Saturday, April 26, 2008

World wheat crops threatened by disease, writes scientist who won Nobel Prize for work in the field

At a time when global food prices are rising, wheat crops are threatened with a disease that could wipe them out, but the Bush administration wants to cut research that could head off a calamity, Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug writes in The New York Times.

"The time could not be worse for an epidemic of stem rust in the world’s wheat crops," Borlaug writes Borlaug, a professor of international agriculture at Texas A&M. "Scientists must quickly turn their attention to replacing almost all of the commercial wheat grown in the world today. This will require a commitment from many nations, especially the United States, which has lately neglected its role as a leader in agricultural science." He says the administration wants to eliminate support of international agriculture research centers and make "significant financial cuts" for U.S. research centers, and "This shocking short-sightedness goes against the interests not only of American wheat farmers and consumers but of all humanity."

Borlaug, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for developing high-yielding, rust-resistant wheat varieties, says new strains of rust "are much more dangerous than those that, 50 years ago, destroyed as much as 20 percent of the American wheat crop. Today’s lush, high-yielding wheat fields on vast irrigated tracts are ideal environments for the fungus to multiply, so the potential for crop loss is greater than ever." (Read more)

In county where women's life expectancy declined most, lifestyle choices are the presumed causes

A few days ago, we noted a study which found that women's life expectancy declined significantly from 1983 to 1999 in 180 U.S. counties. The county where it declined the most was Pulaski County, Va., and the adjoining, independent city of Radford (near center of Encarta map below). "In 1983, life expectancy for women in the two jurisdictions was about 84 years. By 1999, it had dropped 5.8 years, to 78. No other jurisdiction in the nation had a decrease of more than 3.3 years," reports Theresa Vargas of The Washington Post. The study found life expectancy for women stagnant or falling in other parts of Appalachia.

Experts were at a loss to explain the decline in and around Radford. "For many who grew up and work here, the study validated what they already knew -- that women's health is faltering in part because of poor diets and smoking," Vargas writes. "Jody Hershey, director of the New River Health District, said several factors that the study suggests for the drop in longevity come down to lifestyle choices," abetted by economic pressures that make preventive medicine difficult and health insurance an option, not a necessity.

Funeral home owner John Stevens told Vargas times in Radford are getting harder: "We even lost a Wal-Mart here. Who loses a Wal-Mart?" And he's getting more requests for cremations, which don't require an expensive casket. (Read more)

UPDATE, May 7: "Female death rates for Radford and Pulaski County are consistent with the state as a whole and not significantly higher, according to research conducted by the New River Health District," reports Donna Alvis-Banks of The Roanoke Times. "It is important to note that life expectancy and death rates are different statistics," Dr. Jody Hershey, director of the health district, said in a letter to city and county officials. "They are linked, but not necessarily directly."

UPDATE, April 29: The Daily Yonder posts lists of the counties with significantly lower life expectancy and reports that the rural county with the greatest decline in life expectancy, for both men and women, was McNairy County, Tenn. To read the details, click here.

Farm Bill negotiators reach tentative agreement, but details of subsidy cap remain to be worked out

Congressional negotiators tentatively agreed yesterday on a new Farm Bill that will reduce the federal subsidy for ethanol, trim some crop subsidies, boost nutrition programs, label imported food and start a new disaster program designed mainly for drought-fearing farmers in the Upper Midwest.

Fixed payments to grain and cotton growers over the next 10 years would be cut by an estimated $400 million, but that was much less than critics of the subsidies proposed. Details remain to be worked out, "including a tightening of income-eligibility limits for farm subsidies," reports Philip Brasher of The Des Moines Register.

"The government would spend $10 billion more than allocated by congressional budget committees last year," reports Dan Morgan in The Washington Post. "The Bush administration had proposed an increase of about $5.5 billion." To help head off a presidential veto, Brasher reports, "Lawmakers agreed to drop a revenue source that the White House had objected to and instead decided to get money they needed through extending user fees paid by importers. "

The 51-cent-per-gallon tax credit for ethanol would be cut to 45 cents "to help offset the cost of a package of tax incentives for horse racing, timber and other industries," Brasher reports. "A new subsidy, worth as much as $1.01 a gallon, would be created for ethanol made from sources other than corn, including crop residue and wood waste." (Read more)

"Rising food costs gave a strong impetus to stepped-up funding for programs such as food stamps that help poor and near-poor families," Morgan reports. "Versions passed by the House and Senate last year proposed modest increases in food stamp benefits and eased standards of eligibility for the program. Last week, Senate negotiators offered a $9.5 billion increase over 10 years. Yesterday, they upped that offer by $800 million to $900 million, sources indicated."

