Saturday, March 14, 2009

Another year passes, and another rural Iowa hospital gives up births, for lack of obstetricians

For the last 14 years, one hospital per year in Iowa has given up obstetric services because it has found itself without an obstetrician-gynecologist on staff. State data show that only 46 of the state's 181 ob-gyns practice in rural counties, and most of the 181 are in the six largest counties, reports Lynda Waddington of the Iowa Independent. Waddington's story for the online publication is accompanied by a Google map showing in red the hospitals without obstetric services.

"Officials say that doctors need more than an invitation and short-term incentives before they will begin a long-term practice in a rural setting," Waddington reports. "While Iowa continues to pursue incentives like loan forgiveness programs, the legislature and Iowa’s rural communities have yet to address the root causes of the shortage, including the state’s dismally low Medicare/Medicaid reimbursement rate and the lack of encouragement and incentives for young rural Iowans to take the plunge into medical school."

Waddington writes about the Smoky Hill Family Medicine Residency Program in Salina, Kan., that has a good record of placing new physicians in rural areas. (Read more)

Community Newspaper Holdings to use furloughs

Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. has become the latest chain to furlough its employees for a week because of declining revenue. "The plan was announced Thursday at all CNHI organizations and will include a five-day furlough in the second quarter for every employee, including part-time workers," reported The Richmond Register, a CNHI daily in Kentucky. The company publishes 140 papers.

The story noted that Gannett Co. Inc. and Landmark Community Newspapers Inc. have adopted the furlough method. “Until we see meaningful recovery in the economy, we must reduce expenses while maintaining our ability to serve our customers and readers,” CEO Donna Barrett said in memo. “We believe we have found a solution that should help us avoid future staff reductions.” (Read more)

Obama says he's closing a loophole to make beef safer; also, a push for voluntary origin labeling

President Obama said in his weekly address today that as part of a broader effort for food safety, "Our Agriculture Department is closing a loophole in the system to ensure that diseased cows don’t find their way into the food supply." Obama didn't explain, but the department issued a press release saying that it was banning the slaughter of "downer" cattle, those that cannot stand on their own. The rule, which was held up during the last days of the Bush administration, follows the largest meat recall in U.S. history, prompted by Humane Society of the United States videos showing abuse of downer cattle at a slaughterhouse.

"Most disabled cattle were banned from the U.S. food supply in January 2004 after the discovery of the first U.S. case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, which has been linked to downer cattle," reports Dan Eggen of The Washington Post. "But the Bush administration allowed exceptions and did not follow through on promises to plug the loophole last year after the uproar over the beef recall." For the USDA release, click here.

Before the release was issued, Obama's line seemed related to a story this week on BNet Food, by Christina Salerno. Using the same terminology as Obama, she wrote, "The Obama administration is working to close what it considers a loophole in food labeling rules to give consumers a better idea of where their food comes from. New labeling regulations were originally announced under Bush, but the former president’s version didn’t require meat companies to name an animal’s production location." The regulations take effect Monday.

Salerno didn't use the term, but she was referring to the Country Of Origin Labeling program in the 2008 Farm Bill. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told industry representatives last month that he would allow the Bush regulations to go forward, to prevent delay, but said he was "concerned about the regulation's treatment of product from multiple countries, exemptions provided to processed food, and time allowances ... for labeling ground meat." Critics of the rule have said it allows packers to label ground meat as coming from multiple countries. Vilsack asked that processors voluntarily specify on labels where animals were born, raised and slaughtered; and limit to 10 days instead of 60 the time a country label can be used on ground meat after there is no longer meat from that country in the processor's inventory.

Perhaps most importantly, Vilsack said the department "would be closely reviewing [processors'] performance in relation to these suggestions for voluntary action. Depending on this performance, I will carefully consider whether modifications to the rule will be necessary to meet the intent of Congress." In other words, do more now or risk being forced to do it later. To read Vilsack's letter, click here. The rules apply to "muscle cuts, ground beef (including veal), pork, lamb, goat, and chicken," Salerno notes, as well as "wild and farm-raised fish and shellfish, as well other commodities like fruits and vegetables."

We first reported the administration's action Feb. 24. For the underlying story, by Lisa Keefe of MeatingPlace, click here. For a report from the Institute of Food Technologists, with links to other coverage, click here.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Suit alleges Calif. milk-marketing firm misreported data to USDA, cheating dairy farmers across U.S.

Dairy farmers allege in a class-action lawsuit that milk producers across the nation were cheated because "a California entity that markets nonfat dry milk to over 40 countries worldwide" misrepresented dairy product prices to the Department of Agriculture, Steve Taylor reports for Lancaster Farming.

"The suit alleges that DairyAmerica from 2002 until 2007 misreported dairy product prices to the USDA-National Agricultural Statistics Service, resulting in lower payments for the sale of raw milk to producers," Taylor writes. USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service "uses the data to establish the minimum values of milk." DairyAmerica, owned by nine dairy cooperatives, produces about three-fourths of the nonfat dry milk made in the U.S. It didn't return Taylor's call seeking comment.

"Improper reporting of NFDM prices was first described in a March 2007 investigative article in The Milkweed, a Wisconsin dairy marketing newspaper," Taylor notes. "That triggered an investigation by the USDA inspector general, who concluded that inaccurate price data had been submitted as far back as 2002." (Read more)

The suit was filed in federal court at Fresno, Calif., by four dairy farmers from Wisconsin, Ohio and Pennsylvania, who ask that it be made a class action to cover tens of thousands of dairy farmers who were affected. For a copy of the suit, via Milkweed, click here.

