Saturday, March 21, 2009

Farmers will have to let IRS give USDA information on their income in order to get federal payments

Farmers will have to authorize the Internal Revenue Service to give their income data to the U.S. Department of Agriculture in order to receive federal payments, in response to an investigation that found almost $50 million went to ineligible recipients last year.

Some farm programs limit payments to farm operators with incomes above certain levels, and "The 2008 Farm Bill prohibits payments to anyone with a taxable non-farm income greater than $500,000," notes Bob Meyer of Brownfield Network. USDA told the Government Accountability Office last year that it couldn't guarantee the rules were being followed because it didn't have access to income information. A GAO audit found that at least 2,702 farmers got subsidies from 2003 to 2006 even though they made more than the former income limit of $2.5 million.

"Beginning with the 2009 crop year and for all successive years, USDA will require producers to sign a form granting IRS the authority to provide income information to USDA for verification purposes," Meyer reports, quoting a USDA spokeswoman as saying that the Farm Service Agency won't get actual tax data and will obey the Privacy Act. (Read more) For a summary of the GAO audit, click here. For a PDF of the full report, click here.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Obama nominates FCC commissioner to head USDA's Rural Utilities Service, a broadband lender

President Obama announced late today that he will nominate Jonathan S. Adelstein, a pro-consumer member of the Federal Communications Commission, to head the Rural Utilities Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. RUS is the successor to the Rural Electrification Administration and will distribute $2.5 billion in economic-stimulus funds for broadband Internet service in rural areas.

Adelstein recently called broadband "the skeleton key" to economic opportunity, but his appointment raises questions about how RUS will spend stimulus money on broadband, Obama's main campaign promise to rural America. He is reportedly skeptical of spending money in areas that have relatively low demand for the service, which includes many rural areas. Analyst Tom Nolle of CIMI Corp. told Paula Bernier of xchange in January that Adelstein is among officials who have been "kind of of the view that the objective of the broadband stimulus should be to create parity in broadband between the U.S. and other market areas. And that parity is not created by attempting to touch underserved areas. There are, in fact, pretty significant data points that suggest that a lot of the so-called underserved areas are underserved because they don’t want to be served. So it’s not clear how much additional, incremental broadband penetration we would achieve even with a program that aggressively went after everybody that didn’t have [broadband] now." (Read more)

Adelstein's official FCC biography says he is "a particularly strong advocate for media diversity and localism, and works diligently to encourage increased voices on the airwaves to support a well-informed citizenry. He has worked to promote access to telecommunications and media outlets by minorities, rural and low-income consumers, people with disabilities, and non-English speakers." Adelstein, a native of Rapid City, S.D., was a Senate staffer for 15 years, the last seven as a senior legislative aide to then-Democratic Leader Tom Daschle. He joined the FCC in 2002.

Transition to a Bioeconomy series continues with trade and policy conference in D.C. March 30-31

The fourth conference in Farm Foundation's Transition to a Bioeconomy" series is titled "Global Trade and Policy Issues" and will be held at the Westin City Center in Washington March 30-31. Industry leaders, government staffers and academics will discuss global energy markets, relationships between food systems and energy policies, the global impacts of biofuels policies, and trade in energy technologies.

Details of the conference program, as well as registration and hotel information, are available on the foundation's Web site. Registration can be completed online or by printing out a registration form. The conference is organized by USDA's Office of Energy Policy and New Uses and its Economic Research Service.

"The rapid transition to a bioeconomy has significant implications for agriculture, the food system, rural communities and the global economy," the foundation notes. Presentations and proceedings are available from the three previous conferences: Integration of Agriculture and Energy Systems; Risk Management,Infrastructure and Industry Evolution; and Environmental and Rural Development Impacts. The last conference in the series, to focus on tools for Extension, will be June 30-July 1 in Little Rock.

Rural states have less access to life-saving care

In a medical emergency, time can be the difference between life and death, but more than 25 percent of Americans live an hour or more from an emergency room prepared to handle major crises, says a University of Pennsylvania study led by professor Brendan Carr. "Research shows that hospitals that treat a higher volume of patients tend to have more resources -- staffing, specialized imaging equipment and care protocols - and ultimately, better patient outcomes," says a university press release. The study shows that "residents of rural states appear to be much less likely to have access to those types of facilities."

In Montana, only 8 percent of residents have access an emergency room that sees more than three patients per hour. In South Dakota, the figure is 13 percent. In rural states where population is more densely aggregated, such as Maine and Vermont, it is 50 percent. The study recommends strategies for helping these areas: "subsidizing rural hospitals or offering incentives for physicians to practice at those facilities, improving interhospital referral networks and identifying hospitals that can specialize in treatment of certain emergent illnesses." (Hat tip to the Daily Yonder; for the press release, click here.)

FDA delays new animal-disposal rules 60 days

As we recently reported, many communities were left scrambling as companies dropped dead-animal disposal from their roster of services in anticipation of tougher Food and Drug Administration pet-food standards set to go in effect on April 27. The standards, which require brains and spines of cows older than 30 months to be removed before processing, would make cow disposal more expensive. But now the FDA is delaying the effecive date 60 days.

Laura Knoth, spokesperson for the Kentucky Farm Bureau, told Andy Mead of the Lexington Herald-Leader that "the delay will give the bureau more time to educate farmers on other disposal methods and 'to give the FDA more information on the hardship this would impose.'" But State Veterinarian Robert Stout said that the measure will only give farmers short-term relief: "In the long term, it's not expected there will be a lot of change." (Read more)

They're far from being farmers, but the Obamas are digging a garden (organic) at the White House

For the first time since Eleanor Roosevelt planted a victory garden to support World War II efforts, at a time when America has its most urban president since her husband, the White House grounds will have a vegetable garden.

