Thursday, January 17, 2019

Op-ed: Rural America doesn't need to be saved

Jean Hardy
A wave of commentators and researchers have asked whether rural America can be "saved" from problems with everything from employment levels to broadband reach, but such publications often seem to fixate on outsiders' role in fixing rural areas and ignore what rural areas are doing to save themselves. So says a thoughtful CityLab op-ed from Jean Hardy, a doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan School of Information.

Hardy, who has spent the past four years researching how rural communities in Michigan and Wisconsin use modern technology to help earn a living, writes that rural businesses and economic developers have access to many tools to help their communities grow. "The insistence that no one out there knows how to solve problems of the rural economy is a false and misleading one. There are decades of research that have identified paths forward that rural communities are already following and flourishing on," Hardy writes. 

Rural areas might not have much money, but local pride and tight-knit communities go a long way toward helping rural youth succeed, Hardy writes. "We treat rural communities as if they are just behind the times and waiting to catch up. When we turn to emerging American supercities as bastions of the future, we lose what we can learn from rural communities."

Escaped rodeo cow evades capture in and around Anchorage

A jogger spotted Betsy on the Tour of Anchorage Trail on Dec. 26. (Photo by Meg Kurtagh)
Anchorage, Alaska, is no stranger to wandering ruminants; after all, moose wander throughout town frequently. But an escaped rodeo cow is another matter altogether.

A wily 3-year-old cow has been roaming free in Anchorage and in the wilderness beyond for more than six months, and nobody has been able to catch her since, despite concerted efforts, Madeline McGee reports for the Anchorage Daily News.

Anchorage police have been searching for the elusive cow using drones with infrared cameras; Sgt. Mark Huelskoetter, who leads the Technical Support Unit for the department's SWAT team, figured it was good practice.

"It’s a good training opportunity for our guys, since we’re going to be training anyway, to maybe get something good out of this — find this dude’s cow," Huelskoetter told McGee.

Colleges work to address rural students' unique challenges

About a third of U.S. college students are from rural areas, according to the b, and many must overcome a host of challenges in order to succeed in college. Some colleges are trying to help rural students do just that.

For example, some might come from a high school that doesn't have enough staff to adequately advise all graduating students on college preparedness. Some may come from families where no one else has a diploma and can serve as a role model or source of information about applying to college or getting financial aid, Leigh Guidry reports for the Lafayette Daily Advertiser in Louisiana.

About 59 percent of rural high school grads go straight to college, compared to 67 percent of suburban teens and 62 percent of urban teens. And not all rural students who go to college stick it out: fewer than a fifth of rural adults age 25 and up have a degree. In many rural areas, college enrollment rates have remained lower because high school grads were able to get high-paying jobs in oil, gas, coal, farming, or other industries. But that isn't the case any more, and more rural teens are becoming interested in college, Guidry reports.

Some rural high school grads who do go to college may fail to thrive there because of culture shock. Stewart Lockett of New Iberia, La., told Guidry that attending Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge was very different from his home town: "The climate and voice was different ... and there was the exposure to a lot of things not in high school, like nontraditional students. That includes transgender students, veterans, older students."

Northwestern State University in Louisiana is one of many colleges trying to smooth such transitions for rural students. The enrollment management office has a team of 10 recruiters who seek out students from rural schools. They also offer a summer camp to teach rural teens about university recruiting and admissions, financial aid, potential majors, and student support staff, Guidry reports.

New report shows rural-urban divide in speed-related traffic fatalities

GHSA chart; click to enlarge it
A new report from the Governors Highway Safety Association quantifies rural-urban differences in speed-related car crash deaths. Here are some of the highlights from Speeding Away from Zero: Rethinking a Forgotten Traffic Safety Challenge:

  • Speeding-related traffic fatalities account for about a third of all U.S. road deaths. In 2017 there were 9,717 speeding-related fatalities in the U.S. 
  • Speeding fatalities are associated with behaviors such as driving under the influence, not using a seatbelt, driving conditions, and the way the road is built/maintained.
  • Curvy roads--which are more common in rural areas--are a frequent factor in speeding-related crashes. A higher percentage of fatal curve-related crashes happen on rural roads.
  • Fatal speeding-related crashes happen most often on non-interstate roads in both rural and urban areas, but total fatality rates on rural roads are more than twice that of urban roads. 
  • Non-interstate rural roads have the highest incidence of speeding-related fatalities, which could be because of several factors: higher incidence of curved roads, higher speed limits, longer distances to drive with less traffic, less traffic enforcement, fewer traffic calming features (such as rumble strips), and fewer pedestrians and bicyclists. 
  • In 2016 there were 5,013 speeding related fatalities on all rural roadways compared to 4,660 on urban roadways (interstate and non-interstate).

Some Farm Service Agency offices reopened for three days

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has temporarily reopened almost half of the nation's Farm Service Agency offices to perform limited services for three days: today, tomorrow, and Tuesday, Jan. 22. The offices will be closed on Jan. 21 for Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

About 2,500 workers have been recalled to process payments on existing loans, provide tax documents, and a few other services deemed necessary. Offices won't be able to process new loans or trade aid applications, or dispense hurricane or wildlife relief. Click here for a list of services available, and click here for a list of reopened offices.

The move could provide some relief to farmers hurt by the shutdown, but farmers still face difficulties without access to the full scope of services offered by FSA offices. "With growing season just months away, the closure of FSA offices and other USDA programs is threatening some farmers’ ability to buy seeds, land and fertilizer in time to plant many of their crops this year," Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico. "Without access to the more than 2,100 FSA offices dotting the country, farmers and ranchers can’t discuss financing options for buying land or read monthly market reports that influence planting decisions, for example."

Between Dec. 21 and Jan. 3 the USDA dispensed $2.78 billion in aid to farmers hurt by the trade war with China. About $4.4 billion in aid is still available to farmers, but farmers have no way to access it until the shutdown ends, McCrimmon reports.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

A social media campaign rallied kidnapped teen's hometown

After teen Jayme Closs was kidnapped and her parents murdered three months ago, her small town home of Barron, Wisconsin, was devastated. But three women, total strangers, came together to run a non-stop social media campaign to keep the town updated on Jayme's case, raise money for her family, and keep Jayme's picture in the minds of locals so they could search for her. Watch the CBS News story here.

Op-eds say partial shutdown of federal government hurts rural areas and small towns that can least afford it

The federal shutdown is hurting rural people who can least afford it, writes Jim King in an op-ed for the Lexington Herald-Leader in Kentucky. King is the president of Fahe, a collaboration of nonprofit organizations working to eliminate poverty in Appalachia.

The shutdown is having a big impact on wage earning, food and housing for people all over America. But "in places such as Appalachia that are dominated by small and rural towns, a shutdown is potentially devastating. Federal and related agencies are an important source of liquidity so the shutdown means a lack of finance flowing in our region. This coupled with years of disinvestment adds instability to families and communities that are already struggling," King writes.

