Friday, February 25, 2011

Groups say tax Netflix etc. for Universal Service Fund; rural telcos stress wireless data roaming

We've been following the Federal Communications Commission's push to use the Universal Service Fund to support rural broadband. Now a consumer group says high-bandwidth websites should have to pay into the fund. Mark Cooper, director of research for the Consumer Federation of America, says it "would be 'legitimate' to force Netflix and other high-bandwidth companies to contribute to the fund," Sara Jerome of The Hill reports. Copper explained, "The Internet is not an infant industry anymore. It can certainly bear the burden of making sure that wires and the communications mediums are there."

Rural telecommunications companies have long said big Internet users should have to contribute to the fund. "Netflix takes up about 10 percent of every telco's bandwidth," Shirley Bloomfield, chief executive of the National Telecommunications Cooperative Association, told Jerome. Taxing high-bandwidth websites may seem foreign to the current structure of the Internet, but it is a move that has precedent, Cooper says. "The exact same logic that was in used in the old days for whacking a toll could actually be used to impose legitimate costs on high-bandwidth users and say 'that's discretionary consumption,'" he told Jerome. "But we have difficulty bringing ourselves to do that." (Read more)

The Universal Service Fund wasn't the only area of rural broadband making news this week. Mandating wireless data roaming could be key to increasing mobile broadband, says the Rural Cellular Association. "Voice roaming is already mandatory, but data roaming (which includes wireless broadband) is not," Jerome reports. The FCC is considering a data roaming requirement. Rural telecommunications companies say without a data roaming mandate they have a difficult time entering into roaming agreements with bigger providers.

"The entire wireless industry with the exception of Verizon Wireless and AT&T agrees with the National Broadband Plan that an automatic data roaming obligation is in the public interest," said Steven Berry, president of RCA. Mandating data roaming could help save or create almost 117,000 jobs by increasing broadband availability in rural areas, says a report released by RCA Thursday. (Read more)

Drug dealers hope to avoid police by moving trade to rural areas in Massachusetts

Small towns in Massachusetts have become targets of drug traffickers. In Ashby, population around 3,000, "Dealers have been using quiet side roads and nearby state parks to pass cocaine and heroin to other dealers or to sell drugs to addicts, many of whom drive there from New Hampshire towns just over the border," Maria Cramer of The Boston Globe reports. (Click on Mapquest image for larger version)

The problem isn't isolated to Ashby; the drug trade is ratcheting up in other small towns around the state "where the police departments are too small to keep up with the numerous deals," Cramer writes. Ashby Detective John Dillon said of the dealers, "They’re organized and they do their homework. If I was going to sell drugs, I wouldn’t do it in front of 100 people. It’s a very isolated area. You could go to certain streets and not see a house for a quarter mile." Ashburnham Detective Robert Siano, who serves on the North Worcester County Drug Task Force, a regional unit of 11 cities and towns in the area, notes the drug dealers "meet in various locations, dead-end roads, state parks, state park parking lots. What they do is, the customer contacts the dealer and the dealer sends a runner or goes himself to meet at certain locations and exchange drugs for money."

In larger cities drug dealers are subject to wider scrutiny, and once popular drug-deal locations like shopping-mall parking lots are now likely to be covered by cameras and security personnel. GPS devices have also made it easier to plan meetings in out-of-the-way locations, Gardner Lt. John Bernard told Cramer. The remote drug deals are also likely to be exchanges between people who know each other well. "If you call me up for . . . cocaine, I’m not going to deal with you out in the woods if I don’t know you," Bernard told Cramer. "There is a relationship there." (Read more)

Women lacking on farm-group boards despite PR campaigns, environmental group notes

Some recent agriculture public-relations campaigns have been centered on female farmers, but analysis from the Environmental Working Group suggests those campaigns offer a distorted view of women's role in agriculture, at least in its leadership. Women account for just 1.3 percent of the executive boards of the five largest industry groups representing corn, soybean, wheat, cotton and rice growers, EWG reports. Two of the groups, the National Cotton Council and the U.S. Rice Producers Association, have no women on their boards. The National Corn Growers Association, the American Soybean Association and the National Association of Wheat Growers each have one woman.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports women now operate 14 percent of U.S. farms, but the type of farming those women practice is of particular interest, EWG writes. A study from the Organic Farming Research Foundation reveals 22 percent of organic farmers are women, and female farmers are "far more likely to allocate land to vegetables and herbs" than male farmers. On average female farmers devote 28 percent of acreage to field crops, compared to 44 percent of acreage for males. The average female-operated farm is 40 acres, while the average male-operated farm is 149 acres. (Read more)

CSX to clean flaking paint from Ky. bridge

CSX Transportation will voluntarily remove flaking lead paint from a Bowling Green, Ky., railroad bridge that has been the subject of local fears about water and soil contamination. In a letter to the Superfund branch of the Kentucky Department of Environmental Protection, CSX's manager of environmental remediation, Paul J. Kurzanski noted that the state had agreed that the paint posed negligible impact on water life and that steps to remove contaminated soil were sufficient, but the company had decided to remove the paint anyway. Kurzanski said the company planned to begin work on removing the remaining paint on the bridge before the end of the year.