First Lady Michelle Obama announced yesterday that, in an effort to promote healthy, locally grown produce for children, the White House will use the 1,100-square foot patch to provide food for her family and for state dinners. "It's a sunny spot and visible to people on E Street," Laura Isensee of the Dallas Morning News writes in a press pool report from the White House Office of Media Affairs. "The big picture goal: education about healthy living." (The pool report also includes an official transcript.)

Fifth-graders from nearby Bancroft Elementary School helped dig the organic garden today. (Reuters photo by Jason Reed) Planting of cool-season crops will come soon. The first lady told Marian Burros of The New York Times yesterday, “My hope is that through children, they will begin to educate their families and that will, in turn, begin to educate our communities.” She also said that the entire family, including President Obama, will be helping out with the project "whether they like it or not."

The kitchen staff provided a "wish list" of 55 fruits and vegetables which will be planted in the garden. Honey will also be produced on the grounds; one of the staff carpenters is also a beekeeper, and will be tending to two hives. Burros notes that the president has gotten some veto power with the garden as well: the president does not like beets, and none will be grown in the garden. (Read more) For a diagram of the garden and its crops, click here.

The first family's garden plan was forecast at election time, by Curtis Seltzer of Blue Grass, Va., in his Country Real Estate column, where he had "Bub" Obama saying, "Maybe we'll put a little garden in at the White House. Do the work ourselves." Seltzer replied, "Good metaphor … also good for you. Don't make a big deal about it. Don't staff out the weeding." (Read more)

In Sunshine Week, feds issue open-records rules

The Obama administration is making federal information more accessible. Guidelines issued yesterday by Attorney General Eric Holder instructed government agencies to release their records unless releasing that data would likely cause harm.

The new guidelines outline a policy that "essentially returns to one issued by Attorney General Janet Reno during the Clinton administration," writes Michael Sniffen of The Associated Press. "It would replace a more restrictive policy imposed by the Bush administration under which the Justice Department would defend any sound legal argument for withholding records."

Fittingly, the guidelines for administering the federal Freedom of Information Act were issued near the end of Sunshine Week, when journalists and other organizations work to promote openness in government. (Read more)

Writer pens love note to community newspapers, explains why her hometown paper thrives

"Dailies are on hard times, but weekly newspaper readership is hard core," the Daily Yonder says in introducing a piece by Betty Dotson-Lewis, singing the praises and giving many of the operational details of her hometown newspaper, The Nicholas Chronicle in Summersville, W.Va. "This small-town newspaper is a mainstay of Nicholas County," she writes. "On Wednesday evenings a little after 4 o’clock, you will see people braving the coldest or hottest weather, in sickness or health, driving to a nearby convenience store or Wal-Mart to get their copy of their small-town paper."

Dotson-Lewis says the key to success of small-town papers is that "Rural folk are neighborly in the extreme. . . . The majority of rural residents read their weekly paper for dependable and reliable local news." And the Chronicle is "thriving," she writes, because "The newspaper owners live in the community and are involved in community activities," and meet the needs of readers. "The paper is filled with local happenings of nearby small rural communities written about by local people."

The Chronicle recently went online, publishing for non-subscribers the first few paragraphs of a few major stories each week and giving subscribers the choice of the traditional print or the electronic "green edition." The cost is the same, $28.50, except that students can get the online version for $18. (We like that idea.) One couple switched their subscription, but switched back to print, Dotson-Lewis reports, quoting the wife: “I need to hold my paper, turn the pages back and forth, spread it out on the table and take it all in. and if there is a photo of my boys in the paper, I can cut it out.” (Read more)

Weekly's editorial poses pointed questions lawmakers should ask about drilling legislation

Editorialists often presume to have the answers. Sometimes it's better to ask questions, to invite readers to think. That's what Editor Ben Gish of The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky., did this week, as he took a crack at a bill in the legislature that would allow drilling for natural gas on state-owned property, including state parks.

"Let's assume for a moment that we are a state representative and ask ourselves some simple questions," Gish wrote. "Shouldn't I at least take a few hours out of my busy schedule to watch a well being drilled so I can get some kind of feel for the property damage that will occur on the lands I took an oath to protect?"

That was Question 1. Others touched on how gas wells work, the chemicals that are often used in fracturing of underground rock formations. The 15th and last question: " Now that I have become aware of some of the problems associated with the extraction of natural gas, I am beginning to feel the pain of some of our citizens who are being forced to let gas companies drill wells on their property simply because their mineral rights were surrendered years ago under broadform deeds. Shouldn't I begin to do my duty and introduce legislation that would help protect the health and safety of all of Kentucky's citizens who are being affected by the current boom in shale-gas drilling?" (Read more; subscription required)

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Media General closes Washington news bureau

Add Media General Inc. to the list of news organizations closing their Washington news bureaus, further reducing coverage of congressional delegations -- especially members from rural districts. The company announced last week that the Media General News Service bureau and associated Web site will close March 27. The six journalists in the bureau have been offered severance packages.