'Road to nowhere,' as CNN calls it, gets more money in latest appropriations bills

Nearly 44 years ago, Congress created the Appalachian Regional Commission and laid out a network of highways to open it up to commerce, tourism and development. Most of the roads are built. One, across the Eastern Continental Divide, will probably never be completed, because Virginia doesn't want it built. But that hasn't stopped Congress from funding sections of it in West Virginia, most recently in the economic stimulus package and the omnibus spending bill that became law this week.

The route is Corridor H, intended to link Interstates 79 and 81 (New York Times map) and give West Virginia a direct route to the east coast over the Allegheny Mountains. It has faced huge engineering and environmental challenges and consumed $1.5 billion in a series of contracts, some for a route that was later abandoned (US 33 east of Elkins). "It's not projected to be complete until 2035," and unless Virginia relents would end 10 miles west of the state line, report Drew Griffin and Steve Turnham of the CNN Special Investigations Unit, which dubbed it "West Virginia's road to nowhere." John Wickline of The Inter-Mountain in Elkins reports that "14 miles of the Corridor are under construction and final environmental and design work has started on another 30 miles." Design on an environmentally sensitive stretch in Tucker County is not slated to begin until 2025, with constrcution in 2031.

The road seemed dead until U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd became chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee in 1990 and started funneling money to it. Virginia decided in 1995 that it would not build the far eastern leg, but money kept flowing. Byrd got $9.5 million in this week's omnibus bill for a section between Davis and Forman. The $21 million in stimulus money will be used for two bridges near the midpoint of the route in Grant County, Wickline reported March 7. He wrote, "The highway has been called one of the 27 worst road projects in the country by critics, who sponsor a Web site and speak out online at" (Read more)

Congressional earmarks too much of a good thing?

Congressional earmarks have received much unfavorable attention lately, including some primarily rural ones in a '10 porkiest' list issued by Sen. John McCain. But the system has been reformed, become more transparent and "actually works better than much of what Washington does,” writes Jonathan Rauch in the National Journal.

"Getting an earmark now is a lot like applying for a grant," Rauch concludes, after explaining why that is so. "As transparency has taken over, the case against earmarks has melted away. Their budgetary impact is trivial in comparison with entitlements and other large programs. Obsessing about earmarks, indeed, has the perverse, if convenient, effect of distracting the country from its real spending problems, thus substituting indignation for discipline."

Rauch offers some useful history, paraphrasing former Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.): "Appropriators felt little need to write earmarks into law. Instead, subcommittee chairmen and ranking [minority] members just dropped money into program accounts. Then they called up executive branch bureaucrats with advice on how to spend it." Apparently, other appropriators started using earmarks, then other members followed. "Earmarks were often invisible, at least until after they were enacted," Rauch writes, noting that has changed. "Every earmark request now must be made public before Congress votes on it. The sponsoring member, the amount and nature of the request, and the name and address of the beneficiary must all be disclosed. You can find all this stuff online."

Rauch asks, "Provided that transparency is assured, shouldn't there be a place in government for elected officials to exercise judgment in the use of taxpayer money? ... The problem is not so much with earmarking as with Congress's and the public's obsession with it. He quotes Scott Lilly, a a senior fellow with the Center for American Progress and a former House Appropriations Committee staff director: "It just takes too damn much time. Congress is spending an inordinate amount of time on 1 percent of the budget and giving the executive branch much too free a rein on the other 99 percent."(Read more)

Broadcasters dispute Nielsen data on TV transition

Nielsen numbers on the country's readiness for digital television have been used by Congress and the Federal Communications Commission, and contributed to the decision to delay the transition from Feb. 17 to June 12. So did fears that rural areas were especially unprepared. But the National Association of Broadcasters disputes those numbers, saying they don't take into account households with unconnected converter boxes or coupons for converter boxes that have not yet been used, writes Ira Teinowitz for TelevisionWeek.

“This methodology and classification overstates the number of truly unprepared households, and given the weight and widespread dissemination of Nielsen research, these reports can contribute to an unnecessary level of concern that the transition is not going well," David K. Rehr, NAB president and CEO of the NAB, wrote Nielsen in a letter yesterday. Nielsen spokeswoman Anne Kissel Elliot, says the company is "reporting on whether people can actually receive a digital signal, not whether they are preparing to receive a digital signal." (Read more)

Small farmers say requiring animal identification would hurt them, help big lobbying interests

The National Animal Identification System, in which farms tag their livestock, was debated by the House Agriculture Committee on Wednesday. The chair, Minnesota Democrat Collin Peterson, supports requiring the system for all farms, saying it would allow for better monitoring of animal disease. But many small farmers say the measure would cause hardship for them, while protecting larger agribusinesses, says the Daily Yonder. (Read more)

In an op-ed piece for The New York Times, Shannon Hayes estimates the hardware alone required to implementing NAIS on her family's small farm near Warnerville, N.Y., would equal 10 percent of the farm's current operating costs. She goes on to detail other costs and hardships the system would place on the farm. "The burden for a program that would safeguard agribusiness interests would be disproportionately shouldered by small farmers, rural families and consumers of locally produced food. Worse yet, that burden would force many rural Americans to lose our way of life," she writes.

