Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Bigger cattle are changing the way we eat steak

American cows have gotten bigger and bigger over the years, since cattle farmers say it's more efficient and cheaper. The weight of the average cow was around 1,000 lbs. in the mid-1970s, but was 1,363 lbs. in 2016--and increase of about nine pounds each year. And that's changing the way your steaks look. "As U.S. beef cattle have ballooned in size, experts say, restaurants, grocery stores and meat processors have had to get creative in how they slice and dice them up. Increasingly, that means thinner steaks — as well as more scrap meat and “alternative” cuts designed to make the most of a bigger animal," Caitlin Dewey reports for The Washington Post.

But there's evidence that Americans don't like the changes to their steaks, which could hurt beef sales in the future. Josh Maples, an agricultural economist at Mississippi State University, told Dewey that "If you buy a steak, you have a picture in your mind of what it should look like . . . If you make that thinner, or you cut it in half — for many people, that ruins the eating experience."

The problem lies in the increasing diameter of the cows' muscles. An upcoming study in Food Policy says that these larger muscles result in huge, expensive portions if they're cut to the traditional thickness of steaks. So the easiest solution for butchers, restaurants and grocery stores has been to simply cut the steaks thinner. Others, like popular steakhouse chain Texas Roadhouse, cut the steaks to the traditional thickness, but cut bits off the edges to put in kebab or chili dishes.

With cattle continuing to get larger, Texas A&M animal sciences professor Davey Griffin says that consumers will simply have to adjust, Dewey reports.

Alabama Senate race highlights urban-rural divide

Moore in Midland City (Photo: Luke Sharrett, Bloomberg)
Today's special election for a U.S. Senate seat from Alabama is the latest example of the urban and rural divide in American politics. Even the candidates' Election Eve events bore it out: Democrat Doug Jones held his bash in the state's biggest city, Birmingham. Republican Roy Moore held his event in a barn in the small town of Midland City, in the Wiregrass region of rural southeast Alabama, which is the ninth most rural state, with 41 percent of the population living in rural areas.

The settings "evoked the cultural and political divide that’s come to define the two parties in modern America," Arit John reports for Bloomberg. The race will likely be decided "along the urban-rural lines that played a major role in last year’s presidential election and the votes are being cast amid shifting attitudes about sexual misconduct, intense partisanship and deep anti-establishment resentment in parts of the electorate." That narrative has been accentuated since President Trump stepped into the fray and stumped for Moore.

Many view the race as a lot more than one race between two candidates. The national parties (and most onlookers) see the race as a possible indicator for how the winds will blow in the 2018 midterm elections, especially since rural voters were critical to President Trump's success.

Doug Jones (Photo: Birmingham Times)
The race could also be seen as a test of the power of partisanship and tribalism. Moore has been deviled by accusations of sexually harassing and assaulting teenage girls when he was in his 30s, as revealed by The Washington Post. And most Republican senators refused to endorse Moore. But the pull of party is strong in a state where no Democrat has been elected to a statewide position in more than a decade and Moore is a folk hero to many for his jousts with judicial authorities as a judge. Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon emphasized the importance of keeping the seat in Republican hands when he campaigned for Moore "They want to destroy Judge Roy Moore and they want to take your voice away," Bannon said at a recent rally in Fairhope.

The race could also be construed as a referendum on the way rural residents view the news media. Many Alabama Republicans view the accusations against Moore to be a liberal hit job. Bannon, a vocal ally of Moore, said Moore is the victim of an orchestrated conspiracy between the mainstream media and establishment Republicans.

And finally, many view the race as an indicator of how seriously people are willing to take survivors of sexual harassment and assault. As we have reported, victims in rural areas may face additional obstacles because of limited access to support and resources.

Lawmakers, state attorney generals, urge Army Corps of Engineers to act on Asian carp

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel maps; click on the image to enlarge it.
 "A bipartisan group of lawmakers is urging the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers not to further delay its study on how to upgrade a waterway choke point near Lake Michigan to deter Asian carp from reaching the Great Lakes," Melissa Burke reports for The Detroit News.

The Army Corps released a draft in August that detailed a $275 million plan to keep the invasive species from getting into Lake Michigan by using electric barriers and other deterrents at the Brandon Road lock and dam near Joliet, Ill. The original timeline for the project calls for the final version of the report to be done by February 2019.

The Dec. 7 letter co-signed by 26 members of the House urges the Army Corps to stick to that original timeline, saying more delays will increase the likelihood that the carp will reach the Great Lakes. The letter also echoed a similar letter sent to the Army Corps by the senators of Michigan, saying that the process is taking far too long. "Current estimates indicate it will take as long as eight years to have a barrier installed at the Brandon Road Lock and Dam," wrote U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow, co-chair of the Senate Great Lakes Task Force, and Gary Peters. "This timeframe is simply unacceptable with Asian carp having been discovered closer and closer to the Great Lakes, including an adult Asian carp captured above the electric barrier, just nine miles from Lake Michigan" in June.

"Construction of the full upgrades for Brandon Road is likely years away," Burke reports. First, the Army Corps must conduct a feasibility study, then federal and state agencies must review it, then the Chief of Engineers will issue the final report. If Congress authorizes and funds the project, it could be constructed about four years after authorization.

The attorneys general in three Great Lakes states are urging a faster solution: shut down the Brandon Road lock and dam entirely and put up a big concrete wall. Republican Bill Schuette of Michigan and Democrats Lori Swanson of Minnesota and Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania sent a letter to the Army Corps proposing the plan, which they say would cost about $5.9 million.

"The group cites an analysis co-authored by Wayne State University supply chain management professor John C. Taylor and East Lansing transportation consultant James Roach that concludes the Corps overstates the economic impact of closing the dam, which the Corps determined would hit shippers and bulk producers with about $318 million in "lost transportation cost savings," Garret Ellison reports for Michigan Live.

Survey shows young farmers are increasingly female, minority, and environmentally conscious

Young people are bringing much-needed new blood to farming and agriculture, according to a new survey and report from the National Young Farmers Coalition, and they're not shy about getting involved in policy debates about farm and food issues.

Who are they? In a snapshot, they tend to be college-educated and increasingly racially diverse, and many were lured to farming by the increasing demand for local and organic food. About 60 percent of the respondents were women and 75 percent did not grow up on a farm. The survey says they're "strongly committed to environmental stewardship, with 75% of current young farmers describing their practices as 'sustainable,' and 63% describing their farming as 'organic,' though many of them have not sought certification."

