Friday, December 12, 2008

Bush administration, on its way out, streamlines guest-worker visa program that aids growers

"Aiming to ease farm labor shortages, the Bush administration issued sweeping changes to the nation's agricultural guest worker program Thursday," Teresa Watanabe reports for the Los Angeles Times. "The controversial rules, many months in the making by U.S. labor and immigration officials, would streamline the guest worker application process, revise the way wages are calculated, and modify requirements for demonstrating that a labor shortage cannot be filled with U.S. workers, among other changes."

The administration said the new rules would spur needed expansion of the Section H2A visa program for temporary agricultural workers. Workers' rights groups said the changes "would drive down wages, displace U.S. workers and reduce federal oversight of potential abuses," Watanabe writes. (Read more)

Texas governor objects to limits on carbon dioxide

Republican Gov. Rick Perry of Texas spoke out in a recent interview against the legislation that both presidential candidates favored to limit emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas blamed for global warming and climate change.

"As he stakes out his role as a high-profile dissenter on carbon legislation, Gov. Perry is leading a state that is changing," writes Russell Gold of The Wall Street Journal. "His opposition to federal cap-and-trade legislation to limit emissions plays well with Texas' traditional business community and many large campaign contributors; Texas is far and away the top carbon-dioxide-emitting state and largest coal consumer."

Perry said putting caps on carbon-dioxide emissions will slow economic growth in his state, but there are signs that Texas is inching toward a greener outlook. "Luminant, a unit of Energy Future Holdings Corp. and the state's largest electricity provider, favors a federal cap-and-trade system," writes Gold. Texas leads the nation in wind power. Many worry that opposing carbon emission standards could isolate Texas and risk potential economic gains from "green energy" technology, Gold reports. (Read more)

New regulation weakens Endangered Species Act

Federal agencies will no longer be required "to consult independent wildlife biologists before they build dams or highways or permit construction of transmission towers, housing developments or other projects that might harm federally protected wildlife," under a regulation enacted by the Interior Department on Thursday, writes Felicity Barringer of The New York Times. (AP Photo)

The rule allows the Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Highway Administration to rely on their own personnel to decide what impact a project could have on fish, birds, plants, animals or insects that are protected under the Endangered Species Act. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said the rule was passed because the Endangered Species Act was not intended to be used as a tool in the fight to slow global warming. Last summer, Kempthorne put the polar bear on the endangered species list, for reasons related to climate change. (Associated Press photo)

The rule is one of several pushed through by the Bush administration in its last days in office. "Legal experts said the change seemed intended to ensure that the protection of species like the polar bear would not impede development of coal-fired power plants or other federal actions that increased emissions of heat-trapping gases," Barringer writes.

The rule goes beyond concerns over climate change. Citing Brian E. Gray, a professor at Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, Barringer wrotes that a core principle of the Endangered Species Act "was that independent wildlife and fisheries agencies had the major say in determining whether an action could be taken “without jeopardizing the continued existence of the species.” (Read more)

Workers unionize largest pork plant, in rural N.C.

Workers at the world's largest hog slaughter plant, in rural Tar Heel, N.C., have voted narrowly to be represented by a union. The bid of the United Food and Commercial Workers got 52 percent of the vote at the plant of Smithfield Foods, 2,041 to 1,879.

"A union victory is considered a coup in North Carolina, which has the lowest rate of unionization in the nation," Kristin Collins writes for The News & Observer of Raleigh. "It is part of a larger struggle to organize meat-packing plants that have moved to the Southeast in the past few decades hoping to escape the reach of unions." Most states in the region have "right-to-work" laws, which forbid contracts that require all covered employees to pay union dues.