We previously reported on the bridge controversy, here and here, noting other aging railroad bridges across the country could face similar paint flaking issues. The push for CSX to clean up the soil below the bridge in Bowling Green was led by local philanthropist David Garvin. In December we reported the Superfund branch said it would tell CSX to address the flaking paint but would place no restrictions on how the company met that goal.

McClatchy reporter honored for covering North Carolina issues in Washington

Barbara Barrett, the Washington correspondent for the McClatchy Co. newspapers in North Caolina, The Charlotte Observer and the News and Observer of Raleigh, has been named Washington's top regional reporter by the Washington Press Club Foundation.

Barrett, who began working for the News and Observer in 1998, was honored for a series of stories about North Carolina issues, including one about Sen. Richard Burr bringing Senate committee work to a standstill last year during the health-care debate and another about how a Warren County textile mill had benefited from tariff exemptions, the News and Observer reports.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Sioux Falls paper's project on Native Americans wins Taylor Family Award for newspaper fairness

The Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, S.D., circulation 36,000, is the winner of the 2010 Taylor Family Award for Fairness in Newspapers, beating out much bigger finalists, The Washington Post and The Sacramento Bee. UPDATE, March 28: The series placed second among papers with circulations up to 75,000 in the National Headliner Awards.

The Gannett Co. paper's entry was “Growing Up Indian,” an eight-part series that examined "the daunting challenges faced by children on South Dakota’s Native American reservations," the award announcement said. "The project was designed to raise public consciousness about what it is like to be a child on a reservation and show how that experience is both different and significantly more difficult than for many other children living in America today." (Photo of Neleigh Driving Hawk, 3, on the Lower Brule Reservation)
Reporter Steve Young and photographer and multimedia producer Devin Wagner did the project under direction of Managing Editor Patrick Lalley, project designer and Metro Editor Jim Helland and Multimedia Manager Jim Cheesman. They will receive the award and its $10,000 prize March 10 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. The award was established through gifts from the Taylor family, which published The Boston Globe from 1872 to 1999, to encourage fairness in news coverage by America’s daily newspapers. (Read more)

Ethanol industry discusses reforming tax credit

Yesterday we reported the ethanol industry had lost one of its strongest congressional supporters in the budget debate, but even before that blow, industry leaders were discussing a new path forward in Washington for the industry. At the National Ethanol Conference in Phoenix, Renewable Fuels Association President Bob Dinneen said ethanol should be part of a broad conversation about motor-fuel tax policy, but few other speakers at the event expected Congress to address comprehensive energy legislation this year, the weekly Washington newsletter Agri-Pulse reports.

The message from the debate about extending ethanol's per-gallon  tax credit "was unambiguous," Dinneen said during his annual "State of the Industry" address. "Our industry needs to work with Congress and the administration to reform the tax incentive moving forward." Dinneen went on to advocate for determining how to isolate consumers from fluctuations in the global oil market, encouraging investments in infrastructure and flex-fuel vehicles and discussing how the industry can commercialized new technologies using new feedstocks while continuing the evolution of the industry in a sustainable way.

Suggestions for reform included: incorporating a refundable producer tax incentive, linking the incentive only to gallons above the Renewable Fuels Standard, limiting the incentive to only mid-level ethanol blends and E85, phasing out the incentive while phasing in incentives for flex fuel vehicles and blender pumps, and creating a carbon-based performance credit and making the incentive tied to the price of oil and corn processors' profit margins. "Frankly, each of these has both advantages and disadvantages," Dinneen said. "But we must allow dispassionate debate, based on fact and market analysis, and guided by political reality." Agri-Pulse is a subscription-only newsletter but offers a free four-issue trial subscription.

