Friday, May 01, 2009

Homeland Security says it has a 'renewed focus' on going after illegal aliens and their employers

The Department of Homeland Security said yesterday it has "a renewed department-wide focus targeting criminal aliens and employers who cultivate illegal workplaces." It said Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents "will use all available civil and administrative tools, including civil fines."

"ICE will focus its resources in the worksite enforcement program on the criminal prosecution of employers who knowingly hire illegal workers in order to target the root cause of illegal immigration," DHS said in a statement posted on its Web site yesterday. In the Bush administration, the agency was accused of being too easy on employers.

Tom Johnston of reports the agency plans to conduct "carefully planned criminal investigations." (Read more) Several meatpacking plants in rural areas have been targets of ICE raids.

Education agency for South sounds alarm about lower literacy levels, pushes work on reading

A report from the Southern Regional Education Board urges states and school districts in the South to evaluate and develop new “comprehensive adolescent literacy policies that establish improvement in middle grades and high school reading and writing as the most immediate critical priority for public schools,” writes SREB Communications Director Alan Richard.

Gov. Tim Kaine of Virginia, chair of the nonpartisan SREB, is calling on schools across the south to address the problems of decreased literacy levels. Although a specific rural angle was not addressed, the South is the nation's most rural region and many of its school districts have poor reading scores. "We can’t expect to see achievement rise in math, science and other subjects unless students can read, write and communicate at more advanced levels," Governor Kaine said Friday. "Our nation’s economic prosperity depends on our making progress in education." Read more.

Stimulus money allocated to improving rural water

Almost $616 million of the economic stimulus package will go toward improving rural water quality, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said this week. The money will go to 193 projects in 34 states, creating or saving an estimated 12,000 jobs, says a U.S. Department of Agriculture press release.

"Aging water and waste infrastructure systems threaten the ability of rural communities to provide clean, reliable drinking water to residents and protect precious environmental resources." said Vilsack. "These investments will help bring increased economic benefits to rural America by providing needed water, water systems and creating jobs." The release lists the projects and allocated funds by state. (Read more)

Farms and ranches are major hosts of wildlife

Cattle farmers and ranchers are a major host of wildlife, with 88 percent surveyed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture reporting they own areas that support wildlife, and more than half saying they have seen an increase in wildlife over the past decade. Heather Johnson, of the Fish and Wildlife Services's Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, told Western Farm Press, "Farmers and ranchers provide quality, protein-rich food for our families while at the same time creating safe havens for fish and wildlife species. That's a win-win for wildlife and for sustainable agriculture -- and most certainly cause to celebrate."

Johnson says that the survey results point to farmers' and ranchers' care for the land: "No one is more passionate about the environment than ranchers working to increase the quality of their grass and water, for both their cattle and the fish and wildlife that call their operations home. These private landowners love the land and have a strong environmental stewardship ethic that they pass on from generation to generation." (Read more)

Family farming sees resurgence, Ohio paper finds

Family ties and new technology are two key factors in getting younger generations to join family farming operations, and trends point to a resurgence in family farming. "Between the two, today's farm may be smaller, but it is more efficient, production is higher, and it is attracting more of its young people back to farming, according to local agricultural experts," writes Connie Cartmell in the The Marietta Times. in southeastern Ohio. Those experts say they're seeing a resurgence in young farmers throughout the area, and Cartmell's piece profiles several family farmers in the community.

Working close to home is another perk attracting younger farmers to the business. "Working on the farm, I don't have to make a special time for my family after work. I'm with them all the time," said 36-year-old Christie Haines, who co-owns a farm with her parents. "You get way more than 40 hours a week, but you don't have a commute or worry about day care." (Read more)

What's the state of family farming in your community? There are stories to be told.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Camelina oilseeds could be used to make jet fuel

There is hope that the plant camelina can be used to make jet biofuel. The oilseed crop could be used to cut greenhouse gas emissions by up to 84 percent. It grows particularly well in the Northern Plains states. (Montana state photo)

But despite all its promise, farmers have not been won over by camelina. "The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that Montana plantings of the biofuels crop camelina fell by almost half last year to 12,200 acres," reports The Billings Gazette. "The crop, which grows well in Montana's dry climate because it needs little water, has been promoted as an ideal source of plant oils needed to make alternative fuels."