The UFCW had tried to organize workers at the plant since it opened in 1992, Collins notes. "The results of two previous elections at the plant in the 1990s were thrown out after federal officials declared that the company had harassed and fired union supporters, even forcing an employee to stamp the words “Vote No” on dead hogs. In 2006, the union began an intense public campaign that included a national boycott and frequent protests outside grocery stores and at company shareholder meetings. The union also brought more than a dozen charges of unfair labor practices against the company. The union says it is fighting to protect Smithfield workers from dangerous and demoralizing working conditions." (Read more)

Utah newspapers mull response to political attacks

Attacks by politicians on newspapers are as old as the newspaper business, but the Utah Newspaper Association is taking one attacker seriously, out of concern that his attacks "could affect the public’s right to know," reports the latest edition of UNA's Pressing Issues.

The object of concern is "Inside Utah Politics," a weekly radio talk show by state Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, that begins with the line "Where conservative politicians get even with the liberal local media." He includes the Deseret News, the daily newspaper in Salt Lake City that is owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and encourages listeners to abandon the papers for a Web site,, which calls itself "a collaborative news and information site."

Joel Campbell, right, a former Deseret News reporter and editor who now teaches at Brigham Young University, another Mormon institution, "is going to be working on news releases, advertising strategy, in-house ads and public relations materials to help counter the attacks," Pressing Issues reports. (Read more)

Thursday, December 11, 2008

New Farm Bill could be reopened to cut subsidies, says Kind, who's talking with the transition team

Democratic U.S. Rep. Ron Kind of Wisconsin, who last year offered an alternative Farm Bill that would limit subsidies and do more for conservation and the environment, said after meeting with President-elect Barack Obama's transition team this week that the five-year bill might be reopened. "Kind says there is going to be a reduction in government spending and that could mean a reopening of the Farm Bill," reports Bob Meyer of Brownfield Network.

Kind said Congress will also have to revisit farm subsidies because Obama "wants a more multi-lateral approach" to trade, as Meyer put it. At least one aspect of commodity programs will be addressed; "Kind says he will introduce legislation shortly to allow USDA access to IRS income information," which would resolve the problem of payments to farmers whose incomes were abolve eligibility limits, as the Government Accountability Office recently reported.

"There have been hints Kind is being considered for secretary of agriculture in an Obama Administration," Meyer writes. All Kind would tell him was "Never say never." (Read more)

How about secretary of food, not just agriculture?

The next secretary of agriculture should actually be the secretary of food, and at least two Republicans who held the job agree, columnist Nicholas Kristof writes in The New York Times. that would signal a "move away from a bankrupt structure of factory farming that squanders energy, exacerbates climate change and makes Americans unhealthy — all while costing taxpayers billions of dollars."

Kristof argues that "the Agriculture Department — and the agriculture committees in Congress — have traditionally been handed over to industrial farming interests by Democrats and Republicans alike. The farm lobby uses that perch to inflict unhealthy food on American children in school-lunch programs, exacerbating our national crisis with diabetes and obesity." He notes that former secretaries John Block and Ann Veneman said recently that USDA should be renamed to include "food" in the name and put it first.

Kristof quotes University of California journalism professor Michael Pollan, who has written some challenging books about food and farming: “We’re subsidizing the least healthy calories in the supermarket — high fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated soy oil, and we’re doing very little for farmers trying to grow real food. . . . Even if you don’t think agriculture is a high priority, given all the other problems we face, we’re not going to make progress on the issues Obama campaigned on — health care, climate change and energy independence — unless we reform agriculture.”

Kristof notes that he grew up on a farm in Yamhill, Ore., and "One of my regrets is that my kids don’t have the chance to grow up on a farm as well. Yet the Agriculture Department doesn’t support rural towns like Yamhill; it bolsters industrial operations that have lobbying clout. The result is that family farms have to sell out to larger operators, undermining small towns." Well, USDA does have a large Rural Development operation, but non-farm rural interests want it to be larger, and more focused on helping truly rural, needy communities. (Read more)

Demand for coal is expected to decline in 2009

The Department of Energy says use of electricity in the United States "flattened this year and will likely decline slightly in 2009," reports Dustin Bleizeffer of the Casper Star-Tribune, the largest paper in the nation's largest coal producer, Wyoming. "Combined with a projected decline in U.S. coal exports and demand for coking, U.S. coal production is expected to drop 2.6 percent in 2009."