The shutdown isn't helping the growing town of Estes Park, Colorado, either, writes mountain climber Kelly Cordes in an op-ed for The New York Times. Though it was once only a summer town that catered to tourists heading for Rocky Mountain National Park, in recent years the town has been able to build a sustainable year-round economy. "But now, with so many locals having banked on a small but steady stream of income tied in various ways to the park — the fourth most visited national park in 2017, with 4.4 million visitors — the government shutdown has upended the economy of this town and created apprehension and uncertainty," Cordes writes.

Rural areas running short of ambulance drivers

Many rural areas rely on volunteers to man ambulances and run emergency medical services, but sometimes that's not enough. "Today, that system faces collapse. As these communities become grayer and less populated, there are fewer people left to drive ambulances, and fewer people left to pay the taxes that keep the ambulances in service," Nathan Kohrman reports for The New Yorker.

Sometimes EMTs from nearby towns have to come help counties with no ambulance service, meaning sometimes dangerously long waits and rides for patients and medics who are stretched too thin. "We’re facing a crisis in rural America. Someone needs to do some planning or one day we’re going to call 9-1-1 and nobody’s going to come," said Andy Gienapp, director of the Wyoming Office of Emergency Medical Services.

The modern era of emergency transport services began in 1973 when Congress passed the EMS Systems Act, giving states more than $150 million to create or improve their emergency medical service systems. When President Reagan stripped EMS money from the federal budget in 1981, emergency services in many rural areas were only able to limp along with volunteers or by pooling resources with local volunteer fire departments, and some rural areas had to shutter their emergency services, Kohrman reports.

Dia Gainor, the executive director of the National Association of State EMS Officials, said better federal funding would be a big help for rural emergency services. "Fire departments get the love because of community insurance ratings," Gainor told Kohrman, since it's cheaper for people to insure their homes in rural towns with fire stations.

Gienapp agreed that better federal funding would help augment state and local funding. "Do we have a right to an ambulance within five minutes of our home? Within forty minutes? The answer isn’t going to make everybody happy. Cities are going to have to help write the checks, and they can’t just say, 'Tough nuts, hillbillies,'" Gienapp told Kohrman.

Structural changes could also help: "Congress could let rural ambulances make more money by billing for the care they provide. It could legislate higher reimbursement rates for Medicaid and Medicare, the way it did with the Critical Access Hospital program, which has helped rural hospitals increase their revenue," Kohrman reports. "Federal lawmakers could also establish grants to help fund EMS volunteers and full-time medics, and commission national-scale research on EMS. In states that have not expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, lawmakers could vote to do so."

Report: Clean energy jobs fuel rural Midwestern economy

Natural Resources Defense Council chart; click the image to enlarge it.

A newly published report says that clean energy is a major source of jobs in the rural Midwest, far more so than fossil fuels jobs in most states, according to a report produced by environmental nonprofit the Natural Resources Defense Council using numbers from a research firm that collected the data for the Department of Energy’s U.S. Energy and Employment Report."

"Clean energy jobs outnumber the combined jobs in oil, gas and coal jobs in rural communities within the twelve-state region the study included, according to the study, Clean Energy Sweeps Across Rural America," Bryce Oates reports for The Daily Yonder. "Only two states, North Dakota and Kansas, have more fossil fuel workers than clean energy workers."

The growth rate of rural clean energy jobs in the region is generally also far higher than economy-wide job growth in rural areas, and slightly higher than the growth rate of clean energy jobs in urban areas, the report found. Jobs related to solar power (including installation, sales and servicing) are more than 45 percent of renewable energy jobs in the Midwest, according to the report. But wind energy is the big winner in rural clean energy jobs, with 99 percent of existing wind capacity in rural communities, Oates reports.

Not only does wind power provide jobs and power millions of homes, but it also gives rural counties a significant bump in tax revenue. Oates writes, "Farmers and landowners earn significant income from leasing land for wind farms, approximately $245 million nationally, the report says. Within the study’s 12-state region, Iowa, Illinois, and Kansas receive more than $10 million annually from wind leases. Landowners in North Dakota, Minnesota, and Indiana receive between $5 million and $10 million."
Federal programs have been instrumental in the growth of the clean energy industry, including tax credits to offset tax liabilities, grants and loans for installing clean energy projects and funding for developing and improving power lines and smart grids, Oates reports.

FDA bringing back furloughed workers without pay to resume some inspections for high-risk foods

The Food and Drug Administration has ordered about 150 unpaid workers to resume inspections of high-risk foods such as infant formula, cheese, and some fresh produce. Most food has gone without inspection since the partial federal government shutdown began Dec. 22, Maggie Fox reports for NBC News.

The agency employs about 5,000 inspectors who make about 160 inspections per month. FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb said the agency will resume inspections by early next week of some medical products whose inspections were halted by the shutdown. Some inspections are paid for through industry user fees, and those were never halted, Fox reports.

U.S. lettuce growers are desperate to have FDA inspectors back on the job, since American-grown romaine lettuce contaminated with E. coli bacteria caused three separate foodborne-illness outbreaks in 2018. The biggest one, in March, sickened 2010 people and led to five deaths, Joel Achenbach reports for The Washington Post.

"During the shutdown, the FDA isn’t allowed to participate in conference calls or webinars with state officials, industry leaders and research scientists, said Jennifer McEntire, vice president for food safety at United Fresh Produce Association. She said the lack of FDA help has had a 'ripple effect' as outside experts are forced to try to do their work without FDA data," Achenbach reports.

The FDA told the Post that the resumed high-risk inspections could include leafy greens, Achenbach reports, but the agency has provided few details about what it's doing during the shutdown.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Federal judge nixes Census citizenship question; could help some rural areas get a higher count and more federal funds

On Tuesday a federal judge in New York ordered the Census Bureau to remove a question added last year to the 2020 census form that would ask whether the respondent is a American citizen. The issue could have big implications for states and communities with a large Latino population, such as agricultural communities.

Federal and state money is often apportioned by census data, and Census Bureau research suggests that a citizenship question could scare even legal noncitizens away from participating, leading those areas to be undercounted and underfunded, Hansi Lo Wang reports for NPR. Rural areas are already at risk of being undercounted because of the the Census Bureau's move to a largely online survey.

Though District Judge Jesse Furman ruled on two combined cases, "the administration is fighting five more lawsuits across the country filed by dozens of states, cities and other groups that want the question removed. A second trial over the question began earlier this month in California, and another is scheduled to begin in Maryland on Jan. 22," Wang reports.

The Supreme Court has already agreed to settle a dispute about what kind of evidence can be used in the lawsuits and whether Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the Census Bureau, can be asked under oath why he allowed the question to be added, Wang reports.

Survey puts numbers on rural seniors' transportation issue

A recent survey confirmed that rural seniors who can no longer drive face significant obstacles in finding transportation, which can limit their ability to stay in their homes as they age.

