Welcome to Barn Raiser: Your independent source for rural and small town news

A letter from the editors

Joel Bleifuss & Justin Perkins December 9, 2022

Dear Reader,

In June, we met with friend and colleague Laura Orlando at the farm where she grew up, just a few miles from Lake Michigan near Benton Harbor, Michigan.

The extended Orlando family had gathered that Saturday afternoon for a pot-luck reunion with friends and neighbors. In the yard, dishes, chips and pies weighed down the folding tables. Beer and pop (maybe soda or coke to you) sat on ice in coolers.

Inside the 19th century barn, people escaped the sun and caught up with each other. Politics ran the gamut, Bernie folks and Trumpsters and everything in between. A band stood on a flatbed trailer and played familiar songs. In the back of the family barn, beneath hand-hewn beams and to the clucks of chickens, the three founding board members of Barn Raising Media Inc., the non-profit media company that publishes Barn Raiser, called to order its first meeting. It was quick but made us official.

Why barn raisers? What in the world is a barn raising?

In the 18th and 19th century throughout most of rural North America, barn raisings were the way to build a barn. (In Great Britain they were called “raising bees” or “rearings.”)

Barns are important structures. For the family, the barn was the hub of farm operations. The barn was where the farmers sheltered livestock, protected farm machinery from the elements, stored grain, kept the wagons and buggies, and held the hay for winter.

Elevated view of a 1891 barn raising on the farm of Alva Paddock in the township of Salem, Kenosha County, Wis. (© Wisconsin Historical Society)

Not only were barns integral to a farm family’s survival: Their very construction entailed the building of community itself. When a family needed a barn, neighbors came to help with a feat of engineering no single family could do on their own. The construction could be arduous and downright impossible without the help of many to join and raise the massive timbers that would frame the barn’s structure.

More than a feat of physical labor, barn raisings were social events that shaped community life. They brought people together through ties of reciprocity and bonds of shared achievement. Neighbors helped neighbors with all things big (barns), and small (cups of sugar).

Group of people assembled in front of and on the frame of a barn being raised in 1906 at M.T. Cooney’s, Manitowic County, Wisconsin. (© Wisconsin Historical Society)

But barn raising died out with the invention of the crane and the march of time (although Amish and other plain-dressing communities still continue the practice).

Cranes are here to stay, along with the changes of modernization. Indeed, many of these changes represent social and political improvements: the plurality of American culture and the breaking down of hardened provincial molds, the gains in civil rights and the confrontation of antiquated prejudices. Yet, the widespread industrialization and urbanization of society has also left us ambivalent legacies: unbridled consumption, hyper-individualism, societal fragmentation, the plundering of natural resources, and the persistence of racist and hate-fueled discourses. The drive for profit and productivity in agriculture that devastates fragile ecosystems, exploits workers, and creates homogenized, nutrition-deplete food systems is but a reflection of the same market-driven processes that produce social inequality and cultural decay.

A Wisconsin barn raising 1891. (© Wisconsin Historical Society)

Our mission at Barn Raiser is to revive the democratic ethos behind barn raising and renew that tradition of community care, vigorous debate, a lively sense of the common good, and integrity of spirit sorely needed in these divided times.

Of course, we cannot pretend to hide behind an idealized nostalgia of the past. In North America, barns can be complicated structures as well. Their raisings coincided with the conquest of Native lands and the subjugation of the first Americans, whose ongoing resistance and struggle for justice Barn Raiser pledges to cover.

At Barn Raiser we believe that the only way forward is by reckoning with our past and attending to the rural communities too often left behind in a rapidly changing world.

Many people in rural and small-town America feel the U.S. economic and political systems have failed them: the erosion of manufacturing jobs, the high cost of living, housing instability, hospital closings, working families facing increasing precarity, shrinking agricultural markets, skilled workforce shortages, the weakening of labor unions and ever-expanding cultural divisions.

Despite renewed interest in policies targeting rural communities, persistent inequalities remain. In rural Wisconsin, for instance, close to 25% of residents lack access to high-speed internet, a serious barrier to public education and democratic participation. At the height of the pandemic, up to 60% percent of rural Native students lacked the internet service required to complete their homework.

Many in rural America, fearful of their future, have fallen victim to the wiles of political opportunists who fuel this discontent for political and material gain. In the past 25 years, anti-democratic demagogues have made significant political inroads in majority-white rural and small-town communities. In 1996, Bill Clinton won about half of U.S. counties that were at least 85% white and earned less than the national median income. In 2016, such counties went 658 for Donald Trump and two for Hillary Clinton.

One factor fueling this seismic shift in our political landscape is the decline of reliable sources of information.

In rural and small town America, the local newspaper has been the prime—and many times only—source of credible and comprehensive news and information. But half of the 3,143 counties in the United States now only have one newspaper—usually a small weekly. More than 200 counties have no newspaper at all. And 47% of U.S. adults say the local news they get mostly covers an area other than where they live. Further, between 2004 and 2018, the United States experienced a net loss of 1,779 papers. In total, 62 dailies and 1,749 weeklies closed or merged with other papers.