An increase in coal exports this year led to a 2.8 percent increase in U.S. coal production, but the expected declines in both exports and electrical consumption is expected to negate those gains next year. Industry experts expect Western coal production should remain steady while other coal producing regions are forced to slow production. (Read more)

Fertilizer runoff from Midwest farms must stop, National Academy of Sciences says after study

Fertilizer runoff from Midwest farms, which has been blamed for the large "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico and can have adverse affects on drinking water, needs to be reduced, according to a new study by the National Academy of Sciences. The study "recommends launching a national initiative aimed at improving water quality throughout the Mississippi River basin states," reports Kim McGuire of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Philip Brasher of The Des Moines Register's Washington bureau writes, "It will take at least a decade to start seeing results once the first measures are taking to curb pollutants, much of it excess fertilizer that washes off corn farms in Iowa and other states."

"The study, which was conducted at the request of the Environmental Protection Agency, recommends setting reduction targets for watersheds, or river drainage areas, that are the largest sources of the pollution," adds Brasher. The gulf''s "dead zone" has grown over the last eight years because the problem was largely ignored. An algae bloom was discovered in the Raccoon River which is a source of Des Moines' water supply. Bacteria linked to the algae is dangerous to human health. (Read more)

EPA drops plan to ease pollution limits near parks

The Bush administration has abandoned its effort to ease air-quality restrictions near national parks. The Environmental Protection Agency planned to change the way air pollution was measured near power plants and other industrial pollution sources. Environmentalists had criticized the proposed regulations, because they would have allowed for much more pollution.

Felicity Barringer writes in The New York Times that the agency has been working on the proposal for weeks, trying to get it through before the end of the Bush presidency, despite "the White House [saying] months ago that no new rules should be imposed in the administration’s last days." But in the end, “We didn’t want to be faced with putting a midnight regulation in place,” EPA spokesperson Jonathan Shradar told her. “It was better to leave those incomplete rather than force something through.” (Read more) For our most recent post on this topic, click here.

Atlanta Journal-Constitution, formerly a statewide paper, cuts rural circulation area a third time

For the third time in less than two years, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution is reducing its delivery area, cutting off 22 largely rural counties as of Jan. 11. Circulation of the newspaper, once statewide, will be limited to 27 counties in and close to the Atlanta metropolitan area. But even some relatively close counties will get the ax.

Most of the counties being cut from the paper's circulation area are in Appalachia: Banks, Dawson, Fannin, Gilmer, Greene, Habersham, Jackson, Lumpkin, Pickens, Rabun, Towns, Union, and White counties in northeast Georgia, and Cherokee, Clay and Macon counties in North Carolina. Those three counties, the only Tar Heel State counties that border Georgia, were the last out-of-state counties in the AJC's circulation area.

Also cut from the area were Butts and Spalding counties, only 30 miles south of the Atlanta airport on Interstate 75; Morgan, 35 miles east of the city's I-285 bypass; and Haralson, Heard, and Troup counties, similar distances westward on the Alabama border. Carroll County, which lies on between Haralson and Heard, remains in the circulation area.

The AJC and Cox Newspapers offered no specific reasons for the cuts, but cited “unprecedented economic challenges” in the media industry and said “Metro newspapers around the country are grappling with revenue declines that have worsened amid the economic downturn this fall. Expanded online operations have so far not generated enough revenue to offset the drops.” Several other papers have reduced their circulation areas, often saying far-flung delivery was unprofitable. That's what the AJC said about at least one previous cut.

The paper's brief items said nothing about impact on its rural news coverage, but the pattern among metro dailies has been that when an area loses circulation, it gets less coverage. We were asked yesterday who's supposed to pick up the slack in such cases. Our answer: The smaller newspapers and broadcast stations, and the chains that own many of them.