Morgan also reports that the agreement includes the first requirment for "country of origin" labeling for imported meat and vegetables. (Read more)

Friday, April 25, 2008

Texas governor wants exemption from biofuel mandate, to slow rising food and feed prices

Climbing food and feed prices have added to the debate over federal mandates for the increased production of grain-based renewable fuel. In Texas, Gov. Rick Perry wants a partial waiver from new renewable fuel standards, reports David Ivanovich of the Houston Chronicle.

Perry "asked federal regulators to relax rules requiring use of corn-based ethanol in the nation's fuel supply, arguing the mandate is driving up world food prices and harming the Texas economy," Ivanovich writes. "Perry sent a letter today to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, asking the federal government to waive 50 percent of the mandate for production of ethanol derived from grain."

Perry's letter said the policy was "well-intentioned" but was harming Texas families and livestock producers. Ethanol makers said such a waiver would not led to lower food or feed prices but would instead led to the reduction of fuel in the marketplace. "While this may benefit Texas oil companies, it will certainly hurt consumers in Texas and the rest of the country," the Renewable Fuels Association said. (Read more)

A news release from the governor's office said corn prices have climbed 138 percent in the last three years, while global food prices jumped 83 percent in the same period. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 25 percent of the corn grown in United States was diverted to produce in ethanol in 2007, with 30 to 35 percent projected to be diverted in 2008 and more in the years after that. In Texas, family ranches make up the majority of cattle producers, with nearly 70 percent of the state's 149,000 cattle producers having less than 50 head of cattle, according to the USDA.

Roanoke media market broadband use ranks last

While Roanoke, Va., was recently designated the top digital city among similar-sized cities, its media market ranks last in the nation when it comes to high-speed Internet access. "The households in 25 Virginia counties that make up the Roanoke/Lynchburg designated market area ended last in a ranking of 79 U.S. markets for broadband use, according to New York-based Scarborough Research," reports Jenny Kincaid Boone of The Roanoke Times. "Only 29 percent of the adults in the market have high-speed Internet connections in their homes, according to the report compiled from August 2006 to September 2007."

The report said that nationally broadband access quadrupled between 2002 and 2007. Officials told the Times that the report is not good news for economic development. "It's very important to have widespread availability and affordability of broadband, especially from the home [for telecommuters]," said Andrew Cohill, president and chief executive officer of Design Nine, a Blacksburg company that provides consulting for broadband and telecommunications planning. He also said the disparity in broadband use is related to factors of access, education and income.

Cost can be a significant hurdle even when broadband is available. In remote Highland County, DSL service has been available for the past three years, but use has jumped since the Highland Telephone Cooperative dropped the monthly price from $42 to $19.95. High-speed Internet can provide new job opportunities in these areas, such as the 160 sales representative jobs retailer HSN aims to fill this year in the Roanoke area. These sales reps will work from home and must have a high-speed connection to apply. (Read more)

Small town in Iowa keeps prison — and its vital jobs

In January, we reported that Fort Madison, Iowa, home to the state's penitentiary since 1839, was bracing for the possible loss of the prison and its many jobs. Lee County, which sits on the Mississippi River in the southeast corner of the state, had its fourth-highest unemployment rate — 5.6 percent — and was desperate to keep the prison, especially since other major employees, such as a casino riverboat, were leaving or had left. It won the battle, reports Jennifer Jacobs of the Des Moines Register. (The current prison — built in 1870 — is above in Register photo.)

Republican opponents of the decision by Democraric Gov. Chet Culver's administration said the more centrally located town of Newton was a better choice for the $130.7 million 800-bed prison, given Fort Madison's relative isolation. Newton was home to Maytag's last plant, which closed last October, and was a stop on the campaigns of Barack Obama and John Edwards during the Iowa primary. (Read more)

Blogger conference call offers plenty of story ideas about agricultural and rural issues; listen to it here

We participated in a conference call for agricultural- and rural-minded bloggers this week, and a podcast of the discussion is available here. During the call, agricultural journalist John Phipps and Wayne Wenzel, the seeds and technology Editor for Farm Journal, covered a wide range of topics. Phipps is host of US Farm Report, writes for Farm Journal and also appears on AgWeb.

Among the issues discussed were rising food prices, renewable fuels, organic products, new farm technology and and how small-town newspapers and journalists can take advantage of the Internet. It's worth a listen, especially since the food versus fuel debate remains a hot topic for those in agriculture and for consumers in general.

