Sunday, September 15, 2019

First episode of 'Country Music' explores its rich origins

Thomas Hart Benton died in 1975 as he reviewed his "The Origins of Country Music" at the Country Music Hall of Fame.
"It's the closest thing visually to what country music sounds like," says singer Kathy Mattea, who was a hall tour guide.
Only one African American appears in "The Origins of Country Music," the last painting of Thomas Hart Benton, which graces the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville. But African influences were a lot more important to the beginnings of the genre, according to the first episode of "Country Music," the eight-part Ken Burns series that began on PBS Sunday night.

"It's probably white man's soul music," says Kris Kristofferson, followed immediately by Charley Pride, one of the very few African Americans in the genre, who says "You can find a country song to fit any mood you're in." Bill C. Malone, country music's leading historian, says "You can't conceive of this music existing without the African American infusion."

The first episode is titled "The Rub." When the genre formed in the 1920s, segregation was enforced, except in music, and "The rub is people mixing," black fiddle and banjo player and singer Rhiannon Giddens says. You may know Jimmie Rodgers was influenced by blacks with whom he worked on railroads in Mississippi, but did you know that Rodgers recorded with Louis Armstrong? That DeFord Bailey, son of a slave, and Dave Macon, son of a Confederate soldier, were the first stars of the Grand Ole Opry, and that Bailey played the first tune the night the Opry was named? And that A.P. Carter, who couldn't remember melodies, rode the ridges to find songs with black guitarist Lesley Riddle, who could?

The show notes that audience for country was "predominantly white, working-class Southerners," which black and country recording pioneer Ralph Peer called "hill country music," and then "hillbilly music," which didn't set well with some. The adjective "is almost like a racist remark," Dolly Parton says. That suggests common ground; script writer Dayton Duncan says the music met "the need of Americans, especially those who felt left out and looked down upon, to tell their stories."

"It's about those things we believe in but we can't see -- dreams," says Merle Haggard, who died not long after he was interviewed. And the old songs brought from England, Scotland and Ireland were also an early form of rural journalism; Parton says her mother told her that songs were once how people learned the news.

One thread that runs through the series is the role of the Carters, whose extended family came to include Johnny Cash; in the first episode, Maybelle Carter is given credit for popularizing the guitar style in which the thumb plays the bass or rhythm line; her granddaughter and step-granddaughter, Carlene Carter and Roseanne Cash, reminisce and even sing along with recordings of their ancestors. Magic moments.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Seven of fastest-growing jobs pay little, dominate rural areas; programs seek to increase high-paying rural jobs

Art Cullen
One reason rural America is poorer and losing its promising young people: "The jobs that pay the least dominate rural economies," Pulitzer Prize-winning rural editor Art Cullen writes in an editorial for The Storm Lake Times in northwest Iowa.

According to the latest figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, seven of the 10 fastest-growing job segments over the next decade pay less than $33,000 a year and six pay less than $27,000 a year. Those jobs are: personal care aides, food prep and serving, home health aides, cooks, restaurant servers, janitors, and medical assistants. The three fastest-growing jobs that pay well (registered nurses, general managers, and software developers) tend to require a college degree and are much more common in urban areas, Cullen reports.

"Obvious conclusions include that to make a decent living you need a post-secondary education; and, some of the most important and literally vital jobs (home health aides) don’t pay a living wage," Cullen writes. "Teacher aides do much of the heavy lifting in schools but are paid a fraction of teachers, and have no union representation. Social workers who help disabled adults find meaning through work are paid barely more than the minimum wage."

Some programs are trying to split the difference: keep rural youth home while making it possible for them to get a degree. One such program, a partnership between Iowa Central Community College, Silicon Valley-area Democratic U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna, and the town leaders of Jefferson, Iowa, seeks to create high-paying computer coding jobs in rural places, Cullen writes.

Buena Vista University in Storm Lake is also encouraging rural economic development with its new centers for agriculture and rural entrepreneurship. "We can rebuild rural Iowa with brains and ambition in great abundance here. Now, the political establishment is embracing the possibilities in these under-utilized and often forgotten places. The most important building block is education. Iowa is rediscovering its importance," Cullen writes.

Cullen and his family, who own and operate the paper, won the 2017 Tom and Pat Gish Award for courage, tenacity and integrity in rural journalism from the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog. He won that year's Pulitzer for editorials.

China says it will exempt American soybeans and pork from latest round of higher tariffs

China's state news agency said today that the Chinese government will exempt American soybeans and pork from its latest round of tariffs.

"China’s official Xinhua News Agency said the government would support purchases of U.S. agricultural products by Chinese companies and waive the tariffs that Beijing has imposed as trade tensions have flared," Chao Deng and Lucy Craymer report for The Wall Street Journal. "The report didn’t specify the amount of products affected by the measure, which was attributed to the country’s Commerce Ministry and its main economic planning agency, the National Development and Reform Commission."

The move comes as U.S. and Chinese negotiators prepare for a new round of trade talks in early October. The U.S. has made overtures as well: "On Wednesday, President Trump delayed a new round of tariff increases on $250 billion of imports from China that would have taken effect Oct. 1, the 70th anniversary of Communist Chinese rule—an apparent concession that the state-media report cited in justifying the lifting of tariffs on U.S. agricultural goods."

There might be more than goodwill behind the announcement though: African swine fever has decimated China's hog population, and the government has been struggling recently to meet domestic need, Deng and Craymer report.

The news is "likely to be cheered by U.S. farmers growing soybeans in Illinois, raising cattle in Texas and feeding hogs in North Carolina, all of whom have seen business suffer and prices fall as a result of tariffs that Chinese officials began implementing last year," Deng and Craymer report. 

New compendium of Wendell Berry essays highlights Kentucky writer's 'complexity and consistency'

Wendell Berry (New Yorker photo by Guy Mendes)

Library of America, a nonprofit publisher of classic American literature, has published a two-volume set of Kentucky farmer and autior Wendell Berry's essays that shows "both his complexity and his consistency," Jedediah Britton-Purdy writes for The Nation. Britton-Purdy has an interesting perspective on Berry, whom he met as a young child. When Britton-Purdy became a writer, he discovered in Berry someone who had made his life's work out of a farming background that was thoroughly familiar.

Berry's identity "has been indelibly that of a writer-farmer dug into his place, someone who has become nationally famous for being local, and developed the image of a timeless sage while joining, sometimes fiercely, in fights against the Vietnam War and the coal industry’s domination of his region, Britton-Purdy writes. Over the years, Berry "has called himself an agrarian, a pacifist, and a Christian—albeit of an eccentric kind. He has written against all forms of violence and destruction—of land, communities, and human beings—and argued that the modern American way of life is a skein of violence. He is an anti-capitalist moralist and a writer of praise for what he admires: the quiet, mostly uncelebrated labor and affection that keep the world whole and might still redeem it."

Though Berry's writing takes a long view of the land's history, he is himself "the product of a specific historical moment, the triple disenchantment of liberal white Americans in the 1960s over the country’s racism, militarism, and ecological devastation," Britton-Purdy writes. Berry acknowledged early on that "'the crisis of racial awareness' that had broken into his consciousness was 'fated to be the continuing crisis of my life' and that 'the reflexes of racism…are embedded in my mind as deeply at least as the language I speak.'"