Rural counties that went Democratic have higher incomes and education than GOP counterparts

In this year's Democratic primaries and caucuses, education was often the chief determining factor in whether a voter chose Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama. Generally, those who had a college degree favored Obama. The general-election results in rural counties showed a similar pattern, Bill Bishop and Robert Cushing report in the Daily Yonder.

"The greater the Democratic margin in 2008, the higher the percentage with a college degree," reads the headline on a Yonder chart. But the distinctions are even broader, Bishop and Cushing write: "The political division between red and blue communities is also a division between rich and poor, between those with college educations and those without. Rural Republican communities on average have lower incomes and less education than rural Democratic communities. And those divisions are growing as people migrate. . . . Since the last presidential election, poorer people have been moving into those counties where the percentage of the Republican vote increased in 2008."

Bishop and Cushing take a particular look at "landslide" counties, those won by margins of 20 percent or more and a subject of their years of research that helped produce their book The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart. "We don’t pretend to understand the full meaning of how this country is dividing," they conclude. "We can see, however, that America is polarizing not only politically, but also educationally and economically — and that a country Balkanized by skills and by income has more troubles than one that is simply divided by votes in a presidential election." (Read more)

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Paper localizes the Twelve Days of Christmas list

In a recession, the thought of Christmas shopping may produce more anxiety, but that shouldn't keep reporters from doing holiday features, and may be all the more reason to do them. One of the oldest is the cost of the items in "The Twelve Days of Christmas," but if localized it can be a fresh story.

The Lebanon Democrat reminded its readers that Wilson County, Tennessee, can provide everything they need to make the 12 days perfect, and for a whole eight-tenths of 1 percent less than the cost calculated in 2007. J.R. Lind reports for that the gifts would cost the recipient's chivalrous (or excessively desperate) "true love" $64,376.18 if bought locally.

Among the more expensive gifts are 12 partridges in a pear tree (one per day), which run a full $11 more in 2008 than 2007. Two turtle doves for 11 days straight cost $220 more this year, as well as the four calling birds, which run $1 more per bird this year. But on the third, fifth and sixth days of Christmas "True Love" can save a small bundle. Lind reports that Publix in Lebanon is selling 30 French hens for $300 less than in 2007, and golden rings are down by $19, saving $760. Finding six geese a-laying is particularly troublesome for True Love, who could easily just poach 42 wild geese, Lind writes, but "poaching wild geese is not really in the spirit of the holidays and we wouldn't want True Love to end up in the Criminal Justice Center his sales tax dollars are funding." Even after paying $1,255.80 for them at the Kroger in Lebanon, he saves more than $200.

In the latter days of the celebration, seven swans a-swimming become the biggest purchase of them all, setting True Love back $42,000 for 42 electric swan light-ups. (Guess Lind couldn't find any other type of swan in the county, just east of Nashville.) Eight maids a-milking all earn minimum wage, which increased this year to $6.55, so True Love uses $2,096 there, but as Lind writes, "Explaining to his girlfriend why he hired eight women to milk cows in the living room for five days is True Love's problem." Nine ladies dancing, ten lords a-leaping (substitute county commissioners here), eleven pipers piping and the final twelve drummers drumming equal a cool $13,360. Read the details here.

Deaths from overdoses of prescription drugs exploding in rural U.S., especially in West Virginia

"Prescription painkillers account for most fatal overdoses from legal drugs in West Virginia and contribute to an exploding problem of overdoses across the United States that is most pronounced in rural areas, U.S. government researchers said on Tuesday," writes Julie Steenhuysen of Reuters. The study points out that in 63 percent of those overdoses the victim had not been prescribed the medication.

Overdose rates in rural areas have been on a dramatic rise in the last decade. In West Virginia, one of the few primarily rural states, overdose rates rose 550 percent between 1999 and 2004. "Now in the United States, drug overdoses are the second-leading cause of unintended deaths behind motor-vehicle deaths," adds Steenhuysen. Methadone, which is increasingly being used to treat pain, accounted for 40 percent of the overdose deaths.

