Friday, August 31, 2012

Data show each county's number of uninsured, how many would benefit from Medicaid expansion

The U.S. Census Bureau released data this week showing 2010 estimates of health insurance coverage for all 50 states and each of the nation’s counties. The data are exactly what journalists need to do their own stories about the problem of the uninsured and the potential impact of Medicaid expansion under federal health reform.
The Census Bureau press release has a link to the map above and to a list of every U.S. county with estimates of the number of people who would be covered if Medicaid were expanded to 138 percent of the poverty level.

Laura Ungar of The Courier-Journal in Louisville used the data to show what parts of Kentucky and Indiana have the most uninsured and which would benefit most from Medicaid expansion. The greatest area of need in Kentucky was in the state's south-central region which is part of Appalachia but has no coal. Ronald Wright, judge-executive in Casey County told Ungar that his hilly county depends largely on industries such as timbering and farming, and many residents don’t have employer-sponsored health coverage. “I don’t know how we correct it,” Wright said. “Most people just can’t afford (insurance). It’s getting so expensive.” He said the uninsured often seek care in emergency rooms that can’t turn them away or at the local health department, which “is always busy.” (Read more)

Humane Society looks to Wall Street to prompt change in pig-production practices

The Humane Society of the United States has bought shares in four major financial services companies in a bid to use shareholder pressure to force two of the nation's largest pork producers to stop housing pregnant sows in gestation stalls. The animal rights group said that its small investment is large enough to introduce proposals during shareholder meetings. The group, reports P.J. Huffstutter of Reuters, has successfully used such shareholder advocacy in the past to pressure food and agriculture companies to change corporate buying habits and production practices. (Wikipedia photo)

"By not changing over to alternative animal housing, claims the group, Tyson Foods Inc. and Seaboard Foods are putting their lucrative contracts with these customers at risk," reports Huffstutter. "McDonald's, the nation's top hamburger chain by sales, vowed in May that its U.S. business would only buy pork from farmers and other sources that do not use gestation stalls for housing their pregnant sows by 2022. Such stalls are used to confine sows during the breeding and post-birth process."

Seeing little success from the producers, "the Humane Society decided to a less-direct route and press its case with Tyson investors: JP Morgan Chase, , the biggest U.S. commercial and investment bank by assets; BlackRock, the world's biggest asset manager; Jennison Associates, a subsidiary of Prudential Financial, the second-largest U.S. life insurer; and Ameriprise Financial, a financial services company," Huffstutter reports. Tyson told her in an email that it is committed to humane animal treatment at all stages of food production, and expects the same from those farmers who supply products to it. Seaboard, the nation's third-largest pork producer, could not be reached for comment. (Read more)

Rural editor wins national opinion award, again, and gets in line to be publisher of The Anniston Star

UPDATE: Davis, 47, has been named associate publisher in preparation to become publisher. He will remain editor. He is an Anniston native who has been at the Star since 2003. Read more here.

For the second year in a row, Bob Davis of The Anniston (Ala.) Star was named Opinion Journalist of the Year for newspapers with circulations less than 100,000 by the Association of Opinion Journalists (formerly the National Conference of Editorial Writers).

Davis is editor of the 20,000-circulation Anniston Star in rural northeastern Alabama, a paper that serves several small towns and rural counties along Interstate 20 between Birmingham and Atlanta, at the southern end of Appalachia near the Talladega National Forest.

Davis was praised for both the quality of his writing and for the breadth of issues he tackled in his columns and editorials (links to some examples are below). The judges wrote: "Bob Davis' columns have the best anchor any local newspaper could have -- a sense of place. Whether he's doing a devastating takedown of one state Sen. Scott Beason or advocating literacy programs (as opposed to absurd immigrant laws), the voice is always that of a thoughtful Alabama Southern gentleman who's considered all arguments."

When Davis won the award last year, the judges particularly praised his editorial campaign calling for reform of the Alabama constitution, which dates to 1901 and has a number of obsolete items in it, such as language making interracial marriage illegal and calling for the segregation of schools, both rendered moot by federal laws.

"His focus on issues that matter to all Alabamians (even if they don't know it yet) is clear, determined and precise," the 2011 judges wrote. "He even breathes a diverting life into the issue of Alabama's execrable 1901 constitution, the gift that keeps on giving to Alabama editorial writers and the problem that refuses to go away."

The Star is a storied community newspaper, made famous for its anti-segregation stances during the Civil Rights movement and its persistent watch-dogging of local and regional government agencies under publisher H. Brandt "Brandy" Ayers.

The AOJ's Opinion Journalist of the Year award for publications above 100,000 circulation went to Thomas Frank of Harper's magazine, who has written much about low-income rural people who vote against their economic interests by supporting candidates who stress religious and social issues (What's the Matter with Kansas?)

Here are some links to Davis' winning entries, which he provided to The Rural Blog:
"Reading into a real problem," Sept. 30, 2011; "Beason's gamble: State lawmaker walks thin 'wire'," June 16, 2011; "A 'band of brothers' for Bentley," Jan. 23, 2011; "Memories to warm us during the rebuilding," May 1, 2011.

Wal-Mart joins sustainable agriculture alliance

Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world's largest retailer, has joined an alliance of other Fortune 500 companies who say they want to make agriculture more sustainable. The Field to Market alliance was started three years ago by the non-profit Keystone Center to improve agricultural productivity and reduce the use of natural resources. It includes farm groups, grain handlers and food makers, but Wal-Mart is the first retailer in the group and now its largest member, writes Michael Hirtzer of Reuters. "We have pretty ambitious goals to sell products that are sustainable and this is directly within that framework," Rob Kaplan, Wal-Mart's senior manager of sustainability, said of the new partnership.

"Field to Market studies major crops and works with farmers to make agriculture more environmentally friendly," Hirtzler reports. "A report the group released earlier this summer highlighted how six crops -- corn, cotton, potatoes, rice, soybeans and wheat -- that are now being produced more efficiently than they were in the last three decades. On one project sponsored by Field to Market, General Mills Inc. worked with 25 wheat growers in Idaho to learn how to maximize the use of fertilizer and other products used in farming, such as seed, insecticides and herbicides."

Wal-Mart reports it is seeking to eliminate 20 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions from its global supply chain by the end of 2015. Last year, the company told Reuters it turned 1.2 million pounds of cooking oil recovered from its stores into biodiesel, soap and a supplement for cattle feed. Other members of the alliance include Kellogg, Cargill, Coca-Cola and the National Corn Growers Association.

Transportation spending in Western states varies widely

This year's federal transportation budget is $105 billion, and about 80 percent is spent on highways. Almost 40 percent of Americans who depend on public transportation live in rural areas, and "given the West's size and far-apart cities, you might also expect this road-centricity to be more pronounced here," reports Brendon Bosworth of High Country News.