Berry has consistently argued that "the moral and material meaning of an economy must be two parts of the same thing. Our political economy shapes our intimate attachments, and vice versa. The personal is political, and our hearts follow our treasure," Britton-Purdy writes. "This twinned understanding of environment and economy, of personal and public life, is part of why he can appeal both to those who believe that the American ordering of political and economic power needs fundamental reconstruction and to those who believe that the values of individualism, mobility, and self-creation have led to a cultural blind alley."

In many ways, young agrarians, socialists and other radicals are his philosophical heirs, "denouncing extractive capitalism and calling for new and renewed ways of honoring work," Britton-Purdy writes. "They also insist on the need to engage political power to shape a future, not just with local work but on national and global scales. They dare to demand what he has tended to relinquish. If these strands of resistance and reconstruction persist, even prevail, Wendell Berry’s lifelong dissent—stubborn, sometimes maddening, not quite like anything else of its era—will deserve a place in our memory."

Fact-checking the Democratic debate

Last night, the top 10 Democratic primary candidates took the state at Texas Southern University in Houston for a three-hour debate. Here's a brief run-down of issues with rural resonance, as well as some fact-checking of the candidates' answers.

On fact-checking, the candidates' claims mostly passed the smell test. The New York Times fact-checkers noted that Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont exaggerated when he said that 500,000 Americans are going bankrupt because of medical bills. According to several studies, income losses from illness contributed to bankruptcy; the fact-checkers note that universal health care would not address that problem.

In an attempt to distance himself from Trump's immigration policies, Vice President Joe Biden said the Obama administration "didn't lock people up in cages" or separate families. That was misleading, the fact-checkers said, since the Obama administration built some detention facilities at the border. However, they write, those facilities were never meant for long-term detention of children. Biden is correct that Obama did not have a policy of separating families at the border, they note, and said people were only separated if the children were suspected of being unrelated to the adults (trafficked, in other words).

On the issues: ABC News national correspondent Linsey Davis asked about criminal justice reform; that's an area of concern for rural residents, which struggle with overcrowded county jails while often counting private prisons as major local employers.

Sen. Kamala Harris of California said she wants to take the profit out of the criminal justice system, and promised to shut down for-profit prisons on her first day as president. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota proposed reducing the sentences of nonviolent offenders in state and local jails, whom she says make up 90% of the incarcerated. Vice President Joe Biden said too many people are in jail who should not be in jail, and that we must make rehabilitation our goal. No one should be in jail for a nonviolent crime, especially a drug problem, he said, and proposed building more rehab centers instead of prisons. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey said the criminal justice system is unfair to the poor, and that 17,000 people are in jail unjustly today.

ABC World News Tonight anchor David Muir asked the candidates about mass shooting and gun rights. He noted that Biden sponsored a measure to require extended background checks after the deadly Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012, but that the measure did not pass the Senate.

Biden said he had beaten the National Rifle Association before because he had helped shepherd the Brady Bill through the Senate. He also said that more than 50% of NRA members supported his post-Sandy Hook proposals, and said more than 90% of Americans now believe assault weapons should be banned. Harris affirmed that she would ban imports of AR-15 rifles within her first 100 days and said Trump was encouraging mass shooters with his tweets.

Former Texas Congressman Beto O'Rourke said he had discussed his assault weapon buyback proposal at a gun show in Conway, Arkansas, and said some people who were selling assault weapons there were open to giving them up because of the shootings. Klobuchar, who proposed a voluntary buyback program, noted that that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., was sitting on three bills to limit gun rights, and that passing those bills could bring about change more quickly than waiting for one of them to get elected president.

Booker said the majority of gun owners agreed with him that more gun-control is needed. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts said that mass shootings get more headlines than everyday gun deaths from suicide and domestic abuse, and said Congress is beholden by gun lobbyists and must be reformed so it works for people other than the wealthy and well-connected. Sanders said he was proud to get an F rating from the NRA and promised comprehensive gun reform.

Jorge Ramos of Univision asked Booker if others should emulate his vegan diet or try to eat less meat because of concerns about climate change. Booker said no, but said he had sponsored a bill to stop corporate consolidation in the ag industry because large-scale farming operations hurt the environment and small family farmers. Booker also decried inadequate medical care for military veterans through the VA system, and said we must prioritize their care.

On the subject of climate change, O'Rourke said farmers must be given incentives to adopt greener practices like no-till farming and planting cover crops, and that more land should be kept under conservation.

Mayor Pete Buttegieg of South Bend, Indiana, said that he had seen very rural, conservative communities in Iowa grow after embracing immigration. So, he said, his plan for revitalizing rural economies includes expanding community renewal visas to increase the local population and make them more attractive to potential employers.

The main debate on health care was whether the candidates supported a single-payer system (Medicare for All) or a public option that retains the private insurance system. Warren, who supports single-payer, said passing the measure would not require people to switch health care providers or locations, even in rural areas; the biggest difference, she said, would be where the bill is sent.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Southwest Virginia coalfield papers sold to Missouri entrepreneurs who say they specialize in rural weeklies

Norton, Virginia, located on Google map
A nine-year-old newspaper group with 11 small papers in the middle of the U.S. has bought three weeklies in the struggling Central Appalachian coalfield.

Lewis County Press, based in Canton, Mo., bought The Coalfield Progress of Norton, Virginia (circulation 3,250), The Post of nearby Big Stone Gap (1,354) and The Dickenson Star of Clintwood (2,217) on Sept. 6 from American Hometown Publishing, a Nashville firm that bought them from the local Tate family in 2005 and has sold or is selling all its papers. LCP "had previously purchased one other AHP paper, in Blackwell, Okla.  It also owns 10 other small newspapers, mostly in Missouri but also in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Kentucky," writes Publisher Jenay Tate, who will stay with the papers, along with most other key employees.

"In recent visits to Wise and Dickenson counties, company owners Phil Calian and Robert Moulton-Ely both stressed the importance of vibrant local newspapers to their communities and their commitment to the continued success of the publications," Tate reports. "Both . . . have stressed the specific importance of local news to small-town communities and identified growing that segment of the newspapers, including online content, as a goal. A new website is forthcoming. They maintain a hands-off approach to news content, both said, having a firm belief in editorial independence."

In an email to The Rural Blog, Moulton-Ely described the duo as "buyers of rural weeklies." An attached information sheet about Lewis County Press instructs local staffers: "Be ethical, honest and obey the law; get out the paper each week; immerse yourself in the local community." It also makes content suggestions, including:
• Weekly column or editorial on local subject with own voice.
• Develop relationship with local schools so that they suggest student of the week and
supply photos (sports and events), scores, student art of the week, coaches,
administrators and faculty commentary and columns, etc.
• Develop community correspondents to provide the chicken dinner reporting (Including
photos).
• Develop relationship with local charities and community organizations (churches, Elks, softball league, chamber of commerce) to get minutes reports and photos.
• Feature story on business, community leader or local “personality” of the week.
• Develop relationship with churches to get a pastor’s column plus reports and photos of events.
• Lots and lots of photos. . . . For example, rather than a 2x6" story “Heat Can Be a Killer,” a photo of a local bank’s thermometer with a three-line cutline.
• Post stories on web as written (virtual daily).
• Nothing unrelated to the local community. For example, if it’s about Afghanistan, then
should be local kid’s experience on patrol.
• No filler. A photo of a local tree is better than filler.
Lewis County Press's closest paper to the new ones is The Current, a recent consolidation of three papers in two Kentucky counties on the Mississippi River.