The Gazette points out that the 46 percent decline in 2008 was most likely because farmers were unwilling to convert their fields to the crop when wheat prices were at record highs. (Read more)

Farm groups lobby to get credit for carbon already captured, and for USDA roles in climate bill

As work continues on climate legislation, agriculture groups are pushing for major changes to help farm states. "Representatives from two major farm groups told the House Small Business Committee yesterday that the bill should include a bigger role for the Department of Agriculture and more offsets for farmers," reports Allison Winter of The New York Times.

We reported here that farmers are concerned that they will not be compensated for previous prevention of emissions of carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases. That compensation is only laid out in vague language in the bill's current form.

Winter adds, "Farm groups told the Small Business Committee yesterday that they also want the climate bill to give oversight of any farm offset program to the Agriculture Department, which already has expertise in working with agriculture and farmland conservation programs," not the Environmental Protection Agency.

Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union, told the committee, "If Congress were to pass something that has EPA doing all of that relative to offsets for agriculture, a lot of our members would be -- frightened might be a little too strong but they would be very, very concerned." (Read more)

Montana gun law could pit state, federal agencies

Montana is using the issue of gun control to pick a fight with the federal government. In a new law, "The state is asserting that guns manufactured in Montana and sold in Montana to people who intend to keep their weapons in Montana are exempt from federal gun registration, background check and dealer-licensing rules because no state lines are crossed," reports The Associated Press.

The impact of the law could be limited, since Montana " is home to just a few specialty gun makers, known for high-end hunting rifles and replicas of Old West weapons, and because their out-of-state sales would automatically trigger federal control," AP reports. But the larger ramification could be a showdown over how far the federal government's regulatory authority extends.

While similar measures have also been introduced in Texas and Alaska, critics say the measure could hurt efforts to curb gun violence in other parts of the country. (Read more)

Kentucky student newspaper tackles coal issues

A student newspaper in Kentucky tackled tough issues surrounding coal today. Brad Luttrell, editor-in-chief of the University of Kentucky's daily Kentucky Kernel, did the stories and photographs. We think any newspaper in the Central Appalachian coalfield could learn from his work and use it as an example to follow.

Luttrell, raised in Harlan County, recounted his own experience with coal mining, like that of many people in Kentucky: "My cousins, grandparents and uncles are not the enemy. The same coal they blast out of a mountain, you are using right now. If you used electricity today – watch television, flip any light switches, refrigerate your food or walk into any modern building – then you are as much a part of the problem as the coal companies."

The special section of the Kernel has three segments; a feature on Erik Reese, a UK professor and anti-coal activist, who gained national attention for his book Lost Mountain, about mountaintop-removal strip mining; a long feature on Nate Waters, a senior mining engineering student at UK; and Luttrell's column about growing up in a mining community. Read more here.

Texas likely to enact shield law for journalists

Texas Gov. Rick Perry is expected to sign a journalists' shield law that was passed by the state Senate Tuesday. The law would "bring to a close three decades of lobbying and wrangling over the issue," writes Mike Ward of the Austin American-Statesman. Except for some debate over an unsuccessful amendment to require journalists to note that stories were based on anonymous stories, the bill sailed through the Senate vote.

The legislation "ensures journalists can keep their sources and notes confidential while still allowing law enforcement the ability to acquire truly necessary material," said Sen. Rodney Ellis, the bill's Senate sponsor. He notes that the law is not an "unbreakable shield," since it provides for certain instances where confidential sources must be named.