"A survey by the National Aging and Disability Transportation Center found that 68 percent of adults 60 and older who they polled this fall said it would be hard to find alternative transportation options if they needed to stop driving," Laura Maggi reports for Route Fifty. "The poll also included younger disabled people, who said they would struggle even more, with 80 percent responding that it would be difficult to find other alternatives."

Most rural areas have two major problems when it comes to transportation: too many people don't know about public transit or other available options, and sometimes there just aren't enough transportation options to augment public transit, broadly defined, Maggi reports.

"Only 15 percent of the 509 older adults who were polled between Oct. 19 and Nov. 5—which included both phone and online respondents—reported using public transportation and even fewer used special services like paratransit or a volunteer ride agency," Maggi reports. "Transit use was higher among younger people with disabilities, with about a third of the 513 respondents saying they used public transportation."

Even a small state like Massachusetts is having a hard time providing public transit for rural areas where seniors are a key demographic. The state has 15 regional transit agencies, but some rural areas still don't have access to public transportation, or can only access it on weekdays, Adam Vaccaro reports for The Boston Globe. The state legislature provided more funding for bus services last year, but the regional agencies still have to apply for the money and show why they need it. Some proposed solutions include better broadband access so seniors can use ride-hailing services like Uber, a "micro-transit" service that blends ride-hailing services and smaller transit vehicles like shuttle buses to create flexible routes that change with passenger demand, Vaccaro reports.

Trump order to prevent wildfires may not help much, and would increase logging on public land

President Trump's recent executive order, meant to prevent wildfires, would dramatically increase logging on public land, Sara Sorcher reports for The Washington Post.

The order, issued the Friday before Christmas, "instructs the secretaries of agriculture and interior to consider harvesting a total of 4.4 billion board feet of timber from forest land managed by their agencies on millions of acres, and put it up for sale. The order would translate into a 31percent increase in forest service logging since 2017," Darryl Fears and Juliet Eilperin report in another story for the Post. "In addition to removing trees, Trump asked his secretaries to remove forest brush and debris that help fuel fires from more than 4 million acres and treat another 1.5 million acres to control tree-destroying pests."

Some experts say such actions won't help very much. Jennifer Balch, a fire ecologist and professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, told Sorcher in an email that, while treating federal forests near homes is sensible, it won't help with the huge wildfires out West. Hot and dry weather is the biggest problem, she said, and that problem will continue to get worse in the future.

The Trump administration wants the logging to continue even though the U.S. Forest Service is closed for the duration of the federal shutdown and can't do the more effective work of clearing the dry brush that helps wildfires spread, Sorcher notes.

Thousands face eviction after HUD contracts not renewed

National Low Income Housing Coalition map; click the image to enlarge it.
Affordable-housing advocates say thousands of low-income Americans could be evicted because of the partial shutdown of the federal government.

"Since the shutdown began last month, approximately 1,150 federal rental assistance contracts have not been renewed due to funding lapses at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
These lapses impact Project-Based Rental Assistance agreements between private property owners and the federal government," Brakkton Booker reports for NPR. "These landlords are contracted to house low and very low-income residents. The property owner charges tenants modest rents and HUD kicks in subsidies to make up the difference." HUD housing contracts cover about 1.2 million low-income families in both rural and urban areas.

Five hundred more HUD contracts will expire by the end of January, and another 550 will expire by the end of February. HUD asked property owners to take some of the financial burden in a letter earlier this month, urging landlords to use their savings to cover federal funding shortfalls so tenants wouldn't have to be evicted, Booker reports.

Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, told Booker that "Eventually these owners will have to resort to either significant rent hikes or evictions of these lowest-income renters."

Rural areas of the U.S. were already facing an affordable housing crisis before the shutdown. Hundreds of thousands of homes could age out of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Section 515 Rural Rental Housing program unless the USDA pays to repair and update those properties.

More women lead cattle ranches as men leave family farms

Caitlyn Taussig mends fences in Kremmling, Colorado (New York Times photo by Amanda Lucier)
Though the archetypal Western rancher is a John Wayne-type male, these days "as mechanization and technology transform the ranching industry, making the job of cowboy less about physical strength — though female ranchers have that in spades — and more about business, animal husbandry and the environment, women have reclaimed their connection to the land," Amy Chozick reports for The New York Times.

Increasingly, men who would have inherited family farms and ranches have been lured away by more profitable and less physical work, leaving women to either run the family business or sell. About 11 percent of the nation's nearly 730,000 cattle ranches are run by women, according to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (which may need to change its name before too long). That number could continue increasing, since the age of the average beef cattle rancher is 58 years, 91 percent of cattle farms are family-owned, and more than half of those ranches are expected to change hands in the next 20 years, Chozick reports.

Because these ranching women often don't feel like they fit the mold of what a rancher should look like, some say they feel more empowered to do things differently. "Women are leading the trend of sustainable ranching and raising grass-fed breeds of cattle in humane, ecological ways," Chozick reports.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Farm Bureau president voices support for Trump trade war, but warns that farmers are hurting; Iowa journalist agrees

On Sunday the leader of America's largest farm lobby expressed support for President Trump's trade war with China, but said farmers are having a rough time and warned that such support might not last forever, Chuck Abbott reports for Successful Farming.

"We’re with you, Mr. President," said Zippy Duvall, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, as the group opened its convention in New Orleans. But he added a caveat: "The runaway of our patience is going to be determined by the financial situation of our farms. We went into the battle very weak."

That attitude was reflected much more sharply today in a New York Times column by Robert Leonard, news director of KNIA in Knoxville, Iowa. Noting that Trump will speak to the convention, he writes, "any promises of help will be too late for many farmers. Had he set out to ruin America’s small farmers, he could hardly have come up with a more effective, potentially ruinous one-two combination punch than tariffs and the shutdown."

Senate Agriculture Committee chair Pat Roberts, who spoke after Duvall, suggested that the U.S. should trade with China while negotiating to decrease or end China's unfair trading practices and intellectual piracy. Abbott reports. Trump is scheduled to speak Tuesday.

Abbott notes, "Farm and rural voters were key to Trump’s election in 2016 and he remains highly popular in rural America. He scored a sky-high 76 percent approval rating in late December, just before the partial government shutdown, in a straw poll of producers by Farm JournalBy contrast, Trump has an approval rating of 41 percent in a tracking poll maintained by the analytical site FiveThirtyEight."

Duvall said 2018 was a "terrible year" for farmers, citing hurricanes, wildfires, lost income from the trade war, a farm-labor shortage and low commodity prices. And though farm income is about half the record high set in 2013, "the year was a success as far as federal policy, he said, with tax cuts for farmers and ranchers, regulatory relief, passage of a five-year farm law that modestly strengthens the safety net and administration promises to begin year round sales this summer of E15, a 15-percent blend of corn ethanol into gasoline," Abbott reports.

