Saturday, June 20, 2009

County tax assessor in Arizona gets tough on agricultural exemptions; how about yours?

Most states give tax breaks to agricultural property, but the privilege can be abused, especially if local or state tax officials are lax about enforcement. In Yavapai County, Ariz., a new tax assessor has revoked about 1,000 examptions and "is reviewing the 2,963 properties listed on the county's agriculture property list to find out who is legitimate and who is not," Bruce Colbert reports for The Daily Courier in Prescott. Maybe it's time to check on the ag exemptions and enforcement in your locality.

Assessor Pamela Pearsall "said that she knows some residents are reaping tax benefits from illegal agriculture classifications, and she intends to find them and get them off the county's ag list," Colbert writes. "The monetary stakes are high. For example, a person owns a 40-acre parcel and the assessor's office values it at $200,000. That equals $5,000 per acre, which is the value on which that the owner would pay taxes. However, with a grazing exemption, the assessor values the 40 acres at $7.50 per acre, which puts that 40-acre parcel at a value of $300."

Rules and rates vary by state and often by locality. In Yavapai County, an exemption requires "the expectation of making a profit" from the land, Pearsall said. "Is it a legitimate business or is it just a hobby?" For example, Colbert explains, "Grazing land must provide enough natural forage to support 40 animal units. ... Working ranch horses count as an animal unit, but pleasure, racing and breeding horses do not." (Read more)

Murders mean it's time to set the record straight: There's no evidence Obama wants to ban guns

We think it's time for rural newspapers and broadcast stations to disabuse their readers, listeners and viewers of the notion that President Barack Obama plans to take their guns away. There is absolutely no evidence of that, despite commercials you may hear from gun shows or the assertions you hear and read from Second Amendment advocates on talk radio and Web sites. Generally, Democrats have learned that gun control is politically problematic. "Gun control advocates are, frankly, disappointed in the president’s unwillingness to move ahead on even the mildest of gun control measures," which he endorsed in his campaign, Bob Herbert writes in The New York Times.

It's time to set the record straight because the mistaken belief appears to be driving some to commit murder. The man who killed a guard at the Holocaust museum left a note in his car saying “You want my weapons — this is how you’ll get them,” Herbert notes. He reports that the man who "used a high-powered rifle to kill three Pittsburgh police officers in April, reportedly believed that Zionists were running the world and that, yes, Obama was planning to crack down on gun ownership." A friend of the shooter said he “feared the Obama gun ban that’s on the way.”

Hebert writes, "Even with the murders that have already occurred, Americans are not paying enough attention to the frightening connection between the right-wing hate-mongers who continue to slither among us and the gun crazies who believe a well-aimed bullet is the ticket to all their dreams."

Hebert's column is normally available only to newspapers that buy it, but we bet the Times would grant permission for a one-time publication. If you don't want to do that, or Herbert or the Times are too liberal for your taste, plenty of online material is available to help you write a story or commmentary from whatever point of view you have. Two of the best sources are and, which have been debunking these tales since the National Rifle Association started distorting Obama's record and platform when he was running for president.

Obama said during his campaign that he would reinstate the assault weapons ban, "go back after kitchen-table dealers, and work to end the gun-show and Internet sales loopholes. In the first year, I intend to work with Congress on a national no-carry law, one-gun-a-month purchase limits, and bans on all semi-automatic guns." To some people, that's heavy gun control. But it's not taking away people's guns. Let's give them the facts.

Seeking cheaper thrills, more folks frequent fairs

The start of summer means there will be a county fair going on somewhere near you for the next several weeks. And you might find more people there than usual because they're looking for less expensive entertainment, Hugo Martin reports for the Los Angeles Times in the paper's "Snapshots of the Recession" series. (Times photo by Myung Chun)

"County fair and livestock show operators across the country have reported strong attendance numbers this spring and early this summer," Martin writes. "Why? Experts suggest that in tough economic times, Americans turn to county fairs for nearby, inexpensive, convenient and family-friendly entertainment."

"When we go through difficult times, we stay close to what we know and what we love," Marla Calico, a spokeswoman for the International Association of Fairs and Expositions, which represents about 1,300 fairs worldwide, told Martin. (Read more)

Friday, June 19, 2009

In relative terms, small papers cheaper than ever

Had a notion you might like to own a small newspaper? Wondering if that's rational, in light of all the talk doubting the future of newspapers? Actually, now is a good time to buy a small paper, says a broker who makes his living putting together newspaper deals.

