Friday, November 23, 2007

Amid record, ethanol-driven harvest, corn growers dislike criticism over food, environmental issues

The largest corn crop in U.S. history is almost completely harvested, but corn farmers are getting doses of skepticism and criticism with their hefty checks. Joel Achenbach, of one of the best reporters at explaining how things work, writes about it mainly from the growers' point of view The Washington Post today: "Farmers, up to their eyeballs in corn, are wondering what exactly they have done wrong."

High corn prices, driven by the demand for ethanol, have driven up food prices, Achenbach notes. "Environmentalists decry the impact on soil, waterways and wildlife of so much acreage planted in vast tracts of a thirsty, fertilizer-hungry plant. Tens of thousands of acres in Iowa once set aside for conservation were plowed this year for corn. The Iowa landscape is a patchwork of corn and soybean monocultures, with about as much biodiversity as a bachelor's refrigerator. Corn, in the form of high-fructose corn syrup, is even accused of causing the national obesity epidemic."

Achenbach writes from Iowa, where fully one-third of the land was planted in corn this year. His protagonist is Bill Couser (in photo by Andrea Melendez for the Post), who has 5,000 acres in the very center of the state and is chairman of an ethanol distillery. "When we planted this crop," he told Achenbach, "people said we were the villains of the world."(Read more)

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Panel says FCC should increase use of long-distance tax money to subsidize broadband

An advisory panel recommended yesterday that the Federal Communications Commission "cap the fast-growing subsidies the government allots to providers of telephone service in rural America and allow some of the funds to be used for promoting broadband service," reports Peter Kaplan of the Reuters news service.

The federal-state advisory board said the biggest slice of the Universal Service Fund, which subsidizes rural phone service, should be limited to its current $4.5 billion, and also said subsidies for rural wireless service should be capped. The wireless industry opposes that, but FCC Chairman Kevin Martin voiced support for shifting the fund's emphasis to broadband. The FCC has a year to act on the recommendations.

The fund is financed by an 11 percent surcharge on long-distance phone calls. "In addition to rural service, the fund subsidizes phone service to low-income households, as well as communications services and Internet access for schools, hospitals and libraries," Reuters notes. (Read more)

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

A prayer for Thanksgiving

For consideration as your Thanksgiving prayer, we offer this one from Marian Wright Edelman , by way of our friend Tom FitzGerald.

God, we thank You for this food
for the hands that planted it
for the hands that tended it
for the hands that harvested it
for the hands that prepared it
for the hands that provided it
and for the hands that served it.
And we pray for those without enough food
in Your world and in our land of plenty.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Farm Foundation names Conklin its new president

Trustees of Farm Foundation this week named Neilson C. Conklin to be the foundation's sixth president. He wil succeed Walter J. Armbruster, president since 1991, who is retiring at the end of the year after 30 years with the foundation.

Conklin is director of the market and trade economics division of the Economic Research Service of the Department of Agriculture. He started ERS research on the economics of biofuels, and directed development of new modeling frameworks on global trade policy analysis. Before joining ERS in 1999, Conklin spent six years as vice president and chief economist for the Farm Credit Council. He worked at the Office of Management and Budget, and taught at Arizona State University, the University of Arizona and Colorado State University.

“Neil’s extensive background in economic analysis on a wide range of issues will serve the foundation well in the years ahead,” Board of Trustees Chair Sara Wyant said. “Agriculture, the food system and rural communities face complex and diverse challenges and opportunities.”

Farm Foundation says it is "a catalyst, bringing stakeholders of all ideologies together to examine economic and public policy issues impacting agriculture, the food system and rural communities." It does not lobby or advocate, and says its primary product is "comprehensive, objective information on economic and policy issues." The foundation was a sponsor of the National Summit on Journalism in Rural America. (Read more)

In Florida, rural homeowners form group to fight encroaching development

Many move to the country hoping to escape urban sprawl. When that sprawl starts getting too close to home, some of these rural residents take action. In lesser developed areas near Tampa, Fla., some rural residents formed the United Citizens' Action Network, or U-CAN, to fight development near their homes, reports The Tampa Tribune.

"The rural activists belonged to groups in specific areas fighting local battles, and then discovered they would have more power together," Yvette C. Hammett writes. "They shared one another's experience and expertise, joined forces at public meetings and then in January formed U-CAN."