Before it goes to the governor, the bill will return to the House for approval of small changes made in the Senate. Thirty-six other states, and the District of Columbia, already have shield laws, and all other states but Wyoming recognize a reporter's privilege in case law. (Read more)

Senate committee looks at Medicare bonus to encourage doctors to locate in rural areas

The Senate Finance Committee spent yesterday working on health care reform, and the outline of their meeting shows at least one significant proposal aimed at attracting more doctors to rural areas. Included in the outline is "a proposal to add a 5 percent bonus to Medicare payments for primary-care docs," Jacob Goldstein writes in The Wall Street Journal. "General surgeons who practice in rural areas where surgeons are scarce would also qualify."

While many applaud the committee's focus on easing the rural health care shortage, funding options for the program are more controversial. Goldstein notes that "one option would be 'an across-the-board reduction in payments for services under all other codes' — basically, cuts in other Medicare payments to docs." (Read more)

Natural gas drilling blamed for methane in water

Natural gas drilling is being blamed water pollution in several states. In some cases, drilling sends methane gas into nearby water wells and groundwater sources. "Drinking water with methane isn't necessarily harmful," writes Abrahm Lustgarten for ProPublica, "but the gas becomes dangerous when it evaporates out of the water and into people's homes, where it can become flammable. It can also suffocate those who breathe it."

In Dimock, Pa., which has seen much gas drilling into the Marcellus Shale, several wells have exploded. One person was told that if he wanted to take a bath, he needed to open a window because of the high methane levels in his water. It's a story that's not unique to the area. A recent report from Garfield County, Colo., one of the most heavily drilled areas in the U.S., found that gas drilling has affected dozens of wells in the area.

Gas drilling increasingly involves fracturing, which shoots water, sand and chemicals into deep rock formations at high pressure. Critics says the process pushes the gas into aquifers. The gas industry says aquifers are protected by thousands of feet of rock, and that any pollution is just an isolated example, occurring when drillers do not follow regulations. (Read more)

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Brokaw's assumptions about government consolidation were wrong or exaggerated

"NBC's Tom Brokaw wrote recently that the recession was a good reason for states to consolidate local governments, schools and colleges into larger jurisdictions. It's not," says the Daily Yonder, in a piece by co-editor Bill Bishop, right.

Bishop contends, "Consolidation (of schools or governments) doesn’t usually save money or create a more efficient institution. People are more satisfied with small and local government than a larger, more centralized government. Small towns aren’t big spenders. And big government isn’t more efficient. ... When researchers have gone back to examine what resulted from combining smaller governments into bigger ones, however, they find that consolidation doesn’t live up to the promises."

And here's the spice in the story: "Brokaw is a good enough reporter that if he had had even an inkling his assumptions were wrong — that big wasn’t more efficient than small — he would have quickly found the evidence that he needed to rethink his column. (All he needed to do was look on the first page of a Google search.) But he was so sure that he was right, the former network anchor didn’t do the most basic background research. The more insidious part of Brokaw’s article is that both he and his editors at the New York Times assumed that small schools, colleges and towns are at some early stage of becoming something big and therefore efficient and workable." (Read more)

Phone, cable companies want broadband stimulus money to extend networks to remote areas

Big telephone companies and some cable-TV operators say President Obama's goal "of blanketing the country with high-speed Internet can't be accomplished without significant investments in so-called 'backhaul' networks that stretch to hard-to-reach communities," reports Fawn Johnson of Dow Jones Newswires. "There is some debate, however, about whether those networks should be financed with government money or private sector investments. Extending cable to rural communities can be prohibitively expensive for Internet carriers, which is why those areas tend to have few connectivity options."

A senior Obama adviser said today that backhaul networks, often defined as the connections between an antenna and a switching facility, should be eligible for the $7.2 million in stimulus money for rural broadband. "Investments in backhaul networks, particularly in rural communities, will likely be particularly helpful," Susan Crawford, a member of the National Economic Council and a special assistant to the president, said at a briefing sponsored by the Media Access Project. (Read more) However, it should be noted that there are other ways to get affordable broadband to homes in remote areas: via power lines or, in relatively flat areas, wireless networks.