Pedestrian and bicycling infrastructure spending in the West is below the national average, but Bosworth writes "the diferences in the spending of state and federal transport dollars between Western states" says a lot about their priorities. (Read more)

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Medicaid dental coverage is first to go when states can't tighten eligibility rules; has big rural impact

Many states have cut optional benefits for poor adults enrolled in Medicaid, rather than tighten eligibility requirements at a time when more people need the program, and dental services are often first to go. The problem likely won't improve under President Obama's health-care overhaul because it requires dental coverage just for children. The cuts probably affect rural residents disproportionately since many rural places are facing dentist shortages, according to the Pew Center on the States.

In about half the states, Medicaid dental care now covers only pain relief and emergencies, according to a recent Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured report. Other states cover preventative exams and cleaning, but not fillings and root canals, Abby Goodnough of The New York Times reports. Some states are also cutting vision, chiropractic and podiatry coverage, and requiring co-payments for prescription drugs. (Times photo by Gretchen Ertl)

Many adults on Medicaid are turning to community health centers for dental care. In Massachusetts, which has long been a state with very generous Medicaid, community clinics received 22,000 new dental patients in the first six months after dental coverage was dropped. And in states where Medicaid still covers dental care, "finding dentists who accept Medicaid can be next to impossible," Goodnough writes, because reimbursements have also been cut and dentists have dropped out of the program or refuse to join. (Read more)

Study: Stress of poverty hurts kids' learning ability

A new theory, based on studies matching stress-hormone levels to behavioral and school readiness among children living in poverty, holds that such children have impaired learning abilities partly because of the "stresses of poverty," including crowded conditions, financial worry and lack of adequate child care. The theory is discussed in the September/October issue of Scientific American Mind.

New York University researcher Clancy Blair found that high levels of stress hormones "influence the developing circuity of children's brains, inhibiting such higher cognitive functions such as planning, impulse and emotional control and attention." Those abilities are "important for academic success." Finding ways to reduce poverty stressors in home and school environments could improve children's well being and help them be more academically successful, Blair says in a press release issued by the National Institutes of Health, which funded the study.

Wanted: Sitter for rural bookstore, whose owners will be on tour promoting the book about it

If you've ever fancied yourself the owner of an independent bookstore, now's your chance to take on the job completely risk-free -- just be prepared to feed the dogs and bookstore cats after a day's work. Owners of Tales of the Lonesome Pine Used Book store in Big Stone Gap, Va., are taking a two-month hiatus for a book tour to promote their memoir about the store and what it means to their community of just over 5,000 residents. Rather than shutter the store, they want someone to fill in for them, and they're making a nationwide call.

"It's ironic that it's a book about independent bookstores that's got me in this position, but I cannot close our community bookstore to gallivant off and have fun with other bookstores," co-owner Wendy Welch told online book newsletter Shelf Awareness. She and co-owner Jack Beck (in photo) can't offer wages for the sitter; the shop doesn't make enough to allow that. But, they are offering room and board -- "from laundry soap to the occasional pizza delivery."

Tales of the Lonesome Pine Used Book is surely not the only small, independent book shop in all of rural America, and Welch's bookThe Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, has a lot to teach others about the thrills of owning and operating a small community institution. It takes a community to keep the shop open, but Welch insists their bookstore is the same as any other: "I think the beauty and smallness of Big Stone are the only truly unique elements of our shop; other than that, we’re the same as others, and that’s what I think those interested in this experience will be after: an archetypal rather than unique experience." (Read more)

Interested parties should contact Wendy and Jack at jbeck69087@aol.com. For more information about the store, read Wendy's blog Wendy's blog or check out this video:

Sentencing of former Upper Big Branch Mine boss delayed again as he aids probe of blast that killed 29

A judge has again postponed sentencing of a former superintendent at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia because prosecutors said the delay would help their ongoing criminal investigation of the April 5, 2010, explosion that killed 29 coal miners.

L.A. Times photo
Former superintendent Gay May, left, is "cooperating in an ongoing investigation and the parties need additional time to fully develop the extent of his cooperation," Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby said this week, reports Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette. Ruby said the additional time would allow "significant further development of the investigation." District Judge Irene Berger rescheduled the sentencing hearing for January.

In a plea deal, May admitted that he plotted with others to conceal hazards at Upper Big Branch on numerous occasions that compromised workers' safety. He also admitted that he participated in a "scheme to provide advance warning of government inspectors and then hide or correct violations before federal agents could make it into working sections of the mine," Ward reports.

Monsanto giving $2.3 million to rural school districts

Monsanto, leading international producer of genetically engineered and herbicide-resistant seeds, announced this week it will give $2.3 million to rural schools during the 2012-2013 year through its "America's Farmers Grow Rural Education" program. The company is giving 176 rural school districts in 35 states grants of $10,000 to $25,000, which must be used for projects related to math and science.

Local farmers nominated the districts, and district officials completed online applications, Greta Weiderman of the St. Louis Business Journal reports. Math and science teachers from ineligible districts chose finalists, and a group of 26 prominent farmers across the country selected winners. (Read more) Click here to see if your local school district made the cut.

Budget cuts strangle Forest Service's ability to fight 'catastrophic' forest fires, Idaho paper says

The U.S. Forest Service hasn't been exempt from budget cuts in recent years, and the editorial staff of The Idaho Statesman outlines some reasons why taking money from the agency is leaving it with little resources to fight massive forest fires that have been devastating the West in recent years.

"Congress raided $200 million from a Forest Service’s firefighting fund in 2011, and grabbed another $240 million this year," the staff writes. "That leaves the Forest Service looking for ways to reduce firefighting costs — before they eat into the rest of the agency’s budget." The Service decided to aggressively fight fires "from the outset" this year in the hope it can save money by ending fires early. That approach "is the Forest Service's equivalent of kicking the can down the road," they write.

Stopping small fires could stop larger fires in the short run, but they write, it leaves forests with lots of undergrowth that increases the risk of "catastrophic fire" later. "And so, in a delicious little government irony, the Forest Service is making decisions that might compromise the health of the forest -- in order to preserve its budget for initiatives such as 'forest health,' the use of logging and prescribed burns to thin out fire-prone lands." (Read more)

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Meteorologists make official stance unequivocal: Humans are main cause of climate change

The American Meteorological Society (AMS) has firmed up its definition of the relationship between climate change and weather events. The group has issued a statement that says the warming world is a fact beyond reproach, and that human activity -- despite some natural variability -- is the main force behind such changes. (KUSA-TV image)

"Warming of the climate system now is unequivocal," reads the statement. "Observations show increases in globally averaged air and ocean temperatures, as well as widespread melting of snow and ice and rising globally averaged sea level." The dominant cause of the warming since the 1950s is human activities, it went on, adding that their scientific finding is based on "a large and persuasive body of research." Read the complete AMS statement here.

A 2010 George Mason University study of working television meteorologists found that only 54 percent believed in climate change or global warming, 25 percent said it wasn't and 21 percent were not sure. About one-third (31 percent) said global warming was caused mainly by human activity. Read findings of the study here.

