Saturday, September 04, 2010

Next Farm Foundation Forum in D.C. will examine budget implications for the next Farm Bill

The Farm Foundation Forum in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, Sept. 14, will examine budget implications for the next Farm Bill. Presenters will include Craig Jagger, chief economist of the House Agriculture Committee; Patrick Westhoff of the Food and Agriculture Policy Research Institute; Chuck Conner of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives, and Ferd Hoefner of the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. Following their presentations, the discussion will be moderated by former U.S. Rep. Charlie Stenholm of Texas.

The Forum will be held from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. at the National Press Club, 529 14th Street NW. Coffee will be available at 8:30 a.m. If you plan to attend, please RSVP by noon Friday, Sept. 10. There is no charge to participate, but registration is requested.  Who should participate? People with an interest in agricultural, food and rural policy, including members of Congress, congressional staff, executive branch officials, industry representatives, representatives of non-=governmental organizations, academics and journalists.

Friday, September 03, 2010

FDA to consider safety of genetically engineered salmon

UPDATE 9/8: The Food and Drug Administration ruled Friday "salmon genetically engineered to grow quickly is safe to eat and poses little risk to the environment," Andrew Pollack of The New York Times reports.The assessment makes it more likely that the fish will become the first genetically modified animal to enter the American food supply." (Read more)

The Food and Drug Administration is set to decide this month if a faster-growing, genetically engineered fish is safe to eat, which could pave the way for other genetically engineered meats. "The fish, made by Aqua Bounty Technologies Inc., is manipulated to grow twice as fast as traditional Atlantic salmon, something the company says could boost the nation's fish sector and reduce pressure on the environment," Susan Heavey of Reuters reports. "But consumer advocates and food safety experts are worried that splicing and dicing fish genes may have the opposite effect, leading to more industrial farming and potential escapes into the wild."

(Aqua Bounty photo comparing engineered
salmon with Atlantic salmon of same age)
"They're basically putting the fish on permanent growth hormone so it grows faster ... so they can sell bigger fish faster," Jaydee Hanson, a policy analyst for the nonprofit Center for Food Safety, told Heavey. If the salmon, left, is approved, the FDA decision could pave the way for "the company's engineered trout and tilapia," Heavey writes. "Other scientists are also developing altered pigs and cows for food." FDA will host a three-day meeting about the salmon beginning on Sept. 19 where it will hear available data and advice from outsiders.
Aqua Bounty Chief Executive Ronald Stotish told Reuters the company has analyzed its salmon and found no differences that warrant any kind of special labeling. "This is an Atlantic salmon in every measurable way," he told Heavey. "When you look at the fish, it's impossible to see the difference." Stotish also noted his companies' salmon could help wild salmon populations and curb costly imports. "We're not saying if they approve our salmon we're going to feed the world," Stotish told Reuters, but "there's a general consensus that overfishing is a fact of life." (Read more)

EPA tells Wyo. town the water isn't safe to drink

The Environmental Protection Agency has told residents of a small Wyoming town near extensive natural gas drilling not to drink their water. "The announcement accompanied results from a second round of testing and analysis in the town of Pavillion  by Superfund investigators for [EPA]," Abrahm Lustgarten of ProPublica reports. "Researchers found benzene, metals, naphthalene, phenols and methane in wells and in groundwater. They also confirmed the presence of other compounds that they had tentatively identified last summer and that may be linked to drilling activities."

"Last week it became clear to us that the information that we had gathered was going to potentially result in a hazard -- result in a recommendation to some of you that you not continue to drink your water," Martin Hestmark, deputy assistant regional administrator for ecosystems protection and remediation with the EPA in Denver, told a crowd of about 100 gathered at a community center in Pavillion (pop. 174) Tuesday night. "We understand the gravity of that." EnCana, the oil and gas company that owns most of the wells near Pavillion, will "contribute to the cost of supplying residents with drinking water, even though the company has not accepted responsibility for the contamination," Lustgarten writes. (Read more)

"What I believe is we need to find the source. We need to get this shut down now before it just keeps spreading," Pavillion-area resident Louis Meeks told Dustin Bleizeffer of the Casper Star-Tribune. EnCana officials at the meeting refused to connect the water quality with drilling operations. "While there's been a full year of additional testing, the science remains inconclusive," EnCana spokesman Randy Teeuwen told Bleizeffer. He said the EPA's findings "further confirms there is bad water in the area. But we've known that for a long time. It still does not point to oil and gas operations." (Read more)

Egg buyers may look to strengthen their own inspection rules

In the wake of a massive egg recall that has left questions about federal food safety regulations, some egg buyers are considering boosting their own food safety regulations. Costco, one of the companies that bought eggs included in the recall, "will start requiring all of its suppliers to vaccinate their hens against salmonella," Phillip Brasher of the Des Moines Register reports. "Inoculating hens is considered a good, though not foolproof, way to prevent salmonella contamination in eggs."

"There are a lot of guys going, 'Hey, wait a minute. [Investigators] are finding stuff and our guys were there and they didn't see it,'" Craig Wilson, who oversees food safety for Costco, told Brasher. The companies previous inspections at the Hillandale farm where the salmonella outbreak started were done by an outside firm, which focused on ensuring the hens were treated humanely. Still those auditors should have noticed the rodent holes later found by federal investigators in the Hillandale henhouses, Wilson told Brasher.

"Some retailers or food service companies are considering requiring egg farms to have salmonella-prevention measures in place, and more farms are expected to seek certification under a quality-assurance program operated by the Food Marketing Institute, a supermarket trade group," Brasher writes. "More than 100 egg processors are certified under the institute's program for packing facilities, but only one egg farm, in California, is certified as a producer." To gain certification farms must be inspected by auditors, who are accredited by the program.