Leonard writes, "Most rural American farms are not big corporate operations. The most recent available farm census data, from 2012, shows that Iowa has nearly 89,000 farms, and 57 percent are small farms under 180 acres. Generally, to make a living on farm income, operations of at least 225 to 750 acres or more are needed. Of the farmers that Mr. Trump’s tariffs and shutdown are hurting, about 80 percent are family businesses. So 'big ag' — the only farmers with the capital to survive over the long term — profits from the blundering crisis. If and when small farmers fail, larger operations can swoop in and buy up the land at fire sale prices. The large seed and other input companies would rather deliver product to one farm in a township than 27."

WVU gets grant for program to find and train potential new owners for rural newspapers that have no good successor

A foundation that focuses on West Virginia and adjoining regions has given West Virginia University a $125,000 grant to help rural and community journalism in the state by creating a pipeline to develop new owners of for community newspapers, some of whose aging owners have delayed retirement because they can't find a suitable buyer and don't want the paper to fold.

The grant from the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation, augmented by the WVU Foundation, will support a partnership between the Reed College of Media and the West Virginia Press Association "to recruit, develop and train the next generation of independent community newspaper owners," and help current publishers get their papers ready to sell, WVU says.

The idea developed after WVPA Executive Director Don Smith told College Dean Maryanne Reed that he had received many phone calls from long-time owners looking for someone to take over, Mark Jurkowitz wrote last year for Nieman Lab. The college hopes to launch the program this fall.

The three-year program aims to facilitate smooth transfers of ownership so newspapers can remain a strong presence in their communities, and will enroll potential new owners in a year-long fellowship at the college to help them learn more modern ways to run a newspaper. That includes learning about digital media, new funding models for media, and an internship at a West Virginia newspaper to learn about the everyday business of running a small, local paper.

Sunday comic encapsulates why local news media matter

Yesterday's Pearls Before Swine by Stephen Pastis shows, in nine panels and fewer than 100 words why supporting independent, investigative journalism at the local level matters:

Rural colleges making big changes to stay afloat; students ask, 'What's a university without a major in history?'

UW-Stevens Point was founded as a teachers' college in 1894.
Many public universities in smaller towns are in crisis mode as enrollment and state funding continue to drop, and it doesn't look like those trends will improve any time soon. Administrators at such colleges are making drastic changes to combat the downturn, including slashing staff, changing up majors, appealing more to adults looking to switch careers, and merging satellite programs and even campuses, Mitch Smith reports for The New York Times.

The University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, near the geographic center of the state, is his object example. For 125 years the university has been a reputable, relatively inexpensive way for rural residents to get a degree and improve their lives, but declining enrollment and state funding have prompted university administrators to revamp the college's offerings, eliminating classical liberal arts degrees like history and French and investing more in career-focused programs. "But critics say that in trying to carve out a sustainable path for Stevens Point — and build a model for other struggling, regionally focused universities — administrators are risking the very essence of a four-year college experience," Smith reports.

Advances in transportation technology are part of the reason rural colleges struggle. "Most universities were founded generations ago, when rural communities were thriving and when traveling across a state to a larger urban campus was more complicated," Smith reports. "As people moved toward cities and the Sun Belt, and as cars and planes connected the country, many rural universities have fallen on hard times."

Rural private colleges, as well as public and private historically black institutions, are also hurting. Without the cushion provided by state funding, the trends that pressure public universities are more likely to cause private schools to close, like St. Catharine College in Kentucky and Dana College in Nebraska.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Chain pulls out of small towns, says it's 'no longer a non-urban – or, for some of you all, a rural – hospital company'

In politics, if you want to know where things are coming from and where they are headed, one maxim is to "follow the money." That could apply to the evolution of what used to be a rural hospital chain, Community Health Systems of Franklin, Tenn.

"The company has been selling off or closing poorly performing rural hospitals for the last several years," reports Blake Farmer of Nashville Public Radio. "The selling spree is primarily meant to pay down the company's outsized debt load left over from when Community Health was growing as fast as it could. But the hospital chain was also strategically pulling out of small towns." It has 111 hospitals in 20 states.

Farmer adds, "CEO Wayne Smith told investors gathered at this week's annual J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco that it's almost entirely left communities with fewer than 50,000 people — once its calling card compared to competing hospital chains." Smith said during a presentation, "We're no longer a non-urban – or, for some of you all, a rural – hospital company."

Parkway Regional Hospital before it closed in 2015
Tennessee has not expanded Medicaid, but in 2015, when the company had a choice of closing a hospital in its home state and one just across the state line in Kentucky, which had expanded the program, it chose the latter: Parkway Memorial Hospital in Fulton. Much of the now-closed hospital's service area was in Tennessee.

"Public officials from Fulton County wanted to take over the hospital and find other providers who might continue services in the area, but CHS rejected this offer, likely, to pre-empt competition for patients in the county," said a study by the Kaiser Commission on Medicaid and the Uninsured and the Urban Institute. "Further, CHS placed restrictions on the use of the hospital – namely, it permitted no acute-care facility to operate there, an action that one respondent said 'strangled' the community’s access to local health care services."

Friday, January 11, 2019

Anti-journalism feeling felt at local level; journalists need to explain their work, build good faith and find common ground

By Al Cross
Professor and Director, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky

The Rural Blog has reported several times that the anti-journalism sentiment generated by President Trump and his followers is filtering down to local news outlets. Today Columbia Journalism Review takes note of "a number of instances . . . in which local reporters with longstanding community ties were shunned, spurned, harassed, and otherwise treated with disdain by elected officials," suggesting that Trump’s "example is being taken up at the local level."

“Local journalists seem to be vilified now,” American Society of News Editors attorney Kevin Goldberg told CJR's Matthew Kassel. “Whether it’s federal officials outside of D.C. or it’s actually state or local officials, I feel like people are more emboldened to act against journalists.”

Several of Kassel's examples are from Iowa: "Gov. Kim Reynolds snubbed the Gazette, a daily paper in Cedar Rapids, when it requested a meeting, as did a number of Iowa House incumbents. Likewise, [U.S.] Rep. Steve King, along with his fellow Republican incumbents, refused to meet with the editorial board of the Des Moines Register during the midterms. King also barred the Register from his election night event."

Doug Burns interviewed then-Sen. Barack Obama in 2007.
Campaign events, including Trump rallies, seem to be the most problematic. Our friend Doug Burns, co-owner of the Carroll Times Herald, told Kassel he went to a rally in Council Bluffs to cover an ethanol announcement by Trump and "was treated as if he had ulterior motives. Along with other reporters, he was locked in a media pen at the back of the arena and forbidden to speak to members of the crowd, many of whom he knew," Kassel writes. "Burns couldn’t use the bathroom without an invigilator from Trump’s team following along to make sure he didn’t interact with anyone." Burns told Kassel, “It was like visiting hours in a prison.”