Obituary celebrates Arizona rancher, speaks to changing landscape in rural Southwest

The front-page obituary for rancher Delbert Pierce that appeared in The Daily Courier not only celebrated the life of a key member of the Prescott, Ariz., community, it highlighted the changes many rural areas have seen over the past few decades. Pierce died last week at the age of 91, and he "was as a man who knew the Arizona landscape, right down to every flower and tree and animal, because he took care of them with his own hands," writes Joanna Dodder Nellans. "Numerous awards and his induction into the Arizona Ag Hall of Fame attested to these facts, but they are not what people remember." (At left in a family photo is Pierce with his wife, Anna Beth, who died 12 days before he did.)

Pierce purchased his Las Vegas Ranch, just north of Prescott, in 1959 and eventually expanded it to 18,360 acres. "He was just an honest, hard-working person who took good care of cattle," Pierce's neighbor and fellow long-time rancher, John Kieckhefer, told The Daily Courier. Kieckhefer's wife Lynda said, "It's hard. These old pioneers are leaving us. It's just kind of the passing of an era." (Read more)

In the comments section of The Daily Courier's Web site, one reader's comment explained why the obituary deserved its front-page placement: "This article captures an important dimension of what was historically significant about this region while at the same time celebrating the life and career of a life well-lived."

Small Kentucky weekly holds sheriff's feet to fire

In southern Kentucky, a local sheriff has been making front-page news in the area's weekly newspaper, the Todd County Standard, for charges filed against him after an incident outside a store in neighboring Logan County. Since then, the story has been picked up by other newspapers in the state and elsewhere.

In the March 26-April 1 edition of the Standard (circ. 2,500), the top story was "Sheriff comes under fire." In that article, Ryan Craig reports:
A criminal complaint has been brought against Todd County Sheriff W.D. "Billy" Stokes by a disabled Logan County man who claims Stokes parked in a handicapped space at the Russellville Wal-Mart and then threatened to shoot him with a Taser when he asked Stokes to move.

Stokes told the Standard that he might have been parked improperly, but he only threatened to shoot the man with his Taser after he felt the man was "acting weird."
A week later, the story again dominated the front page of the Standard. In this April 2 update, Craig reports that Stokes had been charged with unauthorized parking in a handicapped zone, menacing and official misconduct. Alongside this story was the full transcript of the call placed by Dan Draper, the man who filed the complaint against Stokes, to the city's police dispatcher. The transcript began in the middle of the front page and ran on nearly half of two inside pages. The Standard also ran a column by Craig, which appeared next to his update on Stokes and the transcript on page one. In the column "Vendetta ... or just amnesia?" Craig writes:
I have been told that Sheriff W.D. "Billy" Stokes claims I, and my newspaper, have a vendetta against him.

To this I would respond with a question: Did he have a fall or get hit on the head?
Because I worry he must have a serious case of amnesia.

If I have a vendetta against him then how does he explain all the times this newspaper has called him to get his side of the story. (We'll get more into that later.)

No, Mr. Stokes, if anything I have taken serious criticism from your detractors that I'm too soft on you.

Ironically, I also take grief from your supporters who say I'm also unfair to you.
In the rest of the column, Craig recounts times the paper provided Stokes' side of the story, including times when he was given editorial space to respond in writing. The column, Craig explains, is a response to Stokes' appearance on WKDZ-FM in Cadiz. Stokes called the station right after Craig finished his weekly call-in report. "Because of who I am and the stand I'm trying to take for the right purposes here in Todd County I don't think that my story through Ryan Craig and his newspaper, the Todd County Standard, have been getting both sides," Stokes said. "It seems like it is hard for me to get my side of the story in with each issue that comes up with Mr. Craig so therefore I wanted to call and let you know the side of the story and anything you want to know about the incident I'll be glad to tell you." (The Standard is not online, but it does its own blog.)

This week, Stokes entered a plea of not guilty to the charges, an update which was reported in Logan County's twice-weekly newspaper, the News-Democrat & Leader, as well as by The Associated Press. (Read more)

Despite tight budget and opposition from rural hospitals, Ky. approves statewide trauma system

Many rural areas lack systems that designate hospitals as trauma centers, and as a result many rural patients have died because they are not taken to the correct facility quickly enough. In Kentucky, lawmakers recently passed a bill to establish a statewide trauma system, reports The Courier-Journal of Louisville. The bill encourages the creation of written transport protocols for emergency medical services to define which patients can stay at a local hospital and which ones should go directly to a trauma center instead. Additionally, the bill would encourage more hospitals to become trauma centers.