Another Bush-era rule scratched: Fish and Wildlife, NOAA must be consulted on endangered species

"The Obama administration announced today that federal agencies will once again be required to undergo an independent scientific review if they embark on projects that might affect threatened or endangered species, marking yet another reversal of a last-minute Bush administration environmental regulation," reports Julie Eilperin of The Washington Post. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said "science must serve as the foundation for decisions we make."

"Former Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne issued a rule allowing government agencies to decide on their own whether a project would harm an imperiled plant or animal without consulting with either the Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, depending on the species," writes Eilperin. "At the time, Kempthorne said the move would streamline the bureaucratic process without harming protected species."

The Obama Administration's decision to overturn the Bush Administration rule has been met with criticism by groups most affected by the Endangered Species Act. Joe Robson, a builder and developer in Tulsa, Okla., who chairs the National Association of Home Builders, said, "On a 'good government' level, today's action is regrettable in that this administration is rushing to revoke a legally issued federal rule without public notice and comment, using a little-known and unpopular provision of the recent omnibus appropriations bill to change a federal regulation." Many critics see the decision as adding burdensome regulation to affected industries. (Read more)

Economic slowdown cuts rural-to-urban migration

The economic downturn has slowed the out-migration of rural inhabitants to urban areas, a phenomenon that has threatened the viability of many small communities. "The Census Bureau reported that the number of people who changed residences declined to 35.2 million from March 2007 to March 2008, the lowest number since 1962, when the nation had 120 million fewer people," reports the McCook Daily Gazette in Nebraska.

It has been widely accepted that jobs were the main reason that rural residents, mostly young, moved to urban centers. But the recession has changed all that. "The economy is probably the main reason, of course -- few people will chance a move unless they are certain a solid job opportunity awaits," the Gazette notes. But there may be other factors.

More people in rural areas own homes, which decreases the likelihood that they will move; rural areas have more families with two incomes, making it more difficult to find jobs for both spouses in a new location; and the median age of Americans is rising, rural populations tend to be older, and older people are less likely to move. All these coupled with the struggling economy mean more rural inhabitants are staying put. (Read more)

Piedmont county loses technology jobs, but two old furniture industries find a way to keep going

We reported here that rural counties that rely heavily on manufacturing jobs have suffered some of the highest rates of unemployment in the country. That trend looked likely to continue last week in Henry County, Virginia, when GSI Commerce, a Pennsylvania-based e-commerce and multichannel services company, announced that it would close its call center, eliminating all 279 jobs.

Henry County and the rest of the Piedmont have seen much of their furniture manufactring industry disappear in the last few years, but two area furniture companies are bucking the trend. "Jobs will be created and saved when furniture makers American of Martinsville and Barcalounger team up in Henry County and Martinsville during the next two to three months." reports Duncan Adams of The Roanoke Times. The merger will create 94 full time jobs and save 121.

According to Hancock Park Associates, the parent company for both American and Barcalounger, the merger is designed to cut costs and increase effiency. But the news of job creation and security is welcome for two areas with high unemployement. "Martinsville's jobless rate for February was the state's highest, at 20.2 percent," writes Adams. "Henry County's unemployment rate was 14.6 percent." (Read more)

While pigs likely don't carry swine flu to humans, factory farming may have helped spawn the virus

Many in the pork industry are calling for the name "swine flu" to be changed because it unfairly stigmatizes hogs as the direct cause of the deadly influenza outbreak. And while no pig has been found to have the strain of flu, and experts insist properly cooked pork is safe to eat, the pork industry may not be completely free from blame for this global outbreak. A report by the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production warned that factory farming could give rise to a global pandemic. ABC News highligfhted the report last night.

Confined animal feeding operations, where large numbers of animals are closely confined, may have played a role. "The continual cycling of swine influenza viruses and other animal pathogens in large herds or flocks provides increased opportunity for the generation of novel viruses through mutation or recombinant events that could result in more efficient human-to-human transmission of these viruses," the Pew report said. It urged CAFOs not to give antibiotics to healthy animals, for fear that new, drug-resistant viruses would develop.