“We very much regret having to take this step,” Graham Woodlief, president of the company's Publishing Division, said in a press release. “However, as the economy continues to contract, and businesses and consumers continue to reduce spending, our advertising revenues have been adversely affected at unprecedented levels. While the Publishing Division reduced expenses in 2008 by 8 percent, excluding severance, we must continue to find ways to align our costs with the available revenue.”

Media General established a Washington bureau 30 years ago. Last year, "The bureau was reorganized into a multi-media team to take a Web-first approach to reporting and launched a Web site featuring sections dedicated to each of the 10 states in which Media General operates," the release said. “Even with the strong efforts of our bureau staff to adapt to the challenging economic times, it was not enough,” Woodlief said.

Media General outlets will cover Washington and their delegations locally, company spokesman Ray Kozakewicz told The Rural Blog. "They now cover the issues important to the communities they serve by being in touch with the local offices of their senators and Representatives," he wrote. "We will supplement that coverage with wire services and are considering other news partnerships that will strengthen our Washington, D.C. reporting." He said the Richmond Times-Dispatch, in the company's headquarters city, "will cover stories out of Washington on an as-needed basis. Given the geographic proximity, the newsroom regularly sends teams of reporters to Washington and will continue to do that."

Background from the release: "The company serves markets primarily in the Southeastern United States. Media General publishes 24 daily newspapers, including The Tampa Tribune, Richmond Times-Dispatch, and Winston-Salem Journal; and community newspapers in Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Alabama and South Carolina; plus more than 250 weekly newspapers and other targeted publications. The company owns and operates 19 network-affiliated television stations that reach approximately 30 percent of the television households in the Southeast and nearly 9 percent of those in the United States."

UPDATE: The company's Publishing Division is being abolished. "Media General Inc. said Monday it is reorganizing its business around geographic markets rather than traditional operations such as publishing, broadcast and interactive. Those three divisions will be replaced by five geographic markets, plus a sixth operating segment called Interactive Advertising Services," Editor & Publisher reports. "The new structure will follow the example of its Tampa Bay properties, in which The Tampa Tribune newspaper and other print products are produced from the same newsroom and offices that include its WFLA-TV station and online offerings."

Administration refereeing debate between Corps, EPA over future of mountaintop-removal mining

After remaining silent on the issue, it appears the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies in the Obama administration are getting close to a new policy on mountaintop-removal strip mining for coal.

Nancy Sutley, chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, "told lawmakers her staff have been meeting with EPA, the Corps of Engineers, the Department of Justice and the Office of Surface Mining, discussing the issue, reviewing the February decision by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and examining a flood of pending permits at the corps office in Huntington," W.Va., writes Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette. That decision overturned a lower-court ruling that would have thwarted some mountaintop removal.

Sutley was questioned firmly by a strong opponent of mountaintop removal, Democratic Rep. Ben Chandler of Kentucky's Bluegrass region. She explained that the council is mediating a debate between the Corps, which wants to allow mountaintop removal, and EPA, which opposes it. (Read more, including the transcript of the exchange between Sutley and Chandler)

Oil refiner buys seven ethanol plants on the cheap

The purchase of seven ethanol plants by the country's largest independent refiner, Valero Energy, "signals important new support for a flagging industry from an unexpected quarter," reports Clifford Krauss of The New York Times.

Valero is buying the plants from bankrupt VeraSun Energy for $477 million, a fraction of what it would cost to build new plants. The purchase surprised many observers, since oil refiners have traditionally opposed federal mandates to blend ethanol in gasoline.

The discounted price is what may have tempted Velaro to enter the ethanol industry. Chris Ruppel, an energy analyst at Execution, said, "Ethanol is still a lousy business, but if you can buy the plants for cents on the dollar, it looks a lot better as Washington is likely to keep mandated production targets."

Still, it looks likely that the ethanol industry will remain weak. It "is expected to produce about 10 billion gallons this year, leaving much of the industry’s capacity of 12.5 billion gallons idle," writes Krauss. (Read more) The federal government is considering raising the minimum percentage of ethanol in gasoline, but at the same time is also considering whether the fuel meets new renewable-energy standards in light of its indirect impact on rain forests, which are cleared to fill demand for crops replaced by U.S. corn grown for ethanol.

Weekly doesn't wait to publish warning to police

When a Tennessee Valley Authority police officer arrested a pesky anti-coal activist, who had posted a YouTube video of his mistreatment by a deputy sheriff earlier in the week, and the local sheriff transferred the activist to a jail in another county, Roane County News Editor Terri Likens thought it was time to warn the cops they were taking a "ham-fisted approach," and "Our community's reputation could pay the price."

Likens, right, didn't wait until her weekly print edition to take that stand. She placed the editorial on the paper's Web site, where news coverage usually goes, with this preface: "The following is opinion. We have posted it where we usually post news because we are disturbed by an escalating series of events recently involving the TVA ash spill and an activist working in the Swan Pond area."

Roane County is where the huge coal-ash spill took place in December. (The photo of her was taken during an overflight.) As the cleanup continues, activists and authorities have clashed. The arrested activist, with the United Mountain Defense Fund, was jailed after he didn't stop at a TVA checkpoint while taking a visually impaired woman home at night. The editorial said he "likely wanted to get arrested; he was wearing his gas mask, after all. ... Engaging with authorities is a common tactic with activists, and it can be effective if authorities bite. The danger is making the activist look like a martyr, and the folks who are restricting him look overbearing and even sinister." (Read more) Likens reports to us in an e-mail that after the editorial was published, TVA pulled back its barricades.

