Saturday, October 11, 2008

Conference to examine impact on environment, development of transition to a bioeconomy

The nation’s rapid transition to a bioeconomy has significant implications for agriculture, the food system and rural communities. Farm Foundation is holding a series of conferences to highlight lessons learned, future possibilities and future information needs. The third in the series, Oct. 15 and 16 at the Hyatt Regency at Union Station in St. Louis, will focus on environmental and rural development issues in the bioeconomy.

Speakers will include Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer and Undersecretary for Rural Development Thomas Dorr; Robert Larson of the Environmental Protection Agency, speaking on impacts of the Renewable Fuels Standard; Andy Isserman of the University of Illinois, on jobs in the bioeconomy; Mark Drabenstott of the Rural Policy Research Institute's Center for Regional Competitiveness, on governance issues for rural regions; Noel Gollehon of the Natural Resources and Conservation Service, on water issues; Cole Gustafson of North Dakota State University on financing the growth of cellulosic energy; and Joe Black of South Financial Partners, on integrating the bioeconomy with rural regions and the environment. Several others are on the program.

Conference registration is available online or by printing out the registration form and returning it to Farm Foundation with registration payment. Conference registration fee is $300. The fee is waived for media representatives, but they are asked to register. The room block at the Hyatt has closed, but the special conference rate of $155 plus tax will apply if rooms are available. Contact the Hyatt at 314-231-1234 or 800-233-1234, or check room availability and reserve online by clicking here.

Va. county replaces Bible course with broader one

The Craig County, Virginia, school board, under implied threat of legal action by the American Civil Liberties Union, voted without dissent this week to drop a high-school Bible course " in favor of a less controversial religious curriculum," Rob Johnson reports for The Roanoke Times. (Encarta map)

The course to be dropped, The Bible in History and Literature, "is promoted by actor Chuck Norris and has drawn fire from civil liberties organizations in several states who claim it unconstitutionally promotes particular religious beliefs," Johnson writes. The course is distributed by the North Carolina-based National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, based in Greensboro, N.C.

"The new course is called The Bible and Its Influence," a product of the Bible Literacy Project, a nonprofit group based in northern Virginia. Its course "isn't perfect, but it attempts to take a broader view of the Bible by showing that it is interpreted in different ways by various religious groups," Kent Willis, executive director for the ACLU in Virginia, told Johnson.

"Critics of the current Bible curriculum in Craig County said it ignores Jewish interpretations, among other things," Johnson reports. He interviewed Roy Blizzard, a former university Hebrew-studies teacher who advises the Greensboro group. He said its book "is a guide, not a textbook. The text in that curriculum is the Bible itself." (Read more)

Friday, October 10, 2008

Scholar of rural vote says McCain will win it, but maybe not big because focus will stay on economy

John McCain will get most of the votes in rural America on Nov. 4, but “The question is whether he wins rural American by a bigger margin than George W. Bush,” says Peter Francia, an East Carolina University political science professor who made a detailed study of rural voting patterns in the 2004 presidential election.

Francia, left, told Douglas Burns of the Iowa Independent that voters' focus this time will be almost entirely on the economy, not personality-based appeals that helped Bush twice: “I think it’s going to be hard for the Republicans to shift the focus away from the economy. Everything is going to be economy, economy, economy.”

Nevertheless, Francia said it's clear that McCain will keep attacking Obama’s character, which implicitly raises questions about Obama's patriotism. “That message plays well in rural America,” he told Burns, who writes: "White working class/rural voters may not be fessing up to pollsters about the racism that will ultimately inform their votes in November, Francia said. But Obama may have the organization to counter that." (Read more)

Obama backs cuts in 'big agribusiness' subsidies, more regulation of confined feeding operations

In an interview released today, Sen. Barack Obama said he supports reductions in federal subsidies to "big agribusiness operations that, frankly, just don't need help" and more regulation of confined animal feeding operations, or CAFOs. "I do support tough environmental regulations of CAFOs as well as increased funding for equipment," Obama told Agri-Pulse Senior Editor Stewart Doan. "We’ve probably been a little lax in terms of how we approach this problem."

Agri-Pulse is seeking an interview with Sen. John McCain. He and Obama have both supported limiting subsidy payments to $250,000 per farm. Obama commented on subsidies when asked how he would have changed the latest Farm Bill, which he supported and McCain opposed. "At a time when taxpayers are being squeezed we need to make sure it’s going to people, who really need it," Obama said, adding that conservation and nutrition programs in the bill need more money. Asked if the current economic turmoil will lead to cuts in programs, he noted McCain's proposed across-the-board cuts and said, "I don’t believe in taking a hatchet to a problem, I believe in taking a scalpel."

On CAFO regulation, Obama said called livestock "a critical industry" and "a major driver of rural economic development … but I do support tough environmental regulations of CAFOs as well as increased funding for equipment" that helps CAFO operators manage the waste from their operations. Doan said current regulation is incentive-based. Obama also answered questions about biofuels and trade. To hear the nine-minute interview, click here.

Agri-Pulse Editor Sara Wyant said in an e-mail, “This is the first time that Sen. Obama has taken time out of his campaign to speak with any agricultural journalist about his views on the farm bill and agriculture in general.” The interview begins "Open Mic," a new weekly feature for the nonpartisan, Washington-based newsletter, which offers a free trial subscription.

Wyant wrote a column last week examining why McCain remains strong and enjoys growing favorability among rural voters though he opposed the Farm Bill and vows to eliminate the tax credit for ethanol. She suggested that one reason may be his choice of running mate Sarah Palin. To read the column, click here.

Candidates on broadband: McCain favors market, Obama favors regulation, offers more details

Both major presidential candidates see high-speed Internet service, or broadband, as important to rural America. But they offer considerably different ways to achieve it. "Obama advocates legislation to make it happen; McCain trusts the free market to bring it about," the Daily Yonder reports.