"Advocates have been fighting for a trauma system for years, saying residents who live far from trauma centers — such as many residents in rural areas of Kentucky — have a greater chance of dying after car accidents or other trauma because they can't get to the hospitals best able to handle their injuries quickly enough," the C-J reports. (Read more)

The bill had faced some opposition from smaller, rural hospitals that feared such a system would mean the loss of patients to bigger hospitals designated as trauma centers.

Having lost 300,000 acres of farmland since 2002, North Carolina strengthens laws to preserve farms

In the booming counties around Charlotte and other North Carolina cities, farms have given way to new subdivisions. The process has been playing out in other parts of country, but North Carolina has seen the most dramatic losses of farmland. As a result, the state is taking action to preserve farms by creating development-free agricultural districts, reports Bruce Henderson of The Charlotte Observer.

Since 2002, North Carolina has lost 6,000 farms and 300,000 acres of farmland, which the state's Agriculture Department says is more than any other state in that time. The state already had agricultural districts where farmers voluntarily agree to keep their land undeveloped, but starting in 2005, the state created a stronger version of the system. In these new seven new districts, four in counties around Charlotte, "farmers agree not to sell their land to developers for at least a decade," Henderson writes. "In return, the farmers are eligible for a higher percentage of state conservation grants. They're also less likely to get unsolicited purchase offers from developers."

At the same time, the state legislature earmarked $8 million annually for the restructured Agricultural Development and Farmland Preservation Trust Fund. Those in favor of the preservation plan argue that it's cheaper for counties to pay for development rights rather than encourage development, they say means building roads, schools, etc. (Read more)

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Rural voters, key for Clinton now, have actually given most of their votes to Obama, analyst says

Though rural voters have been a key part of Sen. Hillary Clinton's comeback in the Democratic race for president, Sen. Barack Obama actually has amassed more rural votes since the caucuses and primaries started Jan. 3, Al Giordano reports in The Field, the blog of And he offers this nice map:
Giordano writes:
The greener the area, the more support for Obama. The bluer, for Clinton (that’s why Michigan is all blue; the map uses its “straw poll” results from when Obama wasn’t on the ballot: I likewise think the Florida “results” don’t reflect what a real contest there would have shown). The few splotches of red represent votes for John Edwards. And the turquoise - that stretch from southern California to Texas - represents areas where both Obama and Clinton were competitive.

In terms of rural America, both candidates have been competitive in a majority of rural United States counties. Obama has more overwhelming rural support in the midwestern and western plains and in the deep and coastal south. Clinton has it along the Appalachian Mountain trail. Overall, Obama has won more support among rural voters than Clinton. (Read more)

McCain pledges to help rural areas connect, thrive

"It was an unlikely setting for Republican presidential hopeful John McCain," writes Cassondra Kirby, the Lexington Herald-Leader's Eastern Kentucky reporter. "The tiny coal-mining town of Inez, where there are only three stoplights and a few hundred residents and you can count the number of fast-food restaurants on one hand. But McCain says he was not hunting for votes in the Eastern Kentucky town, where Republicans outnumber Democrats nearly 3 to 1 . . . At a time when President George Bush is unpopular, McCain says his tour of places that he describes as forgotten by other presidential candidates is part of his strategy to brand himself as a different kind of Republican -- one who cares about all the people, especially those in need." (Photo by Howie McCormick, The Herald-Dispatch)

"I want them to know that I will not forget my responsibility to the American people," McCain said. "I will not make promises I intend to forget and I will not make this my last visit to Inez, Kentucky." Kirby writes, "As his campaign bus wound through the mountains into Inez, the Arizona senator saw an area with stubbornly deep pockets of poverty. He passed the trailers and the curious onlookers who stared from front porches and through screen doors. He saw small gardens that families are raising to help during tough times."

And what of issues? "McCain talked about plans to encourage companies to help bring Internet service to rural areas, such as some hollows in Martin County that are still doing without," Kirby writes. "He talked about the need to partner with community colleges to train those out of work and his plans to continue the Iraq war." (Read more)

Many reporters noted that President Lyndon Johnson declared the War on Poverty in Martin County in 1964, and that the place remains poor. "I wouldn't be back here today if government had fulfilled the promises that Lyndon Johnson made 44 years ago," McCain said on his campaign bus. "The moral of the story is -- government isn't always the answer."