Small- and medium-sized newspapers are selling at historically low multiples of earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization (debt payments), "according to John Cribb, managing director of Cribb, Greene & Associates," reports Editor & Publisher. The multiples are four to eight times EBITDA, compared to 10 to 14 "not so long ago," and the lowest since brokers started keeping track, Mark Fitzgerald writes on E&P's Fitz & Jen blog.

"It won’t surprise you to learn that a newspaper broker thinks this makes a fine time to buy newspapers, but Cribb offers a clear-eyed analysis of the biggest barrier to newspaper acquisitions -- which isn’t the undeniably low valuation multiples, but financing," Fitzgerald reports, quoting Cribb: “Banks consider newspaper loans as toxic (interesting because many newspaper companies have better balance sheets than their lenders). Our guess is that availability of traditional bank financing for newspapers will trail the national economic recovery by many months, and likely never return to the relatively easy credit of the past. ... Seller financing has always been common in very small newspaper transactions and will appear in larger and larger deals as time goes on.” (Read more)

Community newspapers' revenue has declined during the recession, but much less than metropolitan newspapers, we reported in March.

Siblings mark Father's Day in wake of recent loss, and a rural newspaper takes note

Father’s Day will be bittersweet for siblings Kent and Kathy Seele this year after losing their father only weeks before the holiday and his 83rd birthday. But, the memories they shared are as alive and well as ever, Martin B. Hamilton reports for The Johnstown Breeze in Colorado. (Hamilton photo of Kent and Kathy Seele)

With bright eyes, they recall the nature of their father, who grew up on a farm in Kansas and never left the business. “He was a hard worker and enjoyed what he did. He always tried to give it his best shot. He said, if you can’t do your best, don’t even try,” Kent told Hamilton. Among the memories of tractor driving and childhood antics, the pair credit their father with teaching them the love of the land; the difficult nature of farming and the beauty that came after.

“He loved every day that he farmed and everything he did,” Kent said. “He enjoyed his family, and (would say) ‘I’ve had a great life. I’m happy. I couldn’t have asked for anything more.’” True to his nature, Seele’s obituary in the Breeze summed up his mantra: “You don’t need hobbies when you love what you do everyday.” (Read more)

Falling peanut prices mean farmers face dramatic reductions in acreage and contracts

Falling prices, oversupply, and an image-tainting salmonella outbreak in 2008 will likely result in a severe decrease of peanut acreage in 2009. Industry leaders and economists have called for a 25 to 30 percent cut in production to try and compensate for the events of the past year, and some farmers are bypassing the crop altogether, Roy Roberson reports for Southeast Farm Press.

In the past, contract prices for peanuts were a result of oversupply, and even then most came in above $500 a ton. Roberson reports that early in the planting season, the average price for the four peanut types grown in the U.S. hovered around $425 – enough to make a profit, but rarely enough to also pay for crop insurance, North Carolina peanut specialist David Jordan told Roberson. Since then, the average has likely decreased further, and for some growers, contracts can come with reduced pounds.

In Suffolk, Va., grower John Crumpler (Farm Press photo) told Roberson that many growers in the area set a minimum contract price before growing season. When the advice for a 25- to 30-percent was announced, many, including him, decided to get out of the business until prices improve. Dell Cotton, executive director of the Virginia Peanut Growers Association, said the 24,000 acres planted in 2008 is expected to drop to 10,000 this year, and that estimate is "optimistic." (Read more)

Landowners join forces to negotiate wind deals

Landowners in Iowa are recognizing that banding together may give them leverage in negotiations on wind-turbine placement as the wind energy market booms. Douglas Burns reports for the Daily Yonder that it may have been more beneficial to work individually in the past, but now federal incentives and arrangements mean working as a group may yield better profits.

Lawyers working on a large project in South Dakota argue that individuals in the Midwest have a lot to bargain with when energy companies come knocking since that is where most of the nation's winds are strongest. “We’ve got the land,” attorney Steven Case told Burns. “We’ve got good wind. We bring that to the table.”

Large scale and small scale projects could benefit from a partnership negations. Erin Edholm is the communications director of National Wind, which helps community-based wind projects like the one in South Dakota. She told Burns that a typical lease for a 1.5-megawatt turbine pays between $6,000 and $9,000 annually. In a community project, landowners share in the profit of the turbine in addition to the lease revenue. Burns reports that a conservative estimate is that a 1.5-megawatt turbine in a community project would generate $184,000 annually. (Read more)

Mountaintop-mining protests resume; 14 arrested

Days after the Obama administration announced plans to reform strip mining, 14 citizens were arrested after trespassing and scaling equipment on Massey Energy Co.’s mine near Twilight, W. Va., on Thursday morning. The State Journal reports that the protesters represented a group called Mountain Action and were trying to stop mountaintop-removal coal mining. (Read more)

