Saturday, July 28, 2007

Map and tables from Food & Water Watch give state and major-county data on factory farms

Food & Water Watch, a group opposed to "corporate control of food and water," this week released what is says is the "first-ever national map charting factory farms to illustrate how these facilities are concentrated in some regions of the country." For the group's press release, click here.

The map shows how states rank in the number of concentrated animal feeding operations for beef and dairy cattle, hogs and chickens (which can be separated by broilers, which are concentrated in the Southeast, and layers, which are widely scattered). Clicking on a state gives the number of CAFOs counted in the 2002 Census of Agriculture. A chart gives the top 30 counties in each category, called "top polluters."

Be sure to click on the map's Methodology button, because the Environmental Protection Agency's definition of a CAFO is complex and the Census of Agriculture "does not measure data based on the same exact criteria," the group says.

Appalachia may be growing -- in one sense, with addition of counties to the ARC region

The Appalachian Regional Commission's service area, which defines "official Appalachia," includes many counties that most Americans would not think of as Appalachian -- such as those on the southern tier of New York and in northeast Mississippi, the two extremities of the commission's boundaries. Those regions were included mainly to boost political support in Congress for the ARC when it was created in 1965, and the loose socioeconomic criteria have allowed additions of several counties over the years.

Now the U.S. House has passed a bill, House Resolution 799, that would add 13 counties to the region, making a total of 423 eligible for funding and other favors from the commission. Generally from north to south, here are the counties that would be added in each state, with the county seat in parentheses:

Ohio: Ashtabula (Ashtabula), Mahoning (Youngstown), Trumbull (Warren), all bordering ARC counties in Pennsylvania, and Fayette (Washington Court House), which would be the first "official Appalachian" county with a segment of Interstate 71 -- a striking illustration of the region's expansion beyond the highlands.

Kentucky: Robertson (Mount Olivet), the state's smallest county, at only 2,200 people; adjoining Nicholas (Carlisle), the southern half of which is in the Inner Bluegrass Region, well removed from the mountains; and Metcalfe (Edmonton), long mostly surrounded by ARC counties. It became even more of a cartographic anomaly a few years ago, when the region gained Hart County, adjoining on the northwest, and Edmonson, west of Hart, creating a western ARC appendage that included Mammoth Cave National Park but included counties with low per-capita incomes, a key criterion for the commission's work.

Virginia: Henry (Martinsville), a Piedmont county but one that has seen big reversals in its major industries of tobacco, textiles and furniture, and is served by Appalachian Power Co.; and Patrick (Stuart), a hilly county that includes Bull Mountain and a segment of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Where the parkway crosses US 58 is a place with one of our favorite names, Meadows of Dan (source of the Dan River). Now, please, forgive us this little tangent: Just southwest of Meadows of Dan, the parkway intersects and parallels Mayberry Church Road. Perhaps that was the source of a fictional town name for Andy Griffith, who grew up in Mount Airy, N.C., the next town of any size if you keep heading southwest. That's in Surry County; it and Stokes County, to the east and away from the Blue Ridge, are already in the ARC region. For regional maps, click here.

Tennessee: Lewis (Hohenwald), Lawrence (Lawrenceburg), Giles (Pulaski) and Lincoln (Fayetteville). That string of counties runs more west-east than north-south, and adding them would reduce a mapping anomaly while creating others. It would add three of the seven Tennessee counties that border ARC counties in Alabama and Mississippi, but adding Lewis (named for explorer Meriwether Lewis, who died there under mysterious circumstances on the Natchez Trace) would be a northwesterly extension of the region. And the change would create a big notch by omitting Moore County, home of the Jack Daniel Distillery at Lynchburg.

Rural-connected stocks dropped even more than the Dow in a very bad week for the market

"It wasn’t a good week for any stock index," and especially not for the Yonder 40, an index created four weeks ago by the Daily Yonder, the new rural-news site with a political bent. "The Yonder 40 fell 6.7 percent this week, dropping the 40-stock index of the rural economy below its beginning level of July 1," the Yonder reports. "The Dow was down 4.2 percent in the week. The NASDAQ was down 4.7 percent and the Standard and Poor’s 500 index was off 4.9 percent. All the indexes are below their levels of July 1."

All the Yonder 40 stocks were down for the week, except gunmaker Sturm Luger, which was "up strongly again," more than 16 percent, and smokeless-tobacco maker UST (which stands for its old identity, U.S. Tobacco), Yonder Co-Editor Bill Bishop reports today. "In the meantime, an interesting discussion has broken out about the meaning of the Yonder 40. Last week, The Rural Populist asked what the 40 really meant."

The RP is Brian Depew, who does the blog when he's not working for the Center for Rural Affairs in Lyons, Neb. In a note to the Yonder, he took issue with some elements of the index: “When Wal-Mart is doing well, businesses up and down main street in rural communities are being driven out of business. And when Wal-Mart is doing well money is being sucked out of rural communities, destined for the pockets of rich urbanites. When Smithfield is doing well, farmers aren't receiving a fair price for their livestock. And when Smithfield is doing well, family livestock producers are being put our of business. And so it goes for a number of the stocks in the Yonder 40. So, what does the Yonder 40 really tell us?”