More than 4,400 dams in U.S. rated unsafe

More than 4,400 of the nation's 85,000 dams are susceptible to failure, says the Association of State Dam Safety Officials. However, "repairing all those dams would cost billions of dollars, and it is far from clear who would provide all the money in a recessionary era," Henry Fountain of The New York Times reports. In Lake Isabella, Calif., the Army Corps of Engineers learned several years ago the man-made dam has a trio of serious issues: "It was in danger of eroding internally, water could flow over its top in the most extreme flood season, and a fault underneath it was not inactive after all but could produce a strong earthquake," Fountain writes. (MapQuest image shows towns immediately downstream from dam; click on image for larger version)
A catastrophic collapse would result in as much as 180 billion gallons of water, along with mud, boulders, trees and other debris, rushing over the 4,000 residents of Lake Isabella down the Kern River Canyon and into Bakersfield, which has about 34,000 people and is 40 miles southwest of Lake Isabella. "The potential is for a 21st-century version of the Johnstown Flood, a calamitous dam failure that killed more than 2,200 people in western Pennsylvania in 1889," Fountain writes. "But corps and local government officials say that the odds of such a disaster are extremely small, and that they have taken interim steps to reduce the risk, like preparing evacuation plans and limiting how much water can be stored behind the dam to less than two-thirds of the maximum."

"It’s not just the loss of life, potentially," said David C. Serafini, lead technical expert for the corps on the project. "It’s the economic damages and the environmental damage, too." At best repairs on the dam would not begin until 2014 and would cost more than $500 million. In the wake of the New Orleans levees failures during Hurricane Katrina, Congress has appropriated money for other federal dam repair projects, but "about two-thirds of all dams are private, and financially struggling state and local governments own most of the remainder," Fountain writes. He notes, "It is difficult to predict how needed repairs to these dams will be financed; legislation to provide federal money to help has languished in Congress." (Read more)

Lawsuits over environmental and cultural impacts threaten to derail thermal solar power industry

The future of the thermal solar power industry is in flux after a string of lawsuits seeking to block construction of five of the projects in the Southern California desert. The litigation "underscores the growing risks of building large-scale renewable energy plants in environmentally delicate areas," Todd Woody reports for The New York Times. In January Solar Millennium canceled its license application for a 250-megawatt solar station, citing regulators’ concerns over the project’s impact on the Mohave ground squirrel. (BrightSource rendering of proposed Ivanpah plant)

At peak output the five projects, which are backed by top state officials and the Obama administration, would power more than two million homes. "But conservation, labor and American Indian groups are challenging the projects on environmental grounds," Woody writes. "The lawsuits, coupled with a broad plunge in prices for energy from competing power sources, threaten the ability of developers to secure expiring federal loan guarantees and private financing to establish the projects." Only one developer has obtained a loan guarantee and begun construction.

Solar thermal plants use huge arrays of mirrors to heat liquids to create steam that drives electricity-generating turbines. After President George W. Bush opened public lands for renewable energy development, developers began staking claims on Mojave Desert land for solar energy production, but many of the planned projects would be built in areas that are also home to fragile landscapes and species. "There’s no good reason to go into these pristine wilderness areas and build huge solar farms, and less reason for the taxpayers to be subsidizing it," Cory J. Briggs, a lawyer representing an American Indian group that has sued the Interior Department and the Bureau of Land Management, told Woody. "The impacts to Native American culture and the environment are extraordinary." (Read more)

Nevada photojournalist sues BLM for access to wild horse roundups

A Nevada photojournalist says the federal government is implementing an unlawful prior restraint against her reporting by placing  restrictions on her access to wild-horse roundups and warehouse facilities. In a petition to the Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, Laura Leigh, a photojournalist and correspondent for Horseback Magazine, alleges "in response to disliking her published subject and seeking to avoid further negative press,'' the Bureau of Land Management cut-off Leigh’s "close-up access to observe crucial moments of wild horse captures," and "singled out Ms. Leigh in punishment for her having publicly disseminated the videos and photos" of BLM activities," the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press reports. To read Leigh's "Art and Horses" blog, go here.

A Nevada federal judge originally approved Leigh's petition for a temporary restraining order against the BLM on July 16, 2010. The court "affirmed Leigh's right to view wild-horse roundups on public lands, but allowed the bureau to continue a policy of gathering horses by helicopter," the committee reports. Leigh filed another suit July 23, 2010, challenging BLM's "helicopter policy and decision to gather on private lands, thereby precluding her access to gather information about the roundups," but the court denied that motion four days later. "In her petition to the Ninth Circuit, Leigh argued that the district court’s inaction is an effective denial of the requested relief; that such restrictions on the press are not permissible; and that a court should not apply mootness to forego review when conduct repeats, but ceases, before the court's review." (Read more)

UPDATE, June 3: The Reporters Committee has filed an amicus brief on Leigh's behalf.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Survey of teachers finds hunger among students is greatest in rural areas, and is growing

Almost three-quarters of rural teachers say they have students who come to school hungry, says a report from a nonprofit organization working to end childhood hunger. "Hunger in Our Schools: Share Our Strength's Teachers Report," commissioned by a nonprofit affiliated withn the American Federation of Teachers, reveals that 73 percent of rural teachers report there are students in their classes that come to school hungry, compared to 66 percent of urban teachers and 57 percent of suburban ones. Around 46 percent of rural teachers and 41 percent of urban teachers said hunger is a problem for their students; 35 percent of suburban teachers said so.