Massey CEO Don Blankenship said the group endangered people and wasted tax dollarsCharles Suggs IV, a protester being held at the Boone County Courthouse, told Tim Huber of The Associated Press that the protest was well worth the risk. "We have been writing letters. We have been going to the courts," Suggs said. "We brought more attention to it. We stopped the dragline's moving. That's one of the most destructive forces out there." (Read more)

Rural Democrats near deal on climate bill, as it moves toward wishes of USDA, electric co-ops

"House Democrats are on the verge of a deal with rebelling Farm Belt legislators on a climate-change bill," Ian Talley reports for The Wall Street Journal. "Lawmakers and industry officials close to the negotiations said the two sides could reach an agreement within days, under which rural utilities could receive a small share of free emission credits -- less than 1 percent of the total that would be handed out. The credits allow the holder to emit a certain amount of greenhouse gases." Co-ops get 80 percent of their power from coal.

As reported here early this week, the point man for rural Democrats on the issue, Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson of Minnesota, said rural electric cooperatives' problem with the climate bill was more significant than issues raised by farmers. However, the pending deal would also "appease Farm Belt lawmakers," Talley writes, by giving the Agriculture Department "greater involvement in oversight of the market" for credits. That's something Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said he wanted during a visit to Kentucky last month.

Christa Marshall of ClimateWire has a more pessimistic report, for The New York Times: "Yesterday, resolution on the issue appeared distant. According to Peterson, Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) offered a tweak in the legislative language that would be more favorable to co-ops, but it didn't 'do much' to move things along. English echoed that sentiment yesterday, and said no further meetings were planned between himself, Markey, Waxman and Peterson."

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Health reform hinges on rural 'leap of faith,' says 6,000-circulation newspaper in Nebraska

Health-insurance reform is not going to be pretty for anyone, but it will require a special leap of faith from those in rural America, an editorial in the McCook Daily Gazette of Nebraska says, showing how small-circulation newspapers (in this case, 6,000) can and should weigh in on important national issues.

Among the changes discussed are plans to cut up to $300 billion from current levels of Medicare and Medicaid spending over the next decade, the adoption of new technologies and improved disease-management systems, and finding ways to address the geographic differences in Medicare spending. But, the editorial notes that federal health-insurance plans already pay doctors 20 to 40 percent less than private insurance. To make up for the difference, every family covered privately is billed an extra $1,800.

While many rural residents want health reform, they wonder how cost-cutting of already reduced prices is going to help the situation. “Expecting the mutually exclusive idea of 'government efficiency' to make up the difference in time to keep a number of rural hospitals from going out of business is beyond belief,” the paper says. Other concerns about how health care quality measures like lines, lack of specialty physicians and access, and so on would be affected by reform measures are worrisome. The editorial concludes, “Rural America will have to be on its guard to avoid being shortchanged in health care reform.” (Read more)

Chicago Tribune discovers Paducah, Ky., which has turned itself into a tourist 'touchstone'

About a decade ago, a dilapidated town of 26,000 ridden with drug dealing and prostitution began re-examining and renovating its image. Today, the effort has paid off. Josh Noel reports for the Chicago Tribune that the quilt capital of the world, Paducah, Ky., has traded in its broken sidewalks and ghoulish mood for a tourism industry that hinges on the city’s new cultural scene.

(Paducah Sun photo) With the help of the Artist Relocation Program, the Lowertown neighborhood has lured artists and craftsmen to the area, and the city’s downtown has been revitalized in the past ten years. So many repairs have made that the town is now a haven for retirees and tourists. Noel reports that Bill Renzulli, now a resident and a retired doctor from rural Maryland, was charmed by Paducah. When he and his wife visited in 2001 -- long before the renovations were complete -- they were smitten with the vision the town’s officials had. "They were very -- I don't want to say charismatic -- they were enthusiastic.”

That enthusiasm carried the renovation efforts. Today, restaurants, art galleries, cafes and cozy lodgings make the vitality, economy and culture of Paducah extend beyond quilts.
"When I got here, there was nothing. It's grown by leaps and bounds,” Hannah Grey, a musician, told Noel. “Now people are coming from all over the world to" -- she pauses as if she can barely believe it -- "Paducah." (Read more)

Hybrid chestnuts could help curb carbon emissions

Introducing a hybrid chestnut tree could repopulate American forests with the species while decreasing carbon-dioxide levels in the atmosphere, Terra Daily reports about a study by Purdue University.