AMS Executive Director Keith Seitter explained that the society's most current climate change statement is "the result of hundreds of hours of work by many AMS members over the past year. It was a careful and thorough process with many stages of review, and one that included the opportunity for input from any AMS member before the draft was finalized." The statement continues: "It is clear from extensive scientific evidence that the dominant cause of the rapid change in climate of the past half century is human-induced increases in the amount of atmospheric greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide (CO2), chlorofluorocarbons, methane, and nitrous oxide. The most important of these over the long term is CO2, whose concentration in the atmosphere is rising principally as a result of fossil-fuel combustion and deforestation." (Read more)
 

Female lives in 622 rural and exurban counties, nearly 1/4 of total, shortened from 1999 to 2009

The life expectancy of the average U.S. female increased 1.7 years from 1999 to 2009 -- 79.6 to 81.3 years.  Good news on the whole, but Daily Yonder reporters Bill Bishop and Robert Gallardo went a little farther in their analysis of the data provided them by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. They found that rural women hardly keep up and some have even lost ground in the last decade while their urban sisters are obviously gaining from widespread health advances.

Bishop and Gallardo report "that the solid gain in longevity was matched in only 168 rural or exurban counties, or 6.5 percent of all the counties outside the cities." That is, while women in most of the nation were living longer lives, in many rural counties -- some 622 of them, in fact -- their longevity shortened in the same decade. The 622 represent some 24 percent of rural counties and exurban counties (counties in a metro area where more than half the county population lives in rural census tracts), women lived shorter lives in 2009 than in 1999. (You can see a similar map and charts for rural men here.)

 As the Daily Yonder reporters point out, "in more than 95 percent of rural and exurban counties, changes in female longevity in the last 10 years failed to match the gains experienced in the rest of the country." The largest decreases in female life expectancy between 1999 and 2009 were clustered in Oklahoma, Eastern Kentucky, West Virginia, Alabama and Georgia. (Read more)

'Farm Bill Now' group pushes on, but what if a hasn't passed when some laws expire Sept. 30?

The days are getting shorter for a 2012 Farm Bill, with the U.S. House having only eight more days in session before the election, and perhaps more important, before Sept. 30, when most of the current bill expires. Proponents of passing a full bill, not just a stopgap extension, say their task is made all the harder because farm income numbers are looking up in spite of the drought. Agri-Pulse reports that hasn't stopped major farm organizations, and a group called the Farm Bill Now Coalition from hitting the road in an effort to push to see things their way.

"Agriculture is one of the few bright spots in the American economy," explained National Corn Growers Association Vice President Pam Johnson during a press conference at the Farm Progress Show in Boone, Iowa, where the coalition went looking for support. "Our farmers continue to be more productive and innovative. But to continue that trend, we need to have some certainty about how we plan our business. And this is exactly what the Farm Bill does." The coalition plans another event on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol on Sept. 12.

Agri-Pulse notes that many programs will not expire on Sept. 30 if the bill is not reauthorized. Crop insurance, for example, is permanent. But dairy farmers would be particularly hard-hit, as would some conservation programs. Also set to disappear would be many nutrition programs, international trade and food aid programs, some targeted specifically at children.

Agri-Pulse is subscription-only, but free trials are offered at www.agri-pulse.com.

Amid drought, farm income predicted to be way up

With 2012 corn and soybean supplies expected to be the lowest in almost a decade and their prices at new highs, partly because of an exceptional drought in much of the southern Midwest, U.S. net farm income is set to hit its highest levels since 1973 despite the drought's impact on production, according to Tuesday's U.S. Department of Agriculture farm and cost report.

In real numbers, that means net cash income for farms could exceed $139 billion. Agri-Pulse reports that  "the balance sheet also looks extremely good," with farm equity expecting to increase to an all-time high of almost $2.3 trillion in value. "Debt repayment capacity utilization -- a measure of farm exposure to financial risk -- is forecast to be at its lowest since 1970," the agricultural newsletter explained.

Agri-Pulse is subscription-only, but free trials are offered at www.agri-pulse.com.

California stops funding of corn-derived ethanol

Earlier this week, California lawmakers eliminated all future state funding for the production of ethanol derived from corn after July 2013. Currently, reports the Western Farm Press, "approximately $6 million is provided to a very small group of corn ethanol producers." The new law "would redirect that money away from corn ethanol and towards other forms of renewable energy, including ethanol not derived from corn." The bill had the support of agricultural, environmental and union coalitions that included milk producers, egg farmers, dairies, the state poultry federation, cheese manufacturers, large food companies like Land o' Lakes, the Sierra Club, the Union of Concerned Scientists and the United Food and Commercial Workers. (Read more)

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Isaac could bring some help to worst drought area

Tropical Storm Isaac is expected to become a Category 1 hurricane and may cause widespread damage along the Gulf Coast, but as it moves inland, weakens and dumps its moisture, it could be a welcome visitor to one of the most drought-parched regions of the U.S., notes Ron Scherer of The Christian Science Monitor. (Map from The Weather Channel shows where storm could go)

"Although it is probably too late to help this year’s harvest, agricultural experts say the rain could help recharge the soil for next year’s crop in Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio," especially winter wheat, Scherer writes. "It could also add needed water to the river systems that drain into the Mississippi. And by adding moisture to the air, the storm may also set the stage for more rain in the future in some drought-affected areas."

Scherer quotes Dale Mohler, senior meteorologist for Accuweather: “Everyone will welcome this rain. The benefits outweigh the negatives.” But Bill Lapp, president of Advanced Economic Solutions, an agricultural consulting firm, said the rain will come not only too late for this year's crops, high winds "may knock down crops already weakened by the minimal moisture, increasing the harvest losses," Scherer reports.

Shortage of livestock veterinarians is growing

Rural America is short on large-animal veterinarians, and the deficit is growing. Just 17 percent of veterinarians nationwide work in food-animal medicine, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association, and that percentage is expected to fall to 12 or 13 percent by 2016, reports Walker Moskop of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. (Strib photo by Richard Sennott: Food-animal vet student Joe Armstrong)

AVMA President Rene Carlson told  the shortage is partly the result of too many students entering the pet-care field. She also said "simple economics" is a factor. Some rural areas don't have enough large animals to make a clinic pay, especially when considering student loan debt for vet school. Food-animal vet work can be demanding, Moskop reports. Many are on call nights and weekends, and have to cover a lot of territory. The shortage has gotten so bad in some areas that rural vets that have reached retirement age have to keep working so their community will have a veterinarian.

University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine professor John Fetrow told Moskop the demanding hours, low pay and less-than-ideal working conditions often forces those who start their careers as food animal vets to switch to pet care. The university is offering an accelerated program that allows students to earn their bachelor's and doctoral degrees in seven years, a year early, to entice more students to take the food animal path. Graduates are also offered up to $25,000 a year if they work in a rural area. But, budget cuts this year could threaten incentives for students. North Dakota is offering a similar loan repayment program to veterinary graduates, and Alaska will allow out-of-state vets to practice free of charge in rural areas of the state without veterinarians. (Read more)

Meat industry video shows cattle slaughter process

The American Meat Institute and noted Colorado State University animal science professor Temple Grandin have released a video depicting and explaining cattle processing at a large, unnamed slaughterhouse, Rita Gabbett of Meatingplace reports.