How healthy are your local banks? Web site tells

We have reported here that small-town and community banks have fared better in the economic downturn than many of the countries larger banks. A new Web site, designed by Wendell Cochran of American University's Investigative Reporting Workshop, allows the public to measure the strength or weakness of individual banks. The site uses Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. data to compare a bank's "troubled asset" ratio to the national median and other banks, as well as assets, loans, deposits, loan-loss prevention and other criteria used to judge the strength of a bank.

"The unprecedented bet that many banks made on mortgages, real estate development and other real estate-related lending during the middle part of this decade has produced a payoff no one imagined just a few years ago -- a huge increase in loan defaults, a soaring number of foreclosures and a plunge in bank profits," writes Cochran. "And now, an analysis of bank financial statements by the Investigative Reporting Workshop and sheds new light on just how dangerous conditions have become in many banks across the nation."

The site provides data for 2007 and 2008, a period that saw a dramatic increase in troubled assets for many banks. Our search of several smaller banks showed dramatically fewer troubled assets and fewer loans past due. A search of banks that have decided to return TARP money shows that there was not a dramatic rise in troubled assets, perhaps indicating little or no need for federal assistance.

Permits in cap-and-trade system could be pricier than expected, driving up rural electric rates

The Obama administration initially projected that a cap-and-trade system to limit greenhouse-gas emissions would bring in $646 billion through 2019, Keith Johnson of The Wall Street Journal is reporting that federal officials now believe the revenue could be $1.3 trillion to $1.9 trillion, two to three times the initial estimate, and that the higher figure is likely due to higher permit costs.

While initial estimates were based on permit prices of $10 to $14 per ton, "to make the White House math work, the government would have to sell the same number of permits at prices ranging from $20 to more than $40 a ton," Johnson writes on the Journal's Environmental Capital blog. A $12 permit would raise electricity bills around 1 cent per kilowatt-hour for coal plants, and would raise the price of a gallon of gasoline by 11 cents. (Read more)

Rural electric cooperatives get 80 percent of their power from coal, so rural consumers would be most affected by limits on carbon-dioxide emissions. Even before speculation began on higher permit prices, many rural legislators were already concerned about the impact on their constituents. In a Reuters article last Friday, Richard Cowan wrote that as climate change legislation was being debated in Congress, House members "including lawmakers representing poor, rural areas, pressed experts for ways to mitigate the impact on the poor, who spend a greater proportion of their incomes on heating and fuel than middle-income and wealthy people." Rep. Artur Davis of Alabama, said that the legislation would disproportionally affect the South and Midwestern manufacturing areas. (Read more)

Confused about climate change? Federal agencies produce a reference booklet, available online

Amid a welter of conflicting and confusing information about climate change, some federal agencies have joined to produce a booklet to help clear things up. "Climate Literacy: The Essential Principles of Climate Science" is available online, and looks like a great resource for journalists reporting on environmental issues.

"There's so much misinformation about climate," Tom Karl, the director of the National Climatic Data Center, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration., told The Associated Press. "We want to provide an easily readable document to help everyone make the most informed decisions. Having one product endorsed by the nation's top federal science agencies, as well as leading science centers and associations, makes this document an essential resource." (Read more)

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Quit whining and lead the way toward change and profitability online, rural editor urges journalists

"I’m so sick of the pity parties for the newspaper industry." That's how Samantha Swindler of The Times Tribune in Corbin, Ky., begins her latest column, prompted by journalists whining "about the doom and gloom in the newspaper industry and what ills will befall our country if the newspaper ever ceases to exist."

Following a "rolls eyes" line bracketed by asterisks, Swinder continued, "Nothing bad is going to happen to society if newspapers cease to exist, because good journalism will always be around. ... It’s that unearned sense of entitlement, that lack of adaptability or unwillingness to evolve, that loss of the whole American idea of ingenuity, that’s crippling the economy (not just the newspaper industry) and making me sick." She said newspapers should charge small fees for online content, and stop allowing aggregators to use their news without paying.

"We community newspapers are in a far better position than the major metros," Swindler acknowledged. "We still produce a relatively scarce product — very few media outlets are fighting over local coverage — and our readership demographic of older, rural residents will probably be some of the last to transition to online news sources. Plus, people in small communities have a greater attachment to local news than city dwellers."

But unless newspaper journalists at all levels lead the way toward change that brings online profitability, Swindler concludes, "The world is going to be stuck with a bunch of punk bloggers who have no scruples, who can’t write an open-records request, who post anything before it’s proven fact, who purposefully intermingle opinion and news because they’re more interested in being a 'personality' than a reporter, and who really will be the death of the journalism of accountability — which is all I’m really worried about." (Read more)

Medicare Advantage doesn't seem all that advantageous for rural areas

"Senators from Iowa and North Carolina say Medicare Advantage is vital for rural communities. But not many rural residents use these plans — and the plans they get are costly and unproven," the Daily Yonder reports after its demographic analysis of Medicare data.

"Medicare Advantage plans took off more quickly in cities than in rural communities," Tim Murphy and Bill Bishop write. "In rural counties, only 14.1 percent of those receiving Medicare belonged to a Medicare Advantage plan. ... Nationally, 23.7 percent of Medicare beneficiaries belong."