Maeve Reston of the Los Angeles Times writes that yesterday's installment of McCain's "forgotten places" tour "seemed largely symbolic. When a reporter asked what could be done about healthcare coverage in Appalachia, as well as the high rates of diabetes, obesity and cancer, McCain said his administration would emphasize 'wellness and fitness.' He also mentioned his proposal for a $5,000 refundable tax credit to allow families to 'go out and acquire at least some level of health insurance,' and added that he would recruit professional athletes to visit rural communities to talk about nutrition. A reporter noted that McCain's tax cut proposals, which he touted Wednesday, might require significant cuts in domestic discretionary spending. He said he couldn't promise that federal anti-poverty programs would be untouched, especially if they were 'ineffective.'" (Read more)

For excerpts of McCain's remarks, courtesy of National Journal, click here.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Women's life expectancy drops in 180 U.S. counties, mostly in the Deep South and Appalachia

Do disparities of income and health-care access affect life expectancy? Perhaps. A new study has found that while the overall life expectancy for American men and women rose between 1961 and 1999, the life expectancy of women has declined significantly in recent years in 180 U.S. counties, mostly rural ones in Appalachia and the deep South, reports The Associated Press.

In those counties, women's life expectancy fell by an average of 1.3 years between 1983 and 1999, according to a team of researchers at Harvard University, the University of California, San Francisco, and the University of Washington. Meanwhile, men's life expectancy fell by 1.3 years in only 11 counties nationwide.

"Researchers blamed the decrease in women's life expectancy on high blood pressure as well as chronic diseases related to smoking and obesity, such as lung cancer and diabetes," AP reports. (In the researchers' maps below, the red counties experienced significant declines, while orange ones had less significant declines, of 0.5 years or less, and those in green had increases, more significant in dark green counties.)
The study, based on data from the National Center for Health Statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau, found that nationwide between 1961 and 1999 the life expectancy for men increased from 66.9 years to 74.1 years, while women's life expectancy rose from from 73.5 years to 79.6 years. In the 180 counties that saw declines in women's life expectancy, the average was 75.5 years. "The study emphasizes how important it is to monitor health inequalities between different groups," the researchers wrote, "in order to ensure that everyone - and not just the well-off - can experience gains in life expectancy." (Read more)

The study was published this week in the online journal PLoS Medicine. To read the full study go here.

UPDATE, April 29: The Daily Yonder posts better maps and lists of the counties with significantly lower life expectancy and reports that the rural county with the greatest decline in life expectancy, for both men and women, was McNairy County, Tenn. To read the details, click here.

McCain visits the county, still poor, where LBJ decared War on Poverty 44 years ago

Sen. John McCain's tour through depressed areas takes him today to Inez, Ky., a town of fewer than 500 people and the county seat of Martin County, where President Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty in October 1964, notes Ryan Alessi of the Lexington Herald-Leader: "Once again, Inez will find itself in the context of a philosophical battleground -- but this time it's between Democrats and Republicans seeking the presidency by way of rural America."

Inez was surely chosen less for its LBJ connection than for Martin County's Republican registration and its local banker: Mike Duncan, who is chairman of the Republican National Committee. ""We have to earn rural voters in Eastern Kentucky and all over the country," Duncan told the Herald-Leader. "We do that by the issues and our values. It's significant that Sen. McCain is going to be on Main Street Inez, Ky., not Wall Street, talking about these things."

Alessi writes, "In many ways, Inez remains the same poster city for the economic challenges facing Eastern Kentucky that it was when Johnson touched down in 1964 and promised to approve $1 billion in federal aid for Appalachia. Today, fewer than half the residents of Inez -- Martin County's seat that boomed in the 1970s as a strip-mining town -- have jobs, compared to the U.S. average of 64 percent. And 35 percent live below the federal poverty level, which is three times the national average, according to the U.S. Census Bureau." (Read more)

UPDATE: For a report on the visit from WKYT-TV of Lexington, click here.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Rural voters in Pennsylvania stick with Clinton

Sen. Hillary Clinton continued her mastery of rural Democratic voters tonight in Pennsylvania. As she rolled up a margin of 9.4 percentage points over Sen. Barack Obama, with 99 percent of precincts reporting, she won rural areas and small towns by about the same margin that President Bush won them nationwide in 2004: 61 to 39 percent, said the exit poll conducted for news organizations by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International. (Associated Press photo)

Obama won by more than expected in Philadelphia, and carried the state's big cities by 62 to 38 percent, but those places accounted for only 18 percent of the vote, and he lost the balance of the state. "In white, blue-collar, rural Pennsylvania, Sen. Clinton just thumped him," chief political reporter John King said on CNN. Analyst Bill Schneider said the poll indicated that Obama's remarks about bitter small-town voters had no impact, but former presidential adviser David Gergen disagreed, saying his words at least stalled his momentum as he was catching up to Clinton, and may have hurt him. Here is our take on those remarks, and on the reporting of them.