But these under-40 farmers can face significant challenges such as lack of land access, student loan debt, knowing about federal aid programs, making a living, and getting affordable health care. Accordingly, NYFC is calling on lawmakers to enact their "Young Farmer Agenda", a raft of suggested policy reforms based on their survey findings that would help young farmers succeed. Suggestions include: "addressing land access and affordability; helping young farmers manage student debt; increasing the skilled agricultural workforce; enabling farmers to invest in on-farm conservation; improving credit, savings, and risk management opportunities for young farmers; and addressing racial inequity among farmers."

Helping young farmers succeed is in the nation's best interests; the average age of today's farmer is 60 years old, and many don't have a family member or other designated successor to pass the land on to at retirement. That means that hundreds of millions of acres of farmland will change hands within the next five years, and qualified farmers are needed to work the land. Some legislators are paying attention, such as Reps. Tim Walz (D-Minn.) and Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.). who introduced the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act in November. The bill proposes a national strategy to address issues farmers face such as "accessing land, building skills, managing risk, reaching financial security and investing in conservation," Bryce Oates reports for The Daily Yonder.

Oates writes that securing permanent funding for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program is also important, since the program funds beginning farmer education, outreach, training and land access. 

Monday, December 11, 2017

Elite colleges change ways, court rural students

Elite universities and colleges say they have tried for years to bring in more students from rural areas, but their own policies have created obstacles for poor, white students. A study of eight selective colleges in 2009 found that poor, white applicants are much less likely to be admitted to elite colleges, even less so if they had been leaders in 4-H or Future Farmers of America. Rural kids who have high GPAs and SAT scores tend to go to state schools or community colleges, if they go to college at all.

Amid increasing skepticism about the cost and worth of college, especially among Trump voters, some such schools have redoubled their efforts. One is Swarthmore College, a private institution just south of Philadelphia which this year "created a recruiting program targeting rural students called Small Town Swarthmore, which helps fund candidates’ visits to the campus," Douglas Belkin reports for The Wall Street Journal.

Public colleges are acting, too. Georgia Tech, the University of North Carolina at Chapel HillColumbia University and Carleton College have all stepped up efforts in recent years to attract more rural students, Belkin reports. "In January, the North Carolina university system approved a plan to increase enrollment of rural students by 11 percent by 2021. Princeton University has expanded its ROTC class and this year is reinstating a transfer program that includes community colleges—both of which disproportionately help students from rural backgrounds." 

It's a problem that needed addressing. "The education gap between rural and urban residents has been growing for decades," Belkin notes. "Though college attendance has risen for both groups, the rural rise has been smaller, and the gap has more than doubled—from seven points in 1980 to 16 points by 2015. Meanwhile, multiple studies have shown admissions biases against rural students with financial needs."

HUD says homelessness decreased in most places this year; secretary urges local solutions

Housing and Urban Development map; click the image to enlarge it.

U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson told reporters on a conference call last week that homelessness is not just a federal problem, but a "societal problem" and that more local solutions could help.

Overall homelessness increased for the first time in seven years, according to HUD's report, though 30 states saw declines in homelessness. Most of the increase was in West Coast cities. The report says rural homelessness decreased, but getting the true numbers can be tricky since the survey is done in late January when many homeless people are able to briefly stay with a friend or spring for a cheap hotel until the weather warms up. Homelessness among veterans has decreased overall, but youth homelessness has increased (partly due to better counting).

During the call, "HUD officials declined to discuss federal budget proposals and funding mechanisms, like Section 8 vouchers, that could ease the local housing crisis, instead emphasizing the importance of communal response and public-private partnerships in spurring future multi-family and mixed-income development," Dave Nyczepir reports for Route Fifty. Increased local funding may be a problem in cash-strapped small towns and rural areas.

Study says accidental gun deaths surged after the post-Sandy Hook spike in gun sales

A study published last week in the journal Science found that a surge in gun purchases after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in December 2012 caused about 60 more deaths than otherwise would have happened, and that 20 of those killed were children -- the same number of children who died in the school shooting. Most of the deaths were caused by improper or inadequate gun storage, not suicide or homicide, researchers Phillip Levine and Robin McKnight found. Some 3 million guns were sold in the months after the shooting, a spike driven by fears that it would cause new restrictions or bans on guns.

The black line is monthly firearm sales. The blue bars are accidental firearm deaths per 100,000 children between December and April of each year. (Wellesley College graph; click on the image to enlarge it)

"The work by two Wellesley College economists tackles one of the biggest questions in gun research: how to measure the relationship between gun prevalence and gun deaths," William Wan reports for The Washington Post. "For decades, hamstrung by lack of funding and the politically charged landscape surrounding gun control, researchers have lacked data to try to answer that question."

Researchers struggle to find meaningful data on whether gun sales, ownership, laws, type of guns, or other factors that influence gun violence since gun ownership data is hidden from the public on a state and federal level. The Sandy Hook shooting offered an opportunity for the researchers to create what is effectively an experimental model to study what happens after a known spike in gun sales. The researchers measured Google searches for terms like "buy a gun," which has correlated with increased gun sales in the past. They also looked at the number of gun purchase background checks. Those numbers correlated with a spike in gun-related deaths, according to databases of nationwide deaths. 

Levine emphasized that it wasn't the Sandy Hook shooting itself that caused that increase in gun sales and deaths, but the fear of potential legislation being passed. It shows "the unintended consequences of public policy," Levine told Wan.

Data analysis shows Trump's EPA has slowed actions against polluters; some small towns suffer

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has promised that regulatory rollbacks don't mean a "free pass" for those who violate environmental laws, but an analysis of EPA enforcement data shows that the Trump administration has taken substantially less action against polluters when compared with the previous two administrations. Small towns may be suffering because of it.

"The Times built a database of civil cases filed at the EPA during the Trump, Obama and Bush administrations. During the first nine months under Mr. Pruitt's leadership, the EPA started about 1,900 cases, about one-third fewer than the number under President Barack Obama's first EPA director and about one-quarter fewer than under President George W. Bush's over the same time period," Eric Lipton and Danielle Ivory report for The New York Times.

That's not the only difference. The EPA sought $50.4 million in civil penalties from polluters in cases initiated after Trump took office, which (adjusted for inflation), is 39 percent of what the Obama administration sought in the same time period and 70 of what the Bush administration sought.