The Yonder notes that the Obama administration wants to stop "paying more for Medicaid Advantage plans than for regular Medicare. Currently, the government spends about $1.30 on Medicare Advantage for every dollar it spends on traditional Medicare. ... Republicans have resisted reduction in spending on Medicare Advantage, often arguing that the program provided choice to rural communities. ... But rural communities aren’t heavily invested in the Medicare Advantage plan — especially rural communities in North Carolina and Iowa," the respective states of Republican Sens. Richard Burr and Charles Grassley, who have voiced concern about the plan. Only 7.7 percent in Iowa are enrolled, and 12.8 percent in North Carolina.

For a state-by-state table and the full Yonder story, which explains the factors involved in creating differences in rural and urban particpation in the program, click here.

Grassley gets down to it with latest AIG comment

Now and then, it takes a good rural metaphor to drive home a point. Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley, a farmer and one of the more quotable members of Congress, delivered the goods today in a press conference in the Capitol about the bonuses being paid to insurance giant AIG. (Photo by Lauren Victoria Burke,

"It's irresponsible for corporations to give bonuses at this time, when they're so sucking the tit of the taxpayer," Grassley said. That may not be the sort of terminology you want on the Senate floor, but it pretty much captures the situation, and fits the growing populist air in the country, which transcends party lines. Grassley is a Republican, but not a reflexive one.

Grassley's remarks followed his widely reported advice that AIG executives “follow the Japanese example and come before the American people and take that deep bow and say ‘I’m sorry,’ and then either do one of two things: resign or go commit suicide. And in the case of the Japanese, they usually commit suicide before they make any apology.” The next day, he said, “Of course I don’t want people to commit suicide, but I do want an attitude in corporate American that’s similar to what they have in corporate Japan.” For more from the Iowa Independent, click here.

Analogies, metaphors and politics aside, this item is an appreciation of Grassley. When I covered my first Republican National Convention, in 1992, I ran into him outside a fund-raiser and asked him a direct question about a largely unreported leadership race among his colleagues. He replied quickly and frankly, and made a good story for a convention rookie. Would that more public officials were like him.

Ky. high-school basketball tourney is rural festival

A great rural festival began today, in Kentucky's second largest city. It's the state high school basketball tournament, and though it's at Rupp Arena in Lexington, it has a rural look, feel and sound. That's because Kentucky is one of the few states that choose a single high-school basketball champion and don't use a class system, in which schools are grouped according to enrollment and several champions are crowned. Some Kentuckians think their state is the only one without any hint of a class system in basketball.

The lack of a class system means that Kentucky's smaller rural schools almost always outnumber their urban counterparts when the champions of the 16 regions face off in the "Sweet Sixteen." (The Kentucky High School Athletic Association might prefer that we put a trademark after that, but quotation marks will have to do. They might also think we should give you the name of the bank that is a corporate sponsor.)

Today's first session (in photo) was, fittingly, mainly rural. Hazard, the smallest school in the tournament with an enrollment of 286, played gamely but ran out of gas against West Jessamine (County), a school that is in the Lexington metropolitan area but has many rural students. The second game pitted two thoroughly rural schools, Adair County and Grayson County. Adair had the only player with a college scholarship, but Grayson won 45-33. Both afternoon winners had never won a state tournament game, notes Jason Frakes of The Courier-Journal.

Tonight's card has two rural-urban matchups: Louisville Central vs. Graves County, and Louisville Eastern vs. Corbin. Tomorrow afternoon, it's Lexington Catholic vs. Bowling Green and Covington Holmes vs. Christian County. Tomorrow night, it's all rural, with Mason County vs. Shelby Valley and Anderson County vs. Elliott County, one of the state's smallest. Elliott and Shelby Valley (Pike County) are the top teams in Eastern Kentucky, and are expected to go farther in the tournament than the area's recent representatives, as reported by Frakes and Mike Fields of the Lexington Herald-Leader.

UPDATE, March 21: The last truly rural team in the tourney, Elliott County, lost in a semifinal this morning to Covington Holmes. For Herald-Leader coverage, click here. In a story earlier in the week, Pat Forde of likened Elliott's quest to that of the Milan, Ind., Indians of 1954, memorialized in the 1986 film "Hoosiers." "The Lions' story has captured the attention of basketball fans around the globe, among them "Hoosiers" screenwriter Angelo Pizzo, an Indiana resident," Forde reported. (Read more)

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Rural legislators in Tenn., increasingly drowned out by urban and suburban interests, organize

Tennessee is a relatively rural state (36 percent in the 2000 census) but its population is increasingly suburban, and rural legislators have organized to make sure their voices are heard on problems ranging from water lines to unemployment. "Meant as a counterbalance to Tennessee's increasingly powerful cities, these rural caucuses will fight to bring more money back to smaller communities," reports Chas Sisk of The Tennessean.

However, there is a Republican rural caucus and a Democratic rural caucus, and partisanship is a powerful force. "Whether the caucuses prove effective will depend on their ability to build coalitions across party lines," Bruce Oppenheimer, a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University, told Sisk. "Otherwise, they'll simply be minor constituencies within their own parties, with no more power to influence policy."

Neither caucus has set an agenda. With $573 million in federal stimulus money coming to the state for highway and bridge work, several rural members have identified those funds as a way to bring down unemployment. According to the Center for Rural Strategies, a Kentucky-based advocacy group with an office in Tennessee, unemployment in Tennessee's rural counties is one-third higher than its urban counties. "And even that understates the severity of the recession in some parts of the countryside," adds Sisk. "Water use is also a pressing concern for rural lawmakers. The state's farmers suffered greatly in the droughts of the last two summers, but little attention is being paid to how water is distributed through the state over the long term." (Read more)

IRJCI Director Al Cross adds: The caucuses are another milepost on the road to less rural influence in politics, a trend in which Tennessee played a major role 47 years ago. In the Tennessee case of Baker v. Carr, the U.S. Supreme Court opened the door to federal lawsuits challenging the apportionment of districts. Cases from Georgia and Alabama led to the principle of "one person, one vote" and the end of rural control in states where rural residents were a minority.