Obama's remarks touched on guns and religion. The following poll results reflect many demographic factors, but Clinton won gun owners, 62 to 38 percent -- those who don't own guns were evenly divided -- and among all churchgoers, even the occasional. Obama won those who said they never attend services, though among Protestants who attend weekly (10 percent of the poll sample) the vote was evenly divided -- probably a function of African American support for Obama (89 percent of the black vote). Among the 19 percent of voters who said a candidate's race was important to them, 59 percent voted for Clinton and 41 percent for Obama. African Americans made up only 14 percent of the poll sample. Ron Fournier of The Associated Press digs deeper into the poll data and reports, "White voters who cited race supported Clinton over Obama by a 3-to-1 margin." (Read more)

The key to Clinton's victory was suburbs, which accounted for about half the vote. She won them 56 to 44 percent. In places the exit poll classified as "small cities," Clinton won 51-49, within the poll's margin of error. In small towns, 8 percent of the poll, she won 59-41, and in rural areas, 14 percent of the poll, she won 62-38. Among other demographics, age continued to be the key. Clinton won voters over 40, Obama those under 40. Among college graduates, who have been one of Obama's most loyal groups, he won only 51-49, inside the error margin. Among those with any college education, Clinton won 51-49. Obama had the same "edge" among the 49 percent of primary voters who identified themselves as liberals. For the poll results, click here.

Oklahoma debate over luring NBA team to state reveals rural-urban division in legislature

In recent weeks, we highlighted Oregon as an example of growing rural-urban splits, and Oklahoma provides another. Legislators there are at odds over an incentive package aimed at luring the Seattle SuperSonics, an National Basketball Association team, to Oklahoma City, with urban lawmakers in favor of the plan and rural lawmakers against it. "The vote on the Sonics' legislation, like past votes on other measures involving economic development and tax policy, reflected a political division between rural and urban lawmakers that often runs deeper than differences between political parties," writes Tim Talley of The Associated Press.

By a bipartisan vote, the incentive plan passed and the NBA signed off on the Sonics' move to Oklahoma City for the 2008-09 season. In an early version of the bill, one lawmaker added an amendment to provide incentives for physicians who relocated to rural areas. That amendment brought more rural support for the incentive plan, but it was removed in the final version. Rural lawmakers told Talley think their areas have needs greater than Oklahoma City's desire for an NBA team. "It's probably less about party than it is the need in rural Oklahoma," said Rep. Don Armes, R-Faxon, one of several lawmakers from rural areas who voted against the Sonics' bill. "We get kind of ignored in the rural areas where the need really is."

One lawmaker, Sen. Jim Wilson, D-Tahlequah, said the episode reminded him of his attempt to entice a company to rural northeastern Oklahoma, a firm that would have generated an economic impact of $261 million. Wilson, however, was unsuccessful in securing the $600,000 he needed to improve the proposed site for the plant. "We just feel sometimes like nobody's listening," Wilson told Talley. "We're just at a disadvantage. We don't have the same procedure available to us as the big cities do to get things done." (Read more)

Radio documentary 'Saving The Sierra' offers models for preserving rural communities

A new radio documentary, "Saving The Sierra: Grassroots Solutions for Sustaining Rural Communities," will start airing today on stations across the country in conjunction with Earth Day. The program seeks to explore the challenges facing rural areas in California's Sierra Nevada range that are targeted for development. The hour-long program is the result of two years of work which included a series of public radio broadcasts and community story sharing activities such as a mobile storybooth, audio workshops, listening sessions and an interactive Web site. According to the project Web site's, these multiple methods help create "numerous opportunities for broad public interaction, reflection, and dialogue on saving the Sierra."

The documentary includes a story about ranchers and environmentalists collaborating to preserve open space, a story about a battle over a luxury development near Lake Tahoe and a story about Los Angeles and its pursuit of more drinking water. In a news release, Roger Adams, program director of Wyoming Public Media, said that while these are local issues, their lessons can be applied elsewhere. “The issues examined in Saving the Sierra, while located in the Sierra Mountains of California could as easily be along Wyoming’s Wind River Mountain range, in Florida’s Everglades, on the shores of the Great Lakes or in any stretch of former farmland now lined with rows of condos,” he said.

The program is sponsored by The Sierra Fund, the Sierra Nevada Alliance, the Center for Sierra Nevada Studies at Sierra College and Sierra Business Council. For a listing of radio stations airing the program, go the project's Web site. To listen to a podcast of the program online, go here. The project encourages rural bloggers and listeners to leave feedback at the project's blog.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Broadcasters enlist legislators to fight proposed FCC rules that would restore some localism

During the National Association of Broadcasters' annual conference in Las Vegas last week, new proposals from the Federal Communications Commission dominated discussions. The NAB does not like the localism rules proposed by the FCC that "would require television and radio station owners to reconnect with their markets at a time when technology allows remote broadcasting and shared programming," reports Cindy Skrzycki for The Washington Post.