Far-right media (talk radio, TV, and internet sites) dominate the current rural news environment, exploiting people’s sense of resentment and alienation. The Metric Media network, for example, operates more than 1,200 local news sites whose sole purpose is to attack Democratic candidates running for public office. Conspiracy theories such as the “Big Lie”—the claim that Democrats stole the 2020 election—thrive in this environment. Lack of access to fact-based reporting fuels misinformation that can drive public policy.

Barn Raiser publishes independent news, analysis and information to support diverse, civically engaged and dynamically connected rural and small-town communities. We champion the free exchange of public dialogue, bringing together underrepresented voices and perspectives on the intractable issues facing rural communities and policymakers.

We seek to convene a space where big questions and bold ideas enliven proximate connections, where daring criticism, rational debate and compassionate care may renew the social imagination to build common ground, encourage democratic participation and inspire change.

Barn Raiser will provide communities with contextually grounded journalism, accountable to standards of truth and accuracy, that is essential to a working democracy. With the tagline, “Your Independent Source for Rural and Small Town News,” Barn Raiser is the flagship national publication for a growing network of rural journalists.

Barn Raiser firmly believes we cannot disengage from rural America. Rural communities have important stories and complex issues that need to be heard; the vibrancy of rural communities remains critically intertwined with the prospects of our nation and the fate of our planet.

By giving voice to shared concerns and reporting on local organizing strategies, Barn Raiser will leaven the commons with local connections. It will give courage to those afraid to speak out, who feel daunted by the surge of far-right intolerance and isolated by elites who write off rural areas as hopelessly in decline.

Barn Raiser will be the publication that connects pipeline fighters with rural residents and small farmers organizing to protect their groundwater from Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), whether they live in the Driftless Area of southwestern Wisconsin or on the southeastern coastal plains of North Carolina.

To understand what’s happening in rural America, we must transcend the coastal, urban bias of the national media establishment, once emblematized by The New Yorker’s founding editor Harold Ross who wrote that The New Yorker “is not edited for the old lady in Dubuque.” Barn Raiser is here to take a long, hard look at what’s happening in places that have been too long forgotten. We will feature the work of writers, reporters and photographers who live in and care deeply about rural places and the people who live there.

Barns are impressive structures. Willa Cather’s 1912 short story “The Bohemian Girl” captures the social livelihood of a barn raising, the conclusions of which were social to-dos, with dancing, drinking and all manner of carryings-on. Thomas Hardy’s 1874 novel Far from the Madding Crowd draws a parallel between barns and churches. From the 12th century French granges of Cistercian monks to the Amish barns today, barns have inspired awe and offered a sense of sanctuary and protection, for one’s livestock or spirit.

Every structure holds a human story; every piece of land is a witness.

Standing in the Orlando family’s barn, it is hard not to wonder what remained of the spirit that had built this barn, when so many like it, crafted with care and purpose, once studded the rural landscape, have been disappearing slowly, board by board, shingle by shingle, shrug by shrug.

On any afternoon during any season, if you were to stand inside that old wooden three-aisle barn, you might start to feel that glimmer of awe creep up where you once thought it was lost. The light filtering through the windows; inverted tree trunks with their splayed heads acting as natural braces; those lap-dovetail assemblies that say, “Try me, I can take it.”

Rural America deserves stories and reporting as diverse as the people and landscapes it embodies. We are living in a country that is experiencing deep rifts in our sense of common purpose. Barn Raiser will not shy away from the most challenging issues facing our democracy. But we cannot relate to, let alone be honest with, someone who we reduce to an abstraction based on what we think sums them up in their totality.

Thank you for joining us on these pages as we harness our desires to create a new kind of publication, one that revives the barn raising spirit, that calls together the people of rural and small town America to debate and address shared challenges, and, neighbor working with neighbor, to build a community where all may safely thrive and prosper.

Let’s raise the barn together,

Joel Bleifuss                                    Justin Perkins

Editor & Publisher                        Deputy Editor & Publisher

Joel Bleifuss

Joel Bleifuss is Barn Raiser Editor & Publisher and Board President of Barn Raising Media Inc. He is a descendent of German and Scottish farmers who immigrated to the Upper Midwest in the 19th Century to become farmers in Wisconsin, Minnesota and the Dakotas. His grandmother was born in the Scottish Highlands to parents listed in the Census of Great Britain, 1881 as “farm servants” on land owned by the Duke of Fife. Joel himself was born and raised in Fulton, Mo., a small town on the edge of the Ozark Highlands. He got his start in journalism in 1983 as a feature writer and Saturday reporter/photographer for his hometown daily, the Fulton Sun. Bleifuss joined the staff of In These Times magazine in October 1986, stepping down as Editor & Publisher in April 2022, to join his fellow barn raisers in getting Barn Raiser off the ground.

Justin Perkins

Justin Perkins is Barn Raiser Deputy Editor & Publisher and Board Clerk of Barn Raising Media Inc. He is currently finishing his Master of Divinity at the University of Chicago Divinity School. The son of a hog farmer, he grew up in Papillion, Neb., and got his start as a writer with his hometown newspaper the Papillion Times, The Daily Nebraskan, Rural America In These Times and In These Times. He has previous editorial experience at Prairie Schooner and Image.

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