Recovery could come more quickly in rural areas, due to basic strength of agricultural economy

According to Mark Weinraub of Reuters, "The U.S. rural economy has weathered the global recession better than most sectors due to steady demand for agricultural products, stable land prices and healthy credit lines for farmers." In addition, farm lenders have continued to make loans because they were not caught up in the risky lending practices that crippled other institutions.

"The smaller, rural and ag banks have remained pretty strong throughout this time of financial turmoil," saidDavid Oppedahl, business economist for the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. "In agriculture, the financial wherewithal is there for a good operator who wants to finance this year." Also, "Prices for agricultural commodities have fallen sharply from highs reached during the summer of 2008 but are still well above historical trends," writes Weinraub. Agriculture commodities have been buoyed by a weak dollar, as of late, which boost demand for U.S. goods abroad. All these factors could mean a shorter recovery from the recession for rural America.
(Read more)

Feds warn 15 scofflaw coal mines to shape up

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration warned 15 coal mines yesterday that they could face tougher enforcement because they have demonstrated repeated safety violations. "A mine operator gets a notification letter from regulators when the agency determines there is a potential pattern of such serious violations," reports James Carroll of The Courier-Journal in Louisville. "This is the fourth series of agency letters warning mines of potential patterns of violations."

After receiving a notification operators are given an opportunity to review it and make corrections to reduce their violations. If changes are not implemented MSHA can shut the mine down. Michael Davis, MSHA deputy assistant secretary for operations said, "Hopefully, these operators will use this opportunity to incorporate needed improvements into their safety and health programs."

Five of the 15 mines are in Kentucky. According to the MSHA database, they have a history of serious violations but little record of paying the resulting penalties. For example, Double A Mining's No. 4 mine recorded 117 serious safety violations in 2007 and 2008. The agency has assessed more than $429,000 in penalties for violations, but the company has not paid any of those penalties. In fact, it has paid no fines since 2006, according to MSHA records. (Read more)

Turtles need protection, environmental groups say

"They aren't as awe-inspiring as whales, not as cute as, say, baby seals," reports Andy Mead of the Lexington Herald-Leader in Kentucky. "But scientists and environmental groups say freshwater turtles will be in trouble unless commercial harvests are reined in in Kentucky and several other states." Increased demand for turtle meat in China has lead to an increase in the numbers of turtles being caught. (Photo by David Stephenson)

There is concern that removing turtles from a pond or stream can affect the population for some time, since turtles live long lives and reproduce slowly. There are two commercial turtle trappers in Western Kentucky. One works on Reelfoot Lake, which is almost entirely in Tennessee;the other specializes on removing turtles from stock farms.

Kentucky laws protect rare species, such as alligator snapping turtles, but there are no limits on common snapping turtles and soft-shell turtles. "The other states said to have inadequate turtle protection laws are Arkansas, Iowa, Louisiana, Missouri, Ohio, South Carolina and Tennessee," Mead reports. (Read more)

Utah town prefers U.S. 'pork' to Mormon crickets

Earmark spending in the $410 billion ominbus spending bill passed last week has been strongly criticized by members of both parties. But in many cases small rural communities have no other hope for dealing with problems facing their communities. That is the case in Grouse Creek, Utah, population 80. (Katie Madonia photo)

"Each of the past four summers, the hungry critters known as Mormon crickets have marched by the tens of thousands over grassy hillsides, past juniper trees, across dirt roads and through ranch houses," reports Philip Rucker of The Washington Post. "The noisy insects have devoured crops, frightened children and threatened families' livelihoods in the tranquil high desert." To view video of Mormon crickets invading Utah click here.

Grouse Creek is due to receive $1 million from an earmark to help kill the insects. Many have pointed to the budget line as "an egregious example of government spending, but to Grouse Creek, the earmark is salvation," writes Rucker. Earmark spending represented 2 percent of the onmibus spending bill. (Read more)

Rural Ky. man gets into the bird business for releases at funerals and weddings; no profit yet

"It started as a desire to have a neat prop for magic tricks," writes Sarah Hogsed of the Kentucky New Era in Hopkinsville. "But 10 years later, Charlie Beshears of Dawson Springs has turned his curiosity about homing pigeons into a full-fledged business and hobby." With a flock of 30 birds, Beshears now provides live bird releases for weddings and funerals.

The birds Beshears uses in his business look like doves but are small, white homing pigeons, which instinctively return to the place of their birth after being released. After five years in business, he has found that funerals provide the biggest demand for bird releases. "Beshears has released his doves at 30 funerals, including the memorial services for his mother and father," adds Hogsed. "Beshears customizes each ceremony to include the families' religious beliefs and preferences." He is hoping to do more weddings.

Caring for the birds takes significant time and money. Transportation and medicine both make the venture less than cost effective. "Am I in the hole? Yes," Beshear said. "Am I in it for the money? No." The full story is available on the Kentucky New Era site but requires a small fee.

Obama puts money into loans for small business

The Obama administration hopes to give small businesses a boost with new measures to facilitate small business loans. "While that decision was welcomed by lawmakers who have called for more money to be used for Main Street instead of Wall Street, some critics said the government is relying on a broken program that may end up benefiting big banks and lenders more than small businesses," write David Cho and Binyamin Appelbaum for The Washington Post.