In the early 20th century, a fungus rapidly spread throughout the American chestnut range and nearly eliminated the species. But a few trees proved resistant to the blight, and crossing them with the smaller Chinese chestnut has produced a hybrid. "We're really quite close to having a blight-resistant hybrid that can be reintroduced into eastern forests," said Douglass Jacobs, an associate professor of forestry and natural resources at Purdue (university photo).

"Increasing the number of American chestnuts, which store more carbon, can help slow the release of carbon into the atmosphere," Jacobs explains. The trees' rapid growth and the wood’s use in furniture makes it retain carbon longer than other hardwoods. Harnessing that power to help manage global climate change could help revive the species. Jacobs told Terra Daily that trees absorb one-sixth of the carbon emitted globally each year. "Maintaining or increasing forest cover has been identified as an important way to slow climate change." But he cautions that other measures must be taken to slow carbon emissions. "We need to rely less on fossil fuels and develop alternate forms of energy." (Read more)

California papers quash bill that would have let ordinances be published on Web, not in print

Newspapers in California, a state that often sets trends for the rest of the nation, have beaten back a bill that would have allowed local governments to publish new ordinances on government Web sites rather than publishing a summary in a general-circulation newspaper. Newspapers, especially those in rural areas, see such legislation as a threat to their revenue bases and to government transparency.

The California Newspaper Publishers Association credited "the many letters and personal communications between CNPA members and the five senators on the Senate Local Government Committee" for the panel's unamimous decision this week to sit on the bill. "Before holding the bill, each committee member spoke about the importance of community newspapers in informing citizens, especially in rural communities," reports the CNPA Legislative Bulletin. "Three of the members said that in the future changes in the way people receive information brought by the Internet and technology might cause them to reconsider the bill."

For more information contact CNPA General Counsel Tom Newton at 916.288.6015 or

Rural towns fall back on charity to celebrate July 4

The latest victims of the economic crisis are communities forced to cancel Fourth of July festivities across the country, particularly in small towns with limited resources. Eli Saslow reports for The Washington Post that more than 40 communities have already called off events, but some citizens in Shippensburg, Pa., are not letting the traditions end without a fight.

Every year since 1940, the town of 5,600 people has celebrated its self-proclaimed “Best Day of Summer” with free soft drinks, local high school football and lots of fireworks. But this year, the events would cost $5,300, even at a special discounted rate, and that may be too much in the wake of budget cuts and lost sponsors. Instead, Kip Fordney, head of the parks and recreation department, is going door to door to raise money for the fireworks. The nostalgia, patriotism and town pride keep her going. "It's like Woodstock," she told Saslow of the annual festivities. "Everybody's happy, and everybody's a little bit wild."

What was once seen as a civic necessity is increasingly being viewed as wasteful, but Saslow writes that the elimination of the Fourth of July is especially painful in small towns. “Unlike in Washington, where tens of thousands will fight for position on the Mall, these are places that represent what Independence Day means in most of America -- a hillside covered with friends and neighbors, a few dozen fireworks set off by the volunteers from the fire department, a sweet, small-town sense of community on a warm summer night.” (Read more)

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Rural and urban Americans getting broadband at about the same rate, so rural still lags by 21 points

Rural Americans continue to adopt high-speed Internet service at increasing rates, but seem to be making relatively little headway in catching up to the rest of the country, which is likewise embracing broadband quickly.

This year's survey for the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 46 percent of rural Americans had broaband at home, compared to 67 percent in counties that are part of metropolitan areas. The figures last spring were 38 percent and 59 percent, respectively. The disparity lessened a bit; this year's rural figure was 68.7 percent of the non-rural, up from 64.4 percent last year. The figures are not certain, because the poll's margin of error was plus or minus 2 percent.

Still, "Rural residence remains one of the strongest predictors that a household will lack broadband access," Bill Bishop notes for the Daily Yonder. The strongest demographic factor is lack of a high-school diploma, followed by age 65 or over, then rurality.

Bishop offers survey findings about rural broadband: "Rural residents are much more likely to have DSL connections than cable [and] are much more likely than those living in cities to use home dial-up to connect to the Internet. Only 12 percent of home broadband users live in rural America. However, 32 percent of home dial-up users live in rural communities." Just 7 percent of U.S. broadband users are on dial-up. "The two groups most likely to say they would like to switch from dial-up to broadband were parents with minor children and people in rural communities." (Read more) To read the Pew report, click here.

Obama may face a 'rural revolt' from Democrats

President Obama is facing a potential rebellion from rural Democrats upset by administration decisions "on everything from greenhouse gases to car dealerships," Politico reports. "A rural revolt could hamper the administration’s ability to pass climate change and health care legislation before the August recess."