The reliance on school meals for nutrition is particularly strong in urban and rural areas; 72 percent of urban teachers and 62 percent of rural teachers say that most or many of their students rely on school meals. Rural teachers placed the highest priority on their local schools addressing child hunger, with 86 percent saying it should be a priority. The percentage of rural teachers who felt there were children coming to school hungry because they didn't get enough food at home was up to 73 percent, from 64 percent in 2009.

"Share Our Strength, a nonprofit organization working to end childhood hunger in America by 2015 through its No Kid Hungry Campaign, will be supporting innovative breakfast initiatives in 2011 by awarding $525,000 in grants," the organization writes in a news release. "These grants will focus on promoting alternative breakfast models—such as breakfast in the classroom, 'grab-n-go' breakfast and secondchance breakfast (breakfast after first period)." (Read more)

Amazing: As philanthropic giving in the U.S. expanded, it shrank in rural America!

Comprehensive information on rural philanthropy is scant, but data from the The Foundation Center suggest that rural philanthropy is getting weaker, not stronger. The center's online database shows that domestic "rural development . . . did not fare well in foundation grant portfolios in 2004-08," Rick Cohen writes for the Daily Yonder. "During that span annual foundation grants for rural development declined from $92.7 million in 2004 to $89.5 million in 2008." While rural development grants was declining by 3.45 percent, the total annual foundation grantmaking increased 43.4 percent! (Yonder chart of rural development grants)

As possible reasons for the decline, Cohen points to the lack of a clear advocate for rural philanthropy, the "metronation" focus of philanthropy that carries a bias against rural areas. While the 3.45 percent deficit might disappear if grantmakers fully report their 2008 grants, "Rural development grants definitely will not show increases anywhere close to the level of growth seen in total foundation grantmaking," Cohen writes. The statistics grow even more bleak for rural communities when one considers that "the grants marked 'rural development' are not likely to have been spent entirely on rural projects," Cohen reports.

In 2006 Democratic Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, incoming chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, urged institutional philanthropy to double its commitment to rural communities in a five-year period, and foundations held a meeting about it, but Baucus doesn't seem to have followed up and the foundations have failed to follow through on promises to meet that goal with actual funding, Cohen reports.

"Rather than turning to the foundations that control well above a half trillion in tax-exempt endowments to put a dollop more toward rural, the Council on Foundations chose to encourage rural areas to look to their local wealth to develop new sources of philanthropy, typically community foundations," Cohen writes. "This strategy is slow, slow, slow, and poses other problems.  One is that not all rural areas are well enough endowed with wealth to be tapped for philanthropy; developing new rural philanthropic resources is demonstrably easier and more lucrative in richer rural areas than in poorer ones. The other is that the “transfer of wealth” between generations, which some theorists predicted would bring about a major infusion into philanthropy, has not come to pass, especially since so much transferable wealth simply evaporated during the recession."
Cohen concludes, "There’s always lip service, heartfelt statements about how much foundations care about rural communities, but something is missing year after year—dollars. . . . There are heroes and heroines in U.S. philanthropy for whom rural America is undoubtedly grateful," but concludes that the "challenge remains as immense as ever." (Read more)

House votes on budget cuts can be a treasure trove of questions and news stories

Last week's votes on the budget-cutting legislation in the U.S. House provide many opportunities for questions to representatives.  We've already reported the votes against the Environmental Protection Agency's new 15 percent ethanol standard and what thay may mean for the future of biofuels; here are some other votes on agricultural issues, as reported by the weekly Washington newsletter Agri-Pulse:

Subsidies: "Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., offered Amendment 323 to bar funds to pay salaries of USDA personnel providing commodity program benefits 'to a person or legal entity in excess of $250,000.' In the 185-241 vote to reject the amendment, 51 Republicans joined 134 Democrats in favor, while 54 Democrats joined 187 Republicans in opposing this limit on farm program payments. Rep. Ron Kind's amendment to defund the Obama administration's agreement to pay $150 million per year to the Brazil Cotton Institute was rejected in a 183 to 246 vote." The payments are being made because the World Trade Organization has found the cotton program to be in violation of trade agreeements. Kind is a Democrat from Wisconsin.

Environment: The House approved several amendments to limit or cut funding for EPA, including No. 467 by Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., to block funding for development and enforcement of “total maximum daily loads or watershed implementation plans for the Chesapeake Bay watershed,” which could have major impacts on agriculture and development in the huge drainiage basin. It passed 230-195, largely along party lines, with only eight Democrats and 15 Republicans voting with the opposite party. Other EPA-related votes included 255-168 for an amendment by Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., to block funds for the agency's proposed dust standard, opposed by farm groups.