The government plans to buy small-business loans from community banks and lenders so they can make more loans, while increasing the amount guaranteed under the Small Business Administration's loan program. Announcing the $15 billion program yesterday, Obama called small businesses "the heart of the American economy," and said they are "responsible for half of all private-sector jobs and created roughly 70 percent of all new jobs in the past decade."

However, a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, who has studied the SBA, says increased government guarantees will backfire. "You basically encourage a system that gives an incentive for the banks to lend money without being careful," Veronique De Rugy told the Post. "We're making this less costly for the banks and less costly for the borrowers, but we're exposing taxpayers more." But the White House says the program will ultimately cost the taxpayers little, based on expected loan-repayment rates. (Read more)

Grazing cattle often line up with Earth's magnetic field unless high-voltage lines are nearby

Last year, researchers used Google Earth to discover that cows and deer resting or grazing in pastures faced either magnetic north or south, indicating that the animals have an internal magnetic compass. (BBC photo) Hynek Burda and his colleagues at the German University of Duisburg-Essen then decided to see if high-voltage power lines, known to change the magnetic field of surrounding areas, altered this pattern. They did.

"Resting and grazing cows and deer do not show the usual north-south body alignment when they're close to power lines. Instead, they position themselves in random direction," Nell Greenfieldboyce reported for National Public Radio. "Farther away from the power lines, cows and deer again begin to show the usual north-south alignment." With power lines that run east to west, however, the cows and deers line up east to west.

"It is clear, if the animals change their behavior, there have to be some changes in the brain, on the cellular level, on the molecular level, and so on," Burda says. "That is what we want to study now." The study's findings were published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. (Read more)

Billy C. Clark, who chronicled river life, dies at 80

In his first book, A Long Road to Hoe, Billy C. Clark chronicled his childhood spent in poverty in Catlettsburg, Ky., a town of 2,000 where the Big Sandy River meets the Ohio. Although he left Catlettsburg one year after graduation from the University of Kentucky, his stories were rooted in the location, drawing comparisons to Mark Twain's writing about the Mississippi. When word reached the community that Clark had died at his home in Farmville, Va., on Sunday at the age of 80, they mourned the loss of one of their own. (Photo by John Flavell)

Clark's books were largely out of print by the end of the 1980s, but he contracted with the Jesse Stuart Foundation, based in nearby Ashland, which started reprinting them in 1991, bringing him back into the literary spotlight. “He was an American original. Such a character and a great storyteller,” James M. Gifford, CEO and senior editor of the foundation, told The Independent, Ashland's daily newspaper.

Clark was the first of his family to graduate from high school. Following a stint in Army during the Korean War, he then went on to college on the GI Bill. “He was a go-getter," Marvin Meredith, a childhood friend of Clark's, told Mike James of The Independent. And after Clark moved away from the town, living in Washington, D.C., Lexington, Ky., and Virginia, he still returned at least once a year to see friends and family. “We tend to be that way in Catlettsburg. We have our loyalty to our place,” said Eleanor Kersey, a friend.

"Maybe his devotion to home was a gift from his mother," James writes. "The story goes that Bertha Clark was on a streetcar homebound from Huntington [W.Va.] when she went into labor. The driver raced to get the car across the river so that Billy C. Clark would be born on Kentucky soil." Clark will come home one last time; his funeral will be held Thursday in the town he loved so much. (Read more)

Monday, March 16, 2009

Economic woes mean jurors tougher to come by

"Judges and legal experts say the number of jurors asking to be excused because of economic pressures is increasing in South Florida and across the nation," writes Brian Haas of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. "With climbing unemployment, waves of home foreclosures and worries that time away from work could cost jobs, judges are finding it harder to seat juries, especially for trials expected to last longer than a day." The problem is worse in rural area where assembling juries is difficult without a recession.

Legal experts are concerned that the inability to form juries could clog courts, add further economic strain, and increase court costs for taxpayers. Juries can often be difficult to assemble in sparsely propulated rural areas. Meanwhile, the predominantly rural states of Idaho, Nebraska and Alabama are experimenting with reducing the courts to a four-work week to save money. (Read more)

Cap-and-trade will raise rural electric costs more

The proposed "cap-and-trade" plan the Obama administration has in mind to limit greenhouse gases blamed for global warming is likely to cost rural areas more than urban, because rural electric cooperatives rely heavily on coal. The problem could be further aggravated by the fact that rural Americans, by-and-large, use more energy. (Center for American Progress map shows states ranked by carbon emissions)

"Obama didn’t just roll the cap-and-trade plan out after his election," reports Douglas Burns of the Caroll Times Daily Herald in Iowa, for the Daily Yonder. "He said in his campaign (which involved nearly a year of practical part-time residency in Iowa) that he would cap greenhouse emissions and create what amounts to a carbon trading market. The plan envisions reducing greenhouse gases 83 percent (from 2005 levels) by 2050."

"The greatest inequities are geographic and would be imposed on the parts of the U.S. that rely most on manufacturing or fossil fuels — particularly coal, which generates most power in the Midwest, Southern and Plains states,” The Wall Street Journal opined. "It's no coincidence that the liberals most invested in cap and trade — Barbara Boxer, Henry Waxman, Ed Markey — come from California or the Northeast."