Calif. rule on independent contractors could spread, hitting newspapers hard, affecting freelance writers and carriers

A legal battle over independent contractors in California could have an outsized impact on the state's newspaper industry, and could spread to the rest of the nation. Newly approved Assembly Bill 5, which Gov. Gavin Newsom is expected to sign, requires companies to treat many "gig economy" workers as employees, Jill Cowan reports for The New York Times. The bill, which is mainly aimed at app-based companies like Uber and DoorDash, says workers must be designated as employees instead of contractors if a company exerts significant control over how they perform their work or if their work is part of a company's regular business.

Publishers across the state say the bill could devastate newspapers, as they might no longer be able to pay newspaper carriers and many freelance writers. "For many local newspapers, the changes — which are set to go into effect in one year for newspapers, a small concession the industry’s lobbyists won from lawmakers — could force them to end home delivery," Cowan reports. "The law also limits the number of contributions from freelance journalists to 35; any more than that would require newspapers to pay them as employees."

Jim Ewart, the general counsel of the California News Publishers Association, said it's important to remember that hiring independent contractors to deliver newspapers has been a practice since the nation's beginnings: "The model is not part of the gig economy. It’s not Uber and Lyft. It’s certainly not some recent invention by newspapers to circumvent labor laws in California."

Telepsychiatry helps rural areas access mental health care, but lack of broadband can limit reach of telehealth in general

Telemedicine can help bring mental-health care to rural areas and improve doctor recruitment, as one company's adoption of the practice shows. Meridian Health Services in Indiana increased its investment in telepsychiatry over the past six months, partly because of the opioid addiction crisis, Yuki Noguchi reports for NPR. There's also a big financial incentive to expand to rural areas, since Medicare and Medicaid pay more for care in under-served areas.

Meridian patients drive to local offices where a nurse takes their vitals and establishes a secure video call to a psychiatrist in Indianapolis. According to one patient, interacting with the doctor via computer screen feels more comfortable and less confrontational: "It's easier because they're not there, so I feel like I can tell more, and speak more and truly just be fully real," the patient told Noguchi. "If they're sitting right there, I might not want to say everything or say as much."

Telehealth can expand access to mental-health care in rural areas, where the geographic isolation otherwise "exacerbates a vicious cycle," Noguchi reports. "A shortage of doctors means patients can't get timely care. The health system atrophies, and doctor recruitment gets even tougher."

Almost all states provide some type of Medicaid coverage and reimbursement for telehealth, and 39 states have some kind of private payer policy, according to a recent report from the National Conference of State Legislatures. However, many rural regions can't access telehealth services because they lack broadband infrastructure, Richard Craver reports for the Winston-Salem Journal.

Western wild horse, burro population at unsustainable levels

Graphic by E&E News; click on the image to enlarge it.
The grasslands of the American West can support almost 27,000 wild horses and burros, but the population has risen to an unsustainable level of more than 88,000. "The issue has quietly become the biggest public lands management crisis facing [the Bureau of Land Management] today, some experts say," Scott Streater reports for Energy & Environment News.

The herds have stripped many areas of native vegetation like black sage, rabbitbrush, grass, and winterfat shrubs, allowing invasive species like cheatgrass (which has little nutritional value) to spread and starving out other wildlife like mule deer, antelope, and greater sage grouse. Since there isn't much water in the more arid regions, the plants are slow to grow back, and the horses must travel farther and farther afield to find drinking water and forage, Streater reports.

"The winterfat is very sensitive to overgrazing. And if we lose it, then more than likely the site will not come back," Ruth Thompson, manager of BLM's Wild Horse and Burro Program in Nevada, told Streater. "They'll never replant that key forage species."

Nevada is at the epicenter of the issue, with more than 47,000 wild horses and burros roaming 14 million acres of BLM-managed herd areas. That's more than half of the wild population on federally managed lands in the West, Streater reports.

"There is no consistently effective birth control vaccine and no easy way to round up and remove excess horses from the range," Streater reports. "Already 50,000 or so wild horses and burros have been rounded up and are being cared for in off-range corrals until they can be adopted — at great, unsustainable expense to the federal government." Last year BLM removed more than 11,000 horses from federal rangelands, but Streater notes that as many as 18,000 foals were born on the range last year.

"BLM's National Wild Horse and Burro Advisory Board recommended last year that BLM use removals to get the number of wild horses and burros down to 26,600 in three to five years," Streater reports. "But four years ago, BLM estimated it could cost $2 billion to remove all excess horses on the range within a five-year period. That's far and away more than BLM's $1.3 billion fiscal 2019 budget."

If the problem is not fixed, not only will the rangelands be permanently damaged, but many of the horses and burros—along with other wildlife—will probably die of starvation.

Small business that makes environmentally friendly products wins first Startup Appalachian Pitch Competition

The Skeeterlog (Photo by Tree of the Field)
Tree of the Field, a Kentucky company that produces environmentally friendly products, won the first-ever Startup Appalachia Pitch Competition on Sept. 5.

The contest was held in conjunction with the 2019 Shaping Our Appalachian Region Summit, and was presented by SOAR, the USDA Rural Development, and the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development's Innovation Office, according to the press release.

The company's products include a campfire-building kit, an ink pen with a viable tree seed in its biodegradable barrel (so you can plant it when you're done with it), and an all-natural "Skeeterlog" loaded with essential oils that, when tossed onto your campfire, will repel insects.

Owner Robin Richmond Mason of Berea said she plans to use the $5,000 prize for new packaging for her products. She said winning the prize validates her decision to own and manufacture her products in Eastern Kentucky: "We are creating jobs and a highly effective, all natural, mosquito repellent. Winning the pitch affirms that others are beginning to catch a glimpse of what the production of environmentally sustainable products that meet real human needs, can mean for our region."

A-1 Implements took home the $2,500 second prize for its Hemp Hawk, a device that helps alleviate and control weeds in hemp fields.

Jared Arnett, executive director of SOAR, said all the small businesses that competed were winners: "They are taking risks and not only creating their future but blazing a trail for others to do so throughout Appalachia Kentucky."

State ag departments call for more research, incentives to help farmers adapt to increasingly severe weather

"The National Association of State Departments of Agriculture adopted new policies on climate resiliency at the group’s annual meeting in New Mexico, citing the need to safeguard the food and ag supply chain," Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico's Morning Agriculture. "The policy framework calls for more climate research and incentive programs that help the industry adapt to increasingly severe weather."

The resolution says such weather is hurting ag producers' bottom lines and decreasing food security. And, though many already employ greener methods, more investment in research and incentive programs will help farmers and ranchers adopt practices that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, increase carbon sequestration, and adjust to the changing climate. 