The proposals, which include requirements for broadcasters such as creating citizen advisory panels or sharing radio playlists with the government, aim to improve the relationship between stations and their communities. "Public-interest groups say modern radio broadcasters owned by big media companies have sacrificed local radio voices for homogenized playlists, local TV political coverage for sensational news of celebrities and a presence in the community with a distant headquarters and marketing agreements," Skrzycki writes. "They are also unhappy with the lack of minority and female ownership." She also notes that the American Farm Bureau Federation has complained that agricultural news has been virtually eliminated.

The NAB has said proposals' community boards would be unwieldy, their content restrictions might infringe on First Amendment rights and their staffing requirements would strain the finances of smaller stations. (Read more)

As part of its response to the proposals, the NAB asked its members as well as members of Congress to write letters in opposition. "More than 120 legislators signed onto a letter to Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin asking him not to impose any localism mandates on broadcasters," reports John S. Eggerton of Broadcasting & Cable. "A copy of the letter was released by Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), but included Democrats, as well."

In the letter legislators said they agreed with the goal of boosting localism but opposed the methods. "Any approach to regulate media that violates constitutional principles or unnecessarily burdens the industry when other, less burdensome methods are available should be discarded," they wrote. (Read more)

Kentucky researchers identify, suppress gene responsible for one carcinogen in tobacco

While the addictive effects of nicotine are its best known properties, the nicotine produced by tobacco can also led to the creation of a key carcinogen. As part of research to reduce the risk of smoking or chewing tobacco, University of Kentucky researchers have identified a gene responsible for the process by which nicotine molecules are metabolized into nornicotine, a dangerous alkaloid, reports Carol Spence of UK's College of Agriculture. As tobacco cures, nornicotine can become nitrosonornicotine (NNN), a potent carcinogen.

The research is being conducted by Balazs Siminszky, assistant professor in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences, working with UK postdoctoral research associate Lily Gavilano, in collaboration with researchers at North Carolina State University and with funding from cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris USA. Currently, tobacco-seed breeders use a screening process to identify and discard nornicotine-producing plants, but Siminszky said that system is imperfect. Siminszky has tried a different approach by attempting to suppress the activity of the gene responsible for nornicotine production.

About 5 percent of tobacco plants produce nornicotine, but less than 1 percent of the research team's transgenic plants did -- and had six times less NNN, the potent carcinogen, than commercial tobacco. Still, Siminszky emphasized that scientists have identified more than 60 cancer-causing compounds in tobacco smoke and at least 16 in unburned tobacco. “Nobody wants to give the message to people that now we’ve solved the cancer problem. That’s not true at all,” he told Spence. “All we are saying at this point is this particular carcinogen has been reduced.” (Read more)

Grayson, Ky., radio station gets third Crystal Award from National Association of Broadcasters

WUGO-FM of Grayson, Ky., won its third Crystal Award at the National Association of Broadcasters' conference last week. Each year, Crystal Awards recognize 10 radio stations for commitment to community service. Based in a town of 3,800, WUGO features 220 minutes of news daily. Last year it aired 32 live broadcasts, covered 70 local high school games and logged 10,320 minutes of public-service announcements. The station's news and public affairs programs, such as "County Conversations," allowed 320 locals to be heard on the radio. WUGO won the award in 2003 and 2005, while sister station WGOH-AM won it in 1999.

In a description of its 2007 accomplishments, WUGO also noted the station wrote and broadcast a 22-part series on county history, which was accompanied by a 75-page book published by the station. WUGO-FM distributed 2,100 free copes of the book as well. Those accomplishments also include active roles for the station in local charity efforts, such as Relay for Life. The station's "Nice GO0ing Grants" donated $9,850 to local causes.

General Manager Francis Nash accepted the award. He is a legend in Kentucky broadcast journalism and the author of "Towers Over Kentucky," a history of radio and television in the state. (Read more)

Newspaper series explores how prostitution and human trafficking ring took root in rural Iowa

In 2005 and 2006, The Gazette in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, covered the court cases arising from an Iowa prostitution and human trafficking ring. According to Gazette senior editor Lyle Muller, the cases, which involved a 13-year-old girl from suburban Minneapolis, led the newspaper to ask: "How could such crimes flourish in predominantly rural Eastern Iowa?"