Lisa Lerer and Jonathan Martin offer a killer quote in the second paragraph, from Rep. Dennis Cardoza, right, of the farming-intensive Central Valley of California: “They don’t get rural America. They form their views of the world in large cities.” (Reuters photo)

"Cardoza’s critique was aimed at Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency, but it echoes complaints rural-district Democrats have about a number of Obama administration decisions," Lerer and Martin write, quoting Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu: “I wouldn’t say it’s a complete strikeout, but they’ve just got a few more bases to it when it comes to the rural community.” Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, reflecting complaints that Obama has paid little attention to rural areas sicne his election, said, “We’d love to see him out in rural America more.”

The story touches on topics already covered here: Obama's non-starter plan for an income-based limit on direct paymentsto farmers; farmers' desire for carbon credits monitored by the Department of Agriculture, ethanol producers' wish to not have faraway land-use decisions count against the sustainability of their product, and lawmakers' inability to understand why General Motors and Chrysler had to close many rural car dealerships, a strategy at least tacitly endorsed by the White House Auto Task Force.

“None of us can quite understand why they consider dealerships a drag when they are the ones that buy the cars, that take the financial risks,” said North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan. Many of the dealerships that are being closed are profitable.” For a Washington Post database of dealers Chrysler dropped, click here; GM has issued only a list of number of dealers to be dropped in each state.

The undersigned told reporter Martin that the closing of car dealerships in small towns is nothing new, because the car makers have been dropping rural franchises for decades, but this round is a huge acceleration and expansion, involving larger towns. That nuance wasn't used in the story, but a more direct political point was. You can read it here.

Citing lack of majors, Washington State U. closing its Department of Community and Rural Sociology

Washington State University is closing its Department of Community and Rural Sociology, as planned, because there are no students majoring in the subject, and making other rural-related cuts, Nicholas Geranios of The Associated Press reports, citing an advance copy of a news release from the school in Pullman (Encarta map). The department is known for its research, teaching and extension work.

The WSU College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences "will consolidate some majors and eliminate the international marketing program for farm products," AP reports. "The Cooperative Extension program will close all nine of its learning centers across the state and will make other staff cuts."

WSU is also eliminating its theater and dance departments and the German major because of state budget cuts. "But the sports management program, which had been slated for elimination, will be retained," Geranios reports. (Read more)

Rural areas shortchanged by smartphone deals

UPDATE, June 18: President Obama's nominee to head the Federal Communications Commission said the FCC will investigate a complaint by rural wireless companies asking for a ban on exclusive phone deals, reports Amy Schatz of The Wall Street Journal.

"Rural America is suffering from a deficiency of top-tier smartphones, according to a number of small wireless operators and advocacy groups," Sarah Reedy reports for Telephony. The companies and organizations such as Public Knowledge are objecting to exclusivity deals, in which only one carrier is available on a type of mobile device: AT&T on iPhones and Verizon on BlackBerrys, for example.

"The BlackBerry Tour, announced yesterday as an exclusive to Verizon and Sprint, won’t be making any stops in rural America," according to Hu Meena, president of Cellular South., Reedy reports. "As with the Tour, the big four wireless carriers – Verizon, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile – control more than 90 percent of the wireless market with long-term, exclusive agreements with handset manufacturers, he said." (Read more)

"AT&T has gained 2.5 million subscribers since Apple launched the iPhone two years ago, a small number compared with the 270 million cellphone subscribers in the United States," notes Cecilia Kang of The Washington Post. "But such gains have been at the expense of ... small regional network operators, which are losing customers to the biggest carriers – which are now serving seven out of 10 cellphone users." For Kang's coverage of the Senate Commerce Committee hearing today on the issue, click here.

Rural electrics' issue is bigger obstacle to climate bill than farm issues, Ag Committee chair says

The allocation of carbon allowances to electric utilities has become a bigger problem for the climate-change bill than agriculture issues, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson of Minnesota told The Hill yesterday. As we reported last week, rural electric cooperatives, which get 80 percent of their power from coal, say the bill is unfair to them and their customer-members.

“This has created a big revolt with the members. I just had probably six or seven of them come up to me — including three committee chairmen — talking about this,” Peterson told Jared Allen of the Hill. Allen reports that Peterson has become the point man for Democrats wanting changes in the bill because he has access to its main sponsor, Rep. Henry Waxman of California, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The other sponsor is Rep. Edward Markey of Massachusetts.