The cap-and-trade system has its supporters. "Because carbon emissions will be in what amounts to a commodity market, advocates of cap-and-trade say its mere presence will encourage innovations to reduce greenhouse gases at their source and promote more alternative energy investments by utilities and businesses," writes Burns. (Read more)

Pigs could be spreading MRSA, columnist warns; Purdue research says link is 'highly speculative'

There is growing concern that the use of antibiotics to treat prevent disease in healthy livestock may be increasing the amount of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. "We continue to allow agribusiness companies to add antibiotics to animal feed so that piglets stay healthy and don’t get ear infections," writes Nicholas Kristof for The New York Times. "Seventy percent of all antibiotics in the United States go to healthy livestock, according to a careful study by the Union of Concerned Scientists — and that’s one reason we’re seeing the rise of pathogens that defy antibiotics."

Agribusinesses typically adds antibiotics in livestock feed to prevent the outbreak of disease, which spreads quickly if animals are kept in crowded pens. "The peer-reviewed Medical Clinics of North America concluded last year that antibiotics in livestock feed were 'a major component' in the rise in antibiotic resistance," adds Kristof. "The article said that more antibiotics were fed to animals in North Carolina alone than were administered to the nation’s entire human population."

Health experts are growing more concerned with the increase in the number of cases of MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant staph infection, that kills 18,000 Americans annually. That is more than the number of Americans that die annually from AIDS. Hog farms seem especially prone to spreading MRSA. "Public health experts worry that pigs could pass on the infection by direct contact with their handlers, through their wastes leaking into ground water (one study has already found antibiotic-resistant bacteria entering ground water from hog farms), or through their meat, though there has been no proven case of someone getting it from eating pork," writes Kristof. "Five out of 90 samples of retail pork in Louisiana tested positive for MRSA. . . according to a peer-reviewed study published in Applied and Environmental Microbiology last year."

Legislation to eliminate the nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in agriculture has been blocked through strong lobbying efforts by agribusinesses, but some see President Obama and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack as hope for curbing the practice. (Read more)

Experts at Purdue University said that the link between pigs and the increase in the number of MRSA cases was "highly speculative." They insist that skin-to-skin contact between humans is a much more common way for MRSA to spread. (Read more)

Ky. loan program encourages large-animal vets

Large-animal veterinarians are far outnumbered by their small-animal counterparts, and the disparity is getting worse as large-animal vets retire. Kentucky has started a low-interest loan program to encourage more vets to treat large animals, and just awarded its first loan. Dr. Melissa Lipps will use the money from the Kentucky Agricultural Finance Corp. to expand her Shelbyville clinic to include a holding facility for large animals, and hopefully add another vet to treat large and small animals.

A number of factors have combined to create the shortage of large-animal vets, writes Walt Reichert for The Sentinel-News in Shelbyville: more city-raised veterinarians,; more women, who often face more challenges with the physical demands of large-animal practice; longer and more erratic hours; and less profit. The program "is one small incentive to assist those who want to continue large-animal veterinary practices,” said Sandy Gardner, special projects coordinator for the Governor's Office of Agricultural Policy, which provides staff to the board. “Other state agricultural organizations are looking at other ways to deal with the shortage.” (Read more)

The loan is part of $1 million allocated to the KAFC last September by the Kentucky Agricultural Development Board, which distributes money from the state's share of the national tobacco settlement to help the state's agricultural economy. Kentucky is known for horses, by dollar volume its largest agricultural product, but is the largest cattle-producing state in the East.

Chickens and the Chesapeake: EPA steps in

Maryland chicken farmers are rushing to comply with federal pollution rules, after the Environmental Protection Agency said it plans to regulate chicken manure in response to degradation of Chesapeake Bay, which has a huge watershed (right). Some farmers are complaining that their industry is being unfairly targeted, EPA says it is enforcing a regulation that's been on the books more than six years.

The decision to enforce the law requiring federal pollution-discharge permits for farms where manure washes into waterways or drainage ditches stems from "ensuring people obtain permits if then need them," says David McGuigan, the EPA's regional associate director of permits and enforcement. "A law that is not examined or enforced is a law that is not obeyed." But farmers are still nervous about they way the new enforcement will affect them.
"Agriculture is the largest source of the nutrients degrading the bay's water quality, according to the EPA's bay program, with runoff of manure and chemical fertilizers responsible for 42 percent of the nitrogen and 46 percent of the phosphorus. Such nutrients stimulate the growth of algae blooms and a vast oxygen-starved 'dead zone' in the bay unsuitable for fish, oysters and crabs," writes Timothy B. Wheeler for The Baltimore Sun. (Read more)

Groundwater districts divide Texas communities

Groundwater districts were established by the Texas Legislature, in response to concerns that underground aquifers are being depleted. The districts were set up to regulate the amount of water pumped, but many communities are finding they also produce controversy.

Texas derives 59 percent of the water it uses from underground. As new development raises water usage, especially with the building of lakes and ponds that interfere with natural recharge of aquifers, many residents find their wells are running dry. "The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said most North Central Texas counties are exceeding or close to exceeding what can safely be taken out of the Trinity Aquifer, the huge underground pool of groundwater in this region," writes Bill Hanna for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

When the Upper Trinity Groundwater Conservation District began issuing rules and fees for water consumption, critics said that it was a classic example of bureaucratic overreaching. Supporters say that they're just being thrifty with their resources. Horace Grace, president of the Clearwater Underground Water Conservation District, said, "We want enough water left for future generations and not just to pump them dry." (Read more)