A founder of the Yonder 40 and a former Standard and Poor's managing director, James Branscome, replied: "None of us may like it and would love a stock index that reflects the hard work of the small farmer and throws in the sweet smell of alfalfa drying in the windrow, but the reality of what really drives the rural American economy is Wal-Mart and the 39 other companies in the Yonder 40. We did take the Waltons down a few notches when we equal-weighted their $115 billion colossus in the Yonder 40 with the $4 billion Dean Foods that peddles butter and half and half, all made from real American milk. Or, at least, none of it from cows in China. We sorted through about 3,000 stocks before we selected the sainted 40. It would have been nice had we come across investable public companies that represent farmer cooperatives, rural electric co-ops, or worker-owned coal mines and sawmills. There ain't none. No fan of the Daily Yonder may be comfortable with it, but the reality is that Thomas Jefferson's vision of America as a nation of farmers and toilers in the soil is as dead as our third president. Or at least that's what you find when you try to construct an index using SEC-registered and stock-exchange-listed companies for rural America." (Read more)

Salina Journal says USDA Rural Development's goal is ‘to keep rural America alive’

"Welcome to government class," writes Michael Strand of the Salina Journal. "Today, we'll start with a pop quiz." Multiple-choice questions about funding of a health clinic, digital TV for northwest Kansas, energy-efficiency measures for rural groceries and a telemedicine project all had the same answer: The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which could just as well be named the Department of Food and Rural Affairs. Most of the spending authorized by the Farm Bill is for food and nutrition, including food stamps, and Strand points out that USDA "is the go-to agency for a large share of government assistance in America's rural areas, including a range of programs that might not seem related at all to agriculture."

Chuck Banks, the Kansas director for USDA's Rural Development program, told Strand: "There are about 2 million Americans who receive farm payments, and about 1 million live on the farm -- but there are 65 million Americans in rural communities, with under 25,000 people." And that's just one definition of "rural;" under lower population criteria used by some programs, America's rural population is 90 million. Strand's take on Rural Development: "In general, the goal is to help keep rural America alive."

One little-known program helps small, rural businesses improve their energy efficiency. When Pat White, who owns five groceries in Kansas, got a letter about it, he threw it away. "I saw 'Department of Agriculture' on the envelope and thought, 'I'm not a farmer' and threw it away," he told Strand, with a chuckle. "A couple years later, I found out they had something to help grocery stores." Grants and loans from the program have helped White replace old, inefficient frozen-food cases and lighting in his Phillipsburg store, and the refrigerated produce cases are to be replaced soon.

Rural advocates say Rural Development needs to offer more grants, like those made to urban areas by other agencies. Strand quotes testimony Vernon Kelley, past president of the National Association of Development Organizations, to the Senate Agriculture Committee, "While USDA Rural Development is an essential partner for our rural communities, we are alarmed that its infrastructure, broadband and community facilities portfolio has become almost exclusively focused on direct loan and loan guarantee programs," and the Bush administration wants to cut those appropriations. (Read more)

Ohio governor, who's from Appalachia, orders council to get broadband for every county in state

"Ohio's Appalachian governor has ordered that broadband Internet access be made available to every county in the state," reports Julie Carr Smyth of The Associated Press statehouse bureau in Columbus. Gov. Ted Strickland on Friday "directed the Ohio Broadband Council to coordinate an effort that will extend broadband access to all 88 counties and allow public and private entities to tap into the network."

"Ohio's economic future relies on our ability to compete in a high-speed, high-tech global marketplace," Strickland said in a statement. "The Ohio Broadband Council will partner with the public and private sectors to help make sure that every Ohioan has viable access to affordable, high-speed internet service, regardless of where they live, work or learn." For the news release and executive order, click here.

"Internet access in Ohio's Appalachian region has been particularly slow to arrive," Smyth reports. "The effort to expand broadband access is aimed specifically at regions of the state such as Appalachia, where the economy and education levels have fallen behind, the coal industry has faltered and manufacturing jobs have moved abroad. Some schools face a technology gap in a largely rural, mountainous region where high-speed Internet is spotty. . . . The Governor’s Office of Appalachia announced earlier this month it was partnering with The Ohio State University to bring broadband access to community-owned wireless networks in several Appalachian counties, and up to three communities will receive a community learning center with computers for public use at no charge." (Read more)

In West Virginia, Clinton rouses crowd on Iraq but is careful when talking about coal

Sen. Hillary Clinton drew big crowds yesterday as she took her presidential campaign to West Virginia, but touched gingerly on the subject of the state's major extractive industry, reports The Charleston Gazette.

“She emphasized other energy methods and said coal needs to be burned more cleanly,” Tom Searls wrote, quoting Clinton: “We’ve got to figure out how we’re going to make it work for America.”

Clinton spoke to “a standing-room-only crowd of more than 700” at West Virginia State University. “She brought the crowd to its feet more than once, but never for longer than when she said she would end the war in Iraq,” Searls reported.

“Clinton began her day in Charleston running late to a 1 p.m. fundraising luncheon at a downtown hotel. Charleston City Councilman Harry Deitzler, who helped organize the event, said he was told it was the largest primary fundraiser ever for a presidential candidate in the state.” (Read more)

Obama goes rural in Iowa, hits ‘corporate megafarms,’ plans economic summit

Sen. Barack Obama, on a two-day tour of rural Iowa, "pledged Friday to seek help for struggling family farmers and offer more incentives for renewable fuel development," The Associated Press reports. "Rather than investing in rural opportunity, our government is handing out subsidies to corporate megafarms," he told a crowd of about 200 on a farm near Adel.