The NASDA resolution specifically called for:
  • Voluntary, incentive-based programs designed to sustainably increase productivity and incomes, help farmers and ranchers become more resilient and adapt better to the climate, and reduce or remove greenhouse gas emissions where possible.
  • More advocacy and outreach to increase lawmakers' and consumers' awareness of the risks of climate change to the ag industry and food security, as well as awareness of environmentally responsible practices farmers and ranchers can adopt.
  • Encouraging governments, corporations, and philanthropists to collaborate with local communities and state ag departments to establish and expand voluntary, incentive-based programs that promote greener ag practices.
  • Encouraging Congress to enact and fund voluntary, incentive-based green ag programs in the next Farm Bill and in other bills.
  • Encouraging Congress to support research and forecasting tools to help farmers and ranchers adapt to the effects of a changing climate, including increased pests and disease, changes in cropping systems, and increases in extreme weather.
  • Expanding federal tools to incentivize and better measure soil health improvements, such as the soil health provision in the 2018 Farm Bill.
McCrimmon notes that the announcement comes just a few days after the U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded more than $3 billion in aid for farmers affected by natural disasters. "As the price tag of such aid keeps rising, lawmakers are also looking to boost mandatory funding for ag research programs that could help brace farmers and ranchers for future disasters," McCrimmon reports.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Waffle House poet laureate travels to rural Georgia high schools to promote the arts and higher education

Karen Head
File under Sentences We Never Thought We'd Write: Waffle House has named a poet laureate.

Here's how it came about: The current and former CEOs of Waffle House, Walt Ehmer and Bert Thornton, are both Georgia Tech graduates. In a conversation at a recent alumni event, Thornton and Georgia Tech poetry professor Karen Head discussed how the college guarantees admission for any valedictorian or salutatorian in the state, but 37 of the 159 counties did not send a single applicant, Andrew Alexander reports for Atlanta Magazine.

Head, a first-generation college graduate, believes this is because students in many rural counties don't know many college graduates. "I told Bert I wanted to go out to the most rural schools in the most far-flung counties and talk about arts and poetry. I wanted the students to hear my story about going to college," Head told Alexander.

Head's nametag (Photo courtesy of Head)
At Thornton's suggestion, Head wrote up a proposal for the company's charitable arm, the Waffle House Foundation. She asked for a small grant to cover travel to 12 schools and also the college tuition of a poetry competition winner. The foundation approved her proposal and mailed her a Waffle House nametag with her name and the title "Waffle House Poet Laureate," Alexander reports.

Rural students nationwide are less likely to go to college, partly because of so-called "education deserts" with no local universities. Also, many rural high schools can't afford to pay an adviser to help students get ready for college, and many colleges don't make much effort to recruit rural students, too. And, Head observed, many rural students don't know any college graduates who can serve as a role model and source of advice.

Medicare to reimburse critical-access hospitals training medical residents, making more likely they will stay there

A rule taking effect Oct. 1 will allow the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to reimburse critical-access hospitals for the cost of training residents. Such hospitals, which account for more than two-thirds of all rural community hospitals, get slightly higher CMS reimbursements in return for limiting their services, bed numbers and length of patent stays.

The rule change will make it easier to recruit doctors to rural areas, now that critical-access hospitals will be compensated for training residents. In Montana, for instance, 60 percent of physicians stay and practice in the rural areas where they train, Mari Hall reports for the Billings Gazette.

Democratic Montana Sen. Jon Tester, who proposed the change, told Hall he's excited about the new rule change: "Anytime you can do good things for the state of Montana and rural America in general, it’s a good thing."

Also starting Oct. 1, CMS will adjust its Medicare payment formula in a way that will boost payments to rural hospitals. But it's not all good news, since a federal appeals court recently reinstated a rule that limits extra payments to "disproportionate share" hospitals, which serve disproportionately poor populations.

Study: Local papers are still the biggest producers of local, original, and important journalism in their communities

Chart by Napoli and Mahone; click on the image to enlarge it.
Newspapers have traditionally provided the majority of local journalism, but local papers have been hit hard by economic challenges, "which raises questions about whether these papers still serve as the lynchpins of local reporting in their communities, and whether other types of outlets are stepping up to take their place," Philip Napoli and Jessica Mahone of Duke University write for Harvard University's Nieman Lab.

With those questions in mind, Napoli and Mahone did a study to see which types of news outlets are the most significant journalism sources in 100 randomly sampled U.S. communities. The research is an extension of a previous study that looked at all media outlets in those same 100 communities and analyzed a week's worth of news stories to see how original, local, and important they were. That study found a surprising shortage of local news in some papers.

In the latest study, "The results show, fairly convincingly, that despite the economic hardships that local newspapers have endured, they remain, by far, the most significant providers of journalism in their communities," Napoli and Mahone write. "And while there is great hope and expectation that newer, online journalism sources will emerge to compensate for the cutbacks and closures affecting local newspapers, our study has shown that this has yet to take place."

The study found that newspapers accounted for about 25 percent local news outlets in the sample, but produced almost 50% of original news stories and nearly 60% of local stories—more than TV, radio, and online-only news outlets combined. "Local newspapers also produced just over 38 percent of the stories that addressed a critical information need. And, when we focused exclusively on stories that met all three of these criteria, local newspapers accounted for almost 60 percent of those stories," Napoli and Mahone report. "In sum, by all of the criteria we employed to assess local journalism output, local newspapers over-performed relative to their prominence amongst local media outlets."

They note that online-only news sources do not punch above their weight the way that local newspapers do. Online-only outlets make up 10% of local news outlets in the communities surveyed; they had just under 10% of original stories, 13% of the local stories, about 11% of stories that addressed critical information needs, and 10% of those that met all three criteria. That distinction is food for thought for those who expect online-only sources to replace print, Napoli and Mahone write.

"While legacy newspapers have declined, they certainly have yet to be displaced as vital producers of local journalism. And the long hoped for emergence of online-only outlets as comparable providers of local journalism still appears to be a long way off," Napoli and Mahone write. "As policymakers and philanthropic organizations concerned about local journalism consider their next steps, and where to invest their efforts and resources, it may be worth keeping these numbers in mind."

Napoli is a public policy professor and faculty affiliate with the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy at Duke University, and leads the News Measures Research Project. Mahone is a research associate at the DeWitt Center and supports the News Measures Research Project.

6.35 million acres of Western public lands surrounded by private land; report suggests ways to make it accessible

Total landlocked acreage in each state
(Map by TRCP; click on it to enlarge)
"More than 6 million acres of state-owned lands in the rural West are inaccessible because they are surrounded by private land with no easements, according to a new report," Bryce Oates reports for The Daily Yonder. "The study found that nearly 13 percent of state recreational land in 11 Western states was unavailable for public use because it is landlocked." The study was conducted by the nonpartisan Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and outdoor recreation mapping company onX.

The study report says access to public land is a critical factor in the growing outdoor-recreation economy, driving more than $887 billion annually in consumer spending, and that three-fourths of Western hunters depend on public lands for some or all of their access. Almost all of the landlocked acres are state trust lands.

In a report last year, TRCP found that about 9.5 million acres of federal public forest and rangeland are similarly inaccessible; Oates notes that the combined area of inaccessible state and federal land covers about as much acreage as the state of West Virginia.

The study suggests some ideas for making the landlocked acres publicly accessible. For instance, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which pays for local parks and recreation areas across the U.S., could purchase easements to provide access. LWCF is funded by proceeds from fossil fuel extraction on public lands, and though it can get up to $900 million a year for spending, Congress usually appropriates less than half of those proceeds to LWCF, and in some years provides zero funding, Oates reports.