The video's release coincides with the temporary closure of a California meat plant over human handling concerns, but the Meat Institute's Janet Riley said the video was in production long before. She says in a blog post that Grandin "talks about many aspects of handling and slaughter and she specifically explains that after animals are stunned to make them unconscious prior to slaughter, a step that is required by law, it is normal to see some uncoordinated movement, especially of the unrestrained rear leg. She notes that this does not mean that an animal is conscious, and much research will support this."

The video, narrated by Grandin, "takes the viewer from live cattle being unloaded from the truck through the stunning and slaughter process, and is perhaps a response to recent slaughterhouse videos recorded secretly by animal-rights groups. The video comes with a warning: "We do want to caution viewers that the scenes are graphic at some points. In an effort to provide true transparency, we are shining a light on the complete process." (Read more)

Crop insurance companies expect big losses

The insurance industry is expecting its largest-ever loss in agriculture as the Midwest's worst drought since 1956 brings billions of dollars in claims from corn and soybean farmers.

University of Illinois agricultural economists estimate the drought will trigger gross indemnities of about $30 billion, with an underwriting loss of $18 billion, Javier Blas and Alistair Gray of the Financial Times report. The U.S. government will take on about $14 billion of that, and private sector insurers will likely incur a loss of $4 billion. Economists Gary Schnitkey and Bruce Sherrick said some crop insurers are owned by public companies "who may not have realized the scope of losses that their crop insurance subsidiaries could generate." (Read more)

Meanwhile, the corn harvest is at its fastest pace ever because farmers planted early and the drought accelerated corn's maturity. About 6 percent of U.S. corn was harvested as of yesterday, compared to just 4 percent last week and none at this time last year, according to a Department of Agriculture report. About 26 percent of the crop was rated as mature, up from about 16 percent last week. Jeff Wilson of Bloomberg reports the trend increases the risk that wind and rain, perhaps from the remnants of Tropical Storm Isaac, will knock ears off stalks or blow plants over.

Farm Bill's Rural Development Title dates to 1972

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Rural Development Title, a section of the Farm Bill that outlines development spending in rural areas. It has continuously been threatened with budget cuts, and remains threatened in this year's deliberations over the farm law. For the Daily Yonder, Timothy Collins, director of research, policy, outreach and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs, provides some history about the title and its importance to rural America.

The roots of the title can be traced to Franklin Roosevelt's post-Depression efforts to rebuild the country, but a bipartisan title wasn't included in the Farm Bill until 1972. "This was a watershed event," Collins writes. "It was an effort to bring together diverse programs that helped rural areas and moved rural development under the umbrella of the U.S. Department of Agriculture." The title was also a shift from the War on Poverty, which focused mainly on urban areas, to "a more clearly defined" rural development policy, Collins writes.

After Richard Nixon, right, took office in 1969, he appointed the Task Force on Rural Development to develop a report about rural policy. The report "connected rural and urban well-being, mainly focusing on helping rural communities slow the migration to cities and develop community leaders. It also stated that rural development couldn't happen unless local communities actively worked for it. Nixon wanted to "reshape federal-state relationships" and give rural communities more flexibility in how they used federal funds, David Roth writes in "The Nixon Administration Through Passage of the Rural Development Act of 1972."

The 1972 Farm Bill included loans for commercial and industrual development in rural areas; insured and guaranteed loans, instead of direct federal loans, to press the private sector into playing a role in rural development; cost-sharing provisions; and, improvements in the administrative machinery of the Farmers Home Administration. Rural Development became a named section of USDA. (Read more)

Collins reports the USDA is taking "particular pains to tell its story and point out where its Rural Development programs are working" because the title is struggling under budget cuts and has been threatened with more. To learn more about the "success stories," click here.

Pentagon to buy six-month advance supply of meat from struggling livestock producers, on Obama order

The Defense Logistics Agency is buying a six-month advanced meat supply, estimated at more than $100 million, for its Department of Defense customers by order of President Obama to give some relief to the drought-riddled livestock industry. The DLA asked its top three vendors to buy, store and distribute beef, pork, lamb, chicken and catfish.

The vendor Subsistence provided hundreds of millions of pounds of meat to the U.S. military and other DOD agency across the world in 2011, reports Rita Gabbett of Meatingplace. Subsistence officials are negotiating with prime vendors on storage and distribution fees, estimated to cost between $2.4 and $3.3 million.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Study details the geography of charitable giving; interactive website lets you look it up by ZIP code

A careful look at charitable giving has shown that lower-income people tend to donate a much bigger share of their discretionary incomes than wealthier people do. And rich people are more generous when they live among those who aren't so rich. That's according to a new study by the Chronicle of Philanthropy, which breaks charitable giving down by ZIP code. Pam Fessler of NPR reports that the study found that generosity varies greatly from one region of the country to another.
Sample screenshot from interactive website shows giving rates for counties in parts of Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas.
You can explore the giving in your own state, city and neighborhood at the interactive site, by clicking here.

The study found that households with annual incomes of $50,000 to $75,000 donate, on average, 7.6 percent of their discretionary income, writes Fessler. "That's compared with about 4 percent for those with incomes of $200,000 or more. Peter Panepento, the Chronicle's assistant managing editor, says religious giving, which makes up the bulk of U.S. donations, is a major factor. 'States like Utah and Alabama and Mississippi all end up very high on our list,' he says. 'And states where [there's] more of a secular mindset, particularly in New England and all along the coast, tended to show up lower on the list.'

"High-income people who live in economically diverse neighborhoods give more on average than high-income people who live in wealthier neighborhoods. Paul Piff, a social psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, says that's consistent with what he's found in years of research on income and giving. 'The more wealth you have, the more focused on your own self and your own needs you become, and the less attuned to the needs of other people you also become,' he says. 'Simply reminding wealthy people of the diversity of needs that are out there is going to go a long way toward restoring the empathy or compassion deficit that we otherwise see,' Piff says." (Read more)

Survey: Rural businesses still worried about training, planning, sufficient capital

The Center for Rural Affairs asked rural business owners to list their concerns, and they continued to put training and planning on top of the list. The center’s third biennial survey results also reveal that sufficient capital and taking on more debt also remain primary concerns, the Omaha World-Herald reports. “The need for working capital is a natural response for start-up or less-experienced businesses, but for capital issues to remain after a business is established is both a reflection of the current economy and the nature of operating a small business in a rural place,” said Jon Bailey, rural research and analysis director for the Nebraska-based center and co-author of the report on the survey.

“How businesses respond to these financial challenges, with the assistance of business development programs and public policy, is critical for the rural economy,” Bailey said. “If established businesses are facing these challenges, we have to find solutions to keep them in business in their communities, and find incentives for start-up businesses in similar communities that may face identical challenges.” (Read more)

The Box Project celebrates its 50th year of personal outreach to those in rural poverty all across the U.S.

Marilyn Kriegl of San Francisco, right,
and Willie Mae Bush of Mississippi,
paired through Box Project (BP photo)
The Box Project, a grass-roots program of the Community Foundation of Northwest Mississippi, still holds promise for relieving rural poverty as it marks its 50th year. The project, writes Henry Bailey of The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, was "designed to link needy families in the Delta and other areas with sponsors across the country." Originally focused on the Mississippi Delta, and based in Hernando, Miss., the Box Project has expanded its outreach efforts to include rural areas in Maine, Appalachia including West Virginia, Kentucky and the Native American reservations of South Dakota.