Obama is from Chicago. "He said that representing Illinois, with its heavy farm sector, gives him credibility on rural issues and insight into small farmers’ plight," AP reports. "He said as president he would continue pushing for a rural agenda, including trade policies that encourage more farming exports. Obama said rural America suffers from a lack of access to broadband Internet service, as well as farm programs that don’t focus on small family farmers and renewable fuel producers."

Obama named three agriculture experts "to study policies that would help rural America," AP reports. "He said he plans to hold an economic summit meeting next month to explain some of these policies." (Read more) "When the conversation veered away from farming -- as it often did -- Mr. Obama sought to steer it back to agriculture policy," reports The New York Times' Jeff Zeleny, a longtime Iowa reporter.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Farm Bill passes House with the support of most Democrats and farm groups, in face of veto threat

"The House of Representatives passed its version of the farm bill Friday by a vote of 231 to 191," reports Brownfield Network. "The vote was closer than it otherwise would have been because of the funding mechanism used to pay for additional spending on nutrition and other programs included in the farm bill. Democrats decided to end a tax exemption for foreign companies that employ U.S. workers, describing the move as 'closing a tax loophole,' and many Republicans balked, characterizing the move as a 'tax increase'."

Most agricultire and commodity groups, including the more liberal or populist National Farmers Union, supported the bill. The 19 Republicans who backed included Rep. Adrian Smith of Nebraska, who told Brownfield he did do "in large measure, because his constituents wanted him to," Peter Shinn reports for Brownfield.

But as Smith acknowledged, "Chances are, the farm bill will end up quite different than how it stands right now." Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin said Friday afternoon that the House bill "did serious damage to conservation," which he promised to correct. And Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said at the National Press Club that the House bill is unacceptable. (Read more) For an analysis from Washington by Michael Smith for the Council of State Governments, click here.

The bill "devotes more money to conservation, renewable energy, nutrition and specialty crop programs than in the past but leaves in place - and in some cases increases - subsidies to producers of major crops such as corn and soybeans at a time of record-high prices," reports Julie Hirschfeld Davis of The Associated Press. "It reflected a delicate straddle for Democrats writing their first farm bill in a decade, who struggled to balance the needs of first-term, farm-state lawmakers against the demands of liberals seeking more money for environmental and nutrition programs." The bill would stop payments for multiple businesses owned by the same farmers.

The bill "includes requirements for country of origin labeling on meat. It curtails payments to farmers with incomes over $1 million," down from the current $2.5 million, reports the Daily Yonder, which has a story about "the revolution in national farming attitude and allegiances that's taken place below all the skirmishes on the surface." It also has the map above, from the Agriculture Department, one snapshot of the geographic distribution of farm subsidies.

Rural philanthropy is getting a fresh focus that could make a big difference

Rural areas fare poorly in getting grants from foundations, but foundations are paying attention to the issue, and responding favorably to a challenge from Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., to do more. Next month representatives of more than 100 foundations will meet with the Senate Finance Committee chairman in Missoula, Mont., "to consider ways to meet his challenge," reports The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

While rural problems differ around the country, almost all rural charities "have a harder time getting foundation money than their urban counterparts," writer Suzanne Perry reports. "Many operate on shoestring budgets, cover vast geographic areas, and are located far away from big urban foundations." Shannon Cunningham, president of the West Virginia Grantmakers Association, told Perry that travel issues forced the state chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals to disband.

In Montana, the recently created Big Sky Institute for the Advancement of Nonprofits in Helena got foundation money to help improve charity operations, and for research that showed a "philanthropic divide" between states that have large foundation assets and those that do not. (Perry's story is accompanied by a state-by-state chart listing foundation assets in each state.) That research prompted Baucus to issue his challenge at last year's Council on Foundations meeting, and led to next month's conference.

"Rural advocates say the time is ripe to carve out a strategy to revitalize rural areas, many of which are suffering from problems such as population loss and poverty, because an enormous transfer of wealth is expected to take place over the next half century as people die and leave money to their heirs — a projected $41 trillion, according to one study," Perry writes. "If even a fraction of that money could be tapped, they say, it could help transform rural America. In fact, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, in Battle Creek, Mich., is considering a major grant of $30 million to help community foundations across the country convince people in rural areas to leave a small percentage of their estates to their towns."

Rick Foster, Kellogg's vice president for programs, said at last month's National Rural Assembly that the foundation has discovered "bipolar" views of rural areas: (1) "People living there are hard-working people, they're self-sufficient, self-reliant," and turn to neighbors when they need help, too proud to accept outside aid. (2) "Everybody's name is Bubba, and they're not intelligent at all." They run meth labs, have high rates of teenage pregnancy and youth drug abuse and "really don't deserve our help."