Hayes also notes who she believes the NAIS would help: "It would help exporters by soothing the fears of foreign consumers who have shunned American beef. Other beneficiaries would include manufacturers of animal tracking systems that stand to garner hefty profits for tracking the hundreds of millions of this country’s farm animals. It would also give industrial agriculture a stamp of approval despite its use of antibiotics, confinement and unnatural feeding practices that increase the threat of disease." (Read more)

Iowa representative of U.S., so no reason to alter presidential system that makes it first, study says

Political scientists at the University of Missouri and the University of Iowa argue that the Hawkeye State fairly accurately represents the make-up of the United States, so "There seems to be no cause to take away Iowa’s first-in-the-nation presidential status."

The findings of Peverill Squire and Michael Lewis-Beck, published in Political Science & Politics, are based on a study of 51 factors of economics, diversity and social problems. They "show that the overwhelming majority (39 of 51) were typical of the broader U.S. population, or within one step from the national average," writes Lynda Waddington of The Iowa Independent. They also note that it is pretty much in the middle in terms of size, location and time it entered the Union. (Read more)

We think the Iowa caucuses have a lot going for them; the state's electorate is well educated, and it gets to see the candidates up close. So do Iowa's rural journalists. However, we can't help but note that the study apparently ignores the fact that, in 2000, Iowa's population was 39 percent rural, while the rest of the nation was only 21 percent rural. To read the study, click here.

Vilsack defends Obama budget, calls for 'improved targeting' of direct farm payments

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has again signaled the Obama administration's willingness to change its proposal to bar direct farm-subsidy payments to farms with more than $500,000 in annual sales. In an op-ed article in The Des Moines Register about Obama's proposed budget and its impact on agriculture and rural areas, Vilsack describes the proposal as "improved targeting of direct payments to those who really need support."

Vilsack writes, "Direct payments are provided to large operations and done so regardless of crop prices, losses, or even whether the land is still in production. I acknowledge that capping farm program payments and tightening eligibility for direct payments may not be popular with some of Iowa's farmers or producers from around the country, but we must remember that direct payments were never intended to be around this long. They were temporary payments in the 1996 farm bill, and although they were scheduled to expire, they were included in the 2002 and 2008 farm bills, at a cost to taxpayers of about $5.2 billion per year." (Read more)

Organic no-till farming touted for carbon capture

The new administration is trying to sell farmers on the idea they can reap billions in income for capturing carbon in a cap-and-trade system to limit greenhouse-gas emissions. A research center says it has developed a farming method that can capture more carbon in the ground than any other farming method. The non-profit Rodale Institute in Kutztown, Pa., says that if no-till organic farming "were used successfully on all of the earth’s 3.5 billion tillable acres, it would absorb and sequester more than half of all present-day CO2 emissions every year," writes Jared Flesher for The Christian Science Monitor.

After an experiment almost two decades ago inadvertently led to the growth of crops on untilled farmland, researchers realized that the process held great potential. "Everybody stood there and looked at it and went, 'Wow, you did organic no-till,'" says Jeff Moyer, the institute's farm director. "So we’ve spent the last 18 years trying to figure out a system that will allow us to replicate that accident over and over and over again." They eventually developed a roller-crimper that knocks down the cover weeds at exactly the right time for the cash crops to be planted.

Economics also play into some farmers' decisions to convert to organic no-till. Flesher writes, "Organic crops sell for more than conventionally raised ones, while no-till cuts down on tractor use, reducing a farmer’s fuel and labor costs." But the Rodale Institute acknolwedges that, after a few years of organic no-till, tilling is necessary to get rid of more aggressive weeds that will start to pop up. They also note that it works better with some crops than others.

Lee Burras, a soil scientist at Iowa State University, says the farming method would help but would not be a long-term solution. “My own work shows [that] the more beat-up [the soil] is to begin with, the better response you get subsequently with carbon sequestration,” Burras says. “But after 10 years, 20 years, maybe it’s 50 years, we’re going to plateau out.” (Read more)

Bible Park USA gives up on Tennessee county

"Exodus?" That was the first word in the top headline in today's Lebanon Democrat, over a story reporting that the developer of Bible Park USA had abandoned its plans to locate in Wilson County, Tennessee, just east of Nashville.

J.R. Lind reports that developer Ron Wyatt blamed "political infighting" among the mayor of Lebanon and its city council, while the council blamed Wyatt's refusal to provide financial information. They cited "the bankruptcy of Myrtle Beach, S.C.'s Hard Rock Park – backed by SafeHarbor Holding, the company that originally pushed the Bible Park – that it was only common sense to ask for the financial information."

Lind's story did not mention possible alternative locations, but he has recently reported on discussions with officials in Simpson County, Kentucky, on Interstate 65 at the states' border.