"Researchers such as Gregory Gray, MD, a University of Iowa professor of international epidemiology and expert in zoonotic infections, warned that CAFO workers could serve as a 'bridging population' to rural communities sharing viruses with the pigs, and vice-versa," David Kirby writes on The Huffington Post. A link between CAFOs and viral outbreaks would mean that the pork industry is not entirely inncocent in the current health crisis. In the last several years many several U.S. hog conglomerates have opened CAFOs throughout Mexico, and several of the operations are in the area where the first case of the new virus was found. (Read more)

The name "swine flu" has worried many in in the pork industry, which we mentioned here was struggling before the outbreak of the virus, because people are associating the disease with pigs or pork. "There's no evidence at this time that it's present in pigs in the United States, or in any pig herd anywhere in the world," Deborah Johnson, director of the North Carolina Pork Council, told The Associated Press. The federal government is considering changing the name because the association between the virus and the animal will undoubtedly hurt pig farmers. News releases from public officials are calling the virus by its code name, H1N1. (Read more) A New York Times story offers some naming options.

UPDATE 5/22/09: Hoosier Ag Today reports that the Mexican Ministry of Agriculture says the influenza strain known as swine flu did not originate from hogs at a Smithfield Foods operation, the plant that had been singled out by some as the source of the virus. The tests conducted also confirmed that A-H1N1 virus was not in pigs at the Granjas Carroll de Mexico farm in Veracruz,

Monday, April 27, 2009

Feds will ask courts to erase 'eleventh hour' Bush rule aimed at easing mountaintop-removal mining

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said today he will ask the Justice Department to go to court to withdraw a rule the Bush administration enacted in its final weeks to clear regulatory and judicial obstacles to mountaintop-removal strip mining of coal.

Salazar called the rule "bad policy" and said it allowed "the cheapest and most convenient disposal option" for material removed from mountaintops and steep ridges, Ayesha Rascoe and Tom Doggett of Reuters report. "Under the Bush rule, coal mine operators can dispose of excess mountaintop debris in and within 100 feet of nearby streams streams whenever alternative options are deemed 'not reasonably possible'." It replaced a rule "that allowed dumping within 100 feet of a stream if it would not 'adversely affect the water quantity or quality or other environmental resources of the stream'." (Read more)

Salazar said at a press conference, "We must responsibly develop our coal supplies to help us achieve energy independence, but we cannot do so without appropriately assessing the impact such development might have on local communities and natural habitat and the species it supports." An Interior news release called the rule an "eleventh hour" measure. For Salazar's full remarks, click here. For a recording of his presser, click here. His department includes the Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation.

In asking a court to declare the Bush rule "legally defective," Salazar and Justice are trying to avoid a lengthy and cumbersome rulemaking process, but also risking the possibility that federal courts will decline to act. The legal action will start in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

The environmental group Earthjustice was not impressed. It told Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette, "Unless this announcement is accompanied by a firm commitment to enforce the law as it applies to mountaintop removal and valley fills, it’s meaningless. Secretary Salazar’s comments at the press conference lacked such a commitment; he made it sound as if this action would return the situation to the status quo before the Bush 11th-hour change to the stream buffer zone rule. But the history of the stream buffer zone rule is that it hasn’t been enforced." Ward is updating on his Coal Tattoo blog. He says Interior officials "hedged about whether they plan to actually enforce the previous version in a manner that would limit mountaintop removal." For reaction from Interior and the coal industry, via Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post, click here.

Swine flu scare is more bad news for pork industry

"The U.S. pork industry shifted into rapid-response mode following the news of an outbreak of swine flu in humans, trying to quell disease fears and protect an already weak pork market," report Lauren Etter, Debbie Carlson and Curt Thacker of The Wall Street Journal. "Although there appears to be no evidence yet tying the flu to human contact with pigs, Russia banned meat imports from Mexico, several U.S. states and nine Latin American nations."

The National Pork Producers Council said, "Pork is safe to eat." Adding that the Center for Disease Control has said that none of the cases in the United States had been in contact with with hogs. "Based on the CDC's analysis, there does not seem to be any reason to restrict pork imports or consumption, but this situation is so new that it undoubtedly will take a few days for the correct information to reach all parties," Jim Herlihy, vice president of information services for the U.S. Meat Export Federation, an industry group.