Meatpacking: Cuts at the Department of Agriculture would be "among the highest for any department," $5.21 billion or 22.4 percent, Agri-Pulse reports: "The spending cuts imposed on USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service would force some or all of the 6,300 federally inspected meat and poultry processing plants to close at least temporarily," said the top Democrat on the agriculture appropriatons subcommittee, Rep. Sam Farr of California. FSIS inspectors are required to be on hand whenever plants are operating, and "the bill would hold funding for FSIS to the 2008 level, he says, the administration estimates that it would have to furlough all FSIS employees, including all inspectors, for 30 to 47 working days – or about 20 to 30% of the working days left in the fiscal year assuming enactment March 4." That's when the current spending legislation expires and Congress will have to pass more, which will require the House and Senate to compromise, or shut down most of the government. Agri-Pulse is a subscription-only newsletter but offers a free four-issue trial subscription.

Coal: The newly Republican House also weighed in for the coal industry. On his Coal Tattoo blog, Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette has a rundown of the votes, including EPA rules on water quality and valley fills, stream protections in surface mining and "defunding EPA’s effort to regulate toxic coal ash," a topic explored in detail by Kristen Lombardi for the Daily Yonder.

Iowa Sen. Grassley, longtime ethanol ally, says he would back anti-ethanol measures House passed

The ethanol industry lost support from one of its strongest allies in Congress Tuesday when Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley said he would support a deficit-cutting bill even if it included the anti-ethanol provisions passed by the House. "As significant as it is to me, because I'm a great ethanol fan, if in fact those things were in the bill to cut the deficit ... I'd have to bite the bullet," Grassley told Philip Brasher of the Des Moines Register. Earlier this week we reported the House had included provisions in its budget-cut bill that would block the Environmental Protection Agency from approving the E15 blend of ethanol in fuel and block subsidies for service station pumps that can dispense varying amounts of gasoline and ethanol.

The House bill cannot pass the Democratic-controlled Senate, but some compromises will need to be made to avoid a government shutdown. "Iowa's two House Republicans voted for the overall bill though they opposed the ethanol provisions," Brasher writes. Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin was quick to criticize the ethanol measures: "Blocking funding for expanding ethanol use to E15 blends not only does not save any significant funding, it takes us backwards on energy security by making us more dependent on foreign imports."

Grassley said that of the two anti-ethanol provisions included in the House bill, "delaying EPA's work on the issue was a more immediate concern than the subsidies for ethanol pumps," Brasher writes. Tom Buis, CEO of Growth Energy, an ethanol lobby, blamed the inclusion of the anti-ethanol provisions in the House bill on a campaign by ethanol opponents to blame biofuels for higher food prices. "That type of stuff sticks and once it sticks, it's hard to get it out of people's minds," Buis told Brasher. Studies have shown ethanol has some impact on food prices, but relatively little. (Read more)

National Rural Assembly, set for June 28-30, seeks topics for work sessions

The National Rural Assembly Steering Committee has issued a call for work session topics for its 2011 gathering in St. Paul, Minn., June 28-30. "We need your help organizing and leading sessions that will not only give us a well-rounded agenda but will also provide an opportunity for individuals and organizations to come together around areas of common interest and develop policy recommendations that will inform a national rural policy platform," the assembly says in an email.

The assembly asks that proposals center on one of the four areas of its Rural Compact: quality in education, stewardship of natural resources, health of our people and investment in our communities. Work sessions should build on existing policy opportunities and encourage cross-sector engagement. The deadline for submissions is March 18, and proposals should be sent to with the subject line "RA Work Session Proposal." You can read more information about the proposal format here.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Landmark, major owner of weekly newspapers, begins putting pay meters on most of its websites

Landmark Community Newspapers, which publishes 56 paid-circulation papers, most of them weeklies and many in rural areas, has begun moving most of the weeklies' online content behind pay walls, using a metered approach that gives only 10 minutes of free viewing time to non-subscribers. (States not in gray have Landmark papers)

"Good journalism is expensive," Landmark Executive Editor Benjy Hamm told The Rural Blog. "We believe . . . if you are a frequent reader of our publications in print or online, that should be part of a paid subscription." He said that at least for now, there won't be pay walls at some papers, particularly dailies -- which have more online revenue, their own circulation systems and other factors that make a switch more complicated.

The changeover began at the Brunswick Beacon in coastal North Carolina last fall, then proceeded to other states, mainly in regional groups. The change at Landmark's three papers in the Knoxville TV market was the subject of a story yesterday on WBIR-TV, which noted that "Other East Tennessee newspapers have already made the change to paid online content," specifically those owned by Greeneville-based Jones Media.