Other solutions include encouraging states to form offices of outdoor recreation, create programs that seek short-term contracts with private landowners to allow the public access to landlocked acres for hunting and fishing, and consolidate their trust-land holdings through land acquisitions and exchanges to make them more manageable and profitable, Oates writes.

Explainer details history of background-check debate

Gun control is the subject of increasing debate, especially the question of whether to expand background checks for people seeking to buy firearms. A particular note of contention: Background checks are required for purchases from gun stores, but most states do not require them for gun-show purchases, which account for 22 percent of all gun purchases in the U.S. today. It's a fraught subject in rural America, where guns are part of the local culture.

Dan Freedman of the Times Union in Albany, N.Y., provides a great explainer on the history of the background-check debate that reaches back to 1986. Congress passed the Firearms Owners Protection Act that year, which banned the production and possession of most fully automatic machine guns. The act didn't make many headlines, "but in retrospect, this innocuous-sounding piece of legislation contained the seeds that sprouted into the debate over expanded background checks underway yet again on Capitol Hill in the aftermath of mass shootings in Ohio and Texas," Freedman reports.

That's because the FOPA Act specified which gun sellers needed a federal firearms license and which didn't. Gun owners who buy, sell, or exchange firearms only occasionally for a hobby or personal collection do not need a license. The National Rifle Association and the act's supporters in Congress (many Democrats from pro-gun rural districts) counted this as a major win, Freedman reports. With the legal blessing of the FOPA Act, gun shows became more popular.

Gun shows became even more popular after the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act passed in 1993. It mandated background checks for anyone who bought a firearm from a federally licensed dealer, but preserved the gun-show loophole. That encouraged more people to buy and sell at gun shows or online. Background checks are required for online sales across state lines, but not if the sale is within a state that doesn't require background checks as a matter of state law. Only 12 states require background checks on all sales, including private ones, Freedman reports.

The NRA opposes expanded background checks as an infringement on constitutional rights, and also because, its leaders argue, expanded background checks would not have prevented recent mass shootings. "But that equation may be changing with news reports saying the shooter in Midland-Odessa, Texas, was able to purchase a weapon privately after failing a background check because of a mental condition," Freedman reports.

A bill to expand background checks has passed the Democratic-controlled House but has stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has said he will only bring a bill to the floor if President Trump says he will sign it, but "so far, Trump has not firmly committed himself in either direction," Freedman reports.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Bail-bond firms fight efforts to abolish or reform cash bail

More than 25 states have passed laws or enacted changes to reform the practice of bail bonding, but a CNN review of all 50 states and Washington, D.C., "found that the powerful industry has derailed, stalled or killed reform efforts in at least nine states, which combined cover more than one third of the country's population," Collette Richards and Drew Griffin report.

The issue disproportionately affects the poor, who often can't make bail and must pay bond companies (typically 10 percent of the bail) to get out of jail. Those who can't bond out are stuck in jail, contributing to the overcrowding that's especially pronounced in rural and county jails. The numbers of people awaiting trial far outnumber people serving sentences, CNN reports.

"Reform efforts across the country seek to make the bail system less burdensome on the poor. The majority of states addressing the issue are trying to make money bail the last resort, by mandating that judges apply the 'least onerous release conditions possible' and consider the defendant's ability to pay, as well as eliminating money bail for low-level charges," Richards and Griffin report. "As a result, the $2-billion-a-year bail bonds industry is in a fight for its very survival."

Lawmakers have described the bail industry's involvement in even modest reform efforts as "nasty and contentious," CNN reports. However, Jeff Clayton, the executive director of the American Bail Coalition, said the whole process is fraught and that the bond industry has been unfairly called predatory. He told CNN that people have the right to use bail-bond services, and said that while the ABC has participated in discussions about bail policy reform and has had a significant impact he doesn't believe they were the "driving force" behind any bill's success or failure.

The bail bond industry sometimes continues the fight even after a reform passes. "Last year, California lawmakers passed the most far-reaching legislation yet—ending cash bail altogether," Richards and Griffin report. "But shortly after the passage of that law, the bail bond industry, and the insurance companies that underwrite their bonds, raised more than $3 million to fund a ballot referendum that put everything on hold. The effort was successful, and voters will decide the issue on the November 2020 ballot."

Most politicians pursue bail bond reform because of the consequences the practice has on the poor and on their communities. Those who can't afford to make bail often lose their job, which can jeopardize housing and food for their families, CNN reports. Though it can take years to assess the effects of reforms, bail bond overhauls have been shown to reduce recidivism rates and ensure that people show up for their court dates, according to studies of several counties.

Traveling Smithsonian exhibit to promote rural America

The Smithsonian Institution is hitting the road with a traveling exhibition that celebrates 25 years of its "Museum on Main Street" program. MoMS has visited thousands of small towns since 1994 with historical exhibits about American history.

Through 2024, "Crossroads: Change in Rural America" will visit as many as 165 towns in 28 states. "In collaboration with state humanities councils, it aims to foster conversations in rural communities, encourage a focus on local history and artistic expression, build community spirit and stress cultural diversity," April Simpson reports for Stateline. "Communities are urged to host events that encourage videographers, youth and students to capture and celebrate local stories. The exhibit covers big themes like identity, land, community and persistence using artifacts, multimedia displays, community discussions and works by local artists." Click here for more information and the itinerary.

The organizers hope the exhibits will help remind rural residents that their towns and cultures are assets in coming up with solutions to local challenges, even though the "broader narrative" typically emphasizes what rural communities lack, Simpson reports.

"These communities have wonderful things about them,"  Susan DuPlessis, director of community arts development for the South Carolina Arts Commission, told Simpson. "A lot of times, though, when we’ve been told over and over that we 'have nothing,' then you start to believe it and you forget to see what you have all around you."

MoMS has also just kicked off two other traveling exhibitions, both of which will hit small towns. "Hometown Teams: How Sports Shape America" will go through 2019. "Water/Ways," which explores the impact of water on our environment, culture and history, will run through next summer.

Rural Spirit Awards accepting nominations until Oct. 2

Rural marketing agency Osborn Barr Paramore is accepting nominations through Oct. 2 for its second annual Rural Spirit Awards, which honor individuals in three categories for promoting community service and economic development. Each of the three winners receives $2,000 to donate to the non-profit organization of their choice.

For the Community Service Award, OBP seeks "an individual who exhibits the rural spirit through exceptional service in the name of community growth . . . a willingness to go above and beyond — selflessly donating the time and support in an effort to positively influence their local community," says the website. The 2018 winner, Dustin Row, was recognized for creating a nonprofit called Songs4Soldiers that helps other veterans.

The Next Gen Award is for someone age 21 or under who has "demonstrated uncommon leadership through community service efforts or innovative thinking throughout their rural community," says the website. The 2018 winners were the Future Farmers of America Chapter at Normal Community High School in Normal, Ill. Concerned about dairy farmers' struggles with low milk prices, the teens started a nationwide social-media challenge that resulted in 3,000 gallons of milk being donated to homeless shelters and food banks, and raised awareness about the dairy industry.

The Rural Advocacy Award, new this year, is for "an individual who proudly embodies the heart of rural America," the website says. "Any potential Rural Advocacy Award recipient should be an integral part of their community — working hard to spur economic development, create jobs and advocate for growth." This category essentially replaces the Economic Development award from last year. The 2018 winner in that category, Brent Comstock, founded his own digital marketing company at age 12. He leveraged BCom Solutions' success to develop the Rural Impact Hub, a site that fosters rural entrepreneurship.