"I guarantee there will be a lot of interest in that," Ken Klippen, an official with Minnesota egg producer Sparboe Farms, told Brasher. "We don't want to go through this again." Howard Magwire, vice president of government relations for the United Egg Producers, noted the certification program can be costly to farmers, and his group is looking "at starting some kind of program that producers can use to assure customers that farms are preventing salmonella contamination," Brasher writes. (Read more)

Rural S.C. library offers e-book readers to the community

The Georgetown County, S.C., (pop. 60,703) public library system has purchased 25 Amazon Kindles for patrons in the county to use at the library. The library also bought $2,500 worth of e-books thanks to a national Library Services and Technology Act grant. The e-book reader is the latest tool made available at Georgetown County Library, reports Digital Communities.

Many local residents in the rural community don't have the means to buy new technologies, so the library helps bridge the generational and digital divides.  "We're a small, rural library system and we think this technology will interest young people, particularly young males. They're the hardest to reach," Dwight McInvaill, director of the Georgetown County Library, told Digital Communities. In Georgetown County, the library is hoping to improve the school drop out rate by offering new technology to the county's students. The Kindles are available for teaching and reading, but not lending.

One-third of Americans older than 14 use the Internet at public libraries to keep in touch with friends and family, do research and find jobs, according to the report, Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries.

Reports says rural states got most bang for stimulus transportation bucks

A new study from the libertarian Reason Foundation reports stimulus package transportation funds had the greatest effect in rural states. The study reveals: "For states such as North Dakota and South Dakota, stimulus funds can comprise more than 40 percent of their annual highway spending while in New York and Texas, they account for about 14 percent," Henry Goldman of Bloomberg reports. The stimulus package included $26.6 billion to finance 13,000 road projects through Feb. 26.

"Given the focus of stimulus funds on projects that are likely to significantly impact system condition, their impact should be largest in smaller rural states that already have relatively good systems,” the report concluded. Based on 11 indicators reported to the Federal Highway Administration, including spending on highways, pavement and bridge condition, urban interstate congestion, fatality rates and narrow rural lanes, Reason Foundation concluded the overall condition of the state-owned highway system 'has never been in better shape." The report noted the recession, which has decreased travel, also affected road conditions.

"Allocations of stimulus funds paralleled the existing federal highway aid program allocating funds to each state," Cathy St. Dennis, a Federal Highway Administration spokeswoman, told Goldman. "When you look at the data, California and the other big states got the most money. There was no intent to favor the small states." The study reports North Dakota, followed by Montana, Kansas, New Mexico and Nebraska, led all 50 states in road performance. Rhode Island, Alaska, California, Hawaii, New York and New Jersey stood at the bottom of the rankings, Goldman writes. (Read more)

Two Massey officials went inside mine immediately after April explosion

In the hours following the April explosion at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia that killed 29 miners, two Massey officials re-entered the mine unsupervised for four hours, National Public Radio reports. The two officials "traveled nine miles underground and reached the area of the longwall mining machine that is considered a possible source of the explosion," Howard Berkes of NPR writes. "They remained underground even after the Mine Safety and Health Administration issued a so-called (k) order closing the mine to all but official rescuers and authorized activity."

The officials were "Chris Blanchard, president of the Massey Energy subsidiary that manages the Upper Big Branch mine, and Jason Whitehead, who was director of underground performance at the time and is now a Massey vice president," Berkes writes. Massey would not make Blanchard and Whitehead available for an interview but company Vice President and General Counsel Shane Harvey told NPR they "risked their lives to save fellow coal miners. ... These rescue efforts were their one and only objective." Kevin Stricklin, chief of coal mine safety for MSHA, told Berkes it's not known whether Blanchard or Whitehead did anything wrong in the mine but "there's a question that's gonna come up of whether there was any tampering that took place."

Blanchard, Whitehead and other Massey officials found one severely injured miner in the first group of victims about three-quarters of a mile inside. The group attended to the miner who was eventually led to safety before Blanchard and Whitehead proceeded deeper into the mine, Berkes writes. "The impulse is to get into the mine and see if you can bring people out alive," Ed Clair, who spent 22 years as the chief lawyer at MSHA. "My own view is that it was irresponsible for them to be there. With the best of intentions, they clearly took extreme risk with their own lives and with the lives of rescuers." MSHA official Stricklin explained, "I was emphatic that I wanted those two guys out of there. And at the time, it was more for their safety than ... that I thought anything was being tampered with." (Read more)

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Death of South Carolina soldier illustrates Iraq war's high toll on rural America

In the wake of President Obama's announcement this week of the end of combat operations in Iraq, a rural South Carolina area's story from the war is an important reminder to the disproportionate toll military service has on rural areas. Rodricka Youmans of Allendale, S.C., joined the Marine Corps in 2003 after failing to find a job in his hometown and was killed less than a year later in Iraq, Johnny Edwards of The Augusta Chronicle reports. "What happened to Youmans is a stark example of the heavy toll paid by Allendale County and other small communities in the Iraq war," Edwards writes. "Their price in flag-draped coffins, according to community leaders and demographic research, has been disproportionately high, attributable to the economic ills in much of rural America."

Ten of the 18 soldiers killed in Iraq from the greater Augusta area came from towns of 7,000 people or fewer, Edwards reports. The newspaper's analysis of Pentagon and Census Bureau data showed "Allendale County and neighboring Barnwell County, both rife with poverty and unemployment, suffered South Carolina's highest and second-highest rates of Iraq war deaths per capita," Edwards writes, noting "nationally, among the top 10 for losses per capita were such sparsely populated states as Vermont -- which had the highest rate at 0.35 deaths per 10,000 people -- Montana, Wyoming, Alaska, North Dakota and South Dakota."