Researchers hope the study will help public health officials understand the role of prescription drugs in fatal overdoses and encourage doctors to administer drugs in a responsible manner.(Read more) Click here for a full version of the study.

USDA faults its own inspections of meatpackers

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's inspector general said this week that USDA inspectors are not doing a thorough job inspecting meat-processing plants. The investigation found no evidence of animal abuse, but "Inspectors don't watch all areas of plants continually and could miss instances of abuse," writes Phillip Brasher of The Des Moines Register. The investigation was sparked after video footage surfaced early this year of cattle being abused at a Hallmark-Westland slaughterhouse in Chino, Calif. That video prompted the largest meat recall in history.

USDA veterinarians said they are forced to take short cuts in some of their inspections in order to complete assigned tasks. "The report recommended USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service take steps to improve its oversight, including analyzing plants to determine where more frequent or in-depth reviews are needed," writes Brasher. (Read more)

Soybean groups at odds over use of checkoff funds

"The board of the American Soybean Association has asked the Secretary of Agriculture and the U.S. Inspector General to investigate what it calls 'serious allegations' of wrongdoing at the United Soybean Board," writes Dan Piller of The Des Moines Register. The allegations include "whistleblower complaints of an improper employee relationship, a whistleblower complaint of receiving direction [to] break overseas laws and American regulations, whistleblower complaints regarding the awarding of no-bid contracts, wasteful or fraudulent feeding trails and more," adds Piller.

The USB is in charge of administering a 0.5 percent checkoff fee applied to the market price of every bushel of soybeans. The growth in the amount of soybeans sold has seen the checkoff fee raise to $140 million this year, up from $41 million in 1992. The revenues from the checkoff fee are supposed to be spent on education, soybean promotion and to boost exports. The USB was created in 1990 to administer the revenues from the checkoff fee. (Read more)

Village can't decide between rural and urban

A group of 28 alpacas have stirred up a considerable controversy in Kane County, Illinois, at the edge of metropolitan Chicago. Jack and Denise McGarels keep their animals on their 10-acre plot, but that land that now lies in Campton Hills, a newly incorporated village where livestock are not allowed. When faced with the threat of $750-a-day fines if the alpacas were not removed, the McGarels sued the town. They are not the first to take legal action against the town on the Lincoln Highway west of St. Charles.

"Before, during and after Campton Hills incorporated, a flood of landowners have sought to disconnect from the village, many of them seeking to preserve a rural lifestyle or resisting another layer of government," writes Russell Working of the Chicago Tribune. "At least 2,600 residents have or are seeking to disconnect some 3,500 acres from the new town of 12,000, which covers 20 square miles." Resistance to a more urban lifestyle is strong enough in Campton Hills that a proposal to disband Campton Hills failed by only 367 votes.
(Read more)

Passage of California law on animal confinement makes industry fear similar measures in Congress

At annual gatherings of agriculture groups this winter, one of the hottest topics is the prospect of new laws or regulations aimed at animal welfare, reports Ken Anderson of Brownfield Network. After voter approval of a proposition in California this November, setting new rules for animal confimement, an expert on the livestock industry expert and the animal-rights movement says the latter will seek similar legislation at the federal level.

“They're feeling empowered and emboldened to take very real, immediate steps that would increase the cost of animal agriculture," Wes Jamison, a researcher on the animal rights movement at the University of Florida, tells Anderson. "They see now a method by which they can win at the state level, and they are going to try to translate that to the federal level.”

Jamison said that he believes President-elect Barack Obama would sign amendments to federal animal welfare laws: "[His administration] won’t be proponents for animal welfare, but they’re not going to be opponents." (Read more)

New study promotes coal to fuel automobiles, but gets criticism from environmentalists and industry

A new study says coal could provide 15 percent of U.S. transportation fuel by 2030, but a pair of unlikely allies say the study ignores the best hope for alternative fuel. Bill Caylor, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, and Tom FitzGerald, executive director of the Kentucky Resources Council, say developing batteries for plug-in hybrids is a much better approach to creating energy independence.