"Both candidates support public-private partnerships, but only Obama offers a specific funding mechanism to pay for his program," writes Timothy Collins, assistant director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University. Examining the candidates' plstforms, he notes that Obama wants to reform the Universal Service Fund "to extend broadband services across the country. . . . McCain does not mention the Universal Service Fund, instead promising to keep the Internet free of taxation. In fact, he lists a number of tax breaks and incentives for firms."

The candidates also differ on "net neutrality," a proposed policy that would prevent Internet service providers from setting different rates or access based on type of content. "McCain seems to support net neutrality in theory, as a policy direction, but does not want the government to mandate it for fear regulations would stifle competition and innovation," Collins writes. "Obama, on the other hand, believes government has a role in guiding competition to keep the markets fair. He supports net neutrality, with an attendant set of regulations to assure that the Internet – in all of its aspects, from research and development to personal use – is set up so it is fair to everyone."

Obama says the current federal definition of broadband, 200 kilobites per second, is too slow, but offers no alternative definition. Collins found no position for McCain on this issue. He also found, "Obama raises two other issues of importance to rural areas: making sure schools, libraries, hospitals and households have access to the next generation of broadband technology and using technology to lower health care costs by improving record keeping. McCain does not mention these issues." Collins offers many more details on this important topic for rural America. (Read more)

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Palin's small-town background stirs urban scorn

The vice presidential nomination of Gov. Sarah Palin, a former mayor of Wasilla, Alaaska, "has elicited an outpouring of scorn towards micropolitan and small-town America," Joel Kotkin wrote on New, which says it is "a site devoted to analyzing and discussing the places where we live and work."

Kotkin's only example is "Villiage Idiocy," an article by Jennifer Bradly and Bruce Katz in the Oct. 8 issue of The New Republic, which cited a commentary (no longer available online) by Gerald Seib of The Wall Street Journal, written in the wake of Barack Obama's comments about small-town voters in Pennsylvania.

"Palin was tapping into a widespread belief that small-town America represents the country at large," Katz and Bradly wrote. "People's longing for small towns is an understandable fantasy. Small towns seem like slower, saner havens in an overly connected, frenetic world, places where a blackberry is an ingredient in jam. But metros, not small towns, are where our economy is, where our population is, and where our country's future is."

Kotkin replied, "Bruce and other compulsive centralizers forget that over one-third of Americans still would like to live in small towns or the countryside – roughly twice as many who want to live in his beloved, high-density cities. Migration patterns show that Americans are moving, on net, more to mid-sized and smaller cities, and within the metropolitan areas, away from the central cities. If the benefits of small town living is a 'fantasy,' it’s a widely shared one." Replying to a comment from a reader who clearly dislikes small towns, Kotkin said he feared that the "deeply centralist instinct ... is likely to ascend now, particularly with an Obama victory." (Read more)

Nina Goolsby, longtime Oxford Eagle editor, dies

Nina Bunch Goolsby, co-owner of The Oxford Eagle and editor of the 5,000-circulation Mississippi daily from 1961 to 2006, "died Tuesday night on her 88th birthday," reports Senior Staff Writer Lucy Schultze. Goolsby's "folksy writings and persuasive sales approach defined Oxford’s community newspaper for half a century."

Goolsby started at the paper in 1942 as a bookkeeper. "She soon became the society editor and later moved into advertising," Schultze writes. "She purchased The Eagle in 1961 along with partners Jesse Phillips and W.S. Featherston. She continued to write her popular “Nina’s Notebook” column through the mid-1990s. With its blend of current events, folksy reminiscences and local color, it’s this daily column for which she’s best remembered across the Oxford community."

Nina Goolsby was what the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues likes to call an engaged journalist. "Far from the idea of journalist as dispassionate observer, 'Miss Nina' did more than just chronicle daily life in her community — she worked to shape, guide and promote it. She was involved in well over a dozen local clubs and organizations," and many civic causes, Schultze writes. “She was a force for what was progressive and good in the city,” former mayor John Leslie said. (Read more)

Drought makes California farmers call for dowsers

A prolonged drought in California -- severe in most of the state, extreme in the north-central part -- has brought out the dowsers like Phil Stine, right. "Mr. Stine, you see, is a 'water witch,' one of a small band of believers for whom the ancient art of dowsing is alive and well," Jesse McKinley writes for The New York Times. (Photo by Peter DaSilva)

"Scientists pooh-pooh dowsers like Mr. Stine, saying their abilities are roughly on par with a roll of the dice. But witches have been much in demand of late in rural California, the nation’s biggest agricultural engine, struggling through its second year of drought," McKinley reports. "The dry period has resulted in farm layoffs, restrictions on residential and agricultural water use, and hard times for all manner of ancillary businesses, like tractor dealerships and roadside diners." (Read more)
Steven Novella, an academic clinical neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine, is outraged that the Times would publish such a story. Novella writes on his Neurologica blog, "McKinley has apparently never heard of the ideomotor effect - which is an explanation for the movement of dowsing rods. The rods move by subconscious muscles movements of the dowsers." (Read more)
For more coverage of the Western drought, check listings of public television stations for a new documentary, "The American Southwest: Are We Running Dry?" hosted by actress Jane Seymour. The documentary deals with conservation, land-use planning and how continuing drought and low precipitation have depleted water sources throughout the West. Click here for a Web page with more information, downloadable photos, trailers and content.

In search for energy sources, wood resurfaces

Alternative fuels are a popular subject these days, with rising prices turning attention toward wind and solar power. But a recent article highlights a popular energy source that's been around for a long time. Wood-powered electricity plants are on the rise, providing more electricity than its more glamorous counterparts combined.

"We are in trouble as a nation and we've got to utilize every single electricity production source we can. Whatever it is," said William Hull, one of the developers at a proposed plant in Russell, Mass. (pop. 1,700). The Associated Press says that today there are almost 200 U.S. electricity plants getting energy from wood. Most of those plants are connected to lumber or paper mills, which provide an immediate supply of fuel. Additional plants are being considered in areas across the nation which would gain its supply from clearing utility lines, wood found on forest floors or from lumber companies.