“It looks to us that they made a deal on the two coasts with the big guys and didn’t think about [farmers and the Midwest],” Peterson said. “So this, I would say right now, is a bigger stumbling block for Waxman than the ag stuff.” After meeting with Markey and Rep. Rick Boucher of southwest Virginia, "another Democrat with whom Waxman had to strike a deal in order to move his bill through his panel, Peterson said progress was being made on the electricity and some of the agriculture issues." Boucher said of his rural colleagues' concerns, “I think they are addressable concerns.” (Read more) Meanwhile, a Washington Post editorial sums up the farm issues in climate change.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Supreme Court lacks a sense of plowed ground

If confirmed by the Senate, federal appeals Judge Sonia Sotomayor would replace Justice David Souter on the U.S. Supreme Court. That would put the first Hispanic on the highest court of the land, but leave it with little if any representation from rural America, Douglas Burns reports for the Daily Yonder.

The only justice with rural ties is Clarence Thomas, left, who was born in Pin Point, Ga., but lived there for only six years before moving to Savannah. The other justices come from largely Eastern, Ivy-League backgrounds. Including Sotomayor, four are from the New York City area, two (Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito) are from Trenton, N.J., two are from California, one is from Chicago, and Chief Justice John Roberts was born in Buffalo, N.Y., and raised in Long Beach, Ind., just outside Chicago.

Burns, an Iowa journalist, argues that “Obama owes his presidency in large part to rural America as his political fortunes turned dramatically when he defeated Hillary Clinton in the Iowa caucuses.” The departure of Souter, who brought strong rural credentials to the court, is paving the way for a more diverse court, although not in terms of rurality. Advocates like Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) hope the tide will turn with the next nomination. “You can’t get much more rural than Judge Souter living out in the small community up in rural New Hampshire but we’ve lost that,” he said. “I hope the next time something comes up we get someone that maybe didn’t go to Harvard, didn’t go to Yale, maybe went to a small, Midwestern law school someplace.” (Read more)

Only half of country-music fans have Internet at home, so are beyond much industry marketing

A recent survey for the Country Music Association found that only 50 percent of country music fans have Internet access at home – a fact that has left both executives and artists disheartened at the loss of marketing potential, The Washington Post reports.

Younger artists like Taylor Swift maintain a heavy online presence, from MySpace to Facebook, to an official domain through their respective record companies. Some groups, like Lady Antebellum, “owes its very existence to the Internet,” Melinda Newman writes. Even after the band was picked up by a production company, almost a third of their first album sales were digital. Older artists too, are being pushed by producers to expand their online use and fan base.

Reba McEntire (signing autographs in photo by Billy Kingsley of The Tennessean) now blogs and is on Twitter, and recently moved her bimonthly newsletter, which used to be mailed to more than 50,000 fans, onto her Web site.

Despite the love of the music, nearly 42 percent of fans were not interested in trying to obtain Internet access. One, Chuck Taulbee, lives in Stockton, Mo., where broadband is not available. As for his options, "It's dial-up, and it's just too expensive,” he says. The high costs of dial up, as well as concerns about online content, are why most fans remain uninterested, Newman reports. Of particular concern to CMA is that “countryphiles,” who are “more likely to be female than male, between the ages of 25 and 39, married, white and from small towns” drive almost half of all country music revenue, and they can’t be reached with Internet. (Read more)

Crime increases on reservations; feds promise aid

In response to increasing violence and substance abuse on Indian reservations, the Justice Department is promising funds to provide better communication and resources to solve crimes, Carrie Johnson reports for The Washington Post.

The crime rate among American Indians and Alaska Natives is more than twice the national average, and critics argue that there is a severe disparity between the number of agents and size of the land; fewer than 3,000 tribal and federal agents are responsible for enforcing 55 million acres of territory that houses roughly 560 Native American tribes.

Johnson reports that domestic violence are increasing, but law enforcement has been “grossly underfunded,” as cited in a memo from the National Congress of American Indians. Already the stimulus package has grant $248 million for handling some of the other problems reservation law enforcement face; prisons for adult and juvenile offenders that are overcrowded and in disrepair, poor criminal data collection, and violence against women on reservations. (Read more)

Washington Post explores the political landscape of tobacco in North Carolina, and comes up short

The Washington Post attempts this morning to explain the political landscape of tobacco in the top tobacco-producing state, in the wake of a new law authorizing the Food and Drug Administration to regulate tobacco products. The story has useful information, but some key points are missing.