"He [Youmans] joined because he was looking for a job," Rodricka's father, Johnnie Youmans, told Edwards. "If he could have found a job, he probably wouldn't have gone in." Using data from the Defense Department, the White House Office of Management and Budget and the Census Bureau, a 2006-07 study from the University of New Hampshire's Carsey Institute "found that the death rate for outlying counties was 48 percent higher than in metropolitan or suburban counties," Edwards writes. "Though only 19 percent of the nation's adult population lives in rural areas, those areas suffered 26 percent of the casualties." (Read more)

Rural Alaska schools take legal action against parents to improve attendance

Rural Alaska school districts have joined with a growing number of school districts across the country in pursing legal action against parents whose children don't attend school. Parents of truant children could face jail time under the new policy, and the Alaska schools are not alone, Jill Burke of the Alaska Dispatch reports. "Already this year school districts in Texas, Pennsylvania and Alabama have resorted to arresting parents," Burke writes. As administrators look to turn around poorly performing rural schools, improving attendance rates has been among the first areas they check.

"In the Inupiat Eskimo village of Kivalina, getting kids to class is a top priority this year for the Northwest Arctic Borough School District," Burke writes. "For at least the fifth year in a row, Kivalina's McQueen School has failed to get its students to meet federal reading and writing standards." Last year students at the school missed on average more than two months of class, and only eight of the 66 students who took standardized tests were judged proficient in math. Nine students scored proficient in reading and writing.

Under Alaska's compulsory education laws "for every five days a school age child misses class without a legitimate excuse, parents can be charged with a civil violation and fined up to $500," but law enforcement agents were often too busy to follow through on schools' complaints. Now Michelle Woods, attendance counselor for Northwest Arctic, is forcing state troopers to investigate by charging parents with contributing to the delinquency of a minor, a misdemeanor crime that carries a penalty of up to year in jail and requires an investigation from troopers as well as the Office of Child Services. "It's not a matter of putting (parents) in jail," Woods told Burke. "What we want is the kid in school." (Read more)

Do W.Va. University and Nike honor coal miners killed at Upper Big Branch?

UPDATE 9/3: Nike issue this statement, reported by Ward on Coal Tattoo: "The new WVU football uniform was designed to celebrate the football team and honor the heritage of coal mining in the state. We are modifying the graphic of the player on our website to address concerns."

West Virgina University announced Wednesday its football team will forgo its usual blue and white uniforms for its Nov. 26 game against border-rival University of Pittsburgh in favor of uniforms honoring the 29 West Virginia coal miners killed in an April explosion. The new uniforms will be white, but darkened slightly to appear as if a fine layer of coal dust lined the surface, Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette reports on his Coal Tattoo blog. The uniforms, dubbed Pro Combat, will be supplied by Nike and will carry a graphic with the number 29 in honor of the Upper Big Branch miners.
Nike image
A Nike advertisement for the uniform can be found here. The voice-over which runs over a picture of a football player in front of what appears to be a strip mine says, "Every day, the coal miners of West Virginia put it on the line for their families. That’s why every Saturday in the fall, the Mountaineer football team is willing to put it all on the line for them, with a never-say-die attitude and toughness you have to live to understand." (Read more)

Huffington Post columnist Jeff Biggers is among those with a problem with the ad. "NIKE is now running an ad with a background of a massive strip-mine or mountaintop removal operation in one of the most bizarre panders to Big Coal--and one of the most disrespectful slights of coal miners," Biggers writes. "Instead of featuring underground miners, such as those who died at the Upper Big Branch disaster, Nike features an open strip mine with a dramatic voice over: 'It's just the way things are done in West Virginia.'" Biggers also took issue with the ad's claim that football players "put it on the line" like coal miners. (Read more)

W.Va. regulators to investigate link between quakes and fracking

Eight small earthquakes in central West Virginia have led state regulators to consider seismic monitoring near a disposal well for natural gas-drilling fluids. Oklahoma-based Chesapeake Energy "has injected more than 10.6 million gallons of brine and hydraulic fracturing fluid into the well since March 2009," The Associated Press reports. "Some geologists suspect high pressure and wastewater have lubricated old fault lines, allowing them to slip and trigger small earthquakes. Chesapeake isn't so sure, but it has agreed to reduce the volume of fluid it's injecting."

Gene Smith, compliance manager for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, told AP no seismic events have been reported at 70 similar disposal wells around West Virginia, but the state will investigate. "We're looking at the mechanics of the well, the geology of the area and the events that have been happening in the area, to see, from a scientific level, if what's taking place could cause earthquakes," Smith told AP. Since April 4, eight earthquakes between 2.2 and 3.4 on the Richter Scale have hit Braxton County, though no damage was reported.

Marshall University geology professor Ronald Martino told AP it was "quite possible" the quakes are linked to the high-pressure injection of fracking fluids. Chesapeake spokeswoman Maribeth Anderson countered "natural seismicity has long been observed in this part of Appalachia," and seismic activity often occurs in clusters. A study released in March University of Texas and Southern Methodist University pointed to similar disposal wells as a likely cause of several small earthquakes near Grand Prairie and Irving. (Read more)

Lake Cumberland dam repair work to resume soon

Repairs on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' most closely monitored dam will soon resume now that the reasons for movement in the earthen portion of the dam have been determined, reports The Times Journal of nearby Russell Springs. A concrete curtain is being installed in the earthen portion to stop leaks caused by the erosion of karst limestone under the dam, which impounds 101-mile-long Lake Cumberland. For more background, go here.