Hamm estimated that more than 40 Landmark papers will adopt the metered approach, and will probably experiment with different formulas. "We expect we'll try different things to see what model works best," he said. That could vary from market to market. He said occasional users, such as those who want to look up an obituary, should not have to pay. The 10 minutes on the company's meter is just about long enough to look up an obituary and type an online tribute or condolence.

The Roane County News in Kingston, Tenn., announced its switch in a story that quoted Publisher Johnny Teglas: “A major portion of revenue for our news and information efforts each month is derived from subscription revenue. We feel as we improve services to our readers that they should help pay for them, whether it's in print or online.” (Read more)

Atlas of Rural and Small-Town America has demographic, economic and agricultural data

Population change, 2000-2009 (click on map for larger image)
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has unveiled a new rural mapping tool aimed at making county-level demographic, economic and agricultural data more easily available. The tool, labeled the Atlas of Rural and Small-Town America, encompasses more than 60 statistical indicators, which USDA hopes rural communities can use to spur economic development, Lynda Waddington of the Iowa Independent reports. "The new atlas will … help policy makers pinpoint the needs of particular regions, recognize their diversity and build on their assets," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who noted that the project is a part of a "broad USDA initiative to make relevant data easily accessible" to the public, researchers, journalists, public officials and other professionals.

The data is grouped into four categories: people, jobs, agriculture and county typologies. The "people" category encompasses county demographic profiles such as age, race/ethnicity, education, family composition, population change, migration and immigration. The "jobs" category displays "conditions and trends affecting the labor force, such as employment change, unemployment, industry and occupational structure," Waddington writes. Indicators of farm structure and demographic data about farm size, income, sales and tenure are available in the "agriculture" category. "County typologies" data include USDA Economic Research Service "county classifications based on the rural-urban continuum, economic structure and other key locational features, such as landscape amenities, occupation types, persistent poverty or population loss statistics," Waddington writes. (Read more)

Farm payments per operator in parts of Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee

Eastern Shore lawmakers say Md. septic-tank rules aimed at rural counties; newspaper begs to differ

Some lawmakers on Maryland's Eastern Shore say Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley is launching a war on the rural counties in the state by calling for curbs on building septic tanks for new homes, but a report from The Baltimore Sun suggests that the legislation may have more effect in suburban areas. Predictably, since they have the most people, the counties with the highest number of septic tanks are urban, the Sun's Tim Wheeler reports. However, the counties with the highest percentage of homes on septic tanks are mostly rural. The Sun posted a map of county-level septic tank data here.

The legislation is aimed at limiting or changing the use of septic systems in future growth, which means the focus should be on where they are likely to be used in new development, Wheeler writes, giving estimates for several counties. He concludes that the data are far from conclusive that rural areas would be most affected, and suggests Eastern Shore lawmakers, who set up a website about the alleged war on rural Maryland, should instead call it "The War on Suburban and some of Rural Maryland." (Read more)

Could bugs, not beef, be solution to world hunger?

The solution for supplying the growing world population with needed protein may come from something a lot smaller and a crunchier than traditional livestock: insects. "As the global population booms and demand strains the world's supply of meat, there's a growing need for alternate animal proteins," Marcel Dicke and Arnold Van Huis, professors of entomology at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, write for The Wall Street Journal. "Insects are high in protein, B vitamins and minerals like iron and zinc, and they're low in fat. Insects are easier to raise than livestock, and they produce less waste." Insects are already eaten in most of the developing world with their taste most often described as "nutty." (Graphic by John S. Dykes)

When Dicke and Van Huis began promoting insects for human consumption in the Netherlands in the 1990s people laughed, but the scientists report an uptick in interest in their crusade. "In 2006 we created a 'Wageningen, City of Insects' science festival to promote the idea of eating bugs; it attracted more than 20,000 visitors," they write. Three Dutch companies that normally produce feed for zoo animals have begun production lines to raise locusts and mealworms for human consumption. Dicke and Van Huis note "now those insects are sold, freeze-dried, in two dozen retail food outlets that cater to restaurants" and "a few restaurants in the Netherlands have already placed insects on the menu."

Despite their reputation for being dirty and carrying diseases, less than 0.5 percent of insects are harmful to humans. The scientists caution that eating bugs straight out of your back yard is not recommended, but note "When raised under hygienic conditions ... many insects are perfectly safe to eat." Unlike some livestock that can transmit disease to humans, insects and humans are so dissimilar that the risk of disease transmission is much lower. The scientists note insects, since they are cold-blooded, require less feed than livestock and they produce less waste. "The proportion of livestock that is not edible after processing is 30 percent for pork, 35 percent for chicken, 45 percent for beef and 65 percent for lamb," Dicke and Van Huis write. "By contrast, only 20 percent of a cricket is inedible." (Read more)

Rural communities may stand to lose most from proposed elimination of public broadcasting fund

House Republicans' move to eliminate funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting may be aimed at quieting what they see as liberal megaphones, but if the cut survives negotiations with the Senate, it could have the biggest impact on rural communities, which tend to be conservative.