An example of its work: Tim Holston grew up among the dirt roads around Itta Bena, Miss., and faced bleak prospects. But as a youth, he received the first two books he ever owned from his Box Project sponsor, Marcia Cook of Concord, Mass. -- and now he's completing a doctorate in computer science. His sister has already graduated.

The Box Project began with an airline conversation, and in the living room of a woman from New Hampshire. On a 1962 flight, Virginia Naeve met Coretta Scott King, the wife of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  Bailey writes, "The conversation turned to conditions in rural Mississippi and what might be done to help families in the Mississippi Delta, one of the worst areas of rural poverty in America. 'Mrs. King gave Virginia the name of a specific family she knew needed help,' Tom Pittman, president of the Community Foundation, said. 'Virginia returned home and began writing letters and sending boxes of clothing, food and supplies that the family desperately needed.' Soon, neighbors heard of her actions and were giving her boxes to send to Mississippi too. Other families in poverty were added to the mailing list, and things kept growing until Naeve got the simple idea of matching up sponsor families directly, and the Box Project was launched. Since that modest start, it's grown to a network that has directly helped more than 15,000 recipient families." (Read more)

Who wins in W.Va. when big surface coal mine comes (too?) close to adventure tourism sites?

One-wheel cycling, one of the many
adventures in the New River Gorge.
(Photo by Harrison Shull)
Perched on the rim of the New River Gorge and a short drive from the Gauley River, a major whitewater stream, Fayetteville, W.Va., is one of the country's top outdoor destinations. But before its reincarnation as an adventure mecca, Fayetteville suffered the boom and bust of both timber and coal. Jesse Wood of Sierra Magazine writes that rafters, canoeists, kayakers and cliff climbers have "transformed the local economy and revitalized the area."

Now Frasure Creek Mining is proposing a major expansion of its mountaintop-removal coal operation in the center of Fayette County. Those who make their living in sustainable tourism fear the worst, Wood reports. After all, it seems like a hard-luck deja vu to many of them. When major underground mines shut down, said Clif Bobinski, "tourism seemed like the new way to try to make it and stay. Now a lot of restaurants are dependent on that business." The influx of outdoor enthusiasts has influenced Fayetteville's culture in other ways as well. Before the tourism boom, many downtown storefronts stood vacant; now they house a yoga studio, a bead shop, art galleries, multi-ethnic cafes, and numerous biking, climbing, and whitewater shops. The national Boy Scout Jamboree is expected there in 2019.

(Map from Plateau Action Network shows Fayetteville and New River Gorge bridge on US 19 at lower right, and new mine area at far lower left; click on map for larger image)
Some worry now whether the crowds will continue to flock to an area scarred by an enormous strip mine. The project would cover 3,662 acres and create 20 "valley fills" for the mountaintops leveled to reach the coal. Blasting can already be heard within the gorge, sometimes several times a day; the strip mine is visible from high spots; and Fayetteville's outdoor community isn't trusting the coal industry to "do it right," Wood reports. Kenny Parker, co-owner of an outdoor-gear shop co-owner, "emphasizes that he's not against coal miners," saying: "Everybody's father and everybody's grandfather was a coal miner. You respect that because that is their heritage. I understand that. But like it or not, coal is not going to rule the day in Fayette County." (Read more) For Catherine Moore's story in The Register-Herald of Beckley about approval of the permit, click here.

State and county fairs succeed in hard times by expanding repertoire of events

In trying times, think different. That's what people in the state and county fair business have been doing this summer, writes Kirsti Marohn of USA Today. They're doing that by adding unique events to attract new visitors and offering low-cost entertainment to families on a budget. It seems that more people are forgoing vacations and looking for things to do closer to home, says Marla Calico, director of education for the International Association of Fairs and Expositions, which has 1,100 members in the U.S., Canada and several other countries. "What we have seen is in difficult economic times, fairs actually thrive," Calico says. (Newborn calf photo from Indiana Dairy Council)

Fair organizers have continued to work, reports Marohn, to honor agricultural roots but added non-farm events such as rocket launches and three-on-three basketball tournaments in Indiana's Elkhart County, marketing manager Kristy Ambrosen says. "It's not necessarily that you have to be a farm kid to enjoy it," she says. There, the 4-H Fair, a nine-day event in July, attracted nearly 245,000 people — up 4 percent from 2011. There, visitors could also watch exciting farm happenings like calves being born or watch chefs from popular local restaurants demonstrate how to prepare dishes using garden produce. "We always have it in our mind that there are a large portion of fair guests that are coming in the gate that are not regularly exposed to agriculture," Ambrosen says. Other fairs around the country have tried salsa-making contests, wine gardens, strolling entertainers, even historic villages, where volunteers dress up in period costumes and cook traditional foods. (Read more)

Tobacco use highest in rural areas; factors include companies' targeting of youth, Lung Assn. says

Tobacco use is higher among rural communities than in suburban and urban areas, and smokeless tobacco use is twice as common. According to the American Lung Association, rural youth are more likely to use tobacco and to start earlier than urban youth, perpetuating the cycle of tobacco addiction, death and disease.

In its latest health disparity report, “Cutting Tobacco’s Rural Roots: Tobacco Use in Rural Communities,” ALA says the increased tobacco use is associated with lower education levels and lower incomes, which are both common in rural areas where there may be fewer opportunities for educational and economic advancement.

The exposure to secondhand smoke is also likely to be higher, since rural communities are less likely to have smoke-free air laws in place, and that probably makes residents less likely to ask individuals not to smoke in their homes or other indoor places they control.

The report also pointed out that the tobacco industry "spends millions of dollars targeting rural youth," and "these young people are less likely to be exposed to tobacco counter-marketing campaigns. Rural tobacco users are also less likely to have access to tobacco-cessation programs and services to get the help they need to quit. Promotion of the availability of state counseling services by phone and online resources also lags in rural communities."

To read the full report, go here.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Community newspaper's lip-dub video shows a staff that has fun and cares about the community

One of America's best non-daily newspapers, The Pilot of Southern Pines, N.C., has done th usual fine job as it joined the bandwagon of lib-dubs of Carly Rae Jepsen's hit song "Call Me Maybe." Producers Hannah Sharpe and Cassie Butler, right, describe the process. (Pilot photo by Glenn Sides)

John Nagy, editor of the thrice-weekly, told John Robinson of the Poynter Institute, “We just wanted to practice one of our core corporate values: have fun. It was a great way to break up the long summer and show everyone we don’t take ourselves too seriously.”