The fight is primarily over what will happen to the land outside Hillsborough County's urban service area, Hammett reports. "Of the 574,390 acres in unincorporated Hillsborough, 361,364 acres remain outside the urban service area, according to the county planning commission," she writes. It is this land that U-CAN hopes to protect. One of the group's plans is to start charting the voting records of county officials on the Web site, The site currently proclaims the scrolling message, "Watchout!!! The Brandon Bypass is coming and we must stop it!!!" (Read more)

Study finds rural cancer patients seek help sooner than urban counterparts

When comparing urban and rural health care, the trends usually favor city dwellers. That makes the results of one new study on cancer treatment somewhat surprising, reports The New York Times.

"Urban residents are more likely to see a doctor later than those in the country are, a lapse that can make the cancers harder to treat," Eric Nagourney writes. "Writing in the November issue of The Journal of the American College of Surgeons, researchers said the findings confounded the assumptions of many in the medical community — including doctors who work in rural areas."

The study, conducted by Dr. Ian Paquette and Dr. Samuel R. G. Finlayson of the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, relied on information from 300,000 cancer patients compiled by the National Cancer Institute, Nagourney reports. The results showed that even though rural residents were on average poorer, older and farther from medical services, they tended to seek treatment sooner than urbanites, and thus they had better rates of survival. (Read more) A summary of the study can be found here.

Michigan TV station investigates aging rural housing projects

In the 1970s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture oversaw a program to subsidize the construction of apartments for needy rural residents. Now, some of those structures (such as this one at left) are showing their age, and residents want to see more repairs, reports WOOD-TV in Grand Rapids, Mich.

There were 15,000 small apartment projects in all, and WOOD-TV took a look at the inspection reports for the dozen rural housing projects in Kent County after residents complained about inadequate maintenance.

"In general, the inspection reports reflect signs of aging buildings," Henry Erb reports. "Worn and stained carpets, cloudy windows, pieces of siding or soffit missing. The inspector noted that at one place the owner said they didn't have enough money to replace the worn carpet. Small examples of what is happening on a nationwide scale -- a struggle to keep such federally-backed housing from becoming rural slums."

A 2004 report from the USDA found that "no property has adequate reserves or sufficient cash flow to do needed repairs," and so recently the department has tried to add funding, Erb reports. In Michigan, the USDA approved $22 million for 15 projects, but Erb writes that funding remains far below the levels of the 1980s. (Read more)

FCC to give millions to rural health groups for broadband networks

With high-speed Internet service, rural hospitals and clinics can access vital information from distant urban medical centers in a few seconds. Many rural clinics lack the broadband access needed to do so, but $417 million in grants from the Federal Communications Commission could help change that, reports The Washington Post.

"The three-year pilot program aims to help extend broadband lines to about 6,000 hospitals, research centers, universities and clinics in hard-to-reach regions, many of which still rely on dial-up Internet service," Kim Hart writes. "The faster connection could be used to upload patient records or for sending videos and pictures to diagnose the illness of someone hundreds of miles away."

For example, the West Virginia Telehealth Alliance will get $8.4 million to link 450 health-care facilities, including some in Virginia and Ohio. The money for the grants comes from the Universal Service Fund, which pools fees from long-distance and wireless subscribers. That fund has been used to help libraries, schools and rural areas, but it had not done enough for telehealth, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin told Hart. (Read more) For a blog item on the FCC's announcement of the program last week, click here.

FCC's cable TV proposal draws opposition from minority and rural groups

A recent proposal from the Federal Communications Commission could change the way viewers buy cable television, but some rural and minority groups are not happy about it. The Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, the League of Rural Voters and the Hispanic Federation have joined together in their opposition to the proposed changes from FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, reports InformationWeek.

"The FCC is considering revising its cable TV regulations, using the so-called 70/70 rule as justification," K.C. Jones writes. "The 70/70 rule states that when 70 percent of American homes can access cable and 70 percent of those with access subscribe, the FCC can impose new regulations to ensure competition."