The EPA can force companies to retrofit their factories to decrease pollution, an action known as injunctive relief. Trump's administration has ordered about $1.2 billion worth of such retrofitting; adjusted for inflation, that's 12 percent of what was ordered under Obama and 48 percent of what was ordered under Bush. The Times' data, analysis and methodology was vetted by EPA officials who served under presidents Obama and Bush to ensure accuracy.

Part of the reason for the drop in enforcement may be that EPA enforcement officers no longer have the authority to order certain air and water pollution tests necessary for building a case against polluters without receiving permission from Washington. The Times' records analysis showed a drastic drop in requests for tests after the EPA enforcement officers lost that autonomy.

Another reason for the drop in enforcement may be that offices are simply short-handed. More than 700 employees have left the EPA since January, many of whom were offered buyouts deliberately aimed at reducing the size of the agency. Some higher level political appointments have been left vacant for months also.

"Confidential internal EPA documents show that the enforcement slowdown coincides with major policy changes ordered by Mr. Pruitt's team after pleas from oil and gas industry executives," Lipton and Ivory report.
The Heritage Thermal plant after the July 2013 accident (EPA photo)
 The fallout from the EPA's philosophical change is illustrated clearly in East Liverpool, a small town in Ohio where the residents enthusiastically voted for Trump. Under the Obama administration, the EPA gathered evidence and began a case against Heritage Thermal Services because their hazardous waste incinerator near downtown was repeatedly and illegally polluting the town's air. In 2013 a breach in the incinerator spewed toxic ash containing lead and arsenic into nearby neighborhoods and set off fires at the plant. But under the Trump administrator that EPA has done nothing to punish the plant's owner.

"The Times identified more than a dozen companies or plants like Heritage Thermal that received notices of violation toward the end of the Obama administration, but as of late November had not faced EPA penalties," Lipton and Ivory report. One of them was S.H. Bell, also in East Liverpool, that allowed toxic levels of dust with heavy metals like manganese to drift beyond its property line. Tests found that the area near S.H. Bell had the highest levels of ambient manganese in the U.S., and research led by the University of Cincinnati found that children in East Liverpool appeared to have lower I.Q. scores because of the manganese present in their bodies.

Maine hunter saves buck trapped in frozen lake, says 'These animals are a gift'

Photo by Justin Wyman
Out of rural Maine comes a heartwarming story about an avid hunter who did the last thing anyone might expect by saving a deer from an untimely death.

Justin Wyman, 28, is a crew leader with the Maine Department of Transportation, but in his down time he loves hunting. "I'm not one of those animal-rights people," he told Dugan Arnett of the Boston Globe.

But late last month, on a drive up rural Route 27, he noticed a dark shape floating in a hole in the ice on Flagstaff Lake. He thought it might be a log, but soon realized it was a deer after pulling over to investigate and talking to a state warden already on the scene. He told the warden, Pat Egan, that he had a boat at his house nearby and asked if Egan wanted to help him rescue the six-point buck. Egan and another warden who had just showed up were all for it. But the rescue would be no walk in the park.

"Rescuing a deer in such difficult conditions would be risky. There were 200 yards of ice no more than 2 inches thick between them and the animal," Arnett reports. "They’d have to break a path and find a way to return the creature to safety without getting into trouble themselves. If they ended up in the water, they wouldn’t last long. And there was no way to be sure the deer would survive in any case."

The story of the buck's rescue is recounted in breathtaking detail in the original story (which you should read), but here's the point: the buck lived, and Wyman says he doesn't think it's strange at all to save an animal he otherwise might have hunted.

"You have to have respect for the animal that could potentially provide for you and your family someday," he told Arnett. "Some people take a lot of things for granted, but those animals are a gift."

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Reporters covering rural communities and issues in ProPublica's new Local Reporting Network

Seven local newsrooms and reporters, several of them covering rural communities and issues, have been picked from 239 applicants to start the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.

The nonprofit, investigative news organization created the network "to support investigative journalism at local and regional news organizations, particularly in cities with populations below 1 million," it says. "ProPublica will reimburse the newsrooms for salary for the selected reporters and provide extensive support and guidance for their stories. . . . The projects selected by editors should surprise and probe deeply, with the potential to spur positive change."

The network members include the Malheur Enterprise, a weekly newspaper in Vale, Ore., which will hire Jayme Fraser, now a reporter with The Missoulian in Montana, as a third reporter. "Fraser will build on the Enterprise’s work investigating the circumstances of the release by state officials of [a man] accused of murder and assault following his release," the Enterprise reports. "Fraser will delve into Oregon’s system for dealing with those guilty of crimes but insane."

Others whom ProPublica selected for the reporting network are:

Molly Parker, a reporter for The Southern Illinoisan in Carbondale. She "plans to focus on issues related to low-income and federally subsidized housing, particularly, she said, where it concerns the health and safety of residents and the viability of the surrounding communities and neighborhoods in high-poverty areas," the SI reports. "For the past two and a half years, Parker has reported on severe mismanagement of funds and facilities and the neglect of Alexander County's housing projects, which led HUD to take over the local housing authority. HUD is relocating residents from complexes known as McBride and Elmwood and plans to demolish them once everyone has moved."

Ken Ward Jr. of the Charleston Gazette-Mail, the leading environmental reporter in Appalachia, "will be investigating the effects of West Virginia’s economic transition as the coal industry declines and natural gas has become a more dominant industry," the newspaper reports. ProPublica reports, "In 2014, when a chemical leak contaminated the drinking water of hundreds of thousands of people, Ward exposed significant flaws in federal safety guidelines for the chemicals and in the state’s water sampling program. His disclosures led to the appointment of an independent scientific team to examine the spill’s impacts." He told the Columbia Journalism Review a few years ago,“I can’t think of many places that are in need of good journalism more than West Virginia is, or what higher calling journalists have than to try to write stories that make their home a better place.”

Rebekah Allen, a reporter for The Advocate in Baton Rouge, La., which also covers New Orleans. The newspaper hasn't reported what she will be working on. ProPublica reports, "She is a member of the paper’s small team of reporters focused on investigative projects and enterprise stories. Last year, she produced a three-part series highlighting how the state’s powerful nursing home lobby fought off efforts to make it easier for the elderly and disabled to receive care in their homes."