UPDATE, Nov. 18: The Times Journal reports that the Corps has changed its construction techniques in the troublesome area, the earthen portion of the dam that adjoins the concrete portion. "A six-month study showed the movements were not the result of deep-seated sliding of the embankment, but rather shallow movements attributed to several other causes," the newspaper reports. The change probably means that repairs to the dam, and return of the lake to its normal water level, will be delayed. "the Corps will negotiate contract modifications over the next few months, officials said. The contractor will begin to procure the necessary equipment and casing which will be fabricated and mobilized to the site over a period of five to eight months," The Times Journal reports.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Deadline for Gish Award nominations is midnight

Nominations for the Tom and Pat Gish Award in rural journalism are due by midnight tonight, Sept. 1. To nominate a candidate, send a detailed letter explaining how the nominee shows the kind of exemplary courage, tenacity and integrity that Tom and Pat Gish demonstrated at The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky., for 51 years. Broadcasters are also eligible. Documentation does not have to accompany the nomination, but is helpful in choosing finalists, and additional documentation may be requested or required. Send your nominating letter to or get it postmarked by midnight and send to 122 Grehan Journalism Bldg, University of Kentucky, Lexington KY 40506-0042.

The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues named the award for Tom and Pat Gish, above, who were the first recipients of the award, in 2005. Tom died in November 2008; Pat has health issues but remains publisher, and their son Ben is editor. This year, the Gish family won the Eugene Cervi Award from the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors for consistently acting in the conviction that “good journalism begets good government.”

The 2007 Gish Award was won by the Ezzell family of The Canadian Record, a Texas weekly that has held local, state and national politicians accountable, fought political extremism, opposed unwise military adventures and helped protect the environment, often against organized and violent opposition. The 2008 award went to James E. Prince III, and Stanley Dearman, current and former publishers of The Neshoba Democrat, a weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Miss. The Democrat was recognized for its leadership, especially on civil rights and reconciliation over the last four decades. For a more detailed description of the award, its history and those of the recipients, click here.

The Gish Award was not presented in 2006 and 2009, but it will be in 2010. The Institute seeks nominations that measure up, at least in major respects, to the records of previous winners.

It's neither easy nor cheap to produce healthy eggs

"In the world of agriculture, few things are more difficult than getting a healthy chicken to lay a healthy egg," writes P.J. Huffstutter for the Los Angeles Times. After a salmonella outbreak in California 15 years ago, the state tightened regulations that industry experts say wiped out salmonella in California-produced eggs. Nine other states adopted the same regulations, but it has made producing eggs in those states more costly than other states, particularly farms in the Midwest. The recent recall was for eggs from Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms, both located in Iowa. (Photo by Associated Press)

In California, hens are vaccinated three times, have their droppings checked five times and have their feed tested six times during their two-year life span, for about 8.5 cents per bird, reports Huffstutter. In the Midwest, energy, farmland and feed cost less and regulations are less onerous than California. One dozen Midwest-produced eggs cost 53.5 cents, about 16% less than in California, according to Iowa State University's Egg Industry Center.

But even with tighter regulations, farmers, food-safety experts and lawmakers warn that the FDA's new regulations may not do enough to prevent another massive recall. "In the confusion between who does what, who tests what and who's responsible for what, Salmonella enteritidis falls through the cracks," Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, told Huffstutter. (Read more)

Meatpacking plant faces lawsuit following 2008 Ramadan firings

In Sept. 2008 we reported Muslim workers at a JBS Swift meatpacking plant in Grand Island, Neb., had walked off the job mid-shift after complaints the company wouldn't accommodate their religious practices during Ramadan. In Sept. 2009 we reported JBS's attempt at accommodations for its Muslim workers at the facility in hopes of avoiding the previous year's controversy. But Tuesday, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed suit against JBS saying the company "failed to make reasonable religious accommodations, violating the workers’ civil rights, since at least December 2007," Timberly Ross of The Associated Press reports.

The lawsuit alleges "plant supervisors and non-Somali employees also harassed the Muslim workers, 'interrupted their prayers, refused to let them pray, threw meat at them, called them names,' among other things," Ross writes. The 2008 controversy escalated after management initially altered Muslim workers' schedules to accommodate prayer time, but changed their position following complaints from other workers. JBS then fired 86 Muslim employees who walked off the job for a second time. The company later hired back 12 of the employees.

The lawsuit filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Omaha seeks an order "requiring JBS Swift to provide prayer time and to refrain from retaliating against workers who ask to pray. It also seeks monetary compensation for the fired workers," Ross writes. A call to JBS headquarters in Greeley, Colo., from AP was not returned Tuesday. (Read more)

Cattle industry trade press takes sides following Fort Collins meeting

Monday we reported opinions at the Fort Collins, Colo., meeting about anti-trust issues in the agriculture industry garnered mixed opinions from the 2,000 participants. Subsequent commentary about the meeting illustrate that split. "Much of the officials’ opening remarks made clear that they recognize Rural America is in crisis and that young people who want to farm or ranch should be able to do so and make a fair profit, and that to correct the situation, there must be an open, public dialogue on these very complex, but important issues," cattle-industry group R-Calf USA writes in a news release.

R-Calf cites statistics from U.S. Department of Agriculture Sec. Tom Vilsack as justification for its position: "the Top 4 cattle packers control roughly 80 percent of steer and heifer procurement, and the Top 4 hog packers control roughly 65 percent of the market." R-CALF Region VI President Max Thonsberry said in the release, "R-CALF USA members are fortunate to finally have the opportunity to make our voices heard in an effort to make sure we preserve a competitive market capable of generating a fair, competitive profit from our efforts. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and we must seize it to correct these producer issues now. If we don’t, there likely won’t be a U.S. cattle industry comprised of independent cattle producers in another decade or so." (Read more)

Not everyone agreed with R-CALF's position. "Those words in the rules that hint that there are legitimate reasons for price differentiation have their meaning mostly stripped away by the fact that the rule's primary focus is to make it possible for anybody to sue any time any price differentiation takes place," Troy Marshall writes for BEEF Magazine of the proposed Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration rule. "The meeting in Fort Collins will inevitably be looked back on as a colossal waste of time and energy; it will do nothing to effect real opportunities like building beef demand. The meeting might be a sideshow, but the rules and their effects are anything but." (Read more)

Results of rural/urban analysis of stimulus spending reveal little

County-level breakdowns of stimulus spending per person show rural counties received slightly more money than their urban counterpart, but the difference was too small to draw meaningful conclusions. "Are there patterns here? Frankly, there are no common factors that explain why some counties have gotten more stimulus spending than others," Roberto Gallardo and Bill Bishop report for the Daily Yonder. "Poor counties aren’t getting more per person than rich ones. Counties with high unemployment receive slightly less money than those with low unemployment." Gallardo and Bishop used ProPublica's database of stimulus spending for the analysis.