But the trend concerns environmentalists, who say using wood for fuel will upset the forest's delicate ecosystem. "A forest doesn't waste anything," says Bryan Bird of WildEarth Guardians, a New Mexico-based environmentalist group. "That's the next generation of soil and nutrients in a forest ecosystem." (Read more)

Did you know catching rain water can be illegal?

Update: Following a study showing that 97% of rainwater never makes it to streams, Colorado legislators Sen. Chris Romer and Rep. Marsha Looper introduced bills which would allow rainwater harvesting in rural areas facing drought and under 11 pilot projects in urban areas, reports Nicholas Riccardi in the Los Angeles Times. (Read more)

Many drought-stricken denizens in the West have found cisterns and rain-collection barrels to be the solution to their water woes. But in many places, they're illegal.

"Virtually all flowing water in most Western states is already dedicated to someone's use, and state water officials figure that trapping rainwater amounts to impeding that legal right," writes Peter Friederici in High Country News. While the law is rarely enforced, those bear the brunt of it are often those who are trying to follow the legal channels. Kris Holstrom, who runs an organic farm in Telluride, Colo., was denied a permit to collect building run-off, which she wanted to use when her well began providing less water. "They felt that the water belonged to someone else once it hit my roof," she says, because it fell in the watershed of the San Miguel River, three miles from her farm.

"Most observers agree that water collection by a few scattered rural residents is not going to affect overall supplies," writes Friederici, although "intensive collection by many urban residents, on the other hand, really might affect a region's water budget." State legislators in Colorado, Utah and Washington are working to draft laws that would allow for small amounts of rainwater to be collected for personal and small-business use, but companies and interest groups with investments in those water sources are expected to oppose reform. (Read more)

Post profile touches on Obama's rural experiences

While Barack Obama has established a lead in the race for president, it remains to be seen whether this fundamentally urban candidate can improve his standing with rural voters, who favor John McCain. Some answers may be suggested in The Washington Post this morning, in Eli Saslow's story about Obama as a state senator in the Illinois state capital, "a sophisticated urbanite living in a town built on cornfields," as Saslow writes. The story, headlined "From Outsider to Politician," is mainly about Obama's vivid tussles with other African American senators from Chicago, but includes this rural vignette:

Obama needed allies to make headway in a place like this, so he set out to find some. A group of Springfield political aides and lobbyists invited him to join their poker game, a low-stakes gathering attended by three other senators. On a weeknight in April 1996, Obama met the other players in a private room at a local country club. Big-screen TVs showed a Chicago Bulls game, and cigar smoke clouded the air.

His arrival surprised the other senators at the table. Jacobs, Terry Link and Larry Walsh -- all white Democrats, all older than 50, all from rural parts of the state -- would become Obama's closest friends in Springfield, but they viewed his initial arrival as the intrusion of an outsider. Jacobs was a loudmouth from the Iowa border, a self-described "backroom dinosaur" famous for his love of gambling. Walsh was a farmer from Elmwood who sometimes snuck out of session for a hot toddy. Link was a forklift business owner who narrowly graduated from high school.

As the young black senator from Chicago -- an Ivy Leaguer, a law professor -- bought into the poker game for $100 and lit a cigarette, Jacobs wondered: "What could he have in common with us?"

"It wasn't the most obvious fit," Jacobs said. "You've got two fat guys, a medium-heavy guy and then Obama. On the surface, there's not a lot that we shared."

Obama folded frequently during the games, preferring to watch the action unfold until he could pounce with the occasional great hand. He filled the long gaps in between by seeking advice from his playing partners about balancing work and family, crafting legislation and aligning with Republicans. Even as Obama routinely took their money, the other players regarded him as naive but genuine. In various capacities, Link, Walsh and Jacobs all considered themselves Obama's mentors.
Obama was never a big drinker, but he faithfully brought along a six-pack of beer and downed a couple. He smoked and pitched in for midnight pizza. The poker game eventually migrated to Link's house and became the one social staple on Obama's schedule. The Committee Meeting, Obama called it -- and the appointment stood for eight years. His poker-mates sometimes teased him for becoming "one of the good ol' boys."

As a Democrat in a legislature controlled by Republicans, Obama had lots of free time in Springfield, and used it to take up golf. "After his first year in Springfield, Obama took a golf trip to southern Illinois with his top adviser, Dan Shomon," Saslow reports. "Obama wanted to test how rural voters would respond to a black man, because he already had designs on a run for statewide office. Shomon coached him: Order regular mustard instead of Dijon; wear simple golf shirts instead of fancy button-downs. Obama returned from the trip convinced he could assimilate." (Read more)

NRA uses Hillary Clinton mailer against Obama

A pro-Sen. Hillary Clinton mailer has resurfaced on the campaign trail, as the National Rifle Association seeks to strengthen opposition to Sen. Barack Obama's stance on gun control issues. The original ad criticized Obama for his statement that small-town voters hurt by bad economic conditions "cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

The NRA announced its endorsement of John McCain and took out an ad in USA Today that copies the mailer with the tag line, "Hillary was right: You can't trust Obama with your guns." The ad "accuses Obama of changing his statements on gun issues to try to fit the audience he was addressing," writes Sharon Theimer of the Associated Press. The NRA's political Action committee has spent at least $2.3 million to oppose Obama.

Obama says he supports Second Amendment rights, but "There's nothing inconsistent with also saying we can institute some commonsense gun laws so that we don't have kids being shot on the streets of cities like Chicago." His campaign cited an endorsement by the American Hunters and Shooters Association, which claims to be a "mainstream group of hunters" that supports responsible gun ownership. For her part, Clinton says she disagrees with the NRA's use of the mailer. (Read more)

Ohio, Ohio, Ohio: Obama, Palin on rural routes

UPDATE, Oct. 11: For a Daily Yonder report on Obama in Portsmouth, click here.