A 2004 study of rural philanthropy for the Center for Rural Strategies found that foundations were unsure how to define "rural" and preferred regional grants for particular missions. "Many questioned whether rural groups had the capacity to manage grants and carry out programs effectively," Perry writes. "And some were troubled by the absence of a 'critical mass' of donors in rural areas. Despite the obstacles, momentum is growing in some quarters to devote more attention to rural issues." (Read more)

Brain drain: Rural states struggle to keep single, college-educated youth

Well-educated young people continue to emigrate from "a number of states in the Midwest, Great Plains and Northeast, taking high tax revenues and economic potential with them," reports

"To reverse the loss of such a valuable asset, states are trying solutions that veer from granting financial incentives to stay, to trying to create jobs to keep and attract new workers, to improving the quality of life for young people," Pauline Vu writes. "The problem for states is there's no sure-fire solution."

"There is an argument of what comes first — the businesses who hire the graduates, or the graduates who lure the businesses? I don't think the research on that is definitive," Dan Hurley, director of state relations and policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, told Stateline.

"Maine will become the first state to give future college graduates a hefty tax credit to help pay back their student loans if they stay and work in the state. The incentive could amount to a yearly tax credit of just under $5,000 a year over the course of 10 years," Vu reports. Such programs "usually have been targeted at specific jobs such as doctors or math and science teachers or directed at rural areas," and several states recently rejected proposals for broader incentives.

Bruce Vandal, the director of post-secondary education and workforce development for the Education Commission of the States, told Vu that if jobs aren’t there for college graduates, "there’s no reason … they would stay, even with the financial incentives." Vu notes, "Many rural states have a natural disadvantage when it comes to a quality of life that appeals to the young." (Read more)

A Census Bureau report says that from 1995 to 2000, the states that lost the biggest percentage of single college graduates aged 25 to 39 were North Dakota, Iowa, South Dakota, West Virginia and Montana. The biggest gainers were Nevada, Colorado and Georgia, with Atlanta being a major national magnet.

States put belts on school buses; new guidelines, rare crash video may spur more to do likewise

"Texas just decided that school kids should be strapped into buses equipped with lap and shoulder belts. California, Florida, Louisiana, New York and New Jersey require seat belts on new school buses, too," reports Tony Lang of Gannett News Service.

"Yet most school districts across the country don't require seat belts on school buses -- largely because of cost and low fatality rates that say the big yellow bus already is safe. But sentiment may be changing. New federal guidelines due this fall are expected to propose voluntary standards for the use of belts. That's a shift in long-standing policy."

Each year, U.S. children suffer about 17,000 injuries related to school buses, "a rate up to three times more than expected," Lang reports, citing research by Columbus Children's Hospital in Ohio. And he suggests that "rare crash video from inside a Grant County, Ky., bus" could spur states to require belts. The video "shows little kids being flung to one side then the other, as drug-impaired driver Angelynna Young swerves. No one was killed in the crash. But all 17 kids were sent to hospitals . . . " (Read more)

Young pleaded guilty last month to two counts of assault, eight counts of drug possession and 15 counts of wanton endangerment. She tried to withdraw her plea this month, and denied she was high at the time of the crash, but the judge refused her request and sentenced her to 22 years in prison. The video was played at the sentencing, reports Jamie Baker-Nantz in the Grant County News. For her story and photos, click here.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Dolly Parton's brother aims to tourist-ize old mill town of Roanoke Rapids, N.C.

Jonathan Cox of the News & Observer in Raleigh writes from Roanoke Rapids, N.C., just south of Virginia: "This border city has visions of Branson. Or at least Myrtle Beach. Long known as an interstate pit stop at North Carolina's northern entrance, Roanoke Rapids aims to become an entertainment destination. Leaders envision a showcase with a water park, live shows and restaurants to grab tourists along Interstate 95 and rev up a sputtering economy. What they have is a name, Carolina Crossroads; 123 acres carved with roads such as 'Music Way' . . . and a theater bearing the name of a man best known for being his sister's brother."

That's Randy Parton, sibling of Dolly Parton, who turned a theme park in her home Sevier County, Tenn., into Dollywood and made it the premier commercial attraction of the Great Smoky Mountains. "His theater, built with $21.5 million borrowed by the city, opens today. Officials project as many as 300,000 patrons the first year, a forecast some consider optimistic. In the community, excitement mixes with uncertainty," Cox reports, quoting one woman: "I think it's going to work out. We hope so, anyway." (N&O photo shows the siblings singing the national anthem at the 2005 groundbreaking.)

Hope is an important word these days in Roanoke Rapids, an old textile-mill town hit hard by foreign competition. Halifax County's unemployment rate was "as high as 11.9 percent in January 2002. It's now 6.5 percent," Cox writes. He reports the city of 17,000 is using aggressive tactics "similar to those adopted in the state's other ailing manufacturing towns, but it's playing out differently. In Kannapolis, near Charlotte, leaders are betting on a new biotechnology hub backed by billionaire octogenarian David Murdock and top universities. Lenoir won Google, which is building a computer facility. Roanoke Rapids got Parton."