"We tested measures of poverty, education and employment, and none of these were statistically relevant to how stimulus money was distributed," the Yonder writes. "Rural counties received $782 per person in stimulus money, in this revised calculations. Urban counties received $690 and exurban counties received $673 per person." After removing state capital counties, which were credited in the database with money given to state governments for distribution, the analysis showed rural counties that voted for President Obama in the 2008 election received $915 per person, compared to $734 per person in counties that voted for John McCain. (Read more) (Yonder chart of rural county stimulus money)

Farm exports up, helping industry weather the recession

While much of the U.S. economy continues to struggle despite signs of a slow recovery, federal estimates of farm trade and income show the agriculture sector is being boosted by a surge in exports. "The estimates confirm what economists have been saying for months: agriculture, which was generally not hit as hard by the recession as many other segments of the economy, remains a small bright spot going forward," William Neumann of The New York Times reports. Estimates predict U.S. farmers will ship $107.5 billion in agriculture products abroad by Sept. 30.

“We’re just having a robust rebound in the agricultural sector and promises of more growth,” Jason R. Henderson, vice president and economist at the Omaha branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, said in a recent interview. The $107.5 billion would be the second highest total ever in a fiscal year, behind the $115.3 billion worth of exports from 2008. Next year exports are expected to top $113 billion, Neumann writes. U.S. Department of Agriculture Sec. Tom Vilsack pointed to grains and meats as leader in the rebound and called the estimates "very encouraging."

"The export growth is propelled by higher prices for many products, including wheat, whose prices have skyrocketed as drought and punishing heat decimated crops in Russia, Ukraine and Kazakhstan," Neumann writes. "Exports to Asia have been particularly strong, and China is forecast to surpass Mexico next year to become the second-largest foreign buyer of American farm products. Canada is the No. 1 export market." Total net farm cash income was estimated at $85 billion, up 25 percent from 2009 and above the ten-year $72 billion average. “The farm economy in rural America has not suffered as severely as the industrial part of the economy and, because of the strong exports, the rural economy is recovering what it lost during the downturn,” Roy Bardole, chairman of the Soybean Export Council, told Neumann. (Read more)

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Earlybird deadline tomorrow for D.C. symposium on diseases humans get from other animals

Zoonoses, diseases transmitted from non-human animals to humans (such as the H1N1 virus), are becoming an increasingly significant concern in rural areas and other places with limited access to health care and disease prevention. Dr. Bonnie Buntain, a professor of public health at the University of Calgary, has emphasized the oft-neglected value of creating environments in which zoonoses have difficulty surviving. While it is important to deal with specific disease threats, Buntain argues we should place equal weight on prevention.

Buntain will be one of the featured speakers at Zoonoses: Understanding the Animal Agriculture and Human Health Connection, a Sept. 23-24 symposium in Washington, D.C., organized by Farm Foundation. The earlybird registration deadline for the event is tomorrow, Sept. 1. Early-bird registration is $300 and there is a special student rate of $175. Beginning Sept. 2, registration will be $350, with the student rate $200. For more information on the event, you can read our item from last week. --Charles Li, University of Kentucky College of Public Health, guest blogger

Animal cloning may be best used in production of medicine

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports the brightest future for animal cloning may be in the lucrative industry of medicine, not food production. Rick Barrett writes that cloning animals to create living drug factories could lower the cost of medicine used to save lives.

The possibilites include cows that produce pharmaceutical proteins and antibodies in their milk and blood; chickens that lay drug-producing eggs; and pigs that grow human-ready organs. Cloned animals could also speed up the drug-making process. Currently, a Massachusetts biotech firm is using genetically engineered dairy goats to make a human protein that prevents blood clots from forming. GTC Biotherapeutics extracts the protein from the goats' milk for a drug that helps prevent strokes, pulmonary embolisms and other life-threatening conditions. (Illustration from

But some do not share the optimism. George Kimbrell, an attorney with the Center for Food Safety, a nonprofit group focused on food issues, told Barrett that he feared cloned animals could get into the general population and cause problems. "What we have learned from the genetic engineering of crops is that nature finds a way" to reproduce, said Barrett. Genetic engineering also raises questions about animal cruelty. A government-owned company in New Zealand created four cloned calves intended to produce a hormone for treating infertility. Three of the calves developed huge ovaries and two of them died unexpectedly. (Read more)

Local governments look to shed public hospitals to save money

As local governments across the country look to trim their budgets, many are leaving the public hospital business. "More than a fifth of the nation's 5,000 hospitals are owned by governments and many are drowning in debt caused by rising health-care costs, a spike in uninsured patients, cuts in Medicare and Medicaid and payments on construction bonds sold in fatter times," Suzanne Sataline of The Wall Street Journal reports. "Because most public hospitals tend to be solo operations, they don't enjoy the economies of scale, or more generous insurance contracts, which bolster revenue at many larger nonprofit and for-profit systems." Many public hospitals, including several of the Journal's examples, are rural.