Barack Obama and Sarah Palin are in Ohio today, in search of the 20 electoral votes that could decide who is president and vice president. Palin, after campaigning with John McCain in Wisconsin, will be in Wilmington, population 12,000, northeast of Cincinnati, in Clinton County, pop. 40,000. (Bill Clinton and Al Gore stopped there on their post-convention bus tour in 1992.)

Obama is rallying in Dayton, Cincinnati and Portsmouth, an Ohio River and Appalachian town of 21,000 in bellwether Scioto County, pop. 80,000, where the economy is "particularly bleak," reports Dan Sewell of The Associated Press. Sewell notes how badly Obama lost to Hillary Clinton in the primary but says the economy has created an opening for him. He quotes Eric Rademacher, co-director of the Ohio Poll at the University of Cincinnati: "Southeast Ohio could potentially make the difference in who wins Ohio, so it will be a very important campaign ground. I think right now there is a real question of just how the region is going to vote." (Read more)

Ryan Scott Otney of the Portsmouth Daily Times outlines preparations for Obama's visit and reports, "The city was abuzz with excitement on Wednesday, as the finishing touches were set into place . . . " (Read more) The Wilmington News-Journal's home page advises, "Rally goers: Please carpool." (Read more)

WiMax could bridge digital divide in rural areas, especially those with wide open spaces

For rural residents hoping for high-speed Internet access, new WiMax technology may provide a quick and less expensive solution to the problem than wired connections. SOMA Networks executive Jonathan Jaeger answered questions from Brad Reed of Network World about how rural areas can get broadband without expensive infrastructure projects.

"In Montana, they don’t have the population densities necessary to justify putting in a fiber or a DSL deployment," said Jaeger. "The ideal is for a carrier is to have their customers connect to a single-point location, which is what WiMax can do. Broadband wireless changes the economics of the market because the coverage can be spread out over large areas using a single base station." WiMax requires users to have a base station to pick up the wireless signal, but does not require cable to be laid for connection. (Read more)

While WiMax may be thought of as shorthand for "maximum wireless," it actually stands for Wireless Interoperability Microwave Access. Because it uses very high frequencies, it works best in flat country where hills and trees don't obstruct signals.

UPDATE, Oct. 10: Rural Telephone Service Co. of Kansas said it has begun to use WiMax for small towns "that haven't been served by DSL, fiber, or other broadband technologies," reports W. David Gardner of InformationWeek. "Some rural WiMax deployments have been up and running for more than a year." For Gardner's October 2007 story on installations in Texas and California, click here.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Va. gives green light to controversial power line

A controversial electric transmission line planned in northern Virginia received approval from state regulators Monday. The line is aimed at providing more electricity to rural areas in the state, and, pending approval in Pennsylvania, will be part of a larger, 250-mile line running through Virginia, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

Dominion Virginia Power says that without the Trans-Allegheny Interstate Line, or TrAIL, the area could see rolling blackouts starting in 2011, as an eight-percent increase in demand has caused by instability in the electrical grid. Critics say the project will damage the environment and create an eyesore in an area with aesthetic and historical significance.

The project still hinges on approval by Pennsylvania. "West Virginia officials have agreed to their portion, but Pennsylvania has not made a decision on the mile within its borders," Sandhya Somashekhar writes for "A decision is expected any day, and a denial could derail the Virginia section." (Read more)

Study says higher share of ethanol makes little difference in emissions, but other factors untested

Cars running on higher levels of ethanol than now permitted get lower miles per gallon, but there is no significant impact on tailpipe emissions, according to a new government study," writes Philip Brasher of The Des Moines Register. The study could increase demand for ethanol production by allowing cars and trucks to legally run on 15 to 20 percent ethanol; the current standard is 10 percent.

However, Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said more study is neeed, because it remains to be seen if a higher percentage of ethanol will burn hotter and damage the catalytic converter or other parts of the car. The study also did not include certain car types and engine sizes. Still, it is being heralded by ethanol producers. Jeff Broin, chief executive of Poet LLC, the largest U.S. ethanol producer, told Brasher, "This report underscores that increasing our use of ethanol can expand America's energy independence today with no change in car performance or maintenance." (Read more)

Fewer Capitol reporters mean less accountability

Just as major regional papers are scaling back or closing their Washington bureaus, smaller papers are eliminating their state-capital correspondents, leaving some to wonder how the public will hold representatives accountable. One answer: Even smaller papers need to pick up the slack.

Capitolbeat, the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors, found last year that the nation had only 407 full-time state-capital reporters, about eight per state. The National Conference of State Legislatures reports less news coverage of state politics and fewer reporters applying for credentials at statehouses, reports Jeremy W. Peters of the New York Times.

Peters writes from the capital of the Empire State, "This journalistic exodus raises questions about whether politicians and special interests in Albany — a place with tremendous power and a history of how that power can corrupt — will be given the scrutiny they merit." (Photo by Nathaniel Brooks of the Times shows the name of the recently closed New York Sun being removed from the statehouse media list.) New York City, Buffalo, Watertown and Albany itself are the only New York cities with full-time capital correspondents. "In 1981, the Legislative Correspondents Association ... had 59 members from 31 news outlets," Peters writes. "At the beginning of this year, there were 42 journalists and 27 member organizations."

While capital coverage was once considered a necessity, increasing economic pressures mean that many papers see no choice but to cut their statehouse desk. This lack of coverage "deprives journalism of one of its sources of legitimacy: to be that watchdog,” says Evan Cornog, associate dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review. “And it’s not as if we’re functioning in a transparent environment. People are working hard to conceal stuff.” (Read more)

For The Rural Blog's previous coverage of bureau closings in Washington and state capitals, click here, and here, and here.