Rebecca Moss of the Santa Fe New Mexican, "who has covered energy and environment issues for the paper since 2015," it reports, also without revealing what she and ProPublica will investigate. ProPublica reports, "Last year, she co-wrote an article about how a company that processes and distributes fertilizers and other agricultural products had found a friendlier regulatory climate under the state’s Republican governor than under her predecessor. And this year, she wrote about how a New Mexico town had stepped up to be part of a nuclear waste disposal experiment, even as other states and towns had balked."

Abe Aboraya, a Health News Florida reporter based at WMFE in Orlando. "Aboraya has covered the deadly shooting at the Pulse nightclub and produced an hour-long documentary and podcast on the health care workers who responded to the massacre," ProPublica reports. "Aboraya has also looked at HIV’s impact in Florida and how state budget cuts have reduced access to prenatal care."

Christian Sheckler of the South Bend Tribune, who has covered police and public safety stories for the northeast Indiana paper "and recently took on a new assignment covering education," it reports, without revealing what he will work on. His executive editor told him recently that there are two types of police reporters: "Those who try to make friends with officers and get rewarded with juicy tips about crimes, and those who press for answers on such thorny topics as civil rights, misconduct and accountability." He has chosen the second approach, and “That hasn’t gotten me invited to any barbecues,” he wrote in his application, “but I believe I’ve better served my readers with aggressive reporting on issues such as excessive force, the imperfect protective order system for domestic battery victims and policies on deadly high-speed police chases.”

Friday, December 08, 2017

Coal CEO Robert Murray slams Senate tax bill

Coal CEO Robert Murray of Murray Energy warned that the Senate tax reform bill would destroy thousands of coal mining jobs if it's enacted, calling it a "mockery" that will put a huge tax hike on the coal industry and other companies with a similar financial structure. "This wipes out everything that President Trump has done for coal," he told Matt Egan in an interview with CNNMoney.

The Senate tax bill would lower the corporate tax rate, but preserve the Alternative Minimum Tax rate and limit the interest payments that businesses can write off. Murray Energy and other coal companies borrow heavily to pay for expensive mining operations, but the Senate tax bill would limit the amount of interest payments they can write off to 30 percent of the company's income. Murray estimates that change would increase his company's tax bill by $60 million a year.

"Auto dealers would also have been harmed by the Senate bill's interest deduction cap. But, after fierce lobbying from auto dealers, the Senate made a last-minute change to the legislation that exempts them from the interest deduction cap," Egan reports.

The House bill is much more favorable to Murray, as it eliminates the AMT. Without the AMT, companies could claim so many tax deductions that they could owe nothing in taxes.

N.D. walks back a new rule for dicamba use

North Dakota recently announced statewide rules restricting the use of the controversial herbicide dicamba, after increasing reports of crop damage, but the state Agriculture Department has now changed its mind about one of the new rules.

"The state Agriculture Department has decided not to require farmers or others who apply dicamba to first notify the agency, but it will maintain a restriction on when it can be sprayed," Blake Nicholson reports for the Associated Press. "Both decisions are in keeping with the overall goal of mitigating herbicide drift that can damage neighboring fields, state Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring said." Goehring decided to walk back the rule because application information will be available through federal record-keeping requirements, so an extra law isn't necessary.

North Dakota and Arkansas have introduced state-specific rules on dicamba use, feeling that the federal regulations approved by the Environmental Protection Agency aren't doing enough to limit crop damage by the notoriously volatile herbicide. "The Environmental Protection Agency in October announced a deal with agribusinesses Monsanto, BASF and DuPont under which dicamba products will be labeled as 'restricted use,' requiring additional training and certifications for those who use it and limiting when and how it can be sprayed," Nicholson reports.

CMS cuts threaten access to critical diagnostic tests

Some rural patients and outpatient health care providers may face some new obstacles when a Medicare reimbursement change goes into effect Jan. 1. The Health and Human Services' Office of Inspector General found a few years ago that Medicare pays 18 percent to 30 percent more than other insurers for some lab tests, and the program pays about $7 billion a year overall for clinical diagnostic laboratory tests, Virgil Dickson reports for Modern Healthcare. That led to the Protecting Access to Medicare Act of 2014, which aims to save almost $4 billion over 10 years by only allowing Medicare to pay the same rate for tests as private payers.

The tests that will take the biggest hit in reimbursement rates are genetic tests that offer risk scores for breast and colon cancers. Reimbursement will increase for tests that check for genetic disorders found in Ashkenazi Jews, Noonan spectrum disorders, oncology tumor testers, lung oncology tests, and mRNA breast oncology tests.

Some doctors and clinicians are worried that higher prices will lead to a decrease in patients agreeing to be tested for certain cancers, which could increase cancer diagnoses and deaths. "The lab community is lobbying both the CMS and Congress to push the pause button on the cuts over concerns that the CMS didn't use sound methodology to determine the new rates, Dickson reports.

The problem, the lab community says, is that the CMS exempted many labs from reporting what private insurance companies pay for the tests. The labs the CMS collected their data from were the biggest ones that received volume discounts from test manufacturers, leading to an inaccurate picture of what labs usually cost. Smaller, more rural labs often pay much more for tests.

John Cullen, a rural doctor from Valdez, Alaska, told Dickson that he's worried that his patients' care may suffer if he's not able to get reimbursement for some of the more expensive same-day testing. Many of his patients must travel more than 100 miles to get access to health care, and can't afford to come back later for test results.

"Unlike the hospital industry, which is suing the CMS to stop a planned cut to the federal discount drug program known as 340B, labs for now aren't pursing legal action, but may reconsider," Dickson reports.

Perdue to allow low-fat flavored milk in school again; dairy industry happy but nutritionists worry

Associated Press photo
 Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced last week that schools will be allowed to offer low-fat (1%) flavored milk at breakfast and lunch in the 2018-2019 school year. Currently, flavored milks must be fat-free to be offered in school meal and a la carte sales, unless a school applies for a special exemption and can demonstrate that not offering the low-fat flavored milks has led to a reduction in student milk consumption or an increase in school milk waste. The ban on low-fat flavored milks was instituted in 2012, and resulted in "a large drop in milk consumption in schools. Students consumed 288 million fewer half-pints of milk from 2012-2015, even though public school enrollment was growing," Morning Ag Clips reports.

The rule change on milk is part of a larger package rolling back Obama-era school lunch regulations. It also halts a plan to make school lunches lower in sodium, and loosens regulations requiring schools to serve meals rich in whole grains.