Reporter's firing blamed in part on college

When reporter Joel Elliott was fired from the Central Maine Morning Sentinel in late January, what resulted was a story that has raised a lot of questions about freedom and transparency in the media. Executive Editor Eric Conrad cited complaints from sources as the reason behind Elliott's firing, but Elliott says that his stories were accurate and that Conrad should have supported him, instead siding with "powerful local interests" such as Colby College, Jeff Inglis writes for the Portland Phoenix. Elliott is fighting back, through his union. (Read more)

Conrad says the college in Waterville requested that Elliott no longer cover the college. "Colby awards annually the Lovejoy Award for courageous journalism in the name of Colby graduate Elijah Parish Lovejoy, America's first martyr to freedom of the press," notes an editorial in The Colby Echo, the university's student paper. While the college denies the blame (a denial the editorial believes is true), the writers argue that Colby should publicly request that its name be removed from the letter firing Elliot. (Read more)

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Dupont Co. and EPA agree to slight drop in C8

The Environmental Protection Agency and DuPont Co. reached an agreement this week that tightened the limit of C8 in drinking water, but only slightly. "Under the deal with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, DuPont will provide new water supplies or water treatment equipment if C8 concentrations exceed 0.4 parts per billion" in the Parkersburg area of West Virginia, reports Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette. "The previous deal, reached in late 2006, set that trigger at 0.5 parts per billion of C8."

"EPA expects the change will impact a limited number of residents," the agency said in a news release. "Based on current data, approximately 14 private residences may need a treatment system or connection to a public water system."

"People can be exposed by drinking contaminated products, eating tainted food, or through food packaging and stain-proof agents on furniture or carpet," writes Ward. "Evidence is mounting about the chemical's dangerous effects, but regulators have yet to set a binding federal limit for emissions or human exposure."

While the announcement is good news for people who have endured a short period of exposure to C8, the EPA admits that the new level does not protect people who have endured longer exposures. The new guideline is designed to protect people from exposures lasting one to 10 days. (Read more)

As reported here an internal memo from the EPA showed than many in the agency have wanted to lower the limit to at least .2 parts per million.

Obama backs ethanol, stays mum on raising blend

President Barack Obama made clear this week that he wants to preserve the country's struggling ethanol industry but stopped short of a commitment to bail it out the by raising the amount of ethanol in gasoline above the current 10.2 percent. He also voiced his support for other biofuels.

"Ethanol groups told the agency that the 10 percent limit was 'a primary reason' for the industry's recent slump," reports Philip Brasher of The Des Moines Register. "Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack this week endorsed raising the cap to 12 percent to 13 percent." Vilsack's support for the cap bump is not suprising, since his home state of Iowa provides much of the corn used in the production of ethanol.

"Environmental agency officials have said that the 10 percent limit has not hit the industry yet but that the cap will make it difficult to meet the nation's annual usage mandates in coming years," writes Brasher. "The agency has been struggling with how to legally justify raising the limit, given unanswered questions about the impact of the increased ethanol content on engines, boats and outdoor equipment." (Read more)

Poultry farmers want their own slice of California

From time to time Californians are asked to consider the possibility of splitting their large state. In a recent poll they answered the question with a stronger "no" than in recent years. But the state's chicken farmers are more likely to answer "yes."

As reported here, last fall's passage of Proposition 2 in California has major ramifications for the state's poultry industry due to its limits on animal confinement. A former legislator "has come up with the idea of splitting the state roughly along the lines of those who raise chickens and those who just eat them," reports Steve Wiegand of The Sacramento Bee. Maze sees splitting up California as a way around Proposition 2 so poultry farmers can continue raising their birds as they see fit.

Bill Maze "proposes spinning off 13 coastal counties from Los Angeles to Marin into one state, while the remaining 45 counties would, well, remain," writes Wiegand. Maze insists that urban Californians' naive view of farming practices should not be allowed to dictate farm policy for the state's rural residents. He further argues that allowing them to do so threatens the irreplaceable poultry industry in the state.

"According to Maze's 'Downsize California' Web site, the split is necessary because the state has become ungovernable," adds Wiegand. "Apparently, this became apparent to Central Valley farming interests after voters approved Proposition 2 last November." (Read more) As we reported here there are signs that Proposition 2 may be heading for other states.

Congressional reports support efforts to revive clean-coal project in Illinois

A report released yesterday by the congressional Government Accountability Office says that Bush administration estimates for a "clean coal" project it scrubbed were significantly higher than the actual cost of the project, because the estimates did not consider inflation. The high costs were cited as the reason for ending the project in Illinois. In a second report, the GAO also said that the Bush administration decision to end the project "may have set back 'clean coal' technology in the United States by as much as a decade," writes Kimberly Kindy in The Washington Post.

The Bush administration said the estimated costs of the FutureGen project had nearly doubled from $1 billion to $1.8 billion, but the GAO report said that, taking inflation into account, the figure would actually be $1.3 billion. But others say the final cost of the plant will be much higher. Energy Secretary Steven Chu said that it could cost as much as $2.3 billion, but that he'd still like to see the plant built and hopes to lower that cost. (Encarta map)

The reports "represent the latest efforts by the Illinois congressional delegation to revive the plant," writes Kindy. "President Obama took part in the delegation's efforts when he was in the state." The project has been planned for Mattoon, population 17,000. Some supporters of the project say the Bush administration's decision to scrap the project stemmed from the selection of Mattoon over two possible locations in Texas. The project would involve a partnership of the government, the coal industry and electric utilities. (Read more)

Earlier, Kindy reported that the $1 billion in the economic stimulus package designated for "fossil energy research and development" is likely to go to FutureGen. (Read more)

Farm Foundation updates study on food prices

Farm Foundation has updated its July 2008 report "What's Driving Food Prices?" to reflect major changes in the economic and agricultural landscape. "While these transitions are remarkable -- almost a 180-degree course change -- the key drivers of food prices remain the same: supply and utilization; the exchange rate of the dollar and related world macroeconomic factors; and the energy-agriculture linkage," write Purdue University economists Phil Abbott, Chris Hurt and Wally Tyner.