The study, released Wednesday by the Rand Corp., a non-profit organization focused on energy issues, says the capabilities to make liquid fuel from coal already exist, but require support from the government to get the industry moving. However, many say that using coal to fuel automobiles could boost the greenhouse effect. Without new technology to caputure and store carbon dioxide released by processing and burning, "A coal-to-liquid industry could double the amount of carbon being put into the atmosphere," writes Andy Mead for the Lexington Herald-Leader. (Read more)

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

GM not targeting rural dealers in reorganization

Auto dealers "believe they are on the chopping block, whatever happens to the Detroit automobile companies," reports Clifford Krauss of The New York Times. "But instead of closing small town dealerships, it's the big city dealerships that are being targeted," at least by General Motors, reports Kevin Davis of WXXV-TV, News Channel 25, in Waco, Tex.

"All three carmakers have told Congress they need to cut their dealer networks as a fundamental element of their survival plans," Krauss notes. General Motors, for example, says it plans to cut its dealer numbers to 4,700 from 6,400. Eight years ago, it had 8,150. "That network is a legacy of the era when GM controlled 60 percent of the domestic market, instead of 20 percent or so today. The high number of dealerships means too little business for each, and it also means General Motors is paying higher transportation costs to send vehicles and spare parts to multiple dealerships."

Davis, left, reports, "Given the financial apocalypse GM is facing, it would make sense to consolidate dealers into big cities And yet GM has announced it's doing the exact opposite. ... In a plan drafted to members of Congress, GM states the reduction 'will occur primarily in metropolitan and suburban areas where GM has too many dealers to serve the market. ... GM's distribution strength in rural areas, which is a significant competitive advantage, will be largely preserved.'" Why? The manager of a GM dealership Lampasas, Tex., told Davis that GM has an advantage in rural areas that have no import dealers. (Read more)

Nationally, dealers "argue that they invested millions of dollars in their dealerships, buying the land, building the facilities and providing services for customers. They also said that they build good will for automobile companies by supporting local Little League teams and other charities," Krauss writes. "But while leaders of dealer associations want to keep the number of dealers as high as possible, they see no other option than to support the Detroit companies’ efforts in Congress, even when those plans explicitly call for fewer dealers." (Read more)

Obama may give cities more say-so with federal money; repeats vow to expand rural broadband

How will Barack Obama, the first thoroughly urban president since John F. Kennedy, deal with the often competing interests of urban, suburban and rural areas? Perhaps by giving cities more authority, but making them coordinate more with suburbs. And rural areas should get more high-speed Internet access.

Timothy Farnam reports in The Wall Street Journal that mayors will gather in Washington Monday to ask the administration to "distribute funds directly to cities" rather than through state agencies, which often have disproprtionately rural influences. "Tom Cochran, executive director of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which is organizing Monday's event, said the next administration has signaled that it will coordinate financing for projects for an entire metropolitan area instead of dealing with cities and suburbs separately."

Farnam suggests that Obama owes more to cities and suburbs than to rural areas. Despite his "campaign rhetoric of bridging the country's divides, the 2008 election actually saw a widening in the gap between urban and rural voters, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis of the returns. Mr. Obama won 56 percent of the vote in metropolitan areas, up from the 51 percent that voted Democratic in the previous two presidential elections. But he won only 42 percent of votes in exurbs and rural areas, a much-smaller advance over his predecessors." (Read more) To illustrate the point, the Journal ran this map showing county margins in North Carolina, which hadn't voted Democratic for president since 1976.

For rural voters, Obama's most common promise was more access to broadband, and he repeated his focus on that in his Saturday broadcast address. "It is unacceptable that the United States ranks 15th in the world in broadband adoption," he said. "Here, in the country that invented the Internet, every child should have the chance to get online, and they’ll get that chance when I’m President – because that’s how we’ll strengthen America’s competitiveness in the world." For Obama's full remarks, click here.