Jamie Mara, spokesperson of the Dairy Business Milk Marketing Cooperative, praised the move because he said some kids might not like the taste of fat-free milk and wouldn't drink as much. Even though flavored milks have added sugar, he said the protein and nutrients students will get mean flavored milk is still a healthy option in moderation, Hope Kirwan reports for Wisconsin Public Radio.

But Cassandra Vanderwall, a clinical nutritionist from the University of Wisconsin Health, disagreed. "I don't think flavoring milk or giving a child chocolate-flavored xyz to get them to eat it because it has some nutritional component is a good idea or a good message," she told Kirwan.

Webinar to discuss CDC report on racial and ethnic minority health disparities in rural communities

Rural communities often have worse health outcomes and less access to health care than metro communities, but health disparities also exist within rural areas for racial and ethnic minorities. The Rural Health Information Hub will host a free webinar to discuss racial and ethnic health disparities in rural communities as addressed in a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report. The presenters will also discuss current efforts to address these disparities.

The webinar will take place at 2 p.m. EST on Dec. 18, and will last about one hour. The session will be moderated by Tom Morris, director of the Health Resources & Services Administration Federal Office of Rural Health Policy. Featured speakers will be:
  • Cara James, PhD, Director, CMS Office of Minority Health and co-chair of CMS Rural Health Council (one of the authors of the study)
  • Jeffrey Hall, PhD, MSPH, Deputy Associate Director for Science, CDC Office of Minority Health & Health Equity (another author of the study)
  • Palo Verde Hospital, FORHP Outreach Grantee
  • Innis Community Health Center, FORHP Outreach Grantee 
Click here to register or for more information. A recording will be available on the website after the webinar.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

Time gives rural America its due in 'Person of the Year' story about 'The Silence Breakers'

Isabel Pascual (Time photo)
When Time magazine announced that its Persons of the Year were "The Silence Breakers," the victims of sexual harassment and assault who came forward with their stories, some were quick to dismiss it as a celebrity-oriented movement. Yes, two women on the cover are entertainers Ashley Judd and Taylor Swift. But sexual misconduct affects men and women all over the country, and the story included rural residents and concerns.

On the left side of the cover photo is a woman, originally from Mexico, who picks strawberries in California. Her name is given as Isabel Pascual, but it's a pseudonym to protect her family from reprisal after she spoke out about the dangers faced by migrant farmworkers.

An anonymous victim from rural
Texas, on the cover. (Time photo)
And at the far right, not even a face: an elbow. Time explained in an editorial that the arm belongs to an anonymous young hospital worker from Texas who fears that coming forward about being harassed would subject her family to reprisal. "She is faceless on the cover and remains nameless inside Time’s red borders, but her appearance is an act of solidarity, representing all those who are not yet able to come forward and reveal their identities," Melissa Chan writes for the magazine.

MSNBC's Joe Scarborough addressed the point directly yesterday during a "Morning Joe" interview with some of the editors at Time: "So the question is, we certainly have heard from a lot of people who've been harassed by famous people in the media and politics and in Hollywood. How does this movement spread to Middle America, where people who aren't working for the rich and famous get just as much justice from somebody that's harassing them in Demopolis, Alabama?"

The magazine's representation of the anonymous Native American
Kira Pollack, director of photography and visual enterprise at Time, replied, "It was really important to us to report not only the famous and the notable but also the unknown, the women who represent a much larger swath of the culture." For example, a young Native American office assistant who spoke to the magazine said she quit her job after a co-worker began harassing her. She says she felt trapped because she didn't think her colleagues or family on her small, conservative reservation would believe her.

Sexual harassment or assault survivors in rural areas may face additional obstacles because of "limited access to support services for victims, familial connections with those in positions of authority, a lack of cultural acceptance for alternative lifestyles, distance, transportation barriers, the stigma of abuse, lack of available shelters, and poverty as a barrier to care, among other challenges," the Rural Health Information Hub reports. "In small communities there is often an overlap among health-care providers, law enforcement officers, and abuse victims. Therefore, some people may be reluctant to report abuse, fearing that their concerns will not be taken seriously or that their reputations may be damaged."

Volunteer firefighters are a critical first line of defense, but new membership keeps dwindling

As a record year for wildfires draws to a close, with the Los Angeles area battling three large new fires right now, editor Burt Rutherford of Beef magazine worries about the future of rural firefighting. Most rural areas are protected by volunteer firefighters, but it may be tough to keep recruiting them if wildfires continue to be a major challenge in years to come.

Rutherford writes in a blog post about an interesting conversation he had after speaking at the Oregon Cattlemen's Association's annual convention last week. Wes Morgan, the manager of the Burnt River Irrigation District in Baker City, told Rutherford he was also the chief of the Powder River Rural Fire Protection District, a volunteer fire department that provides fire and EMS services to "a fair chunk of ranchland in Eastern Oregon." Morgan told Rutherford he was having a hard time recruiting younger members of the community to volunteer for the fire department, and worried about having enough people on hand to respond to a disaster.

"Volunteer fire departments are the first responders in any kind of fire, whether it’s a wildfire on private land or your barn burning down," Rutherford writes. "Wes told me that volunteer firefighters have to go through the same training as firefighters who do it for a living, and it’s getting harder and harder to find people willing to invest the time and energy to be a volunteer."

According to the National Fire Protection Association, the vast majority of firefighters in the U.S. are volunteers serving in small communities; of an estimated 1.1 million firefighters in the U.S. in 2014, 788,250 (69 percent) were active volunteer firefighters. And though 70 percent of career firefighters serve communities of 25,000 or more, 95 percent of volunteer firefighters serve communities of fewer than 25,000 people, and more than half of those serve communities of fewer than 2,500.

But though the number of calls to fire departments has increased by 166 percent since the mid-1980s, the number of volunteer firefighters in the U.S. has declined by 12 percent, according to a report by the National Volunteer Fire Council. Some of the reasons for the decline cited by the report include:
  • Economic realities: Economic conditions make it more necessary than ever for families to have more than one income. This is especially true in rural communities that have lost businesses and jobs. Many who would volunteer must instead work long hours or multiple jobs. Employers, also squeezed financially, are less tolerant of employees taking time off to volunteer.
  • Training requirements: The days of on-the-job firefighting training are long gone. Volunteers must meet stringent qualification standards and federal requirements. At the same time, the public expects a broad range of response services (emergency medical, hazmat, technical rescue, etc.) from their fire departments, each of which requires extensive additional training.
  • Increasing call volume: False alarms (due in part to the propagation of automatic alarm systems) and the public’s increased reliance on (and sometimes abuse of) response services, especially emergency medical services, mean that volunteer responders are busier than ever, and often overwhelmed.
  • Sociological changes: Even in many rural communities, community coherence and pride are waning, and volunteerism is less valued. Younger people are seeking education and employment away from home and are less focused on community involvement.