Nominations will be accepted here through Oct. 2. Winners will be announced and recognized at an awards celebration in November in St. Louis.

Signups for farm disaster aid begin Wednesday

Starting Wednesday, farmers hit by natural disasters in 2018 or this year will be able to sign up for aid at their local U.S. Department of Agriculture offices, as long as they live in counties where a disaster was declared. The aid is being offered under the Wildfire and Hurricane Indemnity Program Plus, and covers damage caused by hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, snowstorms, and wildfires (as well as typhoons and volcanoes), Chris Clayton reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer. WHIP+ will pay a maximum of $125,000 per individual per year, but the limit could increase to $250,000 if at least 75 percent of a farmer's income is from farm production.

"The WHIP+ focuses only on crops and does not include livestock losses. The program will provide aid for production losses and cover from 75% to 95% of losses, depending on crop insurance coverage or Noninsured Crop Disaster Assistance policies," Clayton reports. "Farmers who did not insure crops will receive 70% of the expected value of the crop."

The program also covers prevented planting for some uninsured farmers. It will also compensate losses of crops or hay stored on farms under the On-Farm Storage Loss Program. Heavy flooding and snowstorms destroyed some of the crops farmers had stored on their land this spring; many farmers stored their crops (especially soybeans) after they couldn't sell last year because of the trade war. 

The WHIP+ aid is in addition to the $3 billion for livestock and crops allocated in the disaster-aid bill passed in June, but there are some caveats to the new aid because of the overlap. "Farmers who were affected by 2018 disasters, such as hurricanes Florence and Michael, as well as California wildfires, will be eligible for 100% of their payments," Clayton reports. "Yet, WHIP+ payments for 2019 disasters will be limited to an initial 50% of their value with the possibility of receiving the other 50% of their payments after Jan. 1, 2020, 'if sufficient funding remains,' USDA stated."

USDA Farm Service Agency Administrator Richard Fordyce said they limited that reimbursement to 50% in case more disasters happen later this year. "The 50% for 2019 just allows us to manage the funds' availability of the program. We don't know what's yet to come," Fordyce told Clayton.

U.S. Postal Service seeks opinions on meeting rural needs

The U.S. Postal Service is looking for your opinion on how it can meet the needs of rural customers in a cost-effective way. Leave your comment here.

The call for comments follows the USPS Office of Inspector General's recent publication of a report about rural mail service throughout American history, along with an assessment of the current factors affecting the issue. For instance, the report notes that rural areas are more expensive to serve, partly because of distance, partly because of poorly planned routes. The explainer is the first in a planned series of new works meant to help readers better understand the rural-urban divide in postal service, according to the report.

The USPS has operated at a loss for years, and reported a net loss of nearly $2.3 billion for the third quarter of fiscal year 2019; that puts it on pace to lose nearly $8 billion in 2019. In December, a Treasury Department task force released a report recommending big changes to keep the USPS afloat—some of which could cost rural residents more.

Monday, September 09, 2019

Poverty, isolation, veterans, less insurance, more gun shops linked with increased rural suicide risk; see county-level data

Click here for an interactive map with county-level data
on suicide rates in 2014-16. (GateHouse Media map)
The U.S. suicide rate has increased between 1999 and 2016, especially in rural counties, according to a newly published study at Ohio State. Areas with higher suicide rates tend to have more gun shops, more veterans, and fewer people with health insurance.

Rural residents tend to be poorer, more socially isolated, less educated, less employed, and have less access to mental-health services, all of which contributes to higher suicide risk. The researchers measured social isolation in an interesting way: they created a social capital index by counting the number of charities, arts and nature facilities, beauty and barber shops, agents and managers, spectator sports, recreation sites, business and political organizations, civic and social associations, and religious organizations.

The researchers also say lack of health insurance is a major factor in suicide risk, and recommend improving rural insurance coverage and mental-health access to lower the risk. They also recommend allocating more services and support to rural veterans. Because gun shops were associated with higher suicide rates, they recommend study of restricting gun access as a suicide-prevention strategy.
Standardized suicide mortality rate, 2002-2004
Standardized suicide mortality rate, 2014-2016; rates higher than 1.0 represent a higher than average risk of suicide. (Ohio State maps; click the images to enlarge)

Study: millions of seniors go hungry, especially in rural areas; food insecurity has been high ever since recession

"Millions of seniors across the country quietly go hungry as the safety net designed to catch them frays. Nearly 8 percent of Americans 60 and older were 'food insecure' in 2017, according to a recent study released by the anti-hunger group Feeding America," Laura Ungar and Trudy Lieberman report for Kaiser Health News. "That’s 5.5 million seniors who don’t have consistent access to enough food for a healthy life, a number that has more than doubled since 2001 and is only expected to grow as America grays."

Senior hunger is a bigger problem in the South, the Southwest, and rural areas, and federal funding isn't keeping up, Ungar and Lieberman write. The Older Americans Act was amended in 1972 to provide meals and other services to seniors, but its budget hasn't kept pace with population growth or inflation. In June the House passed a $93 million increase in the act's nutrition funding, which would bring the total to $1 billion for the next fiscal year, but the increase faces an uphill battle in the Republican-controlled Senate. The act expires Sept. 30.

Another source of federal aid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, isn't serving as many people as it could. Only 45% of adults age 60 and older have signed up for it. Seniors who don't use SNAP benefits typically don't know they qualify, don't think their benefits would be enough to make it worth it, or can't get to a grocery store to use them. "Even fewer seniors may have SNAP in the future," Ungar and Lieberman report. "More than 13% of SNAP households with elderly members would lose benefits under a recent Trump administration proposal."

Meals on Wheels, a nationwide network of local programs, is a major source of relief for hungry seniors, but its resources are stretched thin. The program receives a third of its funding from the Older Americans Act, and relies on a patchwork of state and local funding and private donations. "Private fundraising hasn’t been easy everywhere, especially rural communities without much wealth," Ungar and Lieberman report. "Philanthropy has instead tended to flow to hungry kids, who outnumber hungry seniors more than 2-to-1, according to Feeding America."

Senior hunger has an outsized impact on the U.S. as a whole. "Since malnutrition exacerbates diseases and prevents healing, seniors without steady, nutritious food can wind up in hospitals, which drives up Medicare and Medicaid costs, hitting taxpayers with an even bigger bill," Ungar and Lieberman report. And the issue isn't going away any time soon, they write: "James Ziliak, a poverty researcher at the University of Kentucky who worked on the Feeding America study, said food insecurity shot up with the Great Recession, starting in the late 2000s, and peaked in 2014. He said it shows no signs of dropping to pre-recession levels."

Analysis: nearly 1 in 10 could lose SNAP benefits under USDA proposal; see state-level data projections

Mathematica graphic; click here for the interactive version with state-level data.
Nearly 1.9 million households, or 10 percent of households who get benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, could lose eligibility for the program under a new Trump administration proposal, according to a data analysis by think tank Mathematica, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The simulation model projects SNAP eligibility changes based on fiscal year 2016 SNAP Quality Control data. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed on July 24 to tighten income and resource eligibility requirements for the program. Specifically, it would eliminate broad-based categorial eligibility, a policy that makes most households eligible for SNAP if they qualify for non-cash Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits. 