In Connecticut, the campaign of a failed Republican gubernatorial candidate "tried to ban a Hearst reporter and a photographer from covering a GOP election-night event," Kassel reports, quoting Matt DeRienzo, vice president of news and digital content at Hearst Connecticut: “Everyone should be worried about the tactic of saying There’s no objective truth and we reject the role of the press. Everyone should be afraid of that filtering down to the local level, and I think you’re starting to see signs of it.”

Democrats are using the same tactics, and Kassel gives several examples, including Oregonian reporter Hillary Borrud's difficulty getting access to Gov. Kate Brown's campaign, and then-state Sen. Daphne Campbell's calls to Miami-area police when reporters twice tried to question her.

Burns, 49, "worries about his younger colleagues, who, he says, have never experienced the sense of collegiality that once existed, in one way or another, between journalists and elected officials." He told Kassel, “For a lot of younger people, this is all they’ve known.”

All the examples Kassel cites involve federal or state officials, not local ones, who deal with journalists on a more personal basis. But those officials are gradually being replaced by those who have entered public life in a more partisan, polarized atmosphere. It's important for journalists at all levels to help officials understand the work of journalism, build a feeling of good faith, and agree on at least one thing: journalists and public officials are public servants who need to keep the larger public interest at top of mind.

New laws make telehealth easier, will likely increase need and demand for high-speed internet in rural areas

New rules that allow Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement for treatment via telehealth are a boon for rural residents, and are likely to increase rural need and demand for broadband internet.

"One of the major telehealth benefits is that it enables people to stay at work or home and have electronic doctor 'house calls,'" Craig Settles reports for The Daily Yonder. "Medicaid and Medicare, as a guard against fraud, required patients to get telehealth treatments at a healthcare provider’s facility. Many private-sector insurers take their cues from Medicaid and Medicare as to what healthcare services they reimburse. Altogether, this has stifled telehealth adoption."

Since the new laws make telehealth a more viable option for rural residents, community internet providers will see rising demand for reliable, affordable broadband, Eric Wicklund, editor of mHealth Intelligence, told Settles. 

Better telehealth availability can work two ways: not only can urban doctors reach rural patients, but rural doctors could also reach urban patients. Specifically, easier telehealth capability could lure mental health doctors like psychiatrists to rural areas who are tired of living in the city and want to work remotely, Settles writes.

Two-hour Journalists' Guide to Energy and Environment panel to be held and livestreamed Jan. 25 in Washington

The Global Sustainability and Resilience Program and the Society of Environmental Journalists are co-sponsoring a two-hour seminar Jan. 25 to inform journalists on the latest issues in environment and energy policy. The seventh annual edition of the 2019 Journalists' Guide to Energy and Environment seminar will feature panels with top SEJ reporters from The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Associated Press, Politico, E&E News, and more. A reception will follow.

The seminar will be held from 3-5 p.m. Jan. 25 on the sixth floor of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. If you can't attend, it will be streamed live online and a recording made available afterward. Click here to register or for more information.

Register for free Jan. 22 webinar on rural hospital closures

The Center for Health Journalism at the University of Southern California Annenberg will host a free webinar on to discuss why so many rural hospitals are closing and what the trend means for communities' health and overall wellbeing.

The 1-hour webinar will begin at 1 p.m. ET on Jan. 22. and will last about an hour. Two panelists will lead the discussion: Dr. Katy Kozhimannil and Betsy McKay. Kozhimannil is the director of research at the Rural Health Research Center at the University of Minnesota, and her research focuses on how health policy can improve health care delivery, quality and outcomes during critical times. McKay is a senior writer for The Wall Street Journal and writes about U.S. and global public health.

Click here for more information about the webinar or to register.

Funding for the webinar was provided by The Commonwealth Fund and the National Institute for Health Care Management Foundation.

Federal judge strikes down Iowa 'ag-gag' law, one of many

Status of state "ag-gag" laws
A federal judge in Iowa struck down a state law that banned undercover investigations at factory farms and other agriculture operations, saying it violated the First Amendment.

The law was passed in 2012 just after several such investigations by animal-rights organizations brought unflattering attention to some of Iowa's large-scale farms, recording workers throwing pigs against the floor or burning hens' beaks off without painkillers. Because many undercover investigators gained access to facilities by getting jobs there, the law made it illegal to obtain access to an agricultural production facility "by false pretenses," Matthew Schwartz reports for NPR.

Such statutes, commonly called ag-gag laws, have been considered or attempted by legislatures in at least 25 states, and passed in 11 states. After Utah and Wyoming, Iowa is the third state where federal courts have struck them down, Emily Moon reports for Pacific Standard.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Fact check: Trump can't withhold wildfire relief

Though President Trump tweeted on Wednesday that he had ordered the Federal Emergency Management Agency to stop helping victims of last year's wildfires in California, a law applying to disaster and emergency declarations says that once a declaration has been made, the president “shall not ... delay or impede the rapid deployment, use and distribution of critical resources to victims of an emergency,” Sharon Bernstein reports for Reuters.

"In his tweet, Trump returned to his oft-repeated -- and disputed -- theme that California had mismanaged its forests, over-regulating logging and other measures that would thin them out to make wildfires less intense," though the fire likely began in a federally owned forest, Reuters reports. "It is not clear whether Trump was referring to money already approved, which FEMA is distributing, or to future funds."

The tweet came the day after the governors of Oregon and Washington published an open letter asking Trump to allocate more money for managing federally owned forests in the Western U.S., Bernstein reports.

"FEMA has so far made available about $50 million to help victims of the wildfires in Paradise as well as in other parts of [California] with housing needs, according to the agency’s website. There was no indication the funds had been cut off," Bernstein reports. "Last year, the state asked Congress to appropriate an additional $9 billion in assistance, about half of it from FEMA. That request has been delayed as Congress deals with the funding disputes that have led to a partial shutdown of the federal government."

USDA announces plan to fund SNAP through February

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced a plan Tuesday to ensure that Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients will still get their benefits for February even if the government shutdown continues through next month. "White House officials told reporters last week that SNAP benefits couldn’t be paid out for February because the program wasn’t funded past January, and that a $3 billion reserve fund wouldn’t be sufficient to cover the entire month," Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico.

Perdue's plan won't require tapping into reserve funding. Instead, he will take advantage of a provision in the last continuing resolution that allows the Department of Agriculture to make already-obligated payments within 30 days after the funding expired. Since the continuing resolution expired Dec. 21, February's SNAP benefits will be funded Jan. 20 instead of in early February.

Other food programs appear secure for now; the Women, Infants and Children program has enough funding for February, and school nutrition programs have enough funding for February and March, McCrimmon reports.

Increasing numbers of rural telephone and electric cooperatives provide affordable, reliable broadband

Rural areas are desperate for affordable, reliable broadband access, but many nationwide for-profit internet service providers have said they can only make it happen with state or federal subsidies. Some rural communities "are following the example of farmers who wanted electricity in the 1930s and joined forces to form cooperatives to electrify rural America. This time, they have the benefit of established electric and telephone cooperatives that already deliver services and have infrastructure in place," Lisa Gonzales reports for Broadband Communities Magazine.