And to some, that is not a favorable comparison, Cox reports: "Many residents are skeptical that Parton, who is virtually guaranteed $750,000 a year, plus a house and car, will be a big enough draw. His last hit was in 1983 -- "A Stranger in Her Bed," which was No. 92 on the Billboard country charts -- yet, he's the only name on the playbill through year end. The project is unfolding slowly. Plans called for the theater to open as early as March." (Read more)

Politicians rediscover newspapers, especially smaller ones, as media for advertising messages

"At a time when many categories of newspaper advertising are declining, the political message is making a comeback," reports Kevin Helliker in The Wall Street Journal today. As overall spending on campaigns doubled to $3.1 billion between 2002 and 2006, the amount spent on newspapers, including their online editions, tripled to $104 million, according to PQ Media. The rate of growth appears to be highest in races for local posts, such as mayor and state legislator, because newspapers boast greater penetration and influence in small- to medium-size markets."

Newspapers still have less than 5 percent of the political ad market, but "a growing number of political consultants say newspapers can offer distinct advantages over television and other media," Helliker reports. "Newspaper readers vote at above-average rates. Even amid circulation declines, newspapers in many markets reach an audience that is competitive with any single broadcast channel, a strength that online editions are bolstering. Online editions also are reaching a demographic group that their print editions have been losing -- the young reader."

Here's the part of this story we really liked: "Newspapers also allow for more sophisticated arguments than are delivered in the typical 30-second television campaign." Helliker cites the print ads by Republican consultant Arthur Haney for Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski in 2004, making an argument perhaps too complex for a TV ad. Hackney told Helliker that newspaper ads helped "turn the tide" in several campaigns he ran.

Helliker suggests that newspaper sales staffs aren't as aggressive as they could be in selling political ads, but notes: "The nation's fourth-largest newspaper chain, Lee Enterprises Inc. of Davenport, Iowa, has appointed a corporate sales executive to drum up political advertising at Lee's 50-some papers in mostly small- to medium-size markets." (Read more)

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Agriculture secretary says he'd recommend veto of House ag committee's Farm Bill

Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns said yesterday that he “and the President’s entire team of senior advisors will recommend that he veto this bill,” the Farm Bill approved by the House Agriculture Committee.

“Johanns says the measure as sent out of the committee is too pricey and will require tax increases to be implemented,” reports Tom Steever of Brownfield Network, a Midwest farm news service. Johanns called the bill's loan-rate and target-price provisions as a step backward in farm policy and said it would bring intense scrutiny from the World Trade Organization. “The loan rates that exceed market prices create an incentive to plant one crop over another regardless of market demand,” the secretary said.

Dan Morgan reports for The Washington Post, “Farm-state Republicans had been lining up with Democrats to defend the bipartisan bill but changed course when notified that a proposed increase in nutrition programs would be funded partly by tightening the rules on U.S.-based foreign companies that avoid U.S. taxes by using offshore havens. Republicans quickly picked up on a White House statement branding the funding plan as an unacceptable tax increase. . . . Democrats said the tax proposal would merely close a loophole that the Bush administration itself has decried in the past."Who is surprised that the administration takes the side of CEOs who hold beachside board meetings at the expense of programs to feed the least fortunate here at home?" asked Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Tex.), a senior member of the Ways and Means Committee. The furor added a new element to an increasingly heated debate over whether the bill would provide meaningful reforms to the sprawling farm-subsidy system.” (Read more)

The New York Times' David Herszenhorn, catching up to previous coverage by the Post, reports the politics: “Faced with fierce opposition from the House Agriculture Committee, [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi and other Democratic leaders lowered their sights and are now backing the committee’s bill, in part to protect freshman lawmakers from rural areas who may be vulnerable in the 2008 elections.” (Read more) A Congressional Budget Office report said the bill would increase spending by $5.8 billion through 2012.

Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., defended his work: “This Farm Bill is supported by a broad spectrum of agriculture, conservation, nutrition and renewable energy advocates,” Peterson said in a prepared statement. “(The bill) represents a carefully crafted compromise that includes substantial reforms and new investments in programs that matter, including fruit and vegetable production, nutrition programs, conservation and renewable energy. Our bill implements Country of Origin Labeling, improves food safety, and paves the way for energy independence while preserving the safety net that our farmers and ranchers need.” (Read more)

Clinton, Obama square off in the Quad-City Times, bewildering NBC's political editor

"The two Democratic front-runners have finally engaged, rather than simply allowing their staffs to go back-and-forth," NBC News Political Editor Chuck Todd says in this morning's "First Read," analyzing the back-and-forth that Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama had in the Quad-City Times of Davenport, Iowa. (Can you name the four Quad Cities? See the bottom of this item for the answer.)

The Democratic candidates "tangled Tuesday in some of their sharpest terms yet over how to deal with countries that are antagonistic to the United States," reports the QCT's Ed Tibbetts. "In an interview with the Quad-City Times, U.S. Sen. Clinton, of New York, labeled as “irresponsible” and “naive” Obama’s statement that he was willing to meet, without precondition, the leaders of five countries hostile to the United States during the first year of his presidency. U.S. Sen. Obama, of Illinois, countered in a separate interview with the Times, accusing the Clinton campaign of hatching a “fabricated controversy” and suggesting that her position put her on the same track as the Bush administration."

Tibbets notes, "The exchange sprang from a questioner on a YouTube/CNN television debate Monday night asking whether Obama would be willing to meet in the first year of his presidency, without precondition, with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea. Obama said he would." Clinton said she would not without an understanding of what any such meeting would be about, to avoid being used for propaganda.