Eliminating BBCE could have an outsized impact on the working poor. The policy "enables states to raise SNAP income eligibility limits somewhat so that many low-income working families that have difficulty making ends meet, such as because they face costly housing or child care expenses that consume a sizeable share of their income, can receive help affording adequate food," Dottie Rosenbaum writes for the non-partisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "This policy also lets states adopt less restrictive asset tests so that families, seniors, and people with a disability can have modest savings without losing SNAP."

New research center in East Tennessee aims to figure out how to break generational cycle of poor rural health

"A new rural health research center with a multi-million-dollar annual budget will focus on breaking the cycle of inter-generational behavior that contributes to poor health," Liz Carey reports for The Daily Yonder. "The center will also work to become a source for policymakers – providing the data from which those in government and other policy making organizations can make decisions to help improve the health of those in rural and nonurban communities."

East Tennessee State University in Johnson City announced the creation of the new Center for Rural Health Research on July 16. Randy Wkyoff, dean of ETSU's College of Public Health, said those inter-generational cycles of "poor health, lack of education and persistent poverty" are among the greatest health challenges in the region, and that interrupting them is paramount, Carey reports.

"One of the first things Wykoff said he’ll focus on is perinatal care – the period just before and after childbirth. Emphasizing this period will empower women to provide the best care they can to protect their babies from harm," Carey reports. "He also hopes to look at how to get healthcare to those in rural areas." Wykoff said he hopes the center's ideas will help other states besides Tennessee.

The center is getting ample funding. Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee promised the center a first-year $1.5 million grant and $750,000 annually for ongoing operations, and regional health care system Ballad Health has promised $15 million over the next 10 years, the largest gift in the university's history.

Dicamba causing 'civil war' among farmers; Calif. thieves increasingly target pollinator beehives, Reveal reports

The herbicide dicamba is great at killing pigweed, but it's notoriously prone to drifting into nearby fields, injuring vulnerable crops and farm workers. As dicamba misuse complaints continue to increase this year, the debate over whether or not to use the controversial stuff is igniting a "civil war" in some farming communities, Reveal News reports on public radio stations.

The podcast also reveals a surprising new target for thieves: beehives. In California, almond farmers rent bee colonies from all over the country to pollinate their orchards. It's lucrative work for beekeepers, even more so than honey, which has spurred the increasing trend of beehive thefts there.

Listen to the podcast here.

Friday, September 06, 2019

Researcher says relocating towns away from disaster-prone areas may be better than rebuilding after storms

How do you rebuild after a weather-related disaster? Maybe you shouldn't: "A paper published Thursday in the journal Science makes a case that, sometimes, retreating from nature instead of fighting it can actually open up new opportunities for communities," Kendra Pierre-Louis reports for The New York Times.

Though the rhetoric tends to focus on building back better, "You're in a fight with the ocean. You're fighting to hold the ocean in place. Maybe that's not the battle we want to pick," said A.R. Siders, an assistant professor at the University of Delaware and lead author of the paper.

"Siders pointed to Soldiers Grove, Wis., a town of about 500 that, after one too many floods, moved itself out of the flood plain," Pierre-Louis reports. "The community took that challenge and turned it into opportunity, reorienting the business district such that it could take advantage of highway traffic and powering it entirely with solar energy — and they did this in the 1970s."

Staying in place after a disaster can not only make residents a target for later disasters, but it's costly for the government to provide aid and for insurance companies to pay out, as illustrated by Dauphin Island, Alabama, which Gilbert Gaul of YaleEnvironment360 called "the unluckiest island in America." The island has been hit by more than a dozen big storms in recent decades, but residents of the beach resort keep rebuilding.

Some communities do shrink after disasters. The population of New Orleans is only 85% of its pre-Katrina population, for example. But the retreats are haphazard, and most of the people who leave have money and options, meaning it's generally the poorest who stay. "The new paper lays out ways communities could practice managed retreats that would address their broader needs," Pierre-Louis reports. "Lack of access to reliable climate-hazard maps, for example, makes it difficult to make informed choices about risk. Such maps must be improved and updated regularly, the paper said."

For those who choose to—or must—stay, post-disaster recovery is often hampered by bureaucracy, Andrea Noble reports for Route Fifty. Though Hurricane Michael hit the Florida panhandle in October 2018, the Federal Emergency Management Agency didn't begin delivering temporary housing units to the area until late January, and people were still living in tents this spring.

Executives at dairy-promotion nonprofit get huge salaries from farmers' milk checks even as dairy farms go bankrupt

Thousands of dairy farms have gone out of business in recent years, but 10 top executives at Dairy Management Inc., a nonprofit meant to promote dairy products, were paid a combined $8 million in 2017, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports. Some even took trips to the Super Bowl. The salaries are paid for out of farmers' milk checks: 15 cents for every hundred pounds of milk sold.

"DMI is funded by one of the nearly two dozen federally mandated checkoff programs overseen by USDA, covering crops from pork and soybeans to popcorn and mangoes. The commodities are taxed and pooled for research, advertising and other promotional efforts," Catherine Boudreau reports for Politico's "Morning Agriculture."

A DMI spokesperson told the Journal Sentinel that the CEO's salary is reviewed annually to make sure it compares to peer companies, and that executive salaries are likewise competitive with similar roles in the public and private sector.

Sarah Lloyd, a dairy farmer who served on the DMI board from 2013 to 2016, told the Journal Sentinel that she would often cry on her way home from the meetings: "These high-priced marketing people sitting in fancy offices in suburban Chicago were driving up to the meetings in luxury foreign SUVs. They were using my money and [other] farmers' money when farmers' kids are on free and reduced lunch. The contrast was just maddening."

Farmers fall more behind on loans from community banks

"A U.S. banking regulator on Thursday said more farmers were falling behind on loans held by community banks compared to a year earlier and that it was watching risks in the agriculture sector," Jason Lange reports for Reuters

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation noted in its quarterly report on U.S. banks that some farmers are struggling because of low commodity prices and farm incomes. Though the FDIC report did not discuss causes, the trade war has depressed commodity prices over the past year as China, once the top buyer of U.S. soybeans, has severely reduced its purchases, Lange reports.

"The FDIC said the share of long past-due farm loans held by community banks, which are major agricultural lenders, was 1.28 percent in the April-June period, up 13 basis points from the same period in 2018," Lange reports. A basis point is 1/100 of 1 percent. Long past-due loans are those "that are at least 90 days past due or which no longer accrue interest because of repayment doubts."

Quick hits: Feud film, fentanyl book, academics' suggestion that every American get $50 to give a favorite news outlet

Here's a roundup of stories with rural resonance; if you do or see similar work that should be shared on The Rural Blog, email us at heather.chapman@uky.edu.

A new PBS documentary, "The Feud," explores the Hatfield-McCoy feud. It premieres at 9 p.m. ET on Sept. 10. Read more here.

A new book explores the history, manufacture, sale and use of fentanyl, Dave Davies reports for NPR.

Fears of hog-lagoon waste pollution were raised as Hurricane Dorian approaches North Carolina, Ari Natter reports for Bloomberg.

Some academics have come up with an ambitious plan to help journalism: give every American adult $50 to donate to a favorite news outlet, Rick Edmonds reports for Poynter.