Robinson writes, “They’ve succeeded. This is a place that has fun and clearly cares about its community. To me, this feels as if you could walk on in and be invited to sit and have a cup of coffee. Sadly, that’s exactly what many newspapers don’t feel like.” (Read more) Here's the video:

Friday, August 24, 2012

Regulator's OK means full speed ahead on USPS plan to cut hours of post offices, mostly rural

The U.S. Postal Service’s regulatory overseer has endorsed the agency’s plan to shorten hours at thousands of mostly rural post offices. USPS offered the plan to reduce hours at roughly 13,000 offices as it dropped one to shutter thousands of them. Here's a USA Today map of the offices that would be affected; for an interactive version, click here.
Postal Regulatory Commission Chair Ruth Goldway said she believed the proposal would ensure sufficient postal access nationwide. Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe has said the move would save the service roughly $500 million a year, through both the shorter hours and reduced benefits costs. An agency spokeswoman told The Hill that USPS was pleased with the regulator’s decision and would move full speed ahead on implementing the service changes. (Read more) The reduced hours appear likely to be in place before the end of the year. 

Postal discount to direct mailer OKd; newspapers going to court, say watchdog role threatened

UPDATE, Sept. 2: For a PDF of frequently asked questions about the deal, with answers from NNA, click here.

The Postal Regulatory Commission has voted 4 to 1 to support to a U.S. Postal Service plan to give a discount to a prominent direct mailer, a move that struggling newspapers say will probably reduce an important income stream for them. For background, click here.

Under the service's three-year deal with Valassis, the company will get a discount on additional pieces sent. Ruth Goldway, the commission’s chairwoman, acknowledged that newspapers were upset with the proposed deal, but said that the discount given to Valassis would not give the company an unfair advantage. “The Commission understands that both newspapers and the Postal Service are experiencing declining revenues as new technologies based on the Internet grow in popularity," she said. "Today’s decision affirms that fair competition between these two important institutions is consistent with the law.”

The Newspaper Association of America, representing most dailies, said it was “stunned” by the decision and would take it to court. (Read more)  National Newspaper Association President Reed Anfinson, publisher of the Swift County Monitor-News in Benson, Minn., said the association of weeklies and small dailies was "deeply disappointed" in the commission’s analysis.

"The commission begins with the presumption that having a federal enterprise competing head-on with the newspaper industry is a good thing, but it does not explain how any business can be on a level playing field when competing with its own government," Anfinson said. "The mailing contract with Valassis is an unfair deal in which the principal result is to drive down the advertiser’s prices and not necessarily to bring any new mail volume to the Postal Service. What the commission does not explain is why this goal is in the best interest of either newspapers or the Postal Service. Nor does it take seriously the arguments raised by many that this deal will force more newspapers out of the mail and create a net loss for the Postal Service after the deal kicks in."

Anfinson took issue with the commission's view, as he described it, that there is no "problem with the Postal Service’s draining revenues from news-gathering organizations. Somehow it seems to believe the centuries-old mailing category for periodicals created by Congress is able to equal out the harm from contracts like this one. . . . We know that in thousands of communities around this nation that newspapers remain the most vigorous watchdog of government as well as the primary source of community news."

Romney would give states control over drilling on federal land, provide less support for renewable energy

Romney talks energy in Hobbs, N.M.
(NYT photo by Jim Wilson)

Mitt Romney proposed an end to a century of federal control over oil and gas drilling and coal mining on government land Thursday, in an energy plan that also calls for less support for renewable energy.

"The federal government owns about 28 percent of the 2.27 billion acres of land in the United States. But as of March 2012, only about 37 million acres were under lease for oil and gas operations, of which about 16.3 million acres have active oil and gas production or exploration, according to the Interior Department," Eric Lipton and Clifford Krauss of The New York Times write. "Under President Obama, officials in Washington have played a bigger role in drilling and mining decisions on federal lands in the states, and such involvement rankles many residents and energy executives, who prefer the usually lighter touch of local officials."

"The Romney campaign acknowledged that such a significant policy change would require the approval of Congress, the Times reports. "Getting such legislation passed, even if Republicans controlled the House and the Senate, would be very difficult, given certain opposition by Democrats and perhaps even some Republicans."  (Read more)

The National Journal reported month that some farmers are uneasy with the GOP ticket’s "opposition to renewable-energy policies that have helped them economically." Romney opposes a wind-energy tax credit "that has helped farmers bring in thousands of dollars in extra income by leasing their land to wind producers." His running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., opposes the mandate for a certain amount of ethanol production, which has driven up demand — and probably prices — for corn. "Romney stands by his support of the ethanol mandate," but "Ryan’s record of full-throated opposition to it rubs corn and crop farmers the wrong way," Coral Davenport writes. "In addition, Ryan’s budget roadmap proposes deep cuts in renewable-energy and nutrition programs that help farmers." (Read more)

Drought worse; seems to have reduced tornadoes

The government announced Thursday that the nation's unrelenting drought has now spread to 63 percent of the country, most of that centered in the parched earth of the southern Midwest. For some residents outside municipal water districts there and dependent on wells, it has become a struggle to wash dishes, or fill a coffee urn, even to flush the toilet, reports John Eligon of The New York Times.
The absent clouds do seem to have a beneficial lining in the region, known as Tornado Alley. Scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said today that fewer tornadoes plowed across the U.S. in July than during any other July in the 60 years since reliable numbers began being recorded. The same analysis shows that the summer of 2012 may break the record for the fewest tornadoes for any U.S. summer.

Eric Adler of The Kansas City Star reports that in prime tornado season, from mid-April to late July, the U.S. typically sees about 850 twisters -- two-thirds of the 1,300 or so that sweep across the nation yearly. The drought might be to thank for that, said Harold Brooks, a research meteorologist at the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Okla., who analyzed the data with colleague Greg Carbin, a meteorologist at NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center, also in Norman. (Read more)

Horse rescue groups overwhelmed as drought-plagued owners give up without access to hay

Horse rescue groups have struggled to care for a growing number of animals abandoned since the recession began in 2008, but leaders say their work has become even more difficult and expensive as drought and wildfires burned up pastures and sent hay prices skyrocketing. Many people who held on to their horses in the downturn are now letting them go because they can't find or afford feed that has more than doubled in price, reports Grant Schulte of the Associated Press. (AP photo by Nati Harnik)

This is what drought looks like to rescue organizations: Jami Salter at the Double R Horse Rescue Ranch in Riverdale, Neb., said she's still getting three or four calls a week from people asking her to take their horses, and at one point, people were abandoning one or two animals a week. "People would just drop horses off without asking me," Salter said. "Every morning, I went out to water them, and I'd have more horses than the day before."

Most farmers and ranchers have had trouble growing hay this year because of the drought that stretches from Ohio west to California, reports Schulte. Salter said a company that donates to her rescue got 46 bales last year from a 22-acre plot but this year expects only six or seven.  "There's no place to go with a horse you can't feed," said Iowa Horse Council President Bill Paynter, of New Virginia, Iowa. And, say advocates, it's only going to get worse.

(See also a Financial Times story on hay a as key U.S. commodity here. The viewing is free but readers must register to be allowed onto the site.)