Meat and poultry workers achieve best workplace safety year ever in 2016

U.S. Dept. of Agriculture photo

"U.S. meat and poultry packers and processors continued to make significant progress in workplace safety in 2016, as the newly released Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) incidence rate for non-fatal occupational injuries and illnesses reached an all-time industry low," Morning Ag Clips reports.

In 2016 there were 5.3 occupational injuries and illnesses per 100 full-time workers in the meat and poultry industry, down from 5.4 in 2015; the number of non-fatal occupational injuries and illnesses has decreased more than 36 percent since 2007. Of those 5.3 average cases. 3.8 were serious injuries, down from 3.7 in 2015. Those figures do not count temporary or part-time workers.

"In the early 1990s, the Meat Institute declared worker safety a non-competitive issue, which encouraged member companies to collaborate to find solutions that prioritized and enhanced worker safety," Morning Ag Clips reports. "The meat industry, together with Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union, also developed Voluntary Ergonomic Guidelines for the Meat Packing Industry — guidelines that OSHA called a 'model' for other industries."

Rural schools may have been hurt by state tax incentives for wind farms in Kansas

The wind industry is booming in Kansas, but tax incentives that state officials used to lure foreign wind-farm investors may have hurt rural schools. The incentives sparked a decade-long wind boom in the state, which is one of only five that gets more than 20 percent of its power from wind (the others are Iowa, Oklahoma, and the Dakotas).

But because of those exemptions, almost $630 million of wind-farm equipment will never be taxed. If it were, it would generate around $82 million a year for the 24 rural counties with wind farms. "Of that amount, more than $32 million a year would go to rural school districts in those counties, according to revenue-department estimates. And that doesn’t include five wind farms that have yet to be evaluated," Mike McGraw and Ryan Hennessy report for Flatland, the digital magazine of Kansas City PBS. The report was done in collaboration with the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, an independent nonprofit news outlet based in Illinois.
Flatland graphic; click on the image to enlarge it.
Kansas' largest wind farm, the $1 billion Flat Ridge project, spans 70,000 acres near the Oklahoma border. It's owned partly by British Petroleum, and it doesn't pay any property taxes on its generators that could fund local schools and services. The lost revenue is partly made up by state subsidies.

"That lost revenue has far-reaching consequences for a state with more than its share of financially struggling rural school districts and a shortfall of hundreds of millions of dollars in constitutionally required school funding, at least according to a Kansas Supreme Court ruling in October," McGraw and Hennessy report. Rural school districts are having a harder time hiring and keeping good teachers, partly because they pay teachers the lowest salaries in the country.

Kansas wind farms have agreed to make small "payments in lieu of taxes" in those counties, but it's only a fraction of what the taxes would be, Flatland reports. Wind industry officials say the lost taxes are worth it because of the thousands of jobs created and the more than $16 million a year paid to Kansas land owners each year for land leases. 

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

Smaller news outlets can affect national debates on public-policy issues, through social media

"In an age that relies on internet publication and social-media dispersal, even small- to medium-size media outlets can have a dramatic impact on the content and partisan balance of the national conversation about major public-policy issues," according to research by a Harvard University political scientist's research, Peter Reuell reports for the university.

University Professor Gary King
The average print circulation of the 48 newspapers in the study by University Professor Gary King was 50,000, so we’re not talking rural journalism here, but the five-year study suggests that a similar phenomenon could exist on a smaller scale or a state level among news outlets with smaller audiences.

"I would guess that something similar might work on a smaller scale, but we'd have to study the issue to be sure, of course. It would also be interesting to study what happens if a group of local sites collaborate on stories, along the lines the outlets did for our study," King told The Rural Blog.

King and two former students, Benjamin Schneer of Florida State University and Ariel White of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, "found that if just three outlets wrote about a major national policy topic — such as jobs, the environment, or immigration — discussion of that topic across social media rose by more than 62 percent, and the balance of opinion in the national conversation could be swayed by several percentage points," Reuell reports.

King told Reuell, “These national conversations about major policy areas are essential to democracy. Today this conversation takes place, in part, in some of the 750,000,000 publicly available social media posts written by people every day — and all available for research. At one time, the national conversation was whatever was said in the public square, where people would get up on a soapbox, or when they expressed themselves in newspaper editorials or water-cooler debates. This is a lot of what democracy is about. The fact that the media has such a large influence on the content of this national conversation is crucial for everything from the ideological balance of the nation’s media outlets, to the rise of fake news, to the ongoing responsibility of professional journalists.”

Census releases annual estimates of poverty and income for counties and school districts

Census Bureau map; for a larger version, click on it or go here.
The Census Bureau has released its latest income and poverty estimates for every county and school district in the United States. The release provides the only single-year income and poverty statistics for all 3,141 counties and 13,245 school districts. The tables and maps provide statistics on the number of people in poverty, the number of children in poverty, and median household income in each county. At the school-district level, estimates are available for the total population and the number of children aged 5 to 17 in poverty.

The South as a whole is struggling, with almost 40 percent of its counties reporting a poverty rate above 20 percent in 2016. The dataset was created to guide allocations of federal education funds for high-poverty school districts, but some other state and local programs also use it to allocate funds and manage programs. The figures also provide a good opportunity for local economic reporting.

The Lexington Herald-Leader used the data to show that Appalachia is still struggling to recover from the Great Recession, with nine of the poorest 30 counties in the U.S. in Eastern Kentucky. Part of the region's problem is the declining coal industry, which has erased more than two-thirds of the coal jobs in Eastern Kentucky since 2011. Road improvement projects, new fiber-optic broadband lines and growth in work-from-home jobs are helping, but "There's not enough jobs," Cale Turner, judge-executive of Owsley County, with the third-highest poverty rate in the nation, told reporter Bill Estep. Here's the Herald-Leader's poverty map; click on it for a larger version.
Herald-Leader graphic; click on the image to enlarge it.