Critics say movement to eat less meat distorts science

Agriculture, especially cattle, is a main contributor to climate change, accounting for almost a quarter of annual greenhouse-gas emissions worldwide. In the United States, where the average person eats four times more beef than people in other countries, environmentalism is often cited as a reason to cut back on or eschew eating beef entirely and has helped spur some fast-food chains to offer vegetarian meat analogues. "But a rising chorus of farming advocates says that notion gets it wrong, or at best only partly right," Lynne Curry writes for The New Food Economy.

Nutritionist Diana Rodgers, who produces organic vegetables and pasture-raised meats on her farm, is frustrated with anti-meat messaging. She wrote on her blog recently that it comes from all angles, including the media, medical experts, international organizations, and sometimes city governments, Curry reports. Rodgers, who is working on a documentary urging better—not less—meat consumption, is an outspoken critic of meat reduction campaigns.

"In January, she railed against the Eat Lancet Commission’s 'diet for planetary health,' which suggested a dramatic reduction to about 1.5 ounces of animal protein per day. She agrees with many nutritionists who assert that meat is an irreplaceable, nutrient-dense food group, especially for children, women and at-risk populations," Curry reports. Meat analogues are often highly processed, expensive, and nutrient-poor, but are marketed as "cleaner, more virtuous, healthier," Rodgers said. "It's the biggest form of greenwashing there is today."

Andrew Gunther, executive director of sustainable livestock farming organization A Greener World, told Curry that the simplified view is dangerous: "If we thought the soil, air and water could be fixed by a single solution, we’d advocate for that." Rancher Ariel Greenwood, who co-owns grassland sustainability consulting company Grass Nomads LLC, said the notion of eating less beef to save the earth is "asinine" because it ignores the significant possible variations in beef production.

Vegetarian rancher Nicolette Hahn Niman objected on different grounds: "My strongest objection to environmental and public health advocates using the slogan 'eat less meat' is that it is extremely alienating to farmers and ranchers," she told Curry. "We need far more intelligent conversations about climate change’s connection to food, agriculture and health."

Thursday, September 05, 2019

$108 hoodie illustrates modern realities of 'Made in America'

Scores of manufacturers moved their factories overseas in the past 40 years to take advantage of cheaper labor and laxer environmental standards. President Trump has vowed to lure manufacturers back home, but it may be difficult for many companies to do so and still make a profit, Dustin Stephens reports for CBS News. To illustrate the obstacles to "Made in America" labels, CBS interviewed Bayard Winthrop, all of whose American Giant apparel is made in the U.S., and followed production of its popular hooded sweatshirt. He illustrates how some manufacturers may have to provide fewer jobs and rely more on automation and immigrant labor to remain profitable.

When Winthrop came up with the idea for American Giant in 2012, the first major problem he faced was a lack of infrastructure for apparel components. He had to essentially coax a master yarn dyer out of retirement to accomplish that part of the process, Stephens reports. But the supply chain problems start with farm labor: a North Carolina cotton farmer told CBS he hires seasonal Mexican workers because few locals are willing to work for him, no matter what pay and benefits he offers.

Workforce is also a problem in the mill where the cotton is cleaned and spun into yarn. It must rely largely on automation to stay profitable. "In the 1960s a mill like this would have employed 2,000 workers; today, about 125 work here producing about 2 million pounds of yarn a week," Stephens reports. But human workers must be used in the final step, where the fabric is cut and sewn. Keeping this step in the U.S. adds as much as $17 to the hoodie's cost, Winthrop said; American Giant tries to keep costs down by selling its products almost entirely online, with only two brick-and-mortar stores.

The final cost of the hoodie is $108. And though it's widely praised as "the greatest hoodie ever made," the price tag could put it out of reach for many Americans. However, Winthrop says domestic manufacturing matters. "I think we're selling a value system," Winthrop told CBS. "Stand for some things that matter, stand for American manufacturing, stand for the people that are making stuff. And when we buy things, when we do it consciously, when we do it with an eye towards understanding how these little votes that we make have an impact attached to them, we'll be better off."

How feral pigs threaten wildlife, habitats, and crops

Last month, the phrase "30 to 50 feral hogs" became a meme sensation after a Twitter user cited the beasts as a legitimate reason for civilians to own AR-15 semiautomatic rifles and similar military-style firearms. But there's a grain of truth in there; feral pigs are among the most damaging invasive species in North America, as shown by a recent Mississippi State University study.

The researchers found that forest areas with feral pigs had 26 percent less diverse mammal and bird communities than other forests, partly because the voracious ominvores eat plants, animals and fungi, and out-compete other animals for food. In other words, "Wild pigs are a serious threat to biodiversity," Marcus Lashley writes for The Conversation. Lashley is an assistant professor of wildlife ecology at Mississippi State and the lead author of the study.

All that adds up to a lot of expense. In the early 2000's it was estimated that feral hogs caused $1.5 billion in damage each year in the U.S. Their population has grown by 30% and their territory has grown by 40% since then, so their economic impact has likely increased. Since the 1980s, feral pig populations have nearly tripled and have expanded from 18 to 35 states, Lashley notes.

"Another major concern is feral pigs’ potential to spread disease. They carry numerous pathogens, including brucellosis and tuberculosis, Lashley writes. "However, little ecological research has been done on this issue, and scientists have not yet demonstrated that increasing abundance of feral pigs reduces the abundance of native wildlife via disease transmission."

Here's a Farm Bureau video of farmers and scientists describing damage from feral pigs in Missouri:

Horse trainer won top walking-horse prize despite imminent suspension for soring, a 'sad state of affairs,' activist says

Rodney Dick riding I'm Mayhem
(Shelbyville Times-Gazette photo by Gary Johnson) 
The trainer and rider whose horse was named Tennessee Walking Horse World Grand Champion on Aug. 31 was allowed to compete even though he will soon begin a mandatory suspension for serial violations of the Horse Protection Act. Rodney Dick rode the horse I'm Mayhem to victory during the 81st annual Tennessee Walking Horse National Celebration in Shelbyville, John Carney reports for the local Times-Gazette.

In December 2018 the U.S. Department of Agriculture disqualifed Dick from all involvement in the horse industry from Oct. 1, 2019, to March 31, 2021, and ordered him to pay a $2,200 penalty for engaging in the practice of "soring" Tennessee walking horses. The technique involves harming a horse's front hooves and legs to encourage the high step that wins competitions. 

The Horse Protection Act has long banned sored horses from competitions, exhibitions or sales, but the rule is widely ignored and spottily enforced. In July, the U.S. House passed a bill called the Prevent All Soring Tactics Act to ban other soring techniques, increase penalties for violations and expand the USDA's enforcement of the HPA, but it faces an uphill battle in the Senate. 

Many horse competitions have shunned Tennessee walking horses because of the abuse associated with soring, activist Marty Irby writes in an op-ed for the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Irby is now the executive director at Animal Wellness Action, but is a former eight-time world champion rider and a past president of the Tennessee Walking Horse Breeders' & Exhibitors' Association. He urges senators to pass the PAST Act: "The Tennessee Walking Horse breed can remove the label of being the most abused horse on earth, but only with legitimate change." 

The fact that Rodney Dick was allowed to compete is a "sad state of affairs" that shows how necessary the PAST Act is, Irby wrote in an email to The Rural Blog.