The bill for those small hospitals is expected to go up in the spring when the health care overhaul, which requires investment in technology, quality accounting and care coordination, goes into effect. "Moody's Investors Service said in April that many standalone hospitals won't have the resources to invest in information technology or manage bundled payments well," Sataline writes. "Many nonprofits have bad credit ratings and in a tight credit market cannot borrow money, either. Meantime, the federal government is expected to cut aid to hospitals."

"Sales and mergers of public hospitals are hard to quantify; the country had 16 fewer government-owned hospitals in 2008 than 2003, says the American Hospital Association, the result of sales, closings or transfers," Sataline writes. Chip Kahn, president and CEO of the private hospital trade group Federation of American Hospitals, told Sataline that private groups tend to run operations more efficiently, while adding capital. "Still, skeptics worry that in the hunt for healthy returns, the for-profits will kill expensive programs and close hospitals with poor revenue," Sataline writes. "Residents in many towns have fretted over the blow to their civic pride and the loss of their history." (Read more)

Report shows farmers need more support to grow and market fruits and vegetables

Federal agriculture policy discourages farmers from planting and marketing fruits and vegetables, says a new report from the nonprofit Farmers' Legal Action Group. "As a result of administering farm commodity programs for many years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has developed a rich body of knowledge about historical yields and prices for crops such as corn, soybeans, wheat, rice and cotton," FLAG writes in a news release. This information "enables the federal government and private businesses to offer loans and financing, as well as crop insurance and other risk-management tools, to farmers producing commodity crops," FLAG writes, noting that similar information is not available for fruits and vegetables.

"This lack of information poses a problem — especially for farmers who market their fruits and vegetables directly to retailers and consumers, rather than to wholesalers," FLAG writes. "Farmers who direct market tend to use a business model that relies on higher prices and lower volumes, but federal programs are based on farm business models that rely on lower prices and higher volumes." Jill Krueger, a FLAG senior staff attorney and the lead author of the report, explained, "Federal policies should make it easier for farmers who would like to produce and market fruits and vegetables. Now is the time to build consensus for policy change to improve existing programs as they are implemented and to prepare for the next Farm Bill."

The group recommends that the USDA "provide crop insurance for fruits and vegetables and disaster assistance coverage equivalent to that provided for farmers who grow non-perishable commodities, explore policy changes to enable farmers participating in the commodity programs to use program acres for the planting of fruits and vegetables and encourage farmers, public health leaders and consumer advocates to identify ways to increase demand for fruits and vegetables in order to keep pace with increases in supply." (Read more)

Mother Earth News sponsoring a fair in September

Mother Earth News is hosting a fair Sept. 25-26, at the Seven Springs Mountain Resort, near Pittsburgh, Pa. More than 200 sessions will be held on food, renewable energy, organic gardening, green building and remodeling, do-it-yourself projects, homesteading, small-scale livestock, green transportation, and related topics. Workshop leaders and topics include Chip Beam, building a wood-fueled car; Sherri Brooks Vinton, canning salsas, low-sugar jams and non-cucumber pickles; James Zitting, on simplified, sustainable beekeeping.

Cost is $15 for a one-day adult pass or $25 for both days. Children and teenagers under 17 are free. Order tickets or call (800) 234-3368. For lodging information and reservations at Seven Springs Mountain Resort, call (866) 437-1300.

Banks fear losing too much business while trying to earn 'green credentials'

Earlier this month we reported Wells Fargo had moved to restrict its financing of mountaintop removal. The bank's decision is just one in a growing trend of financial institutions "taking a stand on industry practices that they regard as risky to their reputations and bottom lines," Tom Zeller Jr. of The New York Times reports. "The policy shift by Wells Fargo follows others over the last two years, including moves by Credit Suisse, Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and Citibank, to increase scrutiny of lending to companies involved in mountaintop removal — or to end the lending altogether."

"In some cases, the changing policies represent an attempt to burnish green credentials in areas where the banks had little interest, and there is no indication that companies engaged in the objectionable practices cannot find financing elsewhere," Zeller writes. Still analysts say the debate over climate change, water quality and other environmental considerations are forcing banks to take a hard look at who they lend money to. "Environmental risk has been on the radar for lenders since the 1980s and early 1990s, when courts began forcing some measure of responsibility on banks for the polluting factories, superfund sites and other environmental problems that had, to one degree or another, been facilitated by their financing," Zeller writes.

Now financial institutions are left to wonder what pollution is too much. "It’s one thing if your potential borrower is dumping cyanide in a river," Karina Litvack, the head of governance and sustainable investment with London-based investment management firm F&C Investments, told Zeller. "But if they’re dumping carbon dioxide into the air, which is not exactly illegal — what do you do? Banks are in kind of a quandary, because they are competing for business, and if they get holier-than-thou and start to play policeman, they risk allowing other banks to take that business." (Read more)

Drop in price of natural gas threatens coal as cheap energy

Last week the price of natural gas dropped under $4 per million British thermal units, making it competitive with coal, said the U.S. Department of State. "Coal has always been cheap and dirty. And the dirty part was justifiable because it was so cheap," Shelley DuBois of CNN reports. "Now, gas prices are dropping, threatening coal's dominance in the North American energy market. Which means gas could take over before coal gets a chance to clean up its act." As natural gas becomes cheaper some are questioning government investment in clean coal technology.

"Coal is still cheaper at $2.25 per million Btu in 2010, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration," DuBois writes. "Even so, the coal market is starting to feel the burn from gas on its heels." In 2002 the federal government founded the Clean Coal Power Initiative to partner with industry and push clean coal technology. The initiative has so far completed 3 of the 18 total projects, 7 of which have been terminated. Gas is particularly threatening to coal, because it is also an local fuel that could provide energy relatively close to power pants, DuBois writes.

