they can come and bombard us as well. We need to be anti-American.’ Or India is our enemy. ‘They harmed us, they broke us into two parts.’

That was 1971. It’s 2016. These ideas are drummed into the heads of ordinary Pakistanis. It’s like manufactured consent, the Chomskyian construct. The majority of the media is like Fox News. The few of us talking about this are called liberals, liberal fascists, traitors, liberal extremists, unpatriotic, sellouts to the West. Now that I’ve come to the U.S. I think I’m certified as a sellout leftist in Pakistan.

On the recent history of Pakistani media:

Rumi: In Pakistan there’s a big history of censorship, media muzzling, but over time it has changed. In the early 2000s General Musharraf deregulated Pakistani media and there was the emergence of many private channels, newspapers, and magazines. Television was all state owned – newspapers were not state-owned, some were, but those that were privately owned were under tight controls. The results have been very mixed. Media played an important role against General Musharraf in 2007, ’08, when new elections were held and democracy returned, the dictatorship was over.

On how he’s continuing to work with the Friday Times using technology.

Rumi: I still commission new stories and edit them (for the Friday Times). Initially when I came here I said ‘How will I do it?’ But technology has really facilitated that. There’s all of this talk in journalism of changing frontiers and it is actually true. I use Whatsapp, Skype, Viber, Twitter, countless other platforms. All day long I can be connected with my team, sources, and colleagues in the industry, so as these conversations are going on I manage to do work with the paper. I did a story on HuffPost where I interviewed a Yazidi refugee from Iraq via Skype. He took the camera into this refugee camp and showed me the camp. I walked with him, technologically speaking.

Grandma Drone Activist On Her Time In Jail

Originally published in the March 16 Ithaca Times. Photo by Diane Duthie.

Grady Flores and I talked for about an hour and a half on the Friday morning before this story was published, going over everything from the minutiae of where the property lines are at the Air Force base to the peace movement’s arguments for enforcing international law. 

Ithaca peace activist Mary Anne Grady Flores was released from the Jamesville jail in Onondaga County on March 7. She had spent 49 days in lock-up for violating an order of protection against Col. Earl Evans, commander of Hancock Air Force Base.

Grady Flores’ imprisonment came about from her involvement with the Upstate Coalition to Ground the Drones and End the Wars, which has staged protest actions at Hancock since 2010. The base hosts a command center for the remote pilots who control MQ 9 Reaper drones, which are used in missile strikes at alleged terrorists in numerous countries overseas.

At a demonstration on Oct. 25, 2012 outside the Hancock base gates, Grady Flores was arrested with numerous other protesters and taken to the DeWitt Town Court. There, a one-year order of protection to keep them away from Evans was issued to the arrested. On Feb. 13, 2013, Ash Wednesday, Grady Flores was taking photographs of other protesters outside the base gates.

“I wasn’t planning on getting arrested,” Grady Flores said in an interview with the Times. “I had a catering job the next day.”

As the police moved to arrest the protesters, Grady Flores started walking down the road to a diner to freshen up and get a cup of coffee when a police car swung around to pick her up. She said that photographs of that day show she never set foot on the base’s property—and moreover, where property lines are there are unclear.

“It’s important to explain this stuff, but it’s a huge distraction,” Grady Flores said, as she traced out the geography of the protest area with her hands. The base has eventually said that its property goes out to the double yellow line in the middle of Molloy Road, though many officers arresting protesters have admitted later in court they did not know where that line was.

In February 2014, Grady Flores was one of 12 protesters from the October 2012 action to be sentenced to 15 days in jail for disorderly conduct. In May of that year, her charge for violating the order of protection went to trial. That trial was frustrating because the moral and legal arguments that protesters have raised in the past were all off-limits, Grady Flores said. In the past, drone activists have had former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark testify to a Town of DeWitt justice about the connections between international war crimes law and local law in cases where they’re charged for disorderly conduct and/or trespassing.

The short of their argument, Grady Flores said, is the “justification rule.”

“If there’s a fire in a house you have a right to break a front door to save a life,” she said. “We can’t leave it only to those who are in power and we’ve known that throughout history. In the case of wars it’s been the veterans themselves who have had that quantum-leap moment where the secret is out and they want to know why they’re marching to wars and dying in the thousands. In the case of the drone pilots, they’re succumbing to [post-traumatic stress disorder].”