Latest big immigration raid hits S.C. chicken plant

The House of Raeford Farms plant in Greenville, S.C., was the site of the latest in a string of federal raids aimed at detaining and deporting undocumented workers. Ames Alexander of The Charlotte Observer writes "authorities determined that 777 of 825 workers at the plant had apparently submitted false documents to get their jobs."

Immigration and Customs Enforcement has been investigating hiring practices of the company for some time. "Over the summer, ICE arrested 11 plant supervisors at their homes and charged them with immigration violations," writes Alexander. "Current and former supervisors told the Observer that some House of Raeford managers knew they employed illegal immigrants. They said the plant prefers undocumented workers because they are less likely to question working conditions for fear of losing their jobs or being deported."

ICE officials said they would continue their investigation "to determine who allowed illegal immigrants to work at the plant, known locally as Columbia Farms," adds Alexander. "Investigating the employers, they said, is as large a priority as identifying illegal workers." (Read more)

The immigration raid in South Carolina is the latest of several in recent months. To see other stories on illegal worker raids click the following links about raids in Mississippi and Iowa.

Cooperation makes food big business in small town

The story of Hardwick, Vt., reads like that of many other small mining towns. The granite company left town, and local businesses began to follow. Main Street emptied and the town's economy was in trouble. But where many towns work to bring in new business, or see a migration of residents, Hardwick is working hard to be "the town that was saved by food," reports The New York Times.

Residents are working collectively to build up local agriculture through mutual promotion, shared capital, business planning advice and borrowed equipment and storage. They buy one another's produce. “All of us have realized that by working together we will be more successful as businesses,” Tom Stearns, owner of High Mowing Organic Seeds, told Marian Burros of the Times. “At the same time we will advance our mission to help rebuild the food system, conserve farmland and make it economically viable to farm in a sustainable way.”

The town manager, Rob Lewis, says that the effort is paying off for the economy. With only 3,000 residents, 75 to 100 jobs were added in the last few years. Stearns says that six businesses spoke with him about moving to the area in the span of one week. “Things that seemed totally impossible not so long ago are now going to happen,” said Mateo Kehler, who with his brother, began aging cheese on the family farm, then expanded to start aging cheese for other farmers. “In the next few years a new wave of businesses will come in behind us. So many things are possible with collaboration.” (Read more)

Fact-checking the second presidential debate

Last night's town-hall presidential debate in Nashville didn't touch on rural issues, but rural voters are no less concerned with the issues that were discussed -- and as usual, both candidates mangled the truth. We believe news outlets of all sizes should help inform voters of the facts, as delivered by organizations such as, The Washington Post's The Fact Checker and, which you can cite simply with proper credit. Here is beginning of the latter's truth-squadding of the debate:

McCain proposed to write down the amount owed by over-mortgaged homeowners and claimed the idea as his own: “It’s my proposal, it's not Sen. Obama's proposal, it's not President Bush's proposal.” But the idea isn’t new. Obama had endorsed something similar two weeks earlier, and authority for the treasury secretary to grant such relief was included in the recently passed $700 billion financial rescue package.

Both candidates oversimplified the causes of the financial crisis. McCain blamed it on Democrats who resisted tighter regulation of federal mortgage agencies. Obama blamed it on financial deregulation backed by Republicans. We find both are right, with plenty of blame left over for others, from home buyers to the chairman of the Federal Reserve.

Obama said his health care plan would lower insurance premiums by up to $2,500 a year. Experts we’ve consulted see little evidence such savings would materialize.

McCain misstated his own health care plan, saying he’d give a $5,000 tax credit to “every American” His plan actually would provide only $2,500 per individual, or $5,000 for couples and families. He also misstated Obama’s health care plan, claiming it would levy fines on “small businesses” that fail to provide health insurance. Actually, Obama’s plan exempts “small businesses.”

McCain lamented that the U.S. was forced to “withdraw in humiliation” from Somalia in 1994, but he failed to note that he once proposed to cut off funding for troops to force a faster withdrawal.

Obama said, “I favor nuclear power.” That’s a stronger statement than we've heard him make before. As recently as last December, he said, “I am not a nuclear energy proponent.”

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Farm Foundation holds forum to get details from presidential campaigns on agriculture, rural issues

Farm Foundation, which specializes in non-partisan research and policy forums on agriculture and rural issues, hosted a forum today with representatives from the two major presidential campaigns. Former Agriculture Secretary John Block represented John McCain; former assistant secretary of agriculture and former agricultural newsletter publisher James C. Webster represented Barack Obama.

Urban Lehner, editor-in-chief of DTN, moderated the two-hour discussion at the National Press Club. An audio file of the forum is available here.

Publisher says rural areas in for 'sustainable boom' as long as lenders help entrepreneurs

Current economic news seems to be all doom and gloom, but one business expert sees good news for the long term in some rural areas. Rich Karlgaard, the publisher of Forbes magazine, says the rural Midwest is facing a "sustainable boom" over the next 30 years, Deb Gau writes for The Independent in Marshall, Minn., pop. 13,000.

Speaking to a group of local business leaders at Southwest Minnesota State University, Karlgaard said lower costs of living, improved Internet technology and broadband access, and lower overhead will combine to make rural areas attractive to businesses looking for locations to start or grow. "In Silicon Valley where I live, the two big companies are Intel and Cisco," Karlgaard told his audience. "But they can't add a single job to the area, because of the cost of living."

But for the rural boom to be successful, Karlgaard said, businesses need backers willing to support them. "People here are conservative. They don't like to throw money around," he said. "It's a good thing, largely." But sometimes that conservatism can backfire, as when an aviation company, Cirrus Design, chose to settle in Duluth after being denied loans in Wisconsin and North Dakota. (Read more)

School consolidation looms in Ariz., other states

This November, voters in 76 Arizona school districts will decide whether to consolidate, and many rural residents worry that merging districts will have negative consequences for rural students and community identity.