PBS documentary following two rural soldiers gets Emmy nomination

The story of Dominic and Cole, best friends who join the National Guard after graduating from their rural Northern Michigan high school, became the PBS documentary that The Washington Post called "hauntingly beautiful and deeply felt." Where Soldiers Come From is now also an Emmy nominee for Outstanding Continuing Coverage of a New Story, Long Form. For the documentary, director Heather Courtney returned to her own hometown to gain extraordinary access to Dominic and Cole to show how two men from a small town grew and changed, almost overnight, to become men, looking for bombs on the roadsides of Afghanistan. And how they came home again, victims of traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress, eventually disillusioned about their choices and their mission.

The National Priorities Project reports that, in 2004, 44 percent of military recruits came from rural areas. In contrast, only 14 percent came from major cities. Regionally, the Pentagon reports that most enlistees come from the South (40 percent) and the West (24 percent).

Where Soldiers Come From won the 2012 Independent Spirit Truer Than Fiction Award. The 33rd annual News and Documentary Emmy Award winners will be announced at a gala event at Frederick P. Rose Hall, located in the Time-Warner Center, on Monday, Oct. 1, in New York City.

Ky. agriculture commissioner, Sen. Rand Paul start push to legalize hemp as an industrial crop

Kentucky's agriculture commissioner and one of its U.S. senators launched a push yesterday for the legalization of hemp as a fiber and oil product, a move that would require changes in state and federal laws — changes opposed by police who fight marijuana.

Commissioner James Comer and Sen. Rand Paul, both Republicans, held a press conference with Democratic state Sen. Joey Pendleton of Hopkinsville before the annual state-fair breakfast of the Kentucky Farm Bureau, which Comer said is now neutral on the idea after opposing it. Paul (speaking in Courier-Journal photo by Aaron Borton) said every other industrialized country allows the production of industrial hemp, and he wore a hemp shirt that he said he ordered online from Canada. Comer said that if Kentucky could be a pilot state for legalization, it would be a long-term advantage. The state was once a big hemp producer.

"The efforts by Comer and Paul face an uphill battle in both legislatures," writes Greg Hall, farm reporter for The Courier-Journal. "U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, D-[Louisville], said it’s unlikely that an industrial hemp bill would pass in a Congress that hasn’t been eager to deal with other weighty issues. . . . Both of the agriculture committee chairmen in the Kentucky legislature said Thursday that they are willing to discuss the issue — but stopped short of saying they’d allow a vote." (Read more)

Drought likely to add delectability to Midwest wine

The ever-optimistic are out there. And they are growing grapes. Most of the grapes in Glenn Warnebold's vineyard in Missouri's picturesque wine country this year are about two-thirds of their usual size. Others have been reduced to raisins by the drought that burned up many crops across the Midwest this summer. Yet, writes Jim Suhr of the Associated Press, Warnebold figures it could be a good year with the drought concentrating the fruit's flavors and sugar, which will turn to alcohol during fermentation. His red Norton and white Chardonel grapes, while small, hold the promise of standout wine from a region better known for corn and soybeans. "The fruit will be better, overall, for reds and whites, then last year, when it was wet," said Tony Debevc, who has a 170-acre Ohio vineyard. "If it continues to be dry like this, the wine industry will be better overall. And personally, we can expand in the red category, and it wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing."

But Suhr notes that not all is rosy. The drought has still stressed the vines, making them less likely to survive a harsh winter and produce next season. The harvest will almost certainly be smaller too. Warnebold figures he will get 2,500 cases of wine this year -- 1,500 less than what he typically might expect -- from his six-acre vineyard atop a bluff overlooking the Missouri River.

For those who understand this kind of talk: This year's wines from America's heartland "will be nice, fruity and very approachable and soft on the palate," predicted Diego Meraviglia, vice president and education director for the California-based North American Sommelier Association. But he believes the drought has cost some grape varieties complexities that may hinder the wines' abilities to age, meaning "you have to drink them within a year or they'll go bad." Warnebold, for the record, was none too impressed with that analysis. "I've been to a lot of wine conferences with a lot of wine experts, and I've never heard that theory before," he said. Brad Beam, an Illinois Grape Growers and Vintners Association enologist, downplayed the debate, saying "a lot of our wine is best drunk on the young side anyway." No matter. Seems it might be long debate, with a lot of talk about the drought conditions being more or less a common thing in these parts from here on in. That talk, of course, has the winemakers discussing whether to irrigate or not, and if so, how much, and, then, how much better their reds can get.
(Read more)

Thursday, August 23, 2012

TVA liable in big coal-ash spill, judge rules

"A federal judge ruled today that the Tennessee Valley Authority is liable for the December 2008 coal ash spill that buried a large swath of Roane County, Tenn., under 5 million cubic yards of sludge," Manuel Quinones reports for Environment & Energy News. "U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Varlan for the Eastern District of Tennessee said that while events beyond TVA's control caused the ash pond failure, the utility's actions contributed to the spill. He also ruled certain liability protections do not apply in this case." For the ruling, click here.

"Varlan said the failure was caused by multiple TVA actions, including the placement and design of the failed dike and its decision to continue building up the wet coal ash stack at the site. The ruling also found that TVA’s failure to inform and train its personnel and the negligent performance of those personnel were substantial contributing causes," the Knoxville News-Sentinel reports. "Varlan indicated the next phase of the trial will look at questions related to individual property owners, such as whether coal ash was present on each plaintiff’s property; whether it damaged each specific property; and the amount of damage, if any, to each property and to each plaintiff." (Read more)

Western farmers report shortage of farm laborers, blame more stringent border controls

There's a shortage of farm labor in the West, and many blame stronger border controls and a stagnant guest-worker program. The Western Growers Association reports its members are experiencing a 20 percent drop in laborers this year. (Getty Images photo)

The lack of workers is forcing farmers to pay more for the labor they do get and to not harvest some crops, reports Jane Wells of CNBC. California farmer Craig Underwood said some of his crops have been "left in the field" because there weren't enough people to pick them. He's also paying pickers about $9.25 an hour to harvest peppers, Wells reports. Underwood also said much of his workforce is aging and they aren't being replaced because "migratory flows between Mexico and the United States have come to a halt." (Read more)

Ranchers continue struggle to feed herds, deal with severe drought in different ways

This summer's oppressive drought has crippled the Midwest. Crops have died in fields, stretches of the Mississippi River are at reached near record lows. It's all having an impact on the price of meat, dairy, corn and hay, and cattle producers have been struggling to feed and water their herds.  National Public Radio's Neal Conan spoke with some of them, and an agricultural economist.

Conan reports that many cattle farmers "have to decide how many animals to keep, how many to sell, how much food to preserve, what to do if conditions get worse and whether to stay in the business at all." Fifth-generation rancher Zack Jones of Haralson, Mont., told Conan that grass on his ranch is all turning gray or white, water is scarce and the air has become hazy with smoke from prairie or forest fires. He said he's practicing holistic management as a way to manage the land in a sustainable way. Through this method, cattle are allowed to graze on a patch of land, then moved to another before they eat the grass beyond the point of replenishment. Jones told Conan most ranchers don't practice holistic management, but it has worked for his family for generations.

Colorado State University professor Norman Dalsted told Conan drought has been a plague on the High Plains for at least two to three years, and this year's has intensified the consequences for ranchers. Most of those he knows are trying to "secure feed sources," he said, and some are even considering moving herds to winter in areas less affected by drought.