Expanding broadband in many rural areas should be cheaper and easier because the Federal Communications Commission voted, ironically on Election Day, "to open the unused radio airwaves between broadcast TV channels for wireless broadband service," reports David Ho of Cox Newspapers. "Supporters say these airwaves are ideal for broadband because they can penetrate walls and carry more data over greater distances than wi-fi can." Michael Dell, chief executive of Dell Computer, told Ho, "The applications of this spectrum are nearly limitless. There will be more expansive Internet access available in all communities, urban and rural, with laptop computers and other wireless devices." (Read more) Hat tip: Daily Yonder

Timber industry decline means higher costs to maintain national forests

Timber is another industry that has been badly hurt by the struggling economy. Another ramification is that taxpayers will have to pay more to maintain national forests. "The years of experience as the industry faded around much of the West — mainly as a result of reduced timber sales in the national forests — has also given people here in Montana a glimpse of what can happen when an industry does go away," writes Kirk Johnson of The New York Times. "In Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico, for example, once-formidable forest industries have all but disappeared over the last decade, leading to higher costs for forest management and fire protection; a recent study at the University of Montana said that forest costs to taxpayers and landowners could quadruple in Montana in coming years if the industry is lost." (Times photo)

In Montana politicians, environmentalists, and business leaders are looking for solutions. The real concern is that the decline of the timber industry, coupled with mounting environmental and economic problems, could mean much higher costs to maintain forests. "Climate change, for example — how to manage state and federal forest lands as new diseases and insects threaten them in a warmer future — and the soaring costs of fighting wildfires in the West have both become part of the discussion," Johnson writes. "If the state loses its base of roughly 200 interconnected sawmills, pulp buyers and family-owned tree-cutting contractors, advocates say, who will be left to work in the woods to make them usable, beautiful and safe, and at what cost?"

In Montana "almost 20 percent of the state’s lumber-mill jobs have disappeared since 2005, according to state figures," notes Johnson. (Read more)

Monday, December 08, 2008

Most-viewed stories on The Rural Blog last week

Even without restructuring of automakers, which could hurt rural areas, dealers are in big trouble
Madeline Pickens offers to foster wild horses and burros that are too numerous for federal land (still strong more than a week after posting)
Cracker Barrel returns to original corporate name
Bush pardons include many who just want to shoot

Doctors push for heart-attack drugs in rural areas, to be prescribed by doctors reading remote data

Doctors at West Virginia's Charleston Area Medical Center want to make "clot-busting" heart attack drugs available in rural areas. These doctors "want to establish a network of sites, most likely community health centers, where clot-busting drugs would be available for rural West Virginians who suffer a specific type of heart attack called a segment-elevation myocardial infarction, or STEMI," writes Eric Eyre of The Charleston Gazette.

"The clot busters, called thrombolytics, dissolve clots and restore blood flow to the heart," adds Eyre. Thrombolytics can be administered within the first few hours of a heart attack can prevent much heart damage. In rural settings, the drug could be administered after a doctor at CAMC or another remote facility reviews a transmitted electrocardiogram to prove the victim is indeed having a heart attack. (Read more)

Rural areas in Southeast see spike in HIV cases

Rural ares in the Southeast have become one of the fasting growing areas of cases of HIV in the U.S. "As groups gathered recently across the country to recognize National HIV/AIDS Day, new cases were popping up with little fanfare in Georgia and South Carolina," writes Ray Chandler of the Independent Mail in Anderson, S.C. "Cases in these mostly-rural areas are growing faster than anywhere else in the country, experts say."

These experts blame the increase on the lack of resources for prevention and treatment. State health and human resource departments are developing plans to slow the spread of the virus. “In the rural areas, in particular, we have tried to initiate more opportunities for rapid HIV testing so that people can know their status,” adds Raphael Holloway, HIV director for the Georgia Department of Human Resources. “But also what we’re trying to do is ensure that people receive the prevention counseling that comes along with the rapid testing. The biggest way to have an impact with people is going to be to promote behavior change." (Read more)

Bad economy is bad for horses; more abandoned

Sandy Gilbert of Spring Valley, Wis., is witnessing another ugly consequence of the economic downturn. Her Refuge Farm takes in abandoned horses, and Gilbert is seeing horse abandonment, already at crisis levels in some places, rise at an alarming rate.

