Editor’s Desk: FERN’s latest unravels a terror plot in a Kansas meatpacking town

After the presidential election, the middle of the country dominated political discourse. In the process, reality often got broad-brushed – rural, white, left behind – in ways that simplified people, towns, and cultural divides. Ted Genoways, a Nebraska-based writer, jumps into the middle of that debate with FERN’s latest story, “Terror in the Heartland,” published with our new media partner, The New Republic.

Genoways reveals how right-wing extremists, fueled by Trump’s rhetoric, plotted to blow up an apartment complex filled with Muslim Somali refugees in Garden City, Kan., on the night of the presidential election. The FBI foiled the attempt, but that chilling narrative is only the beginning of the story.

For decades, Garden City has welcomed waves of immigrants who came to work in a nearby meatpacking plant, now owned by Tyson, that is one of the world’s largest.The middle-American town began to evolve as a result. Mexican immigrants and Southeast Asian refugees first took the jobs in the ’80s, then settled and opened small businesses. Next came Burmese refugees followed by Somalis fleeing their war-torn nation, filling the jobs these other immigrants left behind. Now whites are 43 percent of the population in Garden City.

“A generation ago, Garden City was dying. Like many rural communities, it was losing population,” Genoways points out in an interview with FERN. “Once the town started welcoming immigrants and refugees, though, their population increased by 25 percent, and it revitalized local business.”

But as job losses mounted with consolidation, conflict started to rise. Still, these homegrown terrorists were outliers, fueled, their defense lawyers argued, by false Facebook screeds and Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric. Many in the town took a different tack, and Genoways reveals Garden City as a kind of beacon of hope, not only for refugees seeking jobs but for diversity and the future of middle America. It may not be a future everyone wants, but it’s a future everyone has a hand in creating.

On another note, FERN is pleased to announce a partnership with award-winning radio producer Lisa Morehouse, whose California Foodways series has become a project of FERN. An effort to expand the series has been generously funded by a three-year grant from California Humanities. Lisa’s stories are broadcast throughout California on KQED’s The California Report, and also run on National Public Radio. Listen for more of her stories soon.

Sam Fromartz
Food & Environment Reporting Network