An Oklahoma rancher only identified as Tom told Conan that as the zwater levels drop, there's less water for cattle, and ranchers have invested their careers in building their herds. "It's something that can't be replaced overnight," he said, adding that most ranchers are aging and likely won't be willing to put 10 to 20 years into rebuilding a herd. (Read more)

Millions of rural Americans still without broadband

About 19 million Americans, 14.5 million of whom live in rural areas, do not have access to high-speed Internet, according to a new Federal Communications Commission report. That number is down from the 26 million who were without access before the FCC started the Connect America Fund to extend access across the U.S. Only about 4.5 million non-rural residents were without broadband as of July 2011.

The "ranking of states again underscored the correlation between broadband access and economic productivity," Roger Yu of USA Today reports. "Economically struggling states fared worse than more thriving areas of the country." West Virginia has the highest percentage of people without broadband at 45.9 percent. It is followed by California, Montana, South Dakota and Alaska. (Read more)

Rural matters a lot in election, liberal columnist says

It's all politics at the Iowa State Fair in this presidential election year, as it has been for decades. Presumptive Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan visited the fair last week, but left John Nichols of The Capital Times in Madison, Wis., wondering what he was doing there after refusing to answer questions about the epic drought that's devastating much of the Midwest.

Nichols suggests Ryan won't talk farm policy because farm states would likely turn against him, Mitt Romney and possibly Republican congressional candidates. Iowa, Colorado, Ohio and Wisconsin "have vast rural regions and long histories of voting with an eye toward farm, food and small-town issues," Nichols writes. But in 2010, rural regions "swung hard to the right," making two-thirds of all U.S. House gains by Republicans come from 125 of the most rural districts.

"Rural matters, a lot, in 2012," Nichols concludes. "Control of the Senate will be determined by contests in states such as Maine, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio and Wisconsin. To retake the House, Democrats must win back a substantial number of the 39 rural districts that shifted to Republicans in 2010." (Read more)

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

With regional jet routes disappearing, smaller communities may be out of the air system entirely

Regional airlines operate half the nation's scheduled flights and are the main links between smaller communities and the national air-service network. But now, as several of those carriers are being closed or are in bankruptcy court protection, big airlines are phasing out smaller and costlier regional jets and cutting some low-traffic regional routes. As a result, reports Charisse Jones of USA Today, many smaller communities may lose some or all of their air service. (AP photo of a Comair jet by Al Behrman)

"We're going to see some airports go dark," William Swelbar, research engineer for the  International Center for Air Transportation at MIT, told Jones. "The highway is going to be the connection to the air network system." 

"We think by 2016, virtually every 50-seat jet or smaller (plane) will be out of the system," industry analyst Mike Boyd told Jones. There are nearly 500 communities in this country "that rely exclusively on regional airlines for their service," said Roger Cohen, president of the Regional Airline Association. "Any one of them … is at risk of losing (some), if not all of its connectivity to the global marketplace in this environment." That troubles Ron Cox, who coordinates production and delivery of big purchases for his company. The Lubbock, Tex., resident says 95 percent of his travel is on regional jets. "Regional jets are the lifeblood of Middle America air travel," he told Jones.

"By 2018 about 100 fewer airports will be served," Boyd said, "but that doesn't mean 100 (more) communities won't have air service." Many people living in smaller cities already bypass the local airport to drive to a larger one farther away, where there are more flight options and lower fares, MIT's Swelbar said. He predicted that maybe only "a handful" of regional airlines will survive the current turmoil. But, he says, they could thrive by returning to their roots, flying independently and providing service to smaller markets that are left behind by larger airlines. (Read more)

Outbreak of West Nile virus is 'one of the largest'

U.S. health officials reported Wednesday three times the usual number of West Nile virus cases for this time of year, and one expert told The Associated Press it is “one of the largest” outbreaks since the virus appeared in this country in 1999. So far, 1,118 illnesses have been reported, about half of them in Texas, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In an average year, fewer than 300 cases are reported by mid-August. There have also been 41 deaths this year. Most infections are usually reported in August and September, so it’s too early to say how bad this year will end up, CDC officials said.

AP reports that West Nile virus peaked in 2002 and 2003, when severe illnesses reached nearly 3,000 and deaths surpassed 260. The best way to prevent West Nile disease, say experts, is to avoid mosquito bites. Insect repellents, screens on doors and windows and wearing long sleeves and pants are some of the recommended strategies. Also, empty standing water from buckets, kiddie pools and other places to discourage breeding. (Read more)

Experts say digitally nervous rural newspapers ignore online opportunities at their peril

Rural newspapers that ignore online opportunities may be risking their relevancy, and losing opportunities, in their communities. And what's worse, Washington State University's Benjamin Shors writes for PBS MediaShift, a recent survey suggests rural citizens are going online to look for news but struggling to find local content. That, he writes, leaves rural papers at a crossroads: To leap or not to leap to the Internet. And if they do, what content do they take with them?

"It's a 24-7 world and they come out 52 times a year," Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog, told Shors. "The worst day to die in a rural area is on a Thursday; your obit won't be printed for a week." Digitally savvy rural journalists, the University of Kentucky professor said, could quickly publish breaking community news. "They rightly have been wary of putting information online for free because that cannibalizes their print content," he said. "But I think there is a way to go online ... You put things online that you can't put in print," such as official documents, videos, audio recordings, extra photographs and so on, to maintain the local-news franchise that is the newspaper's reason for being.

Cross said some rural papers could even jump directly to mobile platforms, as phone technology rapidly evolves and cellular networks continue to spread. The Federal Communications Commission reported Tuesday that about 14.5 million rural Americans — or nearly one-fourth of the 61 million people living in rural areas -- had no fast Internet service, or broadband, available at home. In contrast, only 1.8 percent of  Americans living in non-rural areas had no broadband access.

Bill Will, executive director of the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association, which represents about 130 community newspapers in the state, told Shors that community newspapers are struggling with the same digitally driven economic challenges that have decimated larger publications. At a spring roundtable in Washington state, sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Knight Foundation, several initiatives were discussed to increase digital literacy among rural journalists and their readers. (Read more)

Marijuana's resistance to drought makes it an easier target for police this year

The drought is making marijuana crops a lot easier to spot, reports The Courier-Journal of Louisville. Indiana State Police got an early start to the annual marijuana eradication season this week, Sgt. Jerry Goodin told reporter Charlie White that the browning of drought-stricken corn makes the resilient green pot plants interspersed between them “stick out like a sore thumb.” (C-J photo by White)

In Kentucky, State Police Lt. Brent Roper said his agency started cutting outdoor marijuana plants last month. The drought hasn't affected the number of crops they've seized this year, he said, but "It does help when the corn starts browning," which is happening even in some of the state's moderate-drought areas. Roper's agency destroyed more than 120,000 plants through the end of July this year, compared with about 91,000 in the same period last year. Indiana and Kentucky continue to be among the top states for outdoor pot seizures, according to federal statistics. (Read more)