"Small television and radio stations serving rural, politically red areas in California and other states would likely feel the biggest impact of such a move because 70 percent of public broadcasting funds are channeled to local stations," Joe Garofoli of the San Francisco Chronicle reports. Larger stations that get a smaller percentage of their budget from CPB might be able to withstand its abolition, but smaller stations depend more heavily on it.

In Redding, Calif., 45 percent of KIXE-TV's budget comes from CPB, while just 7.8 percent of KQED's budget in San Francisco relies on the funding. Despite KIXE-TV's reliance on CPB, Republican Rep. Wall Herger, whose district includes Redding, voted to eliminate it. "If the cut isn't restored by the Democratic-controlled Senate, KIXE officials say the station could be devastated," Garofoli writes. Redding lacks big corporate donors or major foundations that could help make up for the loss of funding, and with the local unemployment rate at 16 percent few people are likely able to make donations to support the station.

"The victim from this cut will be all of the red-state rural stations," Phil Smith, general manager of KIXE, told Garofoli. "I told Congressman Herger, 'You're going to be wiping out all of your friends with this.'" Ron Schoenherr, the executive director of KEET-TV in Eureka, which receives 46 percent of its budget for CPB funding, told Garofoli the proposed cut "would close our doors." KEET-TV is the only public broadcaster covering the northernmost 200 miles of  California's coast. Ginny Berson, a vice president of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters in Oakland, which represents 200 stations, notes that "for many public broadcasters on American Indian reservations, or broadcasting in Spanish to farmworkers, their federal subsidy is often at least half of their budget," Garofoli writes. (Read more)

Monday, February 21, 2011

Locals to states: If you cut our funding, give us looser rules on taxes and public notices

Towns and cities across the country are preparing for major cuts in funding from state governments, but many say than means they should have more say in how to levy taxes and fewer state mandates on their spending, including public notices that provide significant income for rural newspapers.

"Nearly a third of local funding, on average, filters down from state budgets," Conor Dougherty of The Wall Street Journal reports. "But that cash often comes with strings attached—such as limits on how local governments raise taxes as well as mandates on which services local governments have to provide—that can limit how local governments respond to lower revenue." Cities in South Carolina and Michigan are lobbying for permission to raise taxes, while Eugene, Ore., is considering putting higher income taxes on the ballot to offset cuts in K-12 education spending.

"Folks are saying to us if the state can't do anything now, let's do something until they can," Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy told Dougherty. While governors and legislatures may be the ones deciding how to balance state budgets, the task of actually deciding what programs are actually cut often falls to local governments, Dougherty writes. "The next decade will be the decade of local and regional government," Robert O'Neill, executive director of the International City/County Management Association, a professional organization for local government managers, told Daugherty.

Fiscal 2012, which begins July 1 for most states, is expected to be among the worst for budget cuts. Revenues have still not returned to their 2008 peaks and stimulus funding will no longer be available. Local governments have been a big target for achieving those cuts "because local transfers are a hefty part of most states' budgets—a combined $467 billion, including some federal money that states pass along to the local level—and are often easier to cut because, unlike federal programs, local funding is usually dictated by the state," Dougherty writes. Those anticipated cuts have led the Michigan Municipal League to lobby the state to allow local governments more control over taxes. Dan Gilmartin, executive director of the group, explains "What we're saying is: 'Hey state, if you can't handle your own fiscal house, you've got to give us the ability to raise our own revenues." (Read more)

Michigan's charter townships also are again asking the legislature to eliminate a longstanding requirement to buy space in local newspapers to advertise such things as hearings, ordinances and financial statements, a request that has been echoed in other states and appears likely to become more prevalent. The Michigan bill would let publication on a website or local-government cable channel meet the requirements of state public-notice laws. The Michigan Press Association has sounded an alert (click on image for larger version) asking its members to make sure they are sending copies of their papers to MPA's clipping service so public notices can be posted on a website. Most state newspaper groups sponsor such sites. The Iowa Newspaper Association announced last month that 100 percent of the public notices in that state go online "at no cost to any government entity," cited a poll which found 71 percent of Iowans want the notices to be in newspapers, and said governments average spending 1/20th of 1 percent of their budgets to publish such notices.