"Some of those horses were dropped off at her doorstep when she wasn't home," reports Scott Seroka of KARE-TV in nearby Minneapolis-St. Paul. "One was found tied to a stop sign in the middle of the night, in the middle of Hammond. Others have been found by financial workers, after they've assessed foreclosed properties."

The cost of keeping a horse has increased significantly in the last year. "The cost of feed is up more than 50 percent," adds Seroka. "The cost of a bale of hay is $10 to $20 more this year." Gilbert admits she is having trouble finding homes for all the abandoned animals. So far this year homes have been found for 150 horses. But, Gilbert tells Seroka that "she has never seen so many abandoned." (Read more) For the video report, click here.

New FDA dog-food rules affect dead-cow disposal

New Food and Drug Administration standards to prevent the spread of mad-cow disease have some worried about other health risks. In an effort to stop the disease from entering the U.S. food supply, the FDA has enacted a ban on using cow brains or spines in dog food, which will go into effect this April.

Some rendering plants and pet-food manufacturers now say they will not accept dead cows, because of the increased costs associated with removing these parts. This means that the price of disposing of dead cows could more than double, leading many to worry that farmers will simply bury the animals or leave them to decompose in the open.

"According to the FDA's own environmental assessment of the new rule, abandoning dead cattle or improperly burying or composting them can cause foul odors; pollute soil, groundwater and streams; and attract insects and scavengers," says an The Associated Press reports. "Moreover, the infectious agent that carries mad cow disease may survive burial or composting." (Read more) Thanks to Ryan Craig of the Todd County Standard in Elkton, Ky., for the tip on this story.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Subsidies encourage sodbusting on fragile land

About 425 square miles of South Dakota grassland became farmland between 2002 and 2007, and the phenomenon is occuring in adjoining states, thanks to "federal subsidies and two years of surging commodity prices," Dan Morgan reports in The Washington Post. That has raised "concerns among cattle ranchers, hunters and environmental groups [about] whether U.S. taxpayers should be underwriting these changes has emerged as a controversial issue in farm country and in Washington."

(Post map pinpoints Hand County, S.D., from which Morgan reported)
In the South Dakota stretch of the glacier-carved Prairie Pothole reigon, where about 17 inches of rain falls in the average year, "Conservation groups say most farmers would not risk the start-up costs of plowing and preparing the ground without crop insurance, on which the federal government pays close to 60 percent of the premium," Morgan writes. The House and Senate voted to delay or deny crop insurance for land that had never been farmed, but in final negotiations on the new Farm Bill, crop-growing lobbies won out. A restriction passed for the Prairie Pothole states, but won't take effect in any state unless the governor wants it. None have, and they seem unlikely to do so.

"Farm groups argue that it would be a serious mistake to cut insurance on land conversions at a time of rising food prices and growing worldwide demand for commodities," writes Morgan, one of the best reporters on the farm-subsidy beat. (Read more)

Slicing and dicing the actual election returns, by state and by urban, exurban and rural

Tim Murphy and Bill Bishop analyze election returns and report in the Daily Yonder that Barack Obama carried the rural vote in 12 states: California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Mexico, South Carolina (the only Southern state in the list), Vermont and Wisconsin. To read the report, click here.

One of the story's excellent, color-coded tables also shows the partisan shift in rural, exurban and urban areas in each state from 2004. The only state in which all three categories had a Republican "red shift" was Louisiana. The only two states in which rural voters were the sole category with such a shift were Kentucky and West Virginia.

The state-by-state table shows Republican gains in dark red. Categories in pink (Alabama urbanites, for example) went Republican by a smaller margin than in 2004. Democratic gains appear in dark blue. Sorry the numbers aren't plain; for a larger image, click on the table. You may still have to increase the zoom view in your browser to get it to full, readable size.