One example is Taylor Electric Cooperative Lights near Abilene, Texas. It began a four-phase plan in December 2017 to build out fiber connections to local residences, increasing its coverage area slowly so the business can continue learning techniques to better connect different kinds of residences like single-dweller homes and apartment buildings. Taylor and other co-ops can operate more efficiently, quickly and inexpensively because they already have equipment, knowledgeable personnel, and some pre-existing fiber infrastructure in place, Gonzales reports.

Some cooperatives face barriers to building out broadband: they may not know how, or may be stymied by state laws, or may feel it's too financially risky, Gonzales writes. Some try to reduce that risk by partnering with nearby, like-minded co-ops to share knowledge, costs and labor.

In another article for the same magazine, Gonzales reports that California, Indiana, and Washington state recently enacted legislation to make it easier for rural co-ops to offer broadband. Some state laws pose obstacles to electric co-ops' getting into the broadband business, April Simpson reports for Stateline. Mississippi limits them to electric service, but that law is getting another look.

Founder of local reporter directory Shoeleather wins Knight Visiting Nieman fellowship at Harvard

Sarah Baird
The Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University has named Sarah Baird, the founder of local reporter directory Shoeleather, as one of its 2019 Knight Visiting Nieman Fellows.

The nine fellows, who come from as far away as Istanbul and South Africa, will work at Harvard on projects designed to advance journalism in an innovative way. Baird's project "will explore how to build community and resource-sharing among independent journalists as a means of combating the negative impacts—both local and national—of parachute journalism across the United States," the announcement says. "Her goal is to create a toolkit that will serve the community of freelance journalists working outside of traditional media centers."

Baird, a Kentucky-based freelance journalist, told The Rural Blog that Shoeleather has received an overwhelming response since its launch in November 2018, and that she is "thrilled to have the opportunity to explore new ways of community-building and resource-sharing among independent journalists as a means of combating the negative impacts of parachute journalism, and in turn, provide even more resources for the Shoeleather community."

The fellowship is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Report: Dust from steel manufacturing byproduct mixed with road gravel poses risks to rural children's health

In addition to the dust issue, residents say slag causes more
"washboarding" of roads. (Photo by Jean Forbes via DMR)
Dust from a waste product often mixed with gravel on roads in Iowa—and many other rural areas—could harm children's health, according to a newly published report by an Iowa Department of Public Health state toxicologist. "Dust from the slag, a byproduct from steel manufacturing, contains metals at levels that are harmful to infants and toddlers but also for kids up to 18 years old," Donnelle Eller reports for the Des Moines Register

In the report, author Stuart Schmitz wrote that children ages three and under who live and play near slag gravel roads only a few days out of the year are exposed to 124 times more manganese than is considered safe. Children from ages 4 to 18 who are around slag gravel roads about once every five days are exposed to about 5 times what's considered safe. Adults face a little risk from slag dust too: those who work near such gravel all day, almost every day of the year, would be exposed to levels almost twice as much as is considered safe. The report also says slag dust could also hurt the health of nearby cattle and contaminate the soil, Eller reports.

Children exposed to too much manganese could experience learning disabilities and behavior problems, and people in general could experience mild neurological issues like confusion and coordination problems that end after exposure to manganese is halted, Eller reports. Schmitz wrote, "I would say that any child playing or living very close to areas where slag is deposited could reasonably be expected to experience adverse health impacts."

States, counties, homeowners and businesses supplement gravel with slag since it is much cheaper. Not all slag has hazardous levels of manganese; Schmitz determined in 2008 that slag used in Washington County, Iowa, was safe to use, but said Muscatine County uses different processes with different levels of metals, Eller reports.

Chemist Edward Askew, a Muscatine chemist who leads a group lobbying the county to stop using slag, obtained a report from SSAB Americas, which operates a nearby steel mill and sells slag, that lists the amount of metals in the slag. But Askew worries that the report didn't include tests for some of the most hazardous metals such as cadmium, arsenic or mercury, Eller reports.

In addition to the potential health issues from slag, some Iowa residents complain that slag in gravel roads wears down their tires more quickly, puncture their tires, bounce up and break vehicle windows, and can make driving unsafe in other ways, Eller reports: "Residents say slag quickly leads to gravel roads 'wash-boarding,' or bumps across the road that can send vehicles skidding."

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

Biologists 'hack' photosynthesis to create bigger and faster-growing plants; now working on food crops

University of Illinois scientists say they've figured out how to genetically engineer some plants' photosynthesis process to make them grow dramatically bigger and faster, and they're now working on making the hack work in plants people grow for food.

Their work, published this month in Science, centers on rubisco, an enzyme found in most plants' leaves that uses solar power to convert carbon dioxide in the air into sugar molecules the plant can use for energy, Dan Charles reports for NPR. The problem with rubisco is that it also scoops oxygen from the air along with the carbon, and must detoxify it via an energy-intensive process. That leaves less energy available for making leaves or fruit.

The researchers have spent the past five years trying to make rubisco more efficient, with funding for their project from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and more. The team was able to create tobacco plants that grew faster and up to 40 percent bigger than normal in both greenhouse and open-air conditions, Charles reports.

The team is now working on food crops like tomatoes, soybeans, and black-eyed peas. Black-eyed peas were selected because they're a staple crop in sub-Saharan Africa, where funders want to make a big impact. But it will be years before such genetically engineered crops are available for purchase, if at all. "Researchers will have to find out whether it means that a food crop like soybeans actually produces more beans — or just more stalks and leaves," Charles reports. 'Then they'll need to convince government regulators and consumers that the crops are safe to grow and eat."

Rural Texas hospital reopens a year after closing

Rural America is facing a health care crisis as more and more hospitals shutter, but one hospital in Crockett, Texas (pop. 6,500), bucked the odds and reopened after its closure, Charlotte Huff reports for Kaiser Health News.

Timberlands Healthcare faced the same problems as many other struggling rural hospitals: It was overstaffed, located in a state that didn't expand Medicaid, Houston County residents didn't want to raise property taxes to help fund the hospital, it was too small to have any leverage when negotiating reimbursement rates with insurers, and its board members had little background in health-care management but were in charge of financial decisions.

The hospital closed with only a few weeks' notice in the summer of 2017. its now-bankrupt management company, Little River Healthcare, was one of many that engage in the questionable practice of funneling laboratory billing through rural hospitals to get bigger federal reimbursements.

"The late-July reopening of the newly named Crockett Medical Center makes it a bit of a unicorn in a state that has led nationally in rural hospital closures," Huff reports. "Since January 2010, 17 of the 94 shuttered hospitals [in the U.S.] have been in Texas, including two that closed in December, according to data from the University of North Carolina’s Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research."

The new hospital has many of the same services it did before, albeit on a smaller scale: a primary care clinic, a 24-hour emergency room, and 25 beds. But unlike Timberlands, Crockett doesn't deliver babies. Closing obstetrical services is a common tactic for struggling rural hospitals, since it's one of the most expensive units, Huff reports.