The authors say the future of food prices depends on a number of variables which can't be predicted, "not the least of which are the depth and recovery characteristics of the current global financial crisis and recession." Another important unknown is how much inflation accompanies economic recovery. They also stress the importance of crude oil prices, which are closely tied to exchange rates. (Read the executive summary; read the entire update; read the initial report)

Wyo. lawyer-mayor lobbies for oil roughnecks

Before John Vincent became a lawyer, or the mayor of Riverton, Wyo., population 12,000, he spent several months working in Central Wyoming oil fields. Today, he is fighting on behalf of oil workers in one of the most dangerous states for the industry, which already has a death rate four times the death rate in other industries.

"For the last decade, Wyoming courts have made it increasingly difficult to hold oil and gas operators liable for negligence that causes injuries or deaths on their job sites, ruling that they owe no 'duty of care' to the roughnecks who work there," writes DeeDee Correll in the Los Angeles Times. Because most oil sites are overseen by independent contractors, the owners are not seen as maintaining "'pervasive' control over the site."

Vincent was stirred into action after he worked on the case of a worker who died from a collapsing beam, and the case was quickly dismissed because operators had not been held liable in the precedents. So Vincent "hired a lobbyist and persuaded state Rep. Keith Gregory to sponsor a bill asserting that operators owe a duty of care to their contractors' employees," writes Correll.

While a few Riverton residents worry that Vincent's actions may affect the town's job opportunities, others say they doubt it will have too much of an impact. Jim Davis, a member of the city council, says "The major oil companies are pretty bulletproof." Vincent himself notes of one oil company: "I don't want to get them too mad at me. They're thinking of building an office building here." (Read more)

Sunshine Week starts Sunday, March 15

Sunshine Week, the annual observance to promote openness in government, is March 15-21. The project has many resources for newspapers and other media, including ads, graphics and opinion columns by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) on recent Freedom of Information victories and what still needs to be done; Frank LoMonte of the Student Press Law Center on educators' misapplication of federal privacy laws; Jerry Stephens of Edmond, Okla., whose son is heading to Afghanistan, explaining why he believes the media should have access to the homecoming of soldiers killed in action overseas; Ellen Miller of the Sunlight Foundation on senators' failure to make their campaign-finance reports searchable, and state Sen. Dan Greenberg (R-Ark.) explaining why criminal histories of officials should be public. For more details, click here.

House members from 40 rural districts ask Obama to create a White House Office of Rural Policy

Forty House members from rural districts have asked President Obama to create a White House Office of Rural Policy to mirror the urban policy office he created last month.

"The unique policy matters faced in rural America include, but are not limited to, specific concerns regarding agriculture, conservation, economic development, education, health care, information technology and transportation infrastructure," the members wrote. "We are sure your administration would benefit from an office devoted to the effect of federal regulations on rural americans and our communities."

One example, they wrote, is the idea of taxing motorists on the basis of miles driven rather than gallons consumed, because rural commuters on uncrowded highways are more efficient. (That may not be the best example; many of those commuters drive too fast to support a claim of efficiency.) To read the members' letter to Obama, click here.

The White House has indicated that Obama is unlikely to create a rural policy office. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack appears to be the administration's point man on rural issues so far.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Broadband has more impact in places where local leaders encourage community involvement

The federal government announced this week that initial funds for increasing broadband Internet access could be available as early as April, but the plan still lacks detail. A study by Sharon Strover, a rural broadband expert at the University of Texas, called "Closing the Rural Broadband Gap," suggests that two details not to be overlooked are local leadership and community involvement. Without those, rural broadband may flop.

"Broadband providers in four rural counties were given the same federal grant, but the results were remarkably different," Bill Bishop reports on the study for the Daily Yonder. In Pikeville, Ky., the mayor took an active role in implementing the grant. "The Kentucky effort targeted poorer and less educated residents and the program worked," Bishop writes. "Among the four counties, Pike County registered the strongest gains with older adults and those with less than a high school education. By 2008, more than half of those in Pike County with only a high school diploma were using broadband."

In Texas, oversight of the grants was lax. "In the two Texas counties, there was little community involvement in the broadband project," Bishop writes. "In one county, the project fell apart entirely." These examples lead point out that getting the grants is merely a step in the process. For broadband to really have an effect on rural communities leadership, oversight and community involvement are requisites. "My biggest reaction to the stimulus package is that they really need to have a clue regarding what the communities need and want," Strover said. "And they need to have evaluations."

There were themes common to all four counties. Broadband use increased in each county, as did use of Internet connections at public libraries. Home broadband users were also more likely than non-users to plan further education. There were some negative consequences to increased broadband access as well. "One of the more interesting — and counterintuitive — findings in the report is that broadband connections may spur outmigration from rural areas," Bishop notes. At least there was "a strong correlation between subscribing to these services and intention to leave," Strover told him. (Read more)

Greenhouse-gas reporting to affect very few farms

"The Environmental Protection Agency plans to establish a nationwide system for reporting greenhouse gas emissions, a program that could serve as the basis for a federal cap on the buildup of carbon dioxide and other gases linked to global warming," reports Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post. But the plan would only impact the very largest agricultural operations.