NBC's Todd writes, "The only thing that strikes us odd about yesterday’s skirmish is that the candidates launched their attacks and counterattacks via such a small media venue (the Quad City Times). It's like two major deciding to go to war . . . over the Falkland Islands. Yesterday our producers in New Hampshire tried to get Clinton to say her criticism on camera and she demurred. And neither candidate granted an interview to any other media on this issue. If neither candidate chooses to put their words on camera today, does this mean the skirmish is over?" (Read more)

No, Chuck, it doesn't. Folks in Iowa do care about foreign policy and how the president deals with those who are our foes or cast themselves as such. What we see here is a measured escalation by the candidates, willing to go at it in print but not in the hotter medium of TV, or even radio. Sound bites hit harder. Hats off to Ed Tibbets for getting the story. (The Quad Cities are Davenport and Bettendorf, Iowa, and Moline and Rock Island, Ill.)

Daily newspaper war going full steam in Mayberry -- er, Mount Airy, N.C.

"What would Sheriff Andy Griffith think about the newspaper brawl going on in his old Mayberry?" asks Jock Lauterer, director of the Carolina Community Media Project at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He reports on a visit to Griffith's hometown, Mount Airy, N.C., which after decades of conflicted feelings and sharp declines in its traditional industries (textiles, tobacco and furniture) has embraced tourism and the "Mayberry" monicker:

When Heartland Publications LLC of Old Saybrook, Conn., bought Mid-South Management of Spartanburg, S.C., last month, and began to cut staff and consolidate operations at the daily Mount Airy News and weeklies in Elkin, Yadkinville, West Jefferson and Stokes County, leaders and staff of the Mount Airy and Elkin papers started The Messenger, a five-day-a-week newspaper for Surry County.

"After securing financial backing of a local investor who is said to have deep pockets, they set up shop in a local shopping center and went about the adventurous business of creating what Publisher Michael Milligan claims is the first daily start-up in North Carolina in 40 years (although I’ve just learned there a new daily in Fayetteville that may have beat the Messenger to that claim). Be that as it may, the Messenger is pretty unusual," Lauterer reported on his blog July 17. "And another thing the new paper’s leaders wanted me to know, the Messenger is an investor-employee owned paper. That’s a different breed of cat, and accounts for the energy I witnessed at the Messenger office during my visit today."

The Messenger reports a free, home-delivery circulation of 8,973, with rack sales making the figure around 10,000 -- more than the Mount Airy News' 9,200. Heartland is fighting back with a lawsuit accusing the former publishers of “raiding” key personnel, circulation records and computer passwords. Lauterer writes, "I’m not going to stick my foot in this legal donnybrook. . . . My job is to try and help ALL community newspapers of this state. That’s what I was trying to do last month when I phoned the new editor of the Elkin Tribune, and when I began chatting about the change in ownership, he abruptly hung up on me. In my publisher’s playbook, that is an unforgivable sin. You don’t hang up on people no matter what. So excuse me if I’m not feeling very charitable towards Heartland Publications LLC right now."

Lauterer notes his "decades-long relationship with many of the folks at the old News and Tribune," and his placement of "one of my most outstanding community journalism students, Meghan Cooke, at the News for an internship there this summer, never suspecting that the rising junior from King might get caught up in the teeth of this newspaper slugfest. Visiting and counseling with Meghan today, I was relieved to hear her say that the experience, though harrowing, has been valuable. With the News staff down to a skeleton crew, her workload (and number of clips) has increased tremendously, making her all but indispensable to the News."

Lauterer got a better reception in Mount Airy, where Heartland Publisher Gary Lawrence gave him some time."I left the News feeling a little better about Heartland," he writes. "At the busy office of the Messenger, I watched an impromptu newsroom jam session where publisher Milligan delivered a stirring pep talk. “We’re on the cutting edge!” he told his staff with the vigor of a high school football coach dishing out a halftime locker-room pep talk." He calls Editor Rebel Good (yes, that's his name) "the wise old civics teacher. Their chemistry works. . . . And the Messenger is on the cutting edge. In a country where most all dailies are distributed by paid subscription, starting up a daily and offering it for free is a bold and risky business model.
But if anybody can make it work, these folks can. Their online edition should be up and working some time in late July. Go to"

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

North Carolina seems likely to ban new waste lagoons on hog farms, raise standards for them

The North Carolina House voted without dissent yesterday to prohibit new waste lagoons on hog farms, a source of much water pollution, and set higher standards for new waste disposal systems. The House made changes in a bill passed by the Senate, which will now consider the changes and seems likely to concur.

"Lawmakers are moving to pass the legislation before a 10-year-old moratorium on construction of new hog farms expires in September," reports Wade Rawlins of The News & Observer of Raleigh. "The measure fell short of a phase-out of existing lagoons that environmental groups initially sought. But it does provide aid to farmers to help them voluntarily convert to more environmentally friendly waste disposal systems. . . . Farms with existing waste lagoons could continue to use them and, in certain circumstances, could replace failing lagoons that pose an imminent hazard with new ones. Environmentalists said that change weakened the bill. But the hog industry contended that farmers could be put out of business otherwise."