2/3 of rural counties have fewer jobs than in 2007

Daily Yonder map shows job growth or loss. The Yonder report has an interactive version.
"The number of jobs in rural America increased in the last year, but rural counties remain well below their pre-recession employment level," The Daily Yonder reports. "Only 40 percent of urban counties have fewer jobs now than in 2007. In rural America, however, two-thirds of the counties had fewer jobs in October than in 2007. . . . Pike County, in Kentucky’s coal country, lost over 5,000 jobs. Chautauqua County in New York has lost over 11,600 jobs since 2007."

Rural unemployment rates have dropped since 2007, "not because there are more jobs, but because the total workforce has shrunk. Since 2007, the total number of people working or looking for a job in rural counties has dropped by nearly 1.1 million people," Bill Bishop writes. In the last year, the rural workforce shrank by 27,000. The number of rural jobs increased by fewer than 200,000 from October 2016 to October 2017. The report includes an interactive map with Bureau of Labor Statistics data for each county.

Fugitive Ky. lawyer, who pled guilty to massive disability-benefit fraud, is captured in Honduras

Eric Conn, shown at a Honduras Pizza Hut
immediately before his arrest. (FBI photo)
An Eastern Kentucky lawyer who disappeared after pleading guilty to massive Social Security disability fraud, was arrested by the FBI at a Pizza Hut in Honduras on Dec. 2, six months to the day after the manhunt began.

Eric Conn "once had one of the biggest practices in the country specializing in representing people seeking disability benefits from the Social Security Administration," Bill Estep reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. He pleaded guilty in March to bribes of a Social Security judge totaling more than $600,000, and defrauding the government of more than $550 million in benefits by putting false evidence of clients' disabilities in their claims and paying doctors to sign off on disability forms without actually examining the patients. About 700 of his clients have kept their disability benefits, but 800 lost them.

Conn was on house arrest while awaiting his July sentencing, but after a June 2 meeting with his attorney and prosecutors, he cut off his ankle monitor and fled. An accomplice, Curtis Lee Wyatt, allegedly helped him escape by opening a bank account used to send money out of the country to Conn. He also bought Conn a truck and drove to Mexico to scope out the security.

While on the lam, Conn sent emails and faxes to the Herald-Leader and others. "Some of those messages poked the government for not being able to catch him. He said in one message to a prosecutor on his case, Dustin Davis, that when he fled he 'knew the game was afoot' and that he had learned the FBI’s playbook before he left," Estep reports. "The message from mid-June also said the FBI 'could not be more wrong' about his whereabouts."

Read more here: http://www.kentucky.com/news/state/article188133589.html#storylink=cpy
What comes next for Conn? Because he fled the country, he forfeited the terms of his plea deal, which would have dropped more than a dozen charges from the original rap sheet. So now he faces a possible life sentence if convicted. And he was tried and sentenced in absentia to 12 years in prison on charges of conspiracy and escape.

Rural newspaper owner poisoned with thallium

Joe Soldwedel
The co-owner of a small-town Arizona daily has been poisoned with what could have been lethal levels of thallium and other metals, probably deliberately. Joseph Soldwedel, who is also the co-publisher of The Daily Courier in Prescott, sought medical help after a lengthy unexplained illness. Medical toxicologists found dangerously high levels of thallium, lithium, aluminum, barium, and zinc in Soldwedel’s body, Richard Haddad reports for the Courier.

No other environmental factors would explain the presence of the metals in Soldwedel’s body. One of the nation’s leading toxicologists, Dr. Ernest Chiodo, wrote in his report that “The test findings are highly suggestive, but not confirmatory, of an intentional poisoning with an intent to kill.” Soldwedel, 65, is expected to recover.

Soldwedel sought to quash any rumors in the small community about the source of the poisoning. “While the newspaper owner said he has a good idea of who might be behind the possible deliberate poisonings, he does not want to make that information public until police and the county attorney have finished their review and potential charges have been filed or arrests made,” Haddad reports. “He did say that his son, daughter and lone sibling [sister] are in no way involved.”

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

3 new Nieman fellowships will be for journalists from undercovered areas, smaller newsrooms

For 80 years, journalists from all over America and the world have been able to spend a year at Harvard University on fellowships sponsored by the Nieman Foundation. Most of them have come from large or relatively large news outlets. Now the foundation and the Abrams Foundation are creating three annual fellowships for "journalists who work in communities undercovered by existing news organizations and are from smaller newsrooms that don’t have the resources — whether technical skills or money or time — to pursue investigative work," Nieman announced today.

"There’s no restriction on medium: radio journalists, podcast editors, freelancers, daily newspaper reporters, TV reporters are all welcome to apply," the foundation says. "Nor is there any lower limit on the size of the applicants’ home newsroom, but applicants’ newsrooms should be willing to support their proposed projects through the fieldwork phase of the fellowship," which can last up to nine months following two semesters at Harvard.

Nieman Curator Ann Marie Lipinski said, "Some of the greatest, most noble public-service journalism in this country has come from small staffs working hard to shed light or right wrongs in their communities. The work of Jerry Mitchell of the Jackson, Mississippi, Clarion-Ledger, to solve civil rights cold cases — work that sent Ku Klux Klan members to prison. Stories about the mismanagement of natural-gas royalties owed to thousands of land owners published in Virginia’s tiny Bristol Herald Courierstories that won the Pulitzer Prize for public service reporting. The Charleston Gazette-Mail’s relentless digging to expose the opioid traffic into West Virginia counties with the nation’s worst overdose death rates, also a Pulitzer winner."

Lipinski added, "Harvard University and the Nieman community offer abundant opportunities to acquire knowledge and skills to help our fellows decode the world around them and explain it to others. We’re eager to hear from journalists who would benefit from that education and support.

The sorts of markets and newsrooms we’ll be looking for are those that, without this support, might not be able to do this work."

Applications for the 2018-19 Abrams Nieman Fellowships are open to U.S. journalists until Feb. 15. For more information on how to apply, visit the Nieman Foundation page.

Wind-energy growth could stall under tax proposals

The renewable-energy industry is booming across the U.S., but it could face challenges, depending on what the final tax-reform bill looks like after the House and Senate reconcile their differences. CBS MoneyWatch reports that 86 percent of the nation's wind capacity was in Republican congressional districts in 2016, and much of the job growth is happening in rural areas.
CBS MoneyWatch map; click on the image to enlarge it.
The Senate bill would retain the tax credits that have spurred huge growth in renewable energy, but would impose the alternative minimum tax on these companies’ foreign transactions. "If they have to pay a minimum tax, they may no longer have any need for the credits acquired through tax-equity deals," Brian Eckhouse reports for Bloomberg. That could cripple the industry, because a critical source of investment comes from multinational corporations that invest in tax equity for solar and wind farms.