"The EPA requirements would apply to large industrial sources that emit 25,000 metric tons or more a year, including oil and chemical refineries; cement, glass, pulp and paper plants; manufacturers of motor vehicles and engines; and confined animal-feeding operations," writes Eilperin. Information gathered from the reporting could be used to establish mandatory emission caps in the future. (Read more)

What does that mean for farmers? "EPA estimates that fewer than 50 of the largest beef, dairy and hog operations would have to start reporting emissions," writes Philip Brasher of The Des Moines Register in his Green Fields blog. "Farms would only have to report their emissions of methane and other greenhouse gases if they have more than 25,000 tons of emissions."

According to the EPA only farming operations with 89,000 cattle, swine farms with at least 73,000 hogs, and dairy operations of more than 5,000 head would have to report their emissions of methane and other greenhouse gases. Poultry operations would have to report their emissions if they have more than 895,000 chickens.

"It’s not a real burdensome thing for agriculture at this point,"said Rick Krause, who follows climate policy for the American Farm Bureau Federation. (Read more)

EPA steps up response to coal ash threat

More information is emerging about the Environmental Protection Agency's growing response to coal ash and its potential threat to human and environmental health. "The EPA plans to gather coal ash impoundment information from electric utilities nationwide, conduct on-site assessments to determine structural integrity and vulnerabilities, order cleanup and repairs where needed, and develop new regulations for future safety," reports the Environmental News Service. (Tennessee Valley Authority photo shows cleanup of ash spill at TVA plant)

As reported here the Obama administration plans to have regulations on coal ash impoundments in place by the end of the year, despite opposition from the coal industry. In the meantime the, "EPA will review the information provided by the facilities to identify impoundments or similar units that need priority attention," writes ENS. "EPA also will visit many of these facilities to see first hand if the management units are structurally sound." (Read more)

Obama broadband plan lacks details, not funding

What may have been the largest crowd ever to gather at the Department of Commerce was on hand yesterday as the Obama administration released its plan to spend $8 billion on a new broadband Internet network that promises to give every American access to a high-speed Internet connection. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration said the funding for grants would be released in three rounds with the first round available as early as next month.

"Obama has touted the stimulus provision for broadband Internet networks as a way to generate jobs right away; workers will be needed to dig more trenches to lay down fiber and put up more cell towers," reports Cecilia Kang of The Washington Post. "He's also focused on broadband as a key to creating valuable high-paying jobs in the future that can help lift troubled economies."

But the Obama plan appears to fall short on details. For example, little information is being provided on who will qualify for the grants and how the stimulus money will be spent. The plan was also "broadly worded in a way that can include wireless, fiber optic and cable networks, and the agencies said they will take into consider which technologies make the most sense from an economic and technological perspective for the area served," adds Kang.

What is clear is that "grants must be awarded by Sept. 30, 2010, and the government must ensure projects are mostly complete within two years," writes Kang. "Applicants must also show the project would not have occurred but for the stimulus funding." Three different agencies will be in charge of the $8 billion. The NTIA will over see $4.7 billion, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will oversee $2.5 billion in loans and grants, and the Federal Communications Commission will have $350 million to create a better system of tracking where broadband exist and will also develop a stratagey for getting broadband access to all Americans. (Read more)

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

McCain's '10 porkiest' earmarks are mostly rural

Earmarks are coming under fresh fire, with Congress debating an omnibus spending bill to fund much of the government for the fiscal year ends Sept. 30. In an article for the Daily Yonder, Douglas Burns reports that six of the “10 porkiest” earmarks identified by Republican Sen. John McCain would benefit rural Americans.

Burns, of Carroll, Iowa, focuses on McCain's No.1: a $1.8 million project for swine odor and manure management at Iowa State University. Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, who helped secure the funding, says that while pig odor may seem amusing, it is a serious problem in Iowa. He says the state has 20 million pigs, which create eight times the amount of waste as people do. “That’s like having 160 million people in the state of Iowa with no kind of control over effluent,” Harkin said. “As you know we have problems with our rivers and our streams, with odor. This is legitimate research.”

Burns writes that other rural projects on McCain's list include "study of grape genetics; beaver management in North Carolina and Mississippi; cricket control in Utah; a world trade center in Montana; and a honey bee factory in the ag-intensive Rio Grande Valley of Texas." (Read more)

Farmers' markets growing on college campuses

Farmers' markets are finding their way onto college campuses, as students become more focused eating more produce, and eating produce that has been grown locally, reports the Los Angeles Times.

Kathryn Andersen, who grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania and helped start the farmers' market at Princeton University, says college markets give students a place to interact with each other and faculty, as well as teaching them more about agriculture. "Students can really understand where their food comes from," she said. "You can ask questions that you can't ask in a grocery store. What type of apples are these? . . . Why would I want to eat a Stayman Winesap rather than a Pearmain?"

One of the student leaders of the University of Southern California market, medical student Kevin Chang, said campus markets face two challenges: Farmers need to be aware that students often have limited access to kitchens, so foods that don't require cooking are important; and it is often difficult to convince farmers that a campus location would be profitable. For this reason, USC buys food from farmers, then uses what doesn't sell in the dining hall.