Rawlins notes that North Carolina is the nation's No. 2 hog producer, and writes, "State leaders have been struggling with how to reduce the water and air pollution caused by the factory farms, which produce huge volumes of manure and urine that sit in open-air waste ponds. While the solids are broken down by bacteria, the liquid waste is sprayed on fields as fertilizer. During rains or floods, the waste can wash into streams, degrading water quality and promoting conditions that can cause fish kills." (Read more)

Newspapers in Charleston, W. Va., seek dismissal of federal anti-trust lawsuit

The owners of The Charleston Gazette and the Charleston Daily Mail want a federal judge to dismiss a U.S. Justice Department lawsuit alleging that the Gazette bought the Daily Mail's half of the papers' joint operating agreement (JOA) in 2004 to put the Mail out of business.

The response denied that, noting the deal required the Mail’s previous owner, MediaNews Group, to control editorial policies of the paper. “The Gazette Co. and MediaNews had no such plan to close the Mail, nor do they have any such plan now,” the reply said. A staff story in the Gazette said the suit “cited cutbacks in Daily Mail operations — but Monday’s response said these have been only normal cost-saving steps, common to any newspaper facing competition from the Internet and other news media.”

The newspapers’ reply said the Justice Department was mistakenly assuming that papers in a JOA, which the department must approve, are in economic competition with each other. “In reality, it said, JOAs eliminate financial competition, letting papers pool costs and split profits,” the story said. “The only competition that remains is ‘the competition of “thoughts and ideas” that is beyond the scope of the antitrust laws,’ Monday’s filing said. ‘And, as any casual reader can attest, the two [Charleston] newspapers are fiercely independent.’” The Gazette's editorial stance is generally liberal, the Mail's generally conservative.

The response asked for “swift dismissal of the Justice Department case to avoid the extreme legal cost of the antitrust discovery process,” the non-bylined story said. (Read more) For a later story, carrying the byline of Daily Mail Business Editor George Hohmann, with a link to a PDF of the motion, click here.

Film on PBS tonight examines effects of building three prisons in one rural county in California

Many rural areas hungry for jobs turn to prisons, private or public, as reliable, good-paying employers. But many residents object, for many reasons. The debates get a lot of coverage, but once the decision is made to accept a prison, there is less coverage of the ramifications. Local journalists might see that as beating a dead horse, and stirring up hard feelings, but what about other rural communities facing the same question? They could use some background, and they can get at least a taste of it tonight on PBS, with the documentary “Prison Town, USA,” part of the public network's series “P.O.V.,” which stands for for “point of view.” (Some local stations air the series at a different time or on a different night, so check your listings.)

The film is about Susanville and Lassen County, Calif., populations 13,500 and 34,000, respectively. They "underwent a substantial makeover with the construction of three huge prisons" about 10 years ago, Neil Genzlinger writes for The New York Times. "The hopes were that the complex would take the place of lumber and other major businesses that were fading. The fears were — well, myriad. The film . . . looks at the big-picture issues Susanville now confronts through a collage of small stories. There are no documentary-style talking heads or charts here, just some very ordinary-looking people trying to find their places in a changed community. . . . The film is light on specifics, beyond the intriguing factoids interspersed in stark white-on-black lettering between scenes." (Read more)

The archives of the weekly Lassen County Times offer more specifics, almost all negative. A search for High Desert State Prison, one of the three correctional facilities in the area, produced 14 stories about riots, murders, shootings, escapes and conspiracies. A search for "prison" produced some articles about economic benefits, including an editorial by General Manager Pete Margolies endorsing construction of the newest prison, a federal facility -- but also other problems. A March 13 story detailed how Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger wants to use the county jail to house convicts sentence to three years or less, instead of the current year or less. It also reported that the state had finally become current in reimbursements to the county for trials of cases stemming from the two state prisons. (Map from MSN Encarta)

Monday, July 23, 2007

Giuliani, Romney lack rural platforms, records; are they relying on social issues for the rural vote?

The two leading Republican candidates for president, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, have little if anything to say about rural issues, writes Bill Bishop, co-editor of the Daily Yonder, the new rural-news sit with a political bent. And he wonders why.

“When you look for ‘rural’ or ‘farm’ at either the Giuliani or Romney websites, there’s very little,” Bishop writes. “When you search back issues of newspapers for what these leaders have said about crop supports, rural housing or small schools, you don’t find much. Well, really, you don’t find a thing. Neither candidate has an ‘issues’ section dedicated to rural America. Neither candidate has a history of working on rural problems.”

Bishop says one reason may be that the candidates believe Republican voters are not as responsive to rural issues as they are to social issues, gay marriage being the latest and hottest example. He says political scientist Peter Francia of East Carolina University “controlled for every other demographic factor (age, race, income),” and found that rural voters' support for George W. Bush was 10 percentage points above the rest of the nation, and the most important factor in how they voted in was gay marriage.

“Of course, 2004 isn’t 2007 or 2008. But it may be that leading Republican candidates are pretending as if it is (and will be),” Bishop writes. “No wonder Republican candidates mention rural less often in their debates. Maybe they figure that opposition to gay marriage is a rural platform.” (Read more) For the Yonder's early take on former Sen. Fred Thompson, who's doing well in polls but has not declared his candidacy, click here.