Supporters of consolidation say "combining districts can put more money toward instruction by reducing administrative costs," Greg Lindsay writes in The Arizona Republic. They claim that fear of change is the primary motivation behind opposition to the plan. "These school districts have been around for 100-plus years," says Jay Blanchard, a member of the School District Redistricting Commission and an Arizona State University professor of psychology in education. "Most generations have an allegiance to their school district, an allegiance to their sports teams, an allegiance to their schools." (Read more)

Rural opponents to consolidation say that, while they fear district consolidation will lead to school consolidation, their opposition goes beyond the typical argument that schools are a unifying forces and gathering places for rural communities. "We're not afraid of change. We want the best for our kids," Olivia Rodriguez, whose grandchildren are the third generation attending the elementary school in Stanfield, population 650.

The Rural School and Community Trust, which is hosting a webinar on school consolidation on Oct. 22, says other states are also adopting orconsidering consolidation programs. The trust says merging districts results in longer bus rides, higher dropout rates, increased anonymity, lower extra-curricular participation and increased costs from areas such as transportation. (Read more)

Credit crisis threatens energy projects in the West

The credit crisis could have implications for many big energy production projects in Wyoming and Montana, where natural gas, coal and oil production have spiked. The price tags for some of these projects reaches into the billions, and with banks on shaky ground, securing loans could prove difficult. Economists say whether big projects such as these will survive the current financial crisis depends on two things: How much credit versus existing capital is needed to pay for the project, and how good is the project plan?"

Some of the proposed facilities include coal-fired power plants. Wyoming officials have encouraged private lenders to fund such projects, but that may be in jeopardy because of the difficulty in securing funding. The Rural Utilities Service of the Department of Agriculture stopped making new loans for coal-fired plants several months ago, and rural electric cooperatives in Montana are seeking private financing, reports Karl Puckett of the Great Falls Tribune.

There is hope that many of these energy projects could still get funding. David Siever, of Capital Technology Inc. told Bleizeffer, "The bright spot for any of these energy sources is that energy is the one area of the economy, I think, that is going to get pulled to the forefront. We have to have cheap energy to keep the economy going." (Read more)

RealtyTrac foreclosure lists miss much rural data

Rural areas are being excluded from a widely used source of statistics on the mortgage crisis. "A company called RealtyTrac provides some of the most widely followed statistics on home foreclosures, but it fails to report on more than 900 rural counties," Scott Finn of West Virginia Public Radio reports for National Public Radio.

The data gathered by RealtyTrac is used by government officials and journalists to report on the number of foreclosures created by the mortgage crisis. But there are considerable flaws in the data being gathered. Adds Finn, "In West Virginia last year, it counted fewer than 500 foreclosure notices. New federal statistics counted 12,000 notices in the state, since the start of 2007."

Eight of the most rural areas in the country are in the top 10 of a RealtyTrac list of low-foreclosure areas. The Department of Housing and Urban Development has begun measuring foreclosures in each state after the passing of the Foreclosure Prevention Act in July. The HUD data show that rural foreclosure rates are higher than those in urban areas, confirming problems with the RealtyTrac data. For example, while RealtyTrac had Mississippi near the bottom of its list of most foreclosures, HUD has the state in the top 10. (Read more) The map below shows in gray the counties that RealtyTrac does not cover. High-foreclosure counties are shown in red, low-foreclosure counties in blue. (Click on map for larger version)

Rise in energy costs hits rural areas hardest

High fuel prices have hit rural areas hard. "For rural residents, high energy prices unleash a cascade of bad news that ripples through everyday life," Penn State geographer Amy Glasmeier writes for the Daily Yonder. Compared with urban areas, residents of rural areas are more dependent on oil for everything, from transportation to heating to making a living." Glasmeier reports that while the average American spends about 13 percent of the their income on food, rural residents are now spending around 20 percent of their income on food.

Rural housing is creating difficulties for many residents. "Over the last 20 years in rural areas, the rate of mobile-home ownership has more than doubled, to nearly 20 percent," adds Glasmeier. "Mobile homes are notoriously poorly insulated and energy inefficient. This, combined with the reliance on electrical heating in mobile homes, adds considerably to the burden of rural residents."

Many rural industries will also be negatively affected by rising energy prices. The production of fresh foods, timber and paper industries are all being hurt by the high costs of energy. Even in the public sector, the rise in energy costs is having an impact. "In many rural communities, the public sector (including municipal government, schools, and hospitals) provides the lion’s share of jobs," writes Glasmeier. "These organizations are key sources of local income, but at the same time, they rely on earned income for their revenue stream, especially schools and local government through the payment of taxes. Rising energy prices are having serious impacts on the public sector and there are few programs nimble enough to respond to their problems."(Read more)

Monday, October 06, 2008

Bailout bill boosts coal, oil shale and tar sands, but slashes a tax credit for biodiesel from animal fat

The financial-system rescue bill contained boons for coal gasification and liquefaction, and development of tar sands and oil shale, but cut in half a tax credit for converting animal fat into diesel fuel.

"The bailout package includes a 50 percent tax write-off on refinery construction, which would assist the oil shale and tar sands industries," writes Julie Cart of the Los Angeles Times. "The bill extends production credits for coal gasification plants and includes the end product, aviation fuel, in the alternative fuel category. . . . Critics of the measures note that the [coal and shale] breaks run counter to the carbon-reduction message Congress intended when it vowed to bankroll clean, renewable technology. And a substantial portion of the tax breaks go to energy companies already flush with record oil profits." (Read more)

The bill extends the tax credit for wind-energy production and biodiesel for a year, through 2009; "and the alternative fueling credit for ethanol blended gasoline (E-85) infrastructure, through 2010," notes Janie Gabbett of, a journal for the meat industry. "It also cuts the federal tax credit to 50 cents per gallon from the current $1-per-gallon for companies that use animal fat to make renewable diesel fuel."

