Bethel

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The systematic exploitation and devaluation of soil mirrors an encroaching wave of disinvestment that has left much of rural America reeling.

Located in Clermont County of Southwestern Ohio, Bethel is a village with a population hovering around 3,000 people. Although it was historically home to small family-operated subsistence farms, the village has seen significant changes to its economic makeup in recent years. Most family farms have given way to larger operations, and an increasing number of Bethel residents are employed in fast food and other service industries.

Using the free and reduced school lunch percentage as a gauge, poverty among students in the local school district has doubled in the last 15 years from 25% to 50%, and Bethel lags behind the national averages for unemployment, labor force participation, and household earnings.

Bethel-Tate Local Schools, the largest employer in town, has also felt the tightening of the economy. While social tensions flared across the country during the 2016 presidential election, Bethel residents experienced further strain within their community as the result of an emergency operating levy on the ballot for the local school district. Bethel-Tate, finding itself in an increasingly difficult financial situation, was forced to confront deep budget cuts without any increase in tax funding. The proposed cuts threatened arts programming, gifted education, and student transportation, among other services. In the years leading up to this particular crisis, Bethel-Tate Local Schools had already suffered cuts to library programming, reading intervention services, and instructional support aides, as well as athletics and other extracurricular activities. A group of concerned community members, calling themselves “Bethel Banding Together,” fought to preserve and protect the programs still in place. Their efforts produced a narrow passage of the levy by 28 votes, sustaining the district at least until 2022, when another operating issue will need to be passed in order to avoid further cuts.

As with many communities fighting high unemployment rates and mounting economic hardship, Bethel is at the same time confronting a staggering opioid epidemic. According to Clermont County’s Opiate Task Force, the county’s rate of overdose has risen over 2000% in the past decade, averaging almost two deaths a week. Organizations like Empower Youth have sprung up in Bethel to address the growing crisis, hoping to provide some relief to overburdened schools, government agencies, and centers of worship. Ordinary citizens like Empower Youth’s Scott and Lori Conley have led efforts to provide food, resources, and support to the area’s at-risk youth.

In an unexpected gesture of generosity, Community Savings Bank of Bethel gifted a foreclosed 15-acre horse farm to the growing Empower Youth. This has necessitated a renewed consideration of the land and agrarian culture. In addition to providing weekly food bags to local students in need, the organization is now re-imagining the farm as a nucleus of resources for overcoming the obstacles of poverty. In conversation with David Montgomery’s concept of the soil-life bond, SOIL SERIES: A Social Drawing will work to restore the farm’s patches of unmoored dirt and unkempt fields while simultaneously rediscovering nutrient pathways within the community.

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