Gas isn't without its own environmental concerns, particularly water pollution from shale drilling plaguing the industry. "If regulators snap into place to oversee the United State's copious shale gas reserves, then coal will really be in trouble," DuBois writes. "Coal won't just be able to rely on being cheap anymore, it will have to be clean too. And yet, if natural gas stays cheap, it will still become increasingly difficult to make the economic or political case to keep throwing clean money after dirty coal." (Read more)

Study shows challenges facing rural transportation; webinar to explore steps government can take

Rising congestion in tourist destinations, roads ill-equipped to handle increasing energy and agricultural output, and emerging cities that are not connected to the Interstate system are a few of the problems affected rural transportation identified in a new report from the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. The report argues "more investment is needed in America's rural transportation system to keep agriculture, new energy products, and freight moving; improve access for the travel, recreation, and tourism industries; connect new and emerging cities; and to ensure reliable access to key defense installations," AASHTO says in a news release.

The group reports 66 cities with populations greater than 50,000, including one state capital, do not have immediate access to the Interstate system, and identifies the graying of America as a transportation problem. "In 2008, almost one out of eight people aged 65 and older lived in rural areas," AASHTO says. "This elderly population exceeds 9.6 million people and relies heavily on rural roads and public transit systems for their transportation."

To ensure connectivity of rural and urban America, the group argues any reauthorization of federal transportation legislation should "continue to fund rural portions of the Interstate Highway System and other federal-aid highways that connect America, double federal investment in rural transit systems to meet rising demand and expand the existing capacity of the Interstate system, upgrade rural routes to Interstate standards, and connect newly urbanized areas to the Interstate system." (Read more) "Association director John Horsley said that, in the short term, Congress needs to extend the funding at present levels until a new bill can be crafted. Horsley and other speakers said $600 billion would be enough to expand roads' capacity and make them safer," reports Chuck Bartels of The Associated Press reports.

Those interested in continuing the rural transportation reform conversation can register for the National Rural Assembly's upcoming rural transportation policy webinar. "With the federal transportation reauthorization bill pending, the nation has an opportunity to modernize, strengthen and integrate the transportation systems that connect rural people and places to each other and urban commercial centers, while protecting the landscapes, habitat and livelihoods of rural communities," the Rural Assembly says, noting "the webinar will cover upcoming federal transportation legislation and focus on rural transportation challenges and opportunities." (Register here)

Monday, August 30, 2010

Education Department hopes to make policy more flexible for rural schools

Speaking to a group of agriculture teachers at a rural Arkansas high school Thursday, the Obama administration's top rural schools official said the Education Department is looking to make federal education law more flexible for small, rural schools. John White, the Education Department's deputy secretary for rural outreach, said the department "is seeking a change in key wording in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act from requiring 'highly qualified' teachers to requiring 'highly effective' teachers," Mary Schulken of Education Week reports on the Rural Education blog.

"That way, when you've got a science teacher in a rural school who also teaches math and another subject as well, and does so effectively, and at a high level of mastery, he or she can continue doing those duties without the school being penalized," White told Schulken. White's comments came after speaking to three agriculture teachers at Hamburg High School in southeast Arkansas following a stop by Education Secretary Arne Duncan's Get on the Bus Tour. "The criteria to be considered 'highly qualified' are that teachers hold at least a bachelor's degree, be fully licensed by the state, and demonstrate content knowledge in each subject they teach," Schulken writes. All core academic teachers must meet those requirements, which may be a problem in rural schools where teachers teach several subjects. (Read more)

Colorado meeting illustrates divide over future of cattle industry

A Friday meeting in Fort Collins, Colo., about competition in the agriculture industry was met with equal support by both sides of the argument for and against further government regulation. "About half the audience supported sweeping change in how the government regulates the ailing cattle industry," Jason Blevins of The Denver Post reports. "The other half bemoaned the possibility of more regulation they fear will clog the industry with lawsuits and curtail cattlemen's ability to harvest top dollar for their herds." The meeting, hosted by Attorney General Eric Holder and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, was the fourth of five workshops about agricultural issues scheduled across the country.

"At the center of the arguments are new rules floated by the Obama administration that would make the powerful meatpacking companies — Tyson Foods, JBS, National Beef and Cargill — provide evidence supporting the prices paid for contracted cattle and give small ranchers more opportunities to contest that pricing," Blevins writes. Some ranchers say the rise in sales from the big four companies from 20 percent of all sales a decade ago to half in 2010 helps them by getting top dollar for their beef. Others say the consolidation leaves ranchers without the ability to fairly negotiate prices.

"While the two ideologies clashed, there was agreement on many issues, including the trouble facing the nation's cattle industry," Blevins writes. "The number of American cattle farms has dropped from 1.6 million in 1980 to 950,000 today. In 1980, cattlemen earned 62 cents for each dollar spent on their beef. Today, they get 42 cents." Some, including Robbie LeValley, president of the Colorado Cattlemen's Association, said the key to fixing the cattle industry was both sides working together. "We should not be circling the wagons and shooting inward," she said. (Read more)

Report says better monitoring could protect rural wireless carriers

Following concerns from rural wireless carriers, the Government Accountability Office issued a report last week recommending the Federal Communications Commission broaden the types of data it collects to monitor wireless competition. "The report authors expressed concern that industry consolidation has created a situation where four carriers — AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile — increasingly dominate the market," Joan Engebretson of Connected Planet reports. "As of 2009, those four carriers had 90.3% of all wireless subscribers, up from 85% in 2006."

"Industry consolidation has created some challenges for small and regional carriers to remain competitive," the GAO wrote. "These challenges include securing subscribers, making network investments and accessing handsets." The report also cited rural carriers' concerns about spectrum auction policies. "According to some small carriers and other stakeholders with whom we spoke, the size of spectrum blocks has had the effect of pricing small and regional carriers out of recent auctions, making it difficult for these carriers to enter into new markets or expand their services," the report said. The FCC took no position on the report.