That threatens an 11-month-old project of Tyson Foods and ConocoPhillips to convert tallow from Tyson's beef-processing plant in Amarillo into diesel fuel at the oil company's refinery in nearby Borger, animal fat into diesel fuel. "Without the current $1 per gallon credit it is unlikely this venture will remain economically viable," Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson told Gabbett. The plant is producing 300 to 500 barrels per day. (Read more)

This is National Newspaper Week

For most newspapers, National Newspaper Week has been a ho-hum activity, often if not usually ignored. Now, with the future of newspapers in doubt, the annual observance has never been more relevant.

The theme this year is somewhat narrow, but still important: the need for paid publication of legal notices in print, as opposed to free and online. Materials such as house ads, logos, editorial columns and cartoons, as well as a crossword puzzle, are available to all newspapers here on the Kentucky Press Association Web site.

Here's an excerpt from an editorial by Donnis Baggett, editor-in-chief of The Bryan College Station Eagle, titled “Public Notice: Taxpayers have a right to know”: "Most newspaper Web sites are the stars of the online market in their respective communities. Almost without exception, newspaper Web sites have more traffic than any other local or regional sites. Any “notice” that is posted independently online by a governmental entity or a vendor is likely to be read only by those who have a vested interest and are searching for notices of that sort. A published newspaper notice, on the other hand, is right there in black and white for anyone who reads the classified ads ... and, in most cases, online as well."

The other editorial also comes from Texas, and Bob Buckel of The Azle News, an excellent weekly. He writes: "Public notice should be out there for everyone to browse, notice and read. It should be available to all. Anything that takes away control from the people — anything that pulls an item off the smorgasbord of information — is something we should resist. We encourage newspapers to fly the flag for public notice, but also to remind readers of the societal value of a local newspaper, something the writers of the Bill of Rights had in mind when they wrote the First Amendment." (This item is repeated from Sept. 16.)

Economic impact of broadband access debated

Top minds in rural economics and online technology met in Washington, D.C. at the Economic Research Service event to try to determine what effect, if any, broadband Internet access has on developing rural economies. "The experts disagreed over two core questions -- whether rural areas indeed do lack access to broadband technology and whether high-speed connectivity can appreciably diminish the “rural penalty” – chronic disadvantages in personal income, employment, health care services, and education," writes Julie Ardery of the Daily Yonder.

The simple answer to the question seems to be nobody knows, partly because of the Federal Communications Commission's faulty data collection and reporting system about broadband access. "Because of how the FCC handles its Internet technology (IT) data, a whole county may appear to have high-speed access when in fact one large company has paid for a broadband connection and is its sole user."

A study from the Pew Research Center shows that significant parts of rural America do lack high-speed Internet access. Ardery writes, "In the Pew survey, 24 percent of rural Internet users said they would move from dial-up to broadband if high-speed connection were available; this finding alone suggests that significant stretches of rural America do lack high-speed Internet service."

Many at the meeting felt that regardless of the ambiguity surrounding broadband usage, high-speed Internet access is unlikely to make up for the "rural penalty" that inhibits economic develop,ent in rural areas. Robert Crandall of the Brookings Institution told Ardery, "We want to be very careful about selling broadband to increase overall job growth in the rural economy because there’s very little evidence that increasing broadband access indeed does create jobs."

What is clear at the conclusion of the meeting is that the chicken and the egg question remains unanswered. In the meantime Congress took time out from more pressing obligations to pass The Broadband Data Improvement Act, which should provide more accurate data on the availability of broadband access in rural areas. (Read more)

Representatives from the most rural congressional districts voted for the financial bailout bill

A look at the votes on the bailout of the U.S. financial system shows that among the representatives from the 25 most rural districts, 15 supported the revised bill, reports Julie Ardery of the Daily Yonder.

After the defeat of the original bill in the House, the revised bill saw two rural representatives change their vote to yes: Democrat Peter Welch of Vermont and Republican Bill Shuster of Pennsylvania. They cited key additions, including increased federal deposit insurance, more oversight, potential benefits for taxpayers, and the breaking of the $700 billion bailout into installments. (Read more)

Rural Iowa school districts seek four-day week

Several Iowa school districts are seeking a reprieve from the mandatory five-day school week, with rural districts leading the charge. High fuel costs and lower enrollment have squeezed rural districts' budgets, and now tough economic times create more pressure to lower costs.

“Being a rural district, we basically bus in 70 percent of our kids, and so transportation is a big expense for us,” Superintendent Mike Jorgensen of the Southeast Webster-Grand district tells Staci Hupp of The Des Moines Register. “Any time that we can shave 20 percent of our expenses in one of our larger expenditure categories, we have to take a look at it.” Education lobbyists also support the practice, saying it allows for new approaches to learning. State officials, however, worry that budget concerns may affect the quality of education. "I think people have to think through all the implications," says Judy Jeffrey, director of Iowa's Department of Education, "not just 'I need to save money on transportation.'"

Iowa requires a 180-day school calendar. Schools petitioning the state for an exemption seek to shorten the week by lengthening school days. (Read more)

Obama opens a lead in Ohio but not in its hills; he gains in Pa., where McCain banks on character

UPDATES, Oct. 7: A Washington Post-ABC News poll taken in Ohio Oct. 3-5 shows Obama leading McCain 51 percent to 45 percent among likely voters, with an error margin of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. (Read more) A CNN-Time-Opinion Research Corp. poll, taken in the state Oct. 3-6, gave Obama a lead of 50-47, plus or minus 3.5 for each figure.

Barack Obama has opened up a lead over John McCain in Ohio, a battleground state that has proven decisive in many presidential elections, but still appears to trail McCain in rural Appalachian Ohio, according to a Columbus Dispatch Poll taken Sept. 24 through Oct. 3 and published yesterday.

Obama led McCain statewide, 49 percent to 42 percent, plus or minus 2 percentage points. McCain lead Obama in Southeast Ohio 47 percent to 39 percent, probably within the error margin for that smaller sample, but the Dispatch didn't give subsample margins. McCain led in Southwest Ohio 50 to 45 percent and in west-central 50 to 39. Central Ohio was virtually even, with McCain leading 47-45, while Obama led in the northeast 57-35 and the northwest 45-41.