Mary MacVean notes that farmers' markets are also becoming more popular at hospitals as well, writing that "like colleges, they are places where the institution and the vendors have philosophical connections." (Read more)

Colorado town mourns loss of citizen journalist

Ramona Montaño may never have been employed by a newspaper, and probably never saw her byline atop a news story, but she nonetheless committed journalism for residents of Johnstown, Colo., population 9,000. Montaño, who died March 1 of a stroke, spent years writing letters to The Johnstown Breeze, providing glimpses of daily life in her neighborhood and town. She was 85.

Montaño "managed to find time to become an unofficial commentator on the community," writes Matt Lubich, editor of the Breeze. He describes her letters: "Showing up handwritten, going on for page after page of lined notebook paper, she would congratulate residents on a job well done, or an honor well deserved -- as well as on occasion chide those she felt needed it -- usually signing the letter, 'Your faithful friend, Ramona Montaño.'" (Read more)

Her last letter to the editor came in August, when she wrote a tribute to a friend, Chet Hays, who had passed away. "I feel so sad, because we have lost a very great man. Great at everything he did. He was my hero in every sense of the word," she wrote. Similar words could be said of her. To read some of Ramona's earlier letters, click here, here and here. More of her letters can be found by searching for her name on the Breeze Web site.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Coalfield daily says Ky. bills would cut mine safety

The Harlan Daily Enterprise, in a county synonymous with coal, sees as "wrong-headed" two bills on mine safety in the Kentucky General Assembly, now in the closing days of its short, odd-year session.

The Heartland Publications paper, once part of the New York Times Co., criticizes a House bill that would decrease from two to one the required number of medical personnel on duty at those mines with fewer than 18 employees, and Senate bills that would deregulate continuous operation of ventilation fans and decrease the annual number of state inspections at each mine.

“The coal industry already makes a hefty profit on the backs — and, far too often, the blood — of its employees. To sacrifice important safety measures for the sake of saving a few dollars for coal companies or the state government is simply unconscionable,” the editorial said. It notes that Harlan County was "the epicenter of a string of mining tragedies in Kentucky that rightfully resulted in a renewed focus on mine safety. It seems that the further we get from those tragic losses, however, the more legislators and coal operators we find seeking a return to the status quo." Read more.

Stimulus money going to national forests; Vilsack touts help for rural areas in call with reporters

He runs the Department of Agriculture, but with no White House Office of Rural Affairs to match the newly created one for urban affairs, Tom Vilsack appears to serve as secretary of agriculture and rural affairs (an expanded name that Hillary Clinton endorsed when she was running for president). Vilsack held a conference call with reporters today to tout the $28 billion that his agency is getting under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, better known as the economic stimulus bill.

Among the first expenditures will be Forest Service projects for fire prevention, roads, bridges, buildings and recreation facilities. In Eastern Kentucky, "The Daniel Boone National Forest has received some of the first Forest Service money from the federal stimulus package to clear trails and roads that still are blocked by fallen timber," reports Andy Mead of the Lexington Herald-Leader. Not only national forests are involved; work will also be done at the Land Between the Lakes, a federally owned recreation area in Western Kentucky that the Forest Service administers.

Vilsack said in the conference call that the Forest Service has released $100 million of the $1.15 billion in stimulus money it is receiving. He said one aim of the spending is to reduce the 21 percent unemployment rate among young people, but the individual impacts appear to be small. Early estimates for the Daniel Boone clean up are "six 'person-year' jobs, which will be the equivalent of six people working for one year," Mead reports. "The Land Between the Lakes projects include $2 million to work on public buildings and $475,000 to clear roads and access to agricultural fields. Plumbers, carpenters, laborers, sawyers and equipment operators will be hired." (Read more)

Vilsack pointed to other ways the stimulus should benefit rural Americans; $173 million ($145 million immediately) will go out in loans to farmers, and programs for housing and rural utilities will be boosted. For a recording of his conference call, click here. For a news release about the call, click here.

Regulations on coal ash coming this year

The Obama administration plans to have regulations aimed at controlling waste produced in coal combustion in place by the end of the year. In the short term it will ask 163 utilities that manage 300 ash ponds. "to list any spills or unauthorized releases from the ponds in the last decade, as well as information about their design, engineering and inspections," reports Shaila Dewan of The New York Times. The questionniare will be followed by onsite inspections where officials can demand improvements be made to prevent spills.

While environmental groups are encouraged, Dewan points out that several important questions are not being asked. "The questionnaire, aimed at above-ground ponds, does not ask about several key aspects of ash dumps, including whether they are lined to prevent leaking, have systems to collect water that could contain metals leached from the ash, or include groundwater monitors."

The Environmental Protection Agency has not decided whether to consider to regulate the waste as hazardous or nonhazardous, even though it has "developed improved tests that show more toxins leaching from the ash into groundwater than previously thought," writes Dewan, reporting that improvements in pollution controls that prevent many toxins from being pumped into the air mean that the waste from burning coal has become more toxic. Coal and utility interests have long opposed the regulation of coal ash, saying it would cost them billions of dollars a year to comply. (Read more)

N.C. makes growing share of energy be renewable

North Carolina lawmakers have passed a law requiring renewable energy to take a larger role in fulfilling the state's energy needs. The renewable-energy mandate is modest in scope, requiring that renewables generate 3 percent of total utility sales in 2012, rising to 12.5 percent by 2021. sTILL, "Generous tax credits salve the sting of investing in expensive technology," reports Bruce Henderson of The Charlotte Observer. "And an energy-focused president believes he can help heal the economy by developing alternatives to fossil fuels."