To better monitor competition in the wireless industry, the report recommends FCC collect four additional types of data, including pricing, special access rates, capital expenditures and data about device and equipment costs. The Rural Cellular Association issued a release praising the new report. "RCA has urged the FCC to take immediate action on three policy issues that will help enhance and preserve competition in the wireless marketplace," Steven K. Berry, president and CEO of RCA, said in the statement. "These three actions include ending handset exclusivity, mandating data roaming and mandating interoperability across all paired bands of 700 MHz broadband spectrum," Engebretson writes. (Read more)

Cowboy teaches low-stress livestock handling in wake of abusive animal video

In the wake of a widely distributed video of cows being beaten and proded with pitchforks at an Ohio dairy farm, one man in the cattle industry is hoping to teach other ranchers low-stress methods of handling livestock. Curt Pate, a 49-year-old Montana cowboy, said his "goal is to teach ranchers traditional livestock handling methods used 100 years ago," Matt Volz reports for The Washington Post. "Back then, there were fewer corrals and fences, and a manager didn't spend as much time on a computer as with livestock." His work is sponsored by the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, which is eager to counter bad publicity from the video.

"It makes me ill," cowboy Pate told Volz of the Ohio video. "I really can't stand it. If you care about animals, you just can't stand those things." After an animal rights group released the video in May, "a grand jury decided there wasn't evidence to prosecute the farm's owner, but the video was circulated widely online, making national headlines and leading to threats against the farmer and his family," Volz writes. Now, The cattlemen's association has other cowboys like Pate visiting state fairs across the country to "teach low-stress methods and show the public that the Ohio video is not representative of how members treat their animals," Volz writes.
Among Pate's tips: make sure the cattle can see you, don't make loud noises, don't rush the animals, use cattle prods and other equipment sparingly and try to think like a cow. "We've got to step out of the human world and become a cow," he said. "If you think like a cow, pretty soon you start getting the cow to think more like a human." (Read more)

Gun-rights advocates resist EPA proposal to ban lead from hunting bullets

Gun-rights advocates are mobilizing against a proposal from environmental groups for the Environmental Protection Agency to ban lead in hunting bullets and fishing tackle. "The groups behind the push for new lead limits dismiss its portrayal as 'anti-hunting' by the National Rifle Association and the hunting-industry representatives at the National Shooting Sports Foundation," Elana Schor of Environment & Energy Daily reports. "Where gun-rights advocates see a back-door attempt to rein in hunting, the environmentalists petitioning EPA see an effort to protect species vulnerable to lead poisoning from the ingestion of spent ammunition."

"This is not about curtailing hunting," Michael Fry, director of conservation advocacy at the American Bird Conservancy, told Schor. "It's simply about having bullets and shotgun pellets that get into the environment be nontoxic." A petition filed earlier this month by the ABC and four other groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity and Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, "cites the availability of less toxic alternatives to lead in asking EPA to weigh in," Schor writes. The agency opened the groups request for public comment until Oct. 31.

In alerting its members to contact their Congressional representatives about the petition, NSSF maintained prohibiting lead hunting equipment would actually hurt wildlife conservation. The federal excise tax that manufacturers pay on the sale of the ammunition (11 percent) is a primary source of wildlife conservation funding, NSSF Senior Vice President Larry Keane wrote. "The bald eagle's recovery, considered to be a great conservation success story, was made possible and funded by hunters using traditional ammunition -- the very ammunition organizations like the CBD are now demonizing." The petition argues lead could be replaced by other materials without affecting availability of the products. (Read more, subscription required)

Questionable medical practice in rural Ky. advertises regionally, gets business from afar

UPDATE, Sept. 9: MCL reports that the clinic has closed.

The Marion County Line, a blog based in Lebanon, Ky., population 6,300, reports on a medical clinic that opened recently in town. "The Lebanon Trade Center is like any other shopping center in Kentucky -- there's a cigarette outlet, a chiropractor, a Subway shop, a hair salon, and a cash-only pain clinic, where anybody with $200 can get a prescription for Oxycontin," writes Jim Higdon, Lebanon resident and graduate of the Columbia University School of Journalism.

When Wanda Abell Meade read an advertisement for the clinic, in her local newspaper in Grayson, Ky., 162 miles east of her hometown of Lebanon, she became concerned. The ad said, "Specializing in complete pain management ... Walk-ins welcome. Now accepting new patients." Meade, who manages nursing homes, asked a nurse on her staff to make an inquiry and was told by the clinic to bring in an MRI less than two years old, $200 in cash, and a fax number for your pharmacist. No ads have appeared in The Lebanon Enterprise.

UPDATE, Sept. 8: Stephen Lega of the Enterprise reports that the clinc has also advertised in The Morehead News, also in northeastern Kentucky, "No one involved seems to want to talk about it," Lega writes of the clinic. "Official documents filed on behalf of the business also appear to contain inaccurate information." Lega's well-reported story is here.
The medical office is open sporadically, but when it is open, cars arrive from as far away as Leitchfield (81 miles west), Wolfe County (129 miles east), and Paducah (222 miles west), a Lebanon Trade Center businessperson told Higdon. The cars generally carry four or five people per vehicle -- all seeking prescriptions from Lebanon Medical Solutions, according to a local pharmacist, who will no longer fill prescriptions written there. The clinic is owned by two doctors; one has had a series of competency issues throughout his career and the other has practiced in several locations, Higdon reports.

Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, said "Grayson and Morehead are near one end of the so-called pill pipeline from Florida, which may be tightening because of new laws and enforcement in that state." The Rural Blog has reported on the topic; here is a recent item.