Ken Silverstein writes for Forbes, "The Senate bill would treat the investment tax credits provided to the wind and solar industries as income. Right now, projects are eligible to receive 30 percent tax credits — incentives that have led to the development of $50 billion in renewable energy facilities, say advocates, and something that could come to a screeching halt if the bankers and financiers that are backing them stop doing so."
The House bill would retroactively change the rules that dictate how wind developers qualify for production and investment tax credits, meaning that developers depending on the credits would have to eat the costs or abandon the project. "The Texas wind industry supported upwards of 22,000 direct and indirect jobs and accounted for annual lease payments to landowners of more than $60 million in 2016, according to AWEA," the American Wind Energy Association, John Austin reports for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. in Texas, where "wind-generation capacity for the first time exceeded installed coal-fired generation capacity" in October.

Trump slashes 2 Utah national monuments, draws lawsuits from Indians and environmentalists

Yesterday in Salt Lake City President Trump reduced the area of two major national monuments in Utah and split them into five new monuments. No president had ever done such a thing, and Native American tribes and environmentalists quickly filed lawsuits to stop it. "Several high-value sites the original monuments were designed to protect are left out," Brian Maffly reports for The Salt Lake Tribune.

Bears Ears National Monument, created by Barack Obama as he left office, was slashed from 1.35 million acres to 202,000 acres, and split into two new monuments: Shash Jaa (Navajo for Bears Ears) and Indian Creek. Grand Staircase-Escalante, created by Bill Clinton in 2001, was reduced from 1.9 million acres to 1 million, and was split into three new monuments: Grand Staircase, Kaiparowits  and Escalante Canyon. "Trump’s order specifically authorizes grazing in the Bears Ears area as well as motorized recreation and American Indian gathering of wood and herbs, and it asks Congress to pass legislation to mandate co-management by tribal leaders," Thomas Burr and Lee Davidson report for the Tribune.
The original Bears Ears National Monument (light pink) and new ones in red: Indian Creek at top, and Shash Jaa at bottom. Brown dots are sites proposed for oil and gas development. (Click here for interactive map)
Formerly protected areas that were cut from the monuments include Cedar Mesa and Elk Ridge. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said more than 400,000 acres of Cedar Mesa is "inaccessible wilderness" and can't be effectively monitored and protected by the Interior. He said that as a wilderness, it is protected more than it would be as a monument. The Kaiparowits boundaries were drawn in jagged lines apparently meant to free up some of the plateau's rich coal seams to mining.  Paleontologist Jeff Eaton, who has worked on the plateau for more than 30 years, told Maffly that the new boundaries for Kaiparowits were a "land management nightmare." Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, wrote on Fox News that national-park lovers should applaud Trump's move because over-reaching monument proclamations "have strained land management budgets and limited public access to beautiful places."
The original Grand Staircase-Escalante (light blue) and new monuments in dark blue, L-R: Grand Staircase, Kaiparowits, and Escalante Canyons. (Click here for interactive map)
Zinke said no land removed from monument status will be sold or transferred, and will return to its previous status as wilderness, national forest, or land managed by the Bureau of Land Management. "Raising the possibility of drilling and mining inside that monument’s former boundaries, 10 environmental groups filed a federal lawsuit in Washington, D.C., alleging the Antiquities Act does not allow presidents to diminish or rescind monument designations by their predecessors," Burr and Davidson report. A similar claim is made in a suit filed by five Native American tribes: Hopi, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute, Pueblo of Zuni, and Ute Indian), Courtney Tanner reports for the Tribune.

What would net neutrality look like in rural areas?

The Federal Communications Commission will soon vote on -- and likely pass, along party lines -- a proposal to roll back net-neutrality rules. Those rules force internet service providers to allow access to all web content at the same speed. Without neutrality, ISPs could force web hosts to pay tolls for faster access, and throttle access speed or even block access for those who don't pay up.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a former Verizon attorney, says neutrality rules stifle broadband development in rural America. But some public-interest groups say rolling back these regulations could hurt rural communities, reports KELO-FM in Pierre, S.D.

Jessica Gonzales, deputy director and senior counsel for Free Press, told KELO that most rural communities only have one ISP, which would be able to do as it pleased if net neutrality were repealed. "We can't vote with our feet when it comes to how we're getting our access to the Internet and that really is the main reason why we need to regulate Internet access providers – to ensure that they're not blocking, throttling or prioritizing certain traffic on the Internet," Gonzales said.

Cash-strapped small businesses in rural areas could be at the mercy of ISP access fees, she said. "If rural folks do not have net neutrality, it means that they will not be guaranteed that they can reach (an) audience, that they can reach customers if they're running a business from their home, and that they will have equal access to the news and information and things they need to survive and thrive."

N.D. joins states restricting herbicide dicamba

North Dakota has set new rules for using the herbicide dicamba on soybeans, after increasing reports of crop damage by farmers who aren't using the controversial product. Under the new rules, North Dakota farmers may not use dicamba on certain kinds of soybeans after June 30, or the crop's first bloom phase, whichever comes first. Violations could carry a fine of up to $5,000, Blake Nicholson reports for The Associated Press.

Dicamba is known for its volatility; it can evaporate after being applied and drift onto neighboring farms. It has been used for decades, but was used only before crops sprouted. But since the introduction of cotton and soybeans genetically engineered to resist dicamba, it can be sprayed on crops that are already growing. Recent research from the University of Missouri indicates that about 4 percent of all soybeans planted in the U.S., more than 3.6 million acres, were damaged by dicamba this year, and other crops, gardens, and trees were also damaged.

University of Missouri map; click on the image to enlarge it.

After mounting complaints from farmers, including more than 200 in North Dakota this year, dicamba manufacturers Monsanto, BASF and DuPont made a deal with the Environmental Protection Agency last month to voluntarily require stricter labeling for dicamba products, and also to require more training for applicators and limits to how and when it can be sprayed.

Arkansas has also further restricted dicamba, and Monsanto is suing that state. But Monsanto Vice President of Global Strategy Scott Partridge said that that was a last-resort tactic, and the company wants to focus on urging North Dakota officials to be more flexible on the June 30 cutoff date. "Monsanto also is taking other steps in all states, such as setting up a technical support call center and distributing the proper spray nozzles to applicators free of charge," Nicholson reports.