Reporter Phil Rucker went to North Carolina and focused on Kay Hagan, left, the only Democratic senator to vote against the bill, and a big tobacco farmer who is one of her political supporters. He notes, "The tobacco industry employs about 50,000 people here, delivering an economic impact of $7 billion." However, "The state's politics are no longer dominated by tobacco interests. ... In Raleigh, the capital, and the cities of Charlotte and Durham, the industry has been overtaken by technology, scientific research and banking, and that translates politically. In May, the legislature banned smoking in restaurants and bars. Several of the state's congressional representatives voted for the tobacco bill, and Gov. Beverly Perdue (D) wants to increase the cigarette tax, moves that analysts said would have been political suicide just a decade ago." (Photo by Greensboro News & Record)

Without differentiating between tobacco farming and cigarette manufacturing (the more economically significant of the two), Rucker writes that the North Carolina industry's "economic power has been shrinking. Between 1997 and 2007, the number of tobacco farms here decreased by nearly 80 percent, from 12,586 to 2,622, according to the Agriculture Department." The real importance of that decline was not economic, but political. Tobacco farmers became a much smaller political constituency. And those figures, from the Census of Agriculture, go unexplained. Two big things happened in those 10 years. First, the 1998 settlement between states and cigarette manufacturers, was handwriting on the wall for farmers and accelerated the consolidation of farms whose individual production was limited by government quotas. That accelerated further in 2004, when Congress repealed quotas and price supports. That was even more true in Kentucky, which has long been second in tobacco production but first in the number of farmers. The 2007 census found 8,112 tobacco farms in the state.

Health insurance killing rural America, farmers say

Rural Americans are disproportionately unable to afford health insurance coverage and often resort to none, Howard Berkes reports for National Public Radio. Many rural residents are self-employed or work for small businesses and farms so spreading the risk is not possible, and individuals are left with increasing deductibles.

The situation is frustrating for Larry Harbour, who owns and operates a business in Broken Bow, Neb. He found that even basic insurance for himself and his wife runs $24,000 to $40,000 a year, plus a $2,000 deductible. Now, they go without. “It's like playing Russian roulette,” he told Berkes. “Every day, we wonder when it's going to happen — if something's going to happen, are we able to afford it?"

Jon Bailey, of the Nebraska-based Center for Rural Affairs, reports that doctor shortages, increased small businesses, the risks associated with farming and ranching, and a rural population that tends to be older and sicker severely limits coverage. "The two biggest determinants of un-insurance in this country are the owner of a small business or employee of a small business. And that's more common in rural areas."

Health insurance may be even more necessary in rural areas because lack of coverage and lack of access means preventive care is neglected. Rural residents then only seek medical care when a small health problem becomes severe. Bailey says the kind of rural health insurance you have can be a big influence on future health problems. Medicare beneficiary and farmer Linus Solberg, right (Berkes photo), is firm in his opinion: "Health insurance is killing rural America … We can put people on the moon. We can go up and fix this Hubble satellite that we have up there. And we can't have health care for all these people. It's ridiculous." (Read more)

Monday, June 15, 2009

Natural-gas boom lowers prices; bad news for coal

A boom in natural-gas drilling is raising the prospect that utilities will start burning more gas and less coal, especially if Congress passes a bill to curb greenhouse gases, The Wall Street Journal reports. (Journal chart: Weekly change in prices since Dec. 31, 2006)

"Power companies are beginning to ratchet back investments in coal-generated plants to take advantage of low gas prices and hedge against costly climate-change legislation," Rebecca Smith and Ben Casselman report."Natural-gas plants can be built more quickly and inexpensively than coal plants, and they release about half as much carbon dioxide as coal to produce similar amounts of electricity. That could be a big advantage if Congress passes a climate-change bill."

The Energy Information Administration forecasts that utilities will use 2.3 percent less coal this year than last year, and coal production is expected to drop 5 to 10 percent. "There basically is no spot market for coal right now," Jim Thompson, managing editor of the Knoxville-based Coal and Energy Price Report, told the Journal. "Coal companies are living off their utility contracts," which are long-term, not part of the spot market. (Read more)

As expected, rural areas lost channels and began having other reception issues with digital TV

As soon as television stations began dropping their analog signals and going all-digital a few months ago, rural viewers began having trouble. Some stations' digital transmitters were in locations different from their analog transmitters, and digital signals have a drop-off effect, in which a signal below a certain strength will result in no picture at all, rather than a snowy picture that a weak analog signal produced. The problem grew Saturday, the first day that full-power stations could no longer broadcast analog signals.

"For some people who've already made the switch, the biggest complaint so far is that the digital signals aren't as strong and can break up easily for people who live too far away from TV towers," notes Amy Schatz of The Wall Street Journal. She reports that almost 20 percent of the callers to the Federal Communications Commission national call center "reported reception issues, including lost channels or problems with the digital signals breaking up."