After a year and a half, the paper's investigation into that question is being published in a special report called "Fruit of the Poisonous Tree." The narrative series began yesterday with an article by Jennifer Hemmingsen, right, who spent the past year working on the project after taking it over from former staff writer Zack Kucharski when he became the paper's Information Center manager. In that time, Hemmingsen interviewed 25 people at length, including criminal defendants, escort service clients, law enforcement investigators and attorneys, and the teenage Minneapolis-area girl forced into prostitution as part of ring based in tiny Cosgrove, Iowa (above in a Gazette photo by Brian Ray). Hemmingsen begins the narrative this way:
In the basement of an ordinary-looking Williamsburg home, the 13-year-old girl was given a choice. Either she would have sex with two men nearly twice her age or she would be given back to her kidnapper.

Already in the week since Demont Bowie told the suburban Minneapolis girl she belonged to him, he'd beaten and abused her, starved her and deprived her of sleep. He traded her body to his friends and even a mechanic. When Demont told her to do something to someone, she did. There was no refusing. He'd said he'd kill her, kill her family, if she tried to leave.

She believed him.

Somehow, she'd survived a week of hell at Demont's hands in Wellman, a Washington County town of 1,500 people. Now Demont was gone — had run away after a fight with his father at an Easter 2005 family gathering.

The girl was in the basement with Demont's half brother, Moosey Jones, who had put her in this double bind. She was bawling, begging him. But she was terrified of Demont, so she had sex with Moosey, his friend and another underage boy, not knowing that not going back to Demont would send her on a new, terrible path as a prostitute for a business advertising in Eastern Iowa as an escort service called Naughty-bi-Nature.
It's a harrowing account and an impressive piece of reporting. The series also includes a video report, an explanation of how the report was done, a chance for readers to offer feedback. The report's home page is here.

Farm Bill delays leave farmers unsure what to plant due to questions about commodity subsidy levels

The Farm Bill is more than six months behind schedule, and after another deadline extension and another veto threat from the Bush administration, an end date is not certain. As April rolls on, the delays are affecting farmers and their spring planting decisions, reports Charles Slat of The Monroe (Mich.) Evening News. "Knowing which crops will be subsidized and which won't helps farmers figure out what to plant each year," Slat writes. "Not knowing the extent of subsidies in a new farm bill doesn't help much at all. And there are no clear signs when a final bill might be passed."

The delays are important because farmers must "provide certification of the crops they're planting and the number of acres cultivated" to receive subsidy payments, Slat writes. As time goes on, the window for planting and certification closes. "Very shortly, they're going to be wanting to get into these fields and start planting," Paul Manol, county executive director for the federal Farm Service Agency office in Monroe, told Slat. "At that point, it will be a burden for them to come into this office and certify their acreage. I have a funny feeling this office is going to be swamped. I'm thinking of bringing a cot in here, to tell you the truth, because that's how much I think I'm going to be here." (Read more)

The writing of the Farm Bill has taken 13 months so far, and Reuters has produced a timeline that charts the lengthy process from its beginnings at Farm Bill forums in July 2007 to April's meetings between House and Senate negotiators.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Competing weekly papers in small town clean up in annual Alaska Press Club awards contest

Homer, Alaska, is at the end of the road -- as far as you can go on the paved road system of the United States. But it has two fine weekly newspapers, as proven by the awards handed out last night at the end of the Alaska Press Club's annual conference. The Homer Tribune won the award for best weekly, which is judged apart from individual awards, but the Homer News won more awards for writing.

"The Trib offers readers a blend of punchy writing, informed skepticism and a real engagement with its community," wrote the judge, investigative reporter Nigel Jacquiss of Willamette Week in Portland, Ore. He said the paper's four-part series on a proposed mine in a prime salmon-fishing area "was an ambitious examination of a complicated proposition, and exactly the kind of public-interest reporting that papers of all sizes should strive to execute." For major-paper stories on the mine, click here and here. The Tribune won first place in investigative reporting for the series, and also won first in business and government reporting. Five of its awards, all second or third place, were for photography.

The Homer News won first place for environmental reporting, education story and editorial cartoon, and its columnists took all three places in column writing. Michael Armstrong, the second-place columnist, won the environmental award for "a most distressing story on our consumptive ways," on trash in an otherwise pristine area. "this really is journalism at its best: fun to report, fascinating to read, jaw-dropping in its findings," wrote judge Douglas Fischer of Boulder, Colo., an award-winning environmental reporter. The Tribune is independently owned; the News is owned by Morris Communications. Another Morris paper, the Alaska Star of Chugiak-Eagle River, was the other top winner in the small-newspaper division.