Many say that threshold has not been met, but Martin reportedly wants to allow providers to offer pay-per-channel service so households can select particular channels instead of packages, Jones reports. Those who oppose the change say such a rule would reduce the number of minority-owned channels and mean higher prices for rural residents. "The FCC's continuing effort to stiff-arm rural viewers has hit a new low," League of Rural Voters executive director Niel Ritchie said in a statement. (Read more)

Presidential candidates giving more detailed attention to farm issues in Iowa, union head says

With the Iowa caucuses six weeks away, Democratic presidential candidates are finally beginning to pay detailed attention to agricultural issues, the president of the Iowa Farmers Union told Dien Judge of the Iowa Independent, a good online site for grass-roots coverage of the campaigns in the Hawkeye State.

"Agricultural issues have largely gone under the radar throughout most of the caucus campaign season, despite the fact that Iowa is ground zero in the race for the presidency," Judge writes. "But some of the candidates are beginning to show an understanding of the importance of issues relating to agriculture. In an interview this week with Iowa Independent, Iowa Farmers Union president Chris Petersen said that some of the candidates are now 'seeing the light.'"

At IFU's Nov. 10 "Food and Family Farm Presidential Summit" in Des Moines, no Republican candidates attended, "but Democrats Barack Obama, Chris Dodd, John Edwards, Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton all made their case to the organization's members," Judge writes. For the Independent's blog of the event, click here. IFU "oes not endorse candidates in caucus or primary elections, Petersen said, but individual members are encouraged to support or endorse candidates regardless of party," Judge writes. (Read more)

S.C. daily paper puts county employee credit-card records online for readers to inspect

In Aiken County, S.C., two emergency medical employees recently were fired after allegations they misused their county funds. As a result, the local newspaper, the Aiken Standard, filed an open record request for the credit-card reports of the 60 employees with county-issued cards.

The paper found no "widespread or gross misuse" in its "cursory study of the files," Haley Hughes wrote. "The County's own internal review of its employee credit card statements is ongoing. The information is public record and as such, the Aiken Standard has posted the documents to its Web site for review by members of the public." (Read more)

So, the paper is letting readers decide for themselves if county employees have misused their credit cards. Not a bad idea, as far as we can tell. The records can be seen here. Thanks to Al Tompkins of The Poynter Institute for the heads up on this story.

Wild hogs are overpopulated but hard target for hunters

In Texas, more than 2 million wild hogs are wreaking havoc on the landscape. Many hunters have set their sights on the wily game, but the pigs continue to be a problem, reports the Los Angeles Times.

"Of the 254 counties in Texas, about 90 percent have a wild hog problem," Miguel Bustillo writes. "Surly pigs have been spotted in urban parks in Dallas and San Antonio, startling joggers. Mobs of ravenous porkers are munching crops and tearing up hayfields, causing $52 million a year in damage, state officials estimate. They also are eating the eggs of endangered sea turtles on coastal barrier islands, forcing biologists to scurry nests to safety."

A hunter billing himself as "The Dehoganator" (in photo by Courtney Perry for the Times) offers to take out the boars on people's property, as long as they pay for the bullets, Bustillo reports. While the endeavor still loses money for The Dehoganator, Joe Paddock, he loves the thrill of hunting the smart and elusive animal. Like Paddock, federal and state officials want to lower the pig population.

"Federal agriculture officials have resorted to gunning down pigs from helicopters," Bustillo writes. "State officials have declared open season on them: Hunters can shoot as many as they want, any time. Here in Van Zandt County (pop. 48,140), leaders put out a bounty four years ago, promising $7 for every pair of hog ears brought in. They got more than 2,000 and ended the offer a year later." Despite those efforts, and the work of trappers who sell the hogs here and abroad, the boars seem to be winning the war. (Read more)

Monday, November 19, 2007

Rural South Carolina school district to offer cheap, group housing to entice new teachers

Rural areas often struggle to attract and keep teachers, and Marlboro County in South Carolina is trying a new way to do it. Located on the North Caroline state line, the county has 29,000 residents and one of the highest unemployment rates in the state. To lure new teachers, the school system is creating Teach House, a place where new teachers can live together for $100 a month, reports Seanna Adcox of The Associated Press.

Plans call for 12 new teachers to move into the restored, century-old home next school year, AP reports. "The idea is that the so-called Teach House will not only provide teachers a beautiful place to live for next-to-nothing, but also offer instant friendships and peer support," Adcox writes, while noting Marlboro County is still in negotiations to purchase the home and its 14 acres.