In July 2015, Grady Flores was sentenced to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine, which her attorney Lance Salisbury notes is the maximum and “extremely unusual and severe.” When an appeal to the Onondaga County court was denied, Grady Flores had to surrender on Jan. 19 to begin her sentence, which had been reduced to six months by that time.

The experience of incarceration has its rules and routines that seem minor, but add up to a less than wholly human experience.

“No one is allowed to give hugs or touch one another in jail – you’re supposed to get seven hugs a day to be healthy and I’m in starvation mode,” Grady Flores said. Even something so simple as the guards making their rounds every 15 or 20 minutes, with keys jangling and their “bloody bleeping” scanners takes some time to block out.

Incarcerated in a pod with about 60 other women, Grady Flores said there were moments of joy. On one day, Grady Flores’ friend Carissa returned from the downtown Syracuse jail excited, because she had met four women who had been arrested at a Jan. 28 action at Hancock. Later, Grady Flores was called to the TV room to see her comrades on the 6 o’clock news. And while she’s a self-proclaimed radio news junkie with no television for 20 years, Grady Flores did discover she liked the Ellen DeGeneres show while “in the hole.”

Grady Flores is originally from the Bronx, which gave her “a lot of street cred.” One of the guards said hello with the greeting “What’s up, OG,” one day.

“What’s that mean? Old Grandma?” Grady Flores asked the guard. “No, he said, old gangster.”

Grady Flores might yet have to return to jail. She’s out on a “stay of judgment,” while the New York Court of Appeals, its highest court, decides whether to hear her appeal. That appeal relies on a misuse of the order of protection, typically applied in cases of domestic abuse.

At her trial for violating the order, Evans took the stand and admitted “he doesn’t know me or any of the others, he’s not afraid of me, and he never had a conversation with me,” Grady Flores said. “It was just a piece of paper to keep us away from the base.”

Grady Flores’ mother is in hospice care and she said she hopes to stay out of jail long enough to see her to the end. While Grady Flores is catching up on the news and continuing to pay attention to drone warfare, she also wants some family time.

“There’s a bombardment of messages from society all about numbing ourselves and not taking an honest look at this thing, which is pretty hard to look at,” Grady Flores said. “I’d rather not look at it myself. I’d rather hang out with my grandchildren at the playground and waterfalls, make cookies. And I will do that, that’s what feeds my soul.”

Charlie Bucket in Seneca Falls

This space has been long neglected, in favor of writing for my day-and-nights job that actually pays, a little. So perhaps we’ll make this space a bit of a reporter’s notebook, for those whimsical bits we can’t fit in our 28 to 32 pages a week.

Our emails at that alternative-to-Gannett-parsimony-weekly are inherited and very generic. “My email is reporter at” is often how I give people an idea of the size of the shop. Which is still, I believe, the largest full-time editorial staff in Tompkins County, with three reporters and two editors covering an area of 100,000 people.

So our long-used accounts get a lot of press releases, like lots of reporters do, and some of them are the boring kind – some recent grad in some PR shop out of NYC or San Francisco, asking us four times in a week whether we want to run some study showing Ithaca to be a place from which families are fleeing or something. Because it’s a study performed by some real estate site trying to get its name out there before the venture capital runs out.

And some of these releases are far more amusing, surprising, whimsical, what have you. Usually, the more mom-and-pop local operations supply those. I been meaning to share more of these, so let’s start now with this one from the Seneca Community Players.

It starts out telling us it’s the 45th anniversary of the Gene Wilder version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Important why? Because the …
“Seneca Community Players have issued a virtual Golden Ticket to residents of Seneca County and surrounding areas to come and meet Peter Ostrum, who portrayed Charlie Bucket in the film at a Willy Wonka themed, press release party at the Gould Hotel in Seneca Falls on Thursday, April 21, 2016.”

“Doors will open at 6pm, and attendees will be invited to enjoy a chocolate buffet donated by local businesses.  Peter Ostrum will give a presentation followed by a brief question and answer session, after which he will be available for autographs and photos with a suggested donation of $5 for Seneca Community Players.  There is no charge to attend the event.”

A very affordable fundraiser; the tie-in is a kick-off for a larger fundraiser – an “auction theater,” where each role in a three-night stand of Roald Dahl’s Willy Wonka will be auctioned off to the highest bidding would-be player.

Ostrum (pictured above, in the release photo) only acted in Charlie, and no other film, according to his Wiki. At the wise age of 13, he turned down a three-film offer and instead ended up going to Cornell’s veterinary school. He now practices large animal medicine in the North Country of New York.