Schatz found an example of other problems rural viewers are having: "Three weeks ago, Chuck Vail of Glenolden, Pa., hooked up his converter box and was delighted to find he had three channels from a local PBS affiliate as well as a channel from a New Jersey PBS station. 'I thought this was the greatest thing since sliced bread,' Mr. Vail said. That feeling lasted until the first major thunderstorm moved through his area. He says he now loses all but one of his digital channels when it rains." (Read more)

In a few areas, the switch to digital has meant an "off" switch for stations with technical issues and financial challenges. The FCC said early this month that 10 had gone dark already and it expected 25 more to do so by June 12. However, it expects the 17 with technical problems to resume broadcasting by the end of the year. Eighteen of the stations are owned by bankrupt Equity Media. Only seven are affiliates of major networks, reported John Eggerton of Broadcasting & Cable. (Read more)

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Rural Alaskans create Web site to share examples of changes in climate and the ecosystem

Rural Alaskans are using the Internet to share information about the climate and ecosystem changes that are happening around them to better understand how the environment affects their lives. It's a lesson in how rural Americans anywhere can use technology to overcome the obstacles of distance -- which are even greater in the roadless "bush" of Alaska.

Alaska Newspapers, a chain of weeklies, reports that the year-old is a product of the Alaska Inter-Tribal Council, whose executive director, Brad Garness, created and runs the site. “People who live a subsistence hunting and fishing lifestyle generally have a unique view regarding climate change and why animals behave the way they do,” he said.

Even though Alaska has long been on the front line of climate change, this is the first site that invites rural residents to share their experiences. Nunat allows viewers to fill out a reporting form that provides scientists detailed accounts of some of the environmental changes occurring. Items posted so far include a polar bear lying on the beach after swimming to shore last fall and a school of salmon with unusual spots and deformed spines on the Yukon River. (Read more)

Rural social club evolves into civic organization that helps the community address major issues

What began as a town social club in rural Tennessee is taking larger civic matters into its own hands: preservation, publicity and community outreach. Suzanne Normand Blackwood reports for The Tennessean that the Triune Community Club in Williamson County, just south of Nashville, has been busy organizing panel discussions, running a rural-themed book club and reinventing how a community can affect the life of a small town in a rapidly subrbanizing area.

As agriculture changes and declines, and land-use planning becomes a key topic, the community club is a vehicle for expression and debate about change. The club embraced such issues two years ago to "allow the citizens to have a voice so they can discuss issues that concern them with appropriate agencies and officials," Ginger Shirling, a lifetime member, told Blackwood.

Key to the club’s mission is activism in the face of change. Members of the local book club have been reading Rural by Design: Maintaining Small Town Character by Randall Arendt to gain a better understanding of land-use planning, and several people in the 60-member group are holding educational debates about the importance of historic preservation and decisions about commercialism in the area. History "gives me a foundation so that I can be better prepared to go forward," Karen Emerson-McPeak, a member of the club's historical preservation committee, told Blackwood. "I feel like we should embrace the past and combine with the future, creating a better Triune." (Read more)

Recruiting rural entrepreneurs is just as important as attracting larger employers, expert advises

If there’s a debate in your town about whether to emphasize recruitment of large employers or smaller entrepreneurs, don’t waste time on the debate; do both, writes Timothy Collins, assistant director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University. In an article for the Daily Yonder, Collins sides with Ed Bee, president of Taimerica Management Co., who wrote in an article for the Economic Development Journal that there is a need to give up on “one-size-fits-all” approaches.

Although disparities still exist in poor regions like Appalachia, some places have proven that commericial and entrepreneurial success is possible. Toyota’s plant in Georgetown, Ky., has decreased poverty and increased economic activity in much of the state since 1985. Yonder photographer/co-editor Bill Bishop's entrepreneurial example is Larry, Darrell & Darrell’s barbecue restaurant in Mayfield, Ky., host to sell-out lunch crowds. (Photo: James Stovall displays a rack of pork ribs. Yummmm.)

“The push for entrepreneurial development emerged in the 1980s as both a reaction to protracted recession and an alternative to faulty business-attraction strategies that were not meeting the needs of states and their inner cities, smaller towns, and citizens,” Collins writes. But that recession, which reduced rural manufacturing jobs and lowered standards of living, also left such places less appealing to businesses. Rural entrepreneurship can provdie a foundation for such areas to fall back on.

The key, Collins says, is balance between recruting industry and the sort of entrepreneurship that creates a strong, business-owning middle class. Promoting entrepreneurship moves a community toward a more balanced economy. “Towns need the amenities of limited-growth, local entrepreneurs before they can even dream of attracting new firms of any size,” Collins writes. “Rural entrepreneurship is more than grasping at straws. A business-owning middle class is essential to rural sustainability.” (Read more)