The house is just one of many South Carolina projects aimed at finding teachers for rural areas. In Fairfield County, Access House would provide apartments for new teachers and a veteran teacher who would act as a mentor, as well as space for after-school and community activities. The plan, which is in it early stages, would waive rent for teachers who also would be working on free degrees from the University of South Carolina. (Read more)

Tyson Foods, partner to produce diesel and jet fuel from animal fat, other by-products

Last month, we reported that biofuel production was driving up demand and prices for animal fat. The phenomenon has prompted some interesting partnerships, including last week's announcement of a joint venture between Tyson Foods and fuel maker Syntroleum Corp. The two announced they are working together to produce renewable diesel and jet fuel from a plant in Lousiana, reports

"The joint venture, named Dynamic Fuels, will use Tyson animal fat and other agricultural by-products to manufacture renewable fuels," writes Tom Johnston. "Syntroleum will contribute its technology and industry knowledge. The $126 million capital investment will employ 45 people."(Read more)

Dynamic Fuels chose a plant in Geismar, La., as the site for the new facility. The plant currently produces synthetic rubber, but it was appealing for its access to rail and barge transportation as well as its hydrogen pipeline, reports The Daily Advertiser in Lafayette, La. "Construction of the 75 million gallon-per-year plant is expected to start in 2008, with production targeted for 2010," writes Bob Moser. The fuel might be used to power military aircraft at Barksdale Air Force Base in Shreveport. (Read more)

Montana educator, only one at her school for 25+ years, named nation's Rural Teacher of the Year

Bynum School in Bynum, Mont., has 12 students and one teacher, but that teacher is great one. For more than 25 years, Susan Luinstra has been teaching every subject in the small school that was built in 1914. Last week, she received the Rural Teacher of the Year Award from the National Rural Education Association in Oklahoma City, reports the Great Falls Tribune. (At left in a Tribune photo by Richard Peterson, Luinstra is greeted by her students at Great Falls International Airport.)

"Luinstra, who was named state Rural Teacher of the Year by the Montana Association of County School Superintendents in February, teaches kindergarten through eighth grade in Teton County's smallest school. She is known for providing students with a well-rounded education, plenty of one-on-one opportunities, monthly field trips and a lot of kindness, students and parents say," writes Peterson. (Read more)

In N.H., one farmer-journalist is expected to follow another as agriculture commissioner

One farmer-journalist is expected to succeed another as New Hampshire agriculture commissioner. Lorraine Stuart Merrill has been nominated for the position by Gov. John Lynch, and will likely be confirmed by the state Executive Council when it meets Nov. 28, retiring Commissioner Steve Taylor reports to The Rural Blog.

"Lorraine and her family run a 240-cow dairy farm in Stratham amidst the subdivisions and sprawl of Seacoast New Hampshire," Taylor writes. "She’s also an accomplished writer, contributing regularly to Hoard’s Dairyman, the leading dairy-farmer trade magazine, and various other ag journals, plus general interest publications ranging from Smithsonian to the Christian Science Monitor. I’m recommending to her that she include the Rural Blog in her daily reading." For a Concord Monitor profile of Merrill, by Shira Schoenberg, click here. For a story by Sara Liebowitz on Merrill's appointment, click here.

The Monitor said in an editorial that Taylor's retirement after 25 years in the job marks the end of an era. "He's an institution, like the feed store, the Hopkinton Fair, the cook at the diner who knows everybody in town and how they like their eggs, a dirt road lined with old maples," the editorial said. "Because he's not just a skilled and knowledgeable commissioner but also a born storyteller and a talented writer, Taylor became the face of agriculture in the Granite State. He has been the bridge between the old and new New Hampshires. He mourned the loss of the old Yankee farmers and a freer age yet was an advocate for today's small boutique farms."