The renewable-energy mandate, the first in the Southeast when passed in 2007, has encouraged entrepreneurs across North Carolina to see investment in renewable energy infrastructure as sound business. hOWEVER, "For now, renewable energy is expensive compared to coal and nuclear plants, which cost billions to build but are relatively cheap to run," writes Henderson. According to Bob Leker of the State Energy Office, "Low electric rates have made it hard for alternatives to gain a foothold in the Southeast." (Read more)

Companies abandon dead-animal disposal due to new FDA regulations on animal-feed makers

A new U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulation for animal-feed manufacturers is not only increasing the cost for cattle farmers to dispose of dead cows, but in many areas, is eliminating all options for disposal -- expensive or not. For example, The State Journal in Frankfort, Ky., reports that one Kentucky company is getting out of the dead-animal removal business altogether, forcing counties to take over responsibility for the task.

Nation Brothers "stopped the service in Franklin and 21 other counties to try to get the new regulations rescinded," Charlie Pearl reports. If the new regulations stand, the Nations say their charges for removal will have to increase significantly. Franklin County Judge-Executive Ted Collins says that in the last fiscal year, Nation picked up 301 cows, 31 horses, 34 goats, two hogs and 55 deer in the county for $18,352.

The new FDA regulation requires that animal-feed and dog-food manufacturers to remove brains and spinal cords from all cows older than 30 months, in an attempt to keep mad-cow disease out of the food supply. But cattle farmers say that the regulations impose significant costs on dead-cow disposal, which used to be an inexpensive task. (Read more)

Opposition to Obama's limit on direct payments includes some of his supporters; he may drop idea

Reaction to President Obama's proposal to end annual direct payments to farms with more than $500,000 in sales has been so negative, even from some of his campaign supporters, that it is being reconsidered, "a source in the administration" tells Philip Brasher of The Des Moines Register, who reported that in his Green Fields blog Friday.

In a story in Sunday's paper, Brasher examines the political fallout: Not only do farm interests say the proposal is unworkable, because it is based on sales and not income, they "are worried and annoyed at the way the administration is portraying them," he writes. "Farmers say that Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is unfairly pitting them against poor kids by contending that the nation had to choose between subsidizing 'high-income' farmers or feeding hungry children," Brasher writes. "Leon Corzine, a former president of the National Corn Growers Association who endorsed Obama's candidacy, said Vilsack's argument was 'ludicrous at best' and 'ridiculous.'"

Vilsack, in a conference call with reporters today, indicated a willingness to compromise and change. "I think there’s opportunity here for conversation and discussion," he said, noting that payments in some programs are limited on the basis of gross income and non-farm income.

Brasher asks, "So how did the administration come up with something so sure to run into trouble? One theory is that they needed a certain amount of money to put into school nutrition programs and calculated a way to get it from the farm subsidy account." American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman "suggests the administration doesn't have the people in place who could have told them that it wouldn't fly on the Hill." (Read more)

Vilsack indicated as much in today's conference call, saying the Department of Agriculture had to develop a budget in a very short time with no undersecretaries and "very limited staff."

Meanwhile, the Nebraska-based Center for Rural Affairs reports "Vilsack is reviewing a rule issued by the outgoing administration to redefine what is required to be considered an active farmer and eligible to receive farm payments. The standard became so lax in recent years that investors were considered actively involved in farm management by virtue of participating in two conference calls annually. That allowed mega farms to get unlimited payments by forming general partnerships with investor partners, each qualifying the farm for another set of payments up to the limit." (Read more)

Rural areas losing TV when translators go dark

One of the problems faced by rural areas in the digital television transition is that translator stations, which deliver signals to mountainous and isolated regions, require digital conversion too. We covered this issue in February, but since then a number of stations have dropped their analog signals and translators have gone dark.

Howard Berkes
of National Public Radio reports, "While converting to digital costs $1,000 or less, some translators are so old and decrepit that upgrading or replacing the translator antenna itself — or a group of translators — can cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars." John Nichols of Kit Carson County, Colo., said the county decided not to convert its translators because its "equipment was old and worn out, and it was going to cost $300,000 or $400,000 to replace it."

The loss of television reception can cut off the primary source of emergency information. In Bergton, Va., which relied on a translator that went dark Feb. 17, the only other local news source available for emergency notices is a radio station that only operates during daylight hours. Tracey Jones, manager of Harrisonburg, Va.'s WHSV, the station that went dark in Bergton, says subsidizing satellite service might be more economical. "It would definitely make more sense, in some cases, than building this huge, costly infrastructure to serve a very small number of people," she said. "I guess the American people would have to decide. Is TV a luxury? Is it a necessity? And is that something we would ever consider subsidizing?" (Read more)

Most school districts in U.S. are in rural areas

In the 2006-07 school year, 7,603 of the 13,862 regular school districts in the U.S. were in rural areas, comprising a majority of districts. Those figures were among those released recently by the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics, which has compiled statistics on school districts for that academic year.

The findings show that while rural districts make up 55 percent of the school districts, they enrolled only 19 percent of the nation's students. While 27 districts serve more than 100,000 students, 864 serve fewer than 100 students. (Read more) For a "mini-digest" of the latest data from NCES, click here.