Crockett supporters hope they can convince locals to approve a property tax to keep the new hospital open. That's what happened with the struggling hospital in Clifton, Texas, northwest of Waco. Adam Willman, CEO of Goodall-Witcher Hospital Authority, told Huff that he and other hospital supporters convinced locals that a property tax was worth it, to preserve emergency services.

Rural leaders are lobbying the state legislature to help rural hospitals stay open with measures such as increasing hospital reimbursements for Medicaid patients. Rural leaders "also support a congressional bill, HR 5678, that would make it easier for rural hospitals to close their inpatient beds but retain some services, such as an emergency room and primary care clinic," Huff reports. "Under current federal regulations, facilities that make such a move are no longer considered a hospital and can’t be reimbursed by Medicare and Medicaid at hospital rates, which are often higher than payments to clinics or individual doctors. Those lower rates make it harder for stripped-down facilities to keep up their operations."

U.S. soybean exports to EU quadruple, could keep rising

The European Union nearly quadrupled soybean imports from the United States in the latter half of 2018, according to a Jan. 7 announcement from the European Commission, saying that imports totaled 5.2 million metric tons from July through December, up 112 percent from the same period a year before, Eric Schroeder reports for World Grain. An EC spokesperson said American soybean imports will probably increase since U.S. soybeans may soon be approved for use in biofuels.

However, the spokesperson said the increase was due to market forces, and wasn't a political decision stemming from trade talks with the U.S. "Market analysts said the surge was caused by plunging prices in June, as China largely stopped buying U.S. soybeans in retaliation for trade measures" aimed at China, Robert-Jan Bartunek reports for Reuters. The EU gets most of its soybeans from Brazil and about a third from the U.S., annually about 14 million metric tons (15.4 million tons).

EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmström said today that agriculture will not be discussed in upcoming trade talks between the U.S. and the EU, Chris Prentice reports for Reuters.

Rural recycling programs in U.S. are squeezed by China's tougher standards for imports of paper and other waste

"Big cities have shielded their residents from the impact of China’s decision last year to curtail the solid waste it will accept from other countries. But rural and small-town residents are starting to get squeezed by a change that is wreaking havoc on the global recycling market," Rebecca Beitsch reports for Stateline.

China was the world's largest importer of waste paper, used plastic and scrap metal for decades, but last year stopped accepting some kinds of recyclables and tightened its standards for the purity of what it accepts. It wants less non-recyclable waste, hazardous waste, or incorrectly sorted recyclables mixed in with recyclables) The recycling industry generally tolerates between 1 percent to 5 percent impurity in recyclables, but China's new standard is 0.5 percent.

Normally, communities or their contractors can recoup some or all of the cost of their recycling programs by selling the scrap, but China's policy shift has rendered some types of recyclables worthless. While some cities have been able to absorb the financial hit, many small towns can't.

"Small-town recycling programs already are more expensive than those in bigger cities," Beitsch reports. "Houses tend to be farther apart, making collection more expensive. Rural communities spend more to transport their recyclables to centers that can find markets. And they cannot produce the volume of material that buyers want." That's why many use private contractors.

As a result of the policy shift, many small towns and rural areas have had to curtail or end recycling programs or pay more to dump scrap at nearby recycling centers. 

Brittany Prischak, the environmental sustainability coordinator for Erie County, Pennsylvania, told Beitsch that the squeeze will make it harder to keep the county recycling program going, though state law mandates such programs in communities with more than 10,000 residents. China's decision is highlighting and widening a rural-urban divide in terms of recycling opportunities, Prischak told Beitsch: "Before the changes even started to happen you could see the difference of where recycling was most convenient in urban areas versus where it’s difficult like rural areas to recycle even if they want to recycle."

Paradise Post to publish profiles of 86 killed in Camp Fire

Steve Boese looks for the name of his neighbor among the 86 crosses of Camp Fire victims erected in Paradise.
(Bay Area News Group photo by Karl Mondon)
Almost two months after the small town of Paradise, California, was destroyed in the deadly Camp Fire, the Paradise Post has announced a touching tribute to the 86 lives lost: the staff will run three profiles each day of those killed in the fire until all 86 have been published.

The work was more difficult, not just because some of the lost were friends and neighbors of Post staff, but also because sometimes it was difficult to reach the people who knew them best.

"Normally in that case we would try to reach out to neighbors or, if the person belonged to a club or organization, fellow members," the Post staff write. "That’s almost impossible to do when neighborhoods are wiped out, clubs and organizations are displaced and land lines no longer work. In some cases we can piece together stories based on social media profiles and messages, or internet research, but we are still searching for information on some people. If you have memories to share about someone who died in the fire, email us at"

The profiles will be published on a dedicated website; click here to visit it.

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

Supreme Court rejects fast-track challenges to livestock-confinement laws in California and Massachusetts

"Two groups of state attorneys general were blocked Monday from bringing a challenge in the U.S. Supreme Court against California and Massachusetts laws that set standards for the treatment of farm animals raised to produce eggs and some meats sold in those states," Bill Lucia reports for Route Fifty. "The attorneys general were asking the Supreme Court to allow their lawsuits to proceed directly to high court, without going through lower federal courts first."

Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill led a group of other attorneys general opposing the Massachusetts law and Missouri Attorney General Joshua Hawley led mostly the same group of AGs to oppose California's laws: those of Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Nebraska, Nevada, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and Wisconsin. "Those involved in the effort against the Massachusetts law were from mostly the same states. But South Carolina and West Virginia’s attorneys general also took part and Nevada and Iowa’s attorneys general did not," Lucia reports.

The Massachusetts and California laws are meant to improve confined farm animals' welfare by giving them more room to move. The California law, which went into effect in 2015, protects egg-laying hens. The Massachusetts law, passed more than two years ago and scheduled to go fully into effect on Jan. 1, 2022, centers on egg-layers, veal calves and pigs. Sales of such animal products will be prohibited if they come from operations the state considers excessively confined, Lucia reports.

"The attorneys general behind the current cases suggest the California and Massachusetts laws run afoul of federal law and are in violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Commerce Clause, which prohibits state laws that discriminate against, or significantly impede interstate commerce," Lucia reports.

Roundup: how the partial shutdown of the federal government affects, or could affect, rural Americans

As the partial shutdown of the federal government stretches to Day 18, here's another update of how it's affecting, or could affect, rural Americans:

Parts of the Blue Ridge Parkway will be closed indefinitely since some stretches are blocked by debris from a November ice storm. The scenic parkway, which is maintained by the National Park Service, can't be cleared until there's paid staff to do it. Hiking is open to the public, but the Park Service "left a notice at the Rockfish Gap entrance that said the area is open to the public, but no personnel will be available to provide guidance, assistance, maintenance, or emergency response. The federal agency urges extreme caution for anyone who does go in," Brianna Hamblin reports for WDBJ-TV in Roanoke.