The editorial ended with a salute that most folks would want in a farewell tribute, with a good idea for any state: "A decade or so ago, when asked to create a program for Leadership New Hampshire, Taylor came up with a list of '100 Things You Should Do to Know the Real New Hampshire.' That list appears on the Home & Family page of today's edition. In recognition of Taylor's contributions to the state, we'll make that to-do list 101, with the last being to have a beer with Steve Taylor." (Read more)

In case you're wondering what the Executive Council is, Taylor explains that it's a vestige of the colonial era, intended to be a check on despotic governors. "Maine abolished its in 1960, Massachusetts has one that just votes on judicial appointments," he writes. "It’s composed of five members popularly elected from districts every two years. It approves all executive and judicial appointments, state contracts over $5,000, land takings and pardons. Currently it’s 3-2 Democratic with a Democratic governor; in the past it’s often been Republican with Republican governors but with frequent noisy battling between them. Department heads will often tell you they spend more time keeping Executive Council members happy than they do the governor."

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Rural uninsured in U.S. get care from volunteer doctor group created for the Third World

Many uninsured people in rural America are getting health care from a group set up to provide care to people in Third World countries, Sara Corbett reports in The New York Times Magazine, in a short story accompanied by several black-and-white photographs with long cutlines. Remote Area Medical "has sent health expeditions to countries like Guyana, India, Tanzania and Haiti, but increasingly its work is in the United States, where 47 million people — more than 15 percent of the population — live without health insurance," Corbett writes.

"Residents of remote rural areas are less likely than their urban and suburban counterparts to have health insurance and more likely to be in fair or poor health. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, nearly half of all adults in rural America are living with at least one chronic condition. Other research has found that in these areas, where hospitals and primary-care providers are in short supply, rates of arthritis, hypertension, heart ailments, diabetes and major depression are higher than in urban areas."

Corbett's reporting is centered on RAM's visit to the Wise County Fairgrounds in southwest Virginia last July. "The problem, says RAM’s founder, Stan Brock, is always in the numbers, with the patients’ needs far outstripping what his team can supply. In Wise County, when the sun rose and the fairground gates opened at 5:30 on Friday morning, more than 800 people already were waiting in line." (Read more) For a slide show of the photos, by Larry Towell of Magnum, click here.

Drama! Hyperbole! Accusations! Hugs (almost)! That's the Farm Bill, stuck in the Senate

In his "Notes from Washington" column today, James R. Carroll of The Courier-Journal steps back and takes a longer look at last week's Farm Bill machinations: "In the end, everybody says, there will be a farm bill. But getting there? Drama! Hyperbole! Accusations! Hugs (almost)! Smiles! Anger! Frowns! Threats! And that was just last week.

"The Farm Bill authorizes various agriculture, nutrition, conservation and bioenergy programs for another five years. As you might imagine, that kind of legislation draws amendments like manure draws flies. (Not that the legislation necessarily is manure -- we're just trying to use a farm analogy here).

"GOP senators, led by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, think the Democratic majority is trying to unfairly restrict the number of Republican amendments to the bill, while the Democrats say the Republicans are trying to hold up or even kill the bill. Complicating things: The Bush administration threatened to veto the measure."

McConnell and Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., seemed to reach common ground on a way to handle amendments, prompting Reid to say he felt like hugging McConnell. "They didn't actually hug, which probably was a good thing since both sides were as mad as wet hens later in the week," Carroll writes. (Read more)

Labor Department says its coal-mine safety unit failed to fully inspect one-seventh of mines

The U.S. Mine Safety Administration failed to conduct required inspections at more than one in seven coal mines last year, according to a Labor Department report released Friday night. The problem was worst in southern West Virginia, and the agency had "significant inspection and supervisory deficiencies" at the Utah mine where six miners and three rescuers died in August, said the report from the department's inspector general.

"The report depicted an agency that failed to devote enough resources to inspections at a time of increasing mining activity," writes Steven Greenhouse in The New York Times. The report said MSHA “did not place adequate emphasis on ensuring the inspections were completed.”

In southern West Virginia, 85 of 165 mines did not have one or more required inspections, and "The report noted 51 occasions in southern West Virginia on which inspections were started and then canceled, but nonetheless counted as complete," Greenhouse writes. "The report cited an additional 22 incidents in which inspectors visited inactive mines and counted their visits as completed inspections."

MSHA disputed some of the inspector general's numerical analyses and said it was unable to complete all the required inspections because it had to assign many employees to investigate disasters at the Sago Mine in West Virginia and the Darby Mine in Kentucky, and other accidents. (Read more)