The flu outbreak is bad news for a struggling industry. Exports were down 13 percent in February from a year earlier, and many pork processors are struggling to stay profitable. Smithfield Foods Inc. reported a $103.1 million loss last quarter. (Read more)

Cattle-state senators seek to block regulation of methane emissions from large cattle operations

The Environmental Protection Agency said April 17 that it is closer to declaring greenhouse-pgas emissions a threat to public health. The announcement heated the debate over what types of emissions should be regulated, including large cattle-feeding operations. " EPA estimates that U.S. cattle emit about 5.5 million metric tons of methane per year into the atmosphere, accounting for 20 percent of U.S. methane emissions," reports Lisa Hare of the Yankton Press & Dakotan.

If methane emissions from large cattle operations are regulated, the operators will have to participate in the cap-and-trade program to offset their greenhouse gas emissions. Sens. John Thune, R-S.D., and Mike Johannas, R-Neb., are pushing legislation to stop that. South Dakota and Nebraska are big cattle producers. "According to Thune, the EPA’s new declaration could set the government down a 'slippery slope' toward a permit process for methane emissions of cattle and other livestock," writes Hare.

Johanns, who was agriculture secretary in the last administration, argues that the Clean Air Act was passed to regulate vehicles, power plants, and factories, not naturally occurring greenhouse gas emissions. The National Farmers Union, which represents smaller farmers, "supports a national, mandatory carbon emission cap-and-trade system," adds Hare. (Read more)

How large would a livestock operation have to be in order to fall under the regulatory scheme? Only about 50 are being required to report to EPA, under guidelines issued last month, but that could be tightened. EPA estimated that only those with 89,000 cattle, 73,000 hogs or 5,000 dairy cows would meet the threshold for reporting.

With land prices down, environmentalists push Obama plan for more purchases for parks, refuges

Environmentalists are optimistic over the future of land conservation in the U.S., after President Obama proposed that the federal government spent $420 million next year to buy land for national parks, forests and refuges, and for parks and recreation projects; and that the annual amount be raised to $900 million within five years. The proposed increase, combined with lower land prices, has many pushing Congress to appropriate the funds.

"Property values are not today what they were a year ago," said Alan Front, senior vice president of the Trust for Public Land. "Every dollar that is invested in the Land and Water Conservation Fund probably buys a little bit more habitat, a little bit more recreational trail, a little bit more scenic vista than it bought a year ago."

Richard Simon of the Los Angeles Times notes that, of the $171 million allocated to the Land and Water Conservation Fund this year, "the amount earmarked for National Park Service purchases was a third of what it was a decade ago." The appointment of Ken Salazar, who supported conservation funding as a senator from Colorado, as interior secretary, has many hopeful that this trend will be reversed. (Read more)

Rural, urban interests split on where the census should say prisoners reside

As the 2010 census approaches, a rural-urban split is occurring over where prisoners should be counted. Many prisons are located in rural areas, and the traditional method of counting people with no "usual residence" at their location on Census Day, April 1, has some concerned that rural populations are being inflated, and urban populations undercounted, with an impact on electoral representation.

"It's systemic distortion," Peter Wagner, executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative, said. "You have a disproportionately black and Hispanic male population that is counted in the wrong spot." Alice Green, founder and executive director of the Center for Law and Justice says that prisoners, unable to vote while counted as constituents, "are not represented, and they are totally exploited." They want the census to consider prisoners' residences as their last known address.

But many rural representatives say that the impact of prisons on their area make it necessary to count prisoners in the counties they reside at during their incarceration. Elizabeth O'C. Little, New York state senator, says that her rural district is significantly impacted by the presence of a prison. Without counting the prison's population, her district would not have enough constituents to warrant a seat in the Senate. She told Keith B. Richburg of The Washington Post, "It was the influences at home that got them into trouble in the first place, so maybe they'd be better off someplace else." (Read more)