In what NPR calls "an irony", "the government shutdown began with the president's demand for border security money. But it has also halted E-Verify, a federal program that's supposed to prevent immigrants from working here illegally," Joel Rose reports. In addition, "much of the nation's immigration court system is closed, adding to a backlog of more than 800,000 cases and counting."

Federal prison employees are working without pay. After one such prison in rural Marianna, Fla., was damaged in Hurricane Michael in October, prisoners were transferred to a facility in Yazoo City, Miss., more than 400 miles away. Marianna corrections officers have been obliged since then to make the seven-hour drive for two-week stints. Since the shutdown, the guards are not only working without pay, but without reimbursement for gas, meals or laundry, expenses which can add up to hundreds of dollars per trip, Patricia Mazzei reports for The New York Times.

That's a financial burden few of the guards can afford, since more than two-thirds of the prison staff members sustained hurricane damage to their homes and about 10 percent of them completely lost their homes. And if those expenses cause staff to go into debt, that could endanger their employment: "The Bureau of Prisons as a general condition of employment requires that its workers pay their debts in a timely fashion. Failure to do so can result in discipline," Mazzei reports.

The shutdown "may hurt farmers by delaying the administration's ability to steer through the approval for year-round sales of a 15 percent ethanol blend for gasoline before the summer begins. That's up from 10 percent allowed now," Mario Parker and Jennifer Dlouhy report for the Chicago Tribune. President Trump had promised in October to allow year-round E15 sales, which would expand the market for corn-based ethanol and help corn farmers hurt by the trade war with China.

Reversing past legal precedent, the White House directed the Internal Revenue Service to pay tax refunds to Americans during the shutdown, and is trying to find a way to prevent federal food assistance programs from running out of money next month. Those include the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the Women with Infants and Children program, and school lunch programs, Damian Paletta, Jeff Stein and Juliet Eilperin report for The Washington Post. Though the Trump administration has been trying to minimize the impact of the shutdown on voters, 800,000 federal workers will miss their first paycheck within the next few days.

The shutdown is jeopardizing parts of Trump's agenda generally backed by the agriculture industry, Eric Wolff and Brianna Ehley report for Politico. The Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers will delay publishing the proposed replacement for the Waters of the U.S. rule in the Federal Register until EPA funding is restored. That means the 60-day public comment period on the proposed WOTUS rule won't begin until it's published, and a hearing on the proposal scheduled for Jan. 23 has been postponed indefinitely. Similarly, an EPA proposal to ease limits on mercury and other toxic chemicals from power plants hasn't been published in the Federal Register and can't be until the agency gets more funds.

Also, "The shutdown has also complicated the Agriculture Department’s efforts to assist farmers and ranchers burned by Trump’s retaliatory tariffs. Agricultural producers who haven’t yet certified their 2018 production must wait until local Farm Service Agency offices reopen before moving ahead with their applications for trade aid," Wolff and Ehley report.

Efforts to fight the nation's opioid epidemic have also been slowed or even stalled because of employee furloughs at the Office of National Drug Control Policy. "If the government remains shuttered until the end of the month, funding for critical grant programs involving law enforcement and prevention activities could also be in jeopardy, some people involved in the effort worry. The drug policy office is expected to announce awards of money at the end of January for prevention programs and efforts to help law enforcement catch traffickers," Wolff and Ehley report.

The shutdown is affecting the fallout of the trade war too: the Commerce Department has stopped processing companies' requests to be excluded from U.S. aluminum and steel tariffs, and has no staff for ongoing investigations into whether trade penalties should be imposed on foreign companies selling their products in the U.S. at unfairly low or subsidized prices, Wolff and Ehley report.

Rural telecoms, groups oppose T-Mobile/Sprint merger

Rural internet carriers and several lobbying groups, including competing telecommunications firms, have joined forces as the 4Competition Coalition to try to stop T-Mobile's efforts to purchase Sprint, David McCabe reports for Axios. The Federal Communications Commission and the Department of Justice are reviewing the deal, partly because of security concerns that the Chinese technology used by the two companies could make the U.S. more vulnerable to espionage.

While T-Mobile and Sprint say the merger will help them roll out 5G technology, the coalition believes that going from four national wireless carriers to three will hurt consumers and won't deliver the benefits that T-Mobile and Sprint promise, McCabe reports.

Members of the coalition include Kansas carrier United Wireless Communications, Pennsylvania carrier Indigo Wireless, the Rural Wireless Association, The Rural Broadband Association, the American Antitrust Institute, the Demand Progress Education Fund, the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association, DISH Networks, and the AFL-CIO.

T-Mobile and Sprint tried to merge in 2014 but the Obama-era FCC denied the deal, saying the wireless market wouldn't be competitive enough.

New app connects beekeepers and farmers

With bee populations declining and some farmers pursuing more intensive methods of farming, there aren't enough naturally occurring bees to pollinate many farmers' crops. A new smartphone app connects beekeepers with farmers who need their crops pollinated.

Pollination Network allows farmers to post public listings searching for bees; beekeepers can filter those listings based on location, price rate and quality of bees needed. Beekeepers now make more money by renting colonies for pollination than through honey sales.

Monday, January 07, 2019

Climate change poses outsized risk to rural America, much of which has 'limited capacity to respond'

Daily Yonder map; click on the image to enlarge it.
Climate change poses an outsized risk to rural America, according to the recently released National Climate Assessment by climate scientists from 13 federal agencies. That's because rural economies depend more on the outdoors, with industries such as timber, agriculture, ranching, hunting, fishing and other recreation activities dominating. The report has a separate chapter on rural impact, predicting reduced agricultural productivity, degradation of soil and water and increased health challenges to rural people and livestock, and noting that "Residents in rural communities often have limited capacity to respond to climate change impacts, due to poverty and limitations in community resources.

"For portions of rural America with an economy based on agriculture, climate scientists are most worried about shifting geographic suitability of particular crops and abnormal timing for planting and harvest. These changes may result in additional use of herbicides and pesticides, which could create additional health risks from chemical applications," Bryce Oates writes for The Daily Yonder. "Crop and pasture yields and profitability could also be affected by changes in rainfall, temperature and extreme weather events. Increased flooding could increase soil erosion and water pollution from agricultural runoff, according to the report."

The report's authors predict that likely changes in climate patterns will make agricultural commodity markets more volatile, "shift plant and animal ranges, increase the number and intensity of droughts and floods, and increase the number and size of wildfires throughout the rural landscape," Oates reports. Coastal erosion and rising sea levels could flood low-lying areas and disrupt wildlife-centered activities like hunting and fishing. Decreasing snowpack would hurt areas that rely on winter sports like skiing. Increasing forest pests and diseases could decrease timber harvests. And wildfires are predicted to become more frequent, intense and expensive.

The report predicts that adapting to these changes will be more difficult for rural populations, which tend to be older, poorer, and less educated, Oates reports.