Agriculture Department paid dead farmers $1.1 billion over seven years, GAO audit says

"The U.S. Department of Agriculture distributed $1.1 billion over seven years to the estates or companies of deceased farmers and routinely failed to conduct reviews required to ensure that the payments were properly made, according to a government report," writes Sarah Cohen of The Washington Post. In a selection of 181 cases from 1999 to 2005, the Government Accountability Office found that officials approved payments without any review 40 percent of the time."

Cohen explains: "Most estates are allowed to collect farm payments for up to two years after an owner's death, giving heirs time to restructure their businesses and probate the will. After that, local USDA officials must certify every year that the estate is still farming and has remained open for reasons other than simply collecting subsidies. But the GAO report found that the Agriculture Department depends on heirs and businesses to alert the agency to deaths and does not use other sources, such as Social Security records, to confirm eligibility." The report is to be released at a Senate Finance Committee meeting tomorrow.

"In a letter responding to the GAO report, the Agriculture Department said that the payments were not necessarily examples of fraud or abuse and that auditors did not prove any specific cases of cheating," Cohen reports. "The department's field offices defended the practice of routinely paying dead farmers' estates without fully investigating the claims, citing staff shortages and competing priorities." (Read more)

New tractors, education, end of tobacco program help slash rollover deaths in Kentucky

Kentucky once led the nation in tractor deaths, 82 percent of them from rollovers, but only one Kentucky farmer was killed as a result of a rollover last year, "the lowest tractor rollover death toll in the state in recent memory," Jim Warren of the Lexington Herald-Leader reports today.

Warren got the story idea from information presented at "Children and Agriculture: Telling the Story of Risks and Safety," a workshop held this month in Kentucky by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and the National Farm Medicine Center and the National Children's Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety at the Marshfield Clinic Research Foundation in Wisconsin. While the workshop focused on children's safety, broader information about farm safety was presented.

"Tractor rollovers traditionally have been a leading cause of farm deaths," Warren writes. "When Kentucky led the nation in 1994 with 28 tractor-related fatalities, 23 of them were caused by rollovers. "Safety officials think two main factors are behind the downward trend: Farmers are buying new tractors, which come with roll bars and seat belts as standard equipment, and they're following safety recommendations and putting rollover protection on more older tractors. And there are fewer small farmers, say the experts," because the federal tobacco program of quotas and price supports was abolished in 2004.

Melvin Myers, an associate professor in the University of Kentucky College of Public Health who works in farm-injury prevention, told Warren that American tractor manufacturers made roll bars standard on new tractors around 1985, but many farmers took the equipment off. "Also, many older tractors that lacked roll bars or seat belts remained in use on farms," Warren writes. "Now, that's beginning to change as old tractors wear out and farmers replace them with models equipped with roll bars." (Read more)

Terror fears, immigration debate keeping foreign doctors from rural America

Efforts to bring more foreign physicians to rural America are hampered by "restrictions from the war on terror and the immigration debate," reports The Associated Press. "Many believe the process will become more difficult after the attempted terrorist bombings in Britain that have been linked to foreign doctors."

Foreign physicians already make up a considerable share of the doctors in poor rural areas that are classified as medically underserved. Physicians who immigrate to such areas can get J-1 visa waivers to work there for three to five years, "with a shot at eventually obtaining permanent residency," AP's Chris Talbott writes. But since the 2001 attacks, a Department of Agriculture J-1 program has ended and the Department of Health and Human Services has changed rules so that fewer counties are designated as underserved. "The number of physicians in training with J-1 visa waivers has fallen by almost half over the past decade."

"The government estimates that more than 35 million Americans live in underserved areas, and it would take 16,000 doctors to immediately fill that need, according to the American Medical Association," Talbott writes. "And the gap is expected to widen dramatically over the next several years, reaching 24,000 in 2020 by one government estimate. A 2005 study in the journal Health Affairs said it could hit an astonishing 200,000 by then, based on a rising population and an aging work force." "And that will mostly be felt in rural America," U.S. Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., told Talbott: "We're facing a real crisis." Conrad sponsored a program that authorized 30 J-1 visas per state per year. The program is up for reauthorization next year. (Read more)

Obama going after rural voters; schedules forum Friday, policy summit next month in Iowa

U.S. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois is turning his presidential campaign toward rural voters, who make up more than a third of the population in Iowa, where the first votes will be cast, and even more -- about 40 percent -- in the early-voting states of New Hampshire and South Carolina.

"Obama plans to host a rural policy forum on Friday in Dallas County, Iowa [just west of Des Moines], where he said he will gain insights directly from rural voters. He will also host a rural policy summit in Iowa in mid-August, which will focus on rural economic development, quality of life in rural communities, agriculture and renewable energy," Mike Glover of The Associated Press bureau in Des Moines reports on an interview with the candidate. "Obama isn't known as a candidate with much rural expertise, but he said his background in Illinois had given him insight into the challenges facing rural America."

Obama said rural and urban people share problems of health care access, failing school systems and lack of livable wages, but some issues are unique to rural, such as "spotty rural broadband and wireless coverage, underfunded community colleges and a need to make the most of the growing alternative energy industry," Glover writes. "Some candidates, including former Sen. John Edwards, already have released plans for rural development, and others will likely do so in coming months. While Obama gave no specific date for rolling out his rural policy plan, he said he has put together a team of experts to assist in the effort." (Read more)