McCain "is scheduled to appear in Cleveland on Wednesday, while Obama plans a two-day bus trip across Ohio this week," the Dispatch's Darrel Rowland writes. (Read more) To help sign up more young voters on today's registration deadline, Obama's campaign had Bruce Springsteen play at a free concert at Ohio State yesterday.

Though McCain gave up on another Great Lakes state, Michigan, last week, and fell far behind in the most recent public poll in Pennsylvania, the latter state will stay in his sights, Chuck Todd and Mark Murray write on NBC News' First Read: "If there is one blue state the McCain campaign may never give up on, it's the Keystone State. Of all the Kerry blue states, it's the most competitive -- even right now at a time that appears to be Obama's high-water mark. Of the remaining blue states in play, Pennsylvania may be the most culturally sensitive and may explain why the McCain folks want to shift the debate a bit to character. Shifting the campaign to character isn't about changing the national narrative; it's about keeping the undecided column larger in Pennsylvania. Now, the character strategy could backfire in a Florida or even a Nevada or Colorado. But Pennsylvania, by the numbers, is worth it to McCain."

Obama led McCain 54 percent to 39 percent in Pennsylvania Sept. 27-29, according to a Qunnipiac University poll. Other battleground-state polls by QU's Polling Institute found Obama leading in Ohio 50 to 42 percent and in Florida 51 to 43. All the surveys had error margins of just under 3 percentage points. For details, click here.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Bankruptcy judges should be able to adjust loans to head off foreclosures, senior judge says

A federal bankruptcy judge who is an acknowledged expert on the subject says the government should allow judges to adjust mortgages to avoid foreclosures, a step that was not authorized by the financial rescue bill that Congress passed last week, Al Smith writes in an op-ed piece in The Courier-Journal of Louisville and the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Judge Joe Lee of Lexington, right, would also "abolish a punitive 'means test' and cut filing costs to seek bankruptcy, ban predatory lending, and, for the credit card business, perhaps most infuriating of all, 'enact a national usury law.' As Judge Lee sees it, our credit cards are but tickets to a casino operated by a few invisible mega banks," Smith writes. "Like any casino, the fewer the rules, the higher the odds favor the house."

Lee says part of the blame for the financial crisis lies with credit-card companies and other lenders who pushed for a tougher bankruptcy law for years and finally got it in 2005 by touting a crisis that did not exist. "The darker purpose was to lower the risk of extending credit to shaky borrowers at high interest rates to enhance profits," Lee told Smith, a longtime friend.

"Bankruptcy court lacks the theatrics of an O.J. Simpson trial, but it can be heartbreaking, and Judge Lee probably knows more about it than almost any living American," Smith writes. "Author of a standard textbook and 40 articles on bankruptcy, at 83, he is among the five most senior of the country's 363 bankruptcy judges, and perhaps the most respected." (Read more)

Some Obama backers in Va. tackle race head-on

Some supporters of Barack Obama in heavily white Southwest Virginia are turning the underlying issue of race into an up-front issue, reports Peter Wallsten of the Los Angeles Times.

"Some Americans say Obama's race and uncommon background make them uncomfortable -- here those people include Democratic precinct chairmen and get-out-the-vote workers," Wallsten writes. "So Obama's supporters, as they push to win this dead-even battleground state, are talking directly about race, betting that the best way to raise their neighbors' comfort level with the prospect of the first black president is to openly confront their feelings."

United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts says the choice is "a black friend in the White House or a white enemy," and in an 18-minute video goes right at race and religion: "We go to church, sing our songs, pray, come out and talk about, 'I can't be for an African American, because of the color of his skin.' Can't do that if you believe in the Bible." Another Obama supporter says he reminds friends that they cheer for athletes at the University of Tennessee, "and they're black."

But in Buchanan County, where Virginia meets Kentucky and West Virginia, Beth Bailey, 25, says Obama "just doesn't seem like he's from America," and Ben Bailey, 32, "noted that Obama's middle name is Hussein, 'and we know what that means.' Beth's father, Josh Viers, is the party's Whitewood (Encarta map) precinct chairman, responsible for working the polls and urging Democrats to vote the party line. He came around to backing Obama only recently, and reluctantly." Democrats can't expect likewise of some precinct officials, so the UMW is canvassing all voters, not just its members and retirees.

It's an uphill battle. The Voice, one of two weekly newspapers in the county, printed a column by county Republican Party treasurer Bobby May (who wasn't identified as such) saying that Obama would change the national anthem to the Black National Anthem, support reparations for slavery and raise taxes for the teaching of black liberation theology in all churches, and many other outlandish notions. May "was listed in a July news release as the county's representative on McCain's Virginia leadership team, though he said his column reflected his views alone, and he denied it was racist," Wallsten reports. We're very reluctant to tell community newspapers how to run their business, but since false rumors have plagued both presidential nominees, we think publishing such columns is irresponsible, and failing to identify partisan writers as party officials is even more so. (The initial version of this item misidentified the newspaper.) UPDATE, Oct. 12: The Associated Press reports that the McCain campaign has ousted May as its Buchanan County chairman.

McCain spokeswoman Gail Gitcho told Wallsten that Obama and his running mate, Joe Biden, are not true friends of the region's coal industry, as demonstrated by Biden's contradictory statements about clean-coal technology. "We certainly don't believe that race has any part in the political discourse," Gitcho said. Wallsten adds: "But here in Buchanan County, it is unavoidable." (Read more)

Meanwhile, in The New York Times today, columnist Nicholas Kristof notes research suggesting that while about 10 percent of Americans are racially prejudiced, "most of the votes that Mr. Obama actually loses belong to well-meaning whites who believe in racial equality and have no objection to electing a black person as president — yet who discriminate unconsciously." (Read more)