Weather may be good news for maple syrup season in New England, until the sap goes 'buddy'

While much of the Northeast may still not have recovered from the deluge of snow it received this winter, spring is just around the corner and with it comes maple syrup season. A recent run of warm days has tempted many syrup producers in Maine to begin tapping trees, but "other producers, particularly those in northern Maine, are cautiously watching an approaching cold stretch and will wait until after it passes to collect the sap," Sharon Kiley Mack of the Bangor Daily News reports. Last year was not kind to maple syrup producers, and early reports say this year may bring more of the same. (BDN photo by John Clark Russ: Lee Kinney drills a tree)

"Last year, maple producers suffered through a mixed season — early in the southern part of the state and later up north," Mack writes. Producers usually begin tapping trees around March 20, but weather cause that date to move almost a month early last season. Eric Ellis of Maine Maple Products in Madison, Maine, said the weather this year likely signals a similar early season. "We need temperatures of 20 or so in the night, followed by 40 to 45 in the day, without a strong wind, for a good sap flow," Kathy Hopkins, maple syrup specialist with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, told Mack, noting "when daytime temperatures are consistently in the 60s, the buds begin to form and the sap tastes 'buddy.'" (Read more)

For the first time in two decades Richard Focht, an upstate New York maple syrup producer, had to buy snowshoes so he could walk through the forest and set up his taps, Sarah Bradshaw of the Poughkeepsie Journal reports. Last year was one of the worst seasons in recent history for upstate New York producers because spring came too fast, Focht said. "It was cold and it got warm all of the sudden," Focht, said. "It was real bad last year. The entire season was one week." (Read more)

In Rhode Island producers are hopeful the cold winter will mean big returns for them this year, Thomas J. Morgan of The Providence Journal reports. "The weather has had a very positive effect," said Peter Susi, marketing supervisor of the state Department of Environmental Management’s Division of Agriculture. "The maple flow likes cold nights and sunny days." Gibby Fountain, who owns Spring Hill Sugarhouse in Richmond, notes the snow cover for much of the winter prevented a frost that would have frozen the tree roots. "Any day we get temperatures above freezing, the sap runs vigorously," she said. (Read more)

Maine organic milk company shows difficulties small producers have gaining a foothold

Organic milk sales are expected to grow as much as 10 percent this year, but many small producers are having trouble. In Edmunds, Maine, a small, farmer-run outfit called Maine’s Own Organic Milk has struggled to stay afloat since its milk first reached stores in January 2010, Katie Zezima of The New York Times reports. Since 2010 MOO Milk has relied on "a mix of investor money, grants, charitable donations and the kindness of neighbors buying half-gallons in solidarity," to keep its head above water, Zezima writes. "Our boat is made of duct tape and we’ve almost sunk a few times, but we’re paddling along," said owner Aaron Bell.

"There are folks who support what we do, but there’s not enough of them up here," David Bright, a former newspaper reporter and the organization’s treasurer, told Zezima. "So far, I haven’t been able to find 6,000 people who will buy a gallon of our milk each week." In the organic milk industry "competition is cutthroat, and small players tend to struggle," Zezima writes. Nancy Hirshberg, vice president for natural resources at Stonyfield Farm, a leading maker of organic dairy products, explained "Milk sells for a very, very small margin" of profit. "It’s about high volume."

MOO Milk started in 2009 after HP Hood, the company's predecessor, canceled contracts with local dairymen after the recession led consumers to cut back on purchases of the more expensive organic variety of milk. Nine farmers who had worked with Hood banded together to form MOO Milk, which started on donations, including $50,000 from Stonyfield, Zezima writes. The company has struggled to fund enough advertising to convince customers to purchase its product instead of its rivals. Despite the group's struggles, many of the MOO Milk farmers remain optimistic. "If we can hold everything together, I really think that we’re going to make it," said Herb McPhail, one of the MOO Milk farmers. (Read more)

House votes to block 15% ethanol fuel and station subsidies are warning signs in budget battle

The biofuel industry's push for increasing the ethanol limit in gasoline from 10 to 15 percent hit a speed bump last week when the House of Representatives added a provision to its budget-cut bill that would block the Environmental Protection Agency from approving E15 fuel. "That House vote on ethanol is hardly the last word on the issue, because the broader legislation faces strong opposition from the Democratic-controlled Senate and the White House," Philip Brasher of The Des Moines Register reports. "But the bipartisan, 285-136 vote to stop the increased use of ethanol does demonstrate the challenges the industry faces in preserving its government incentives. Some 79 Democrats joined 206 Republicans in voting for the measure."

The vote was seen as largely symbolic, since the Senate is almost sure to vote down the spending bill, but also a warning sign. The House also approved an amendment that would block subsidies for service station pumps that can dispense varying amounts of gasoline and ethanol. The defeats show the industry "there is a lot of work to be done to educate members of Congress," Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, told Brasher. Supporters of the anti-ethanol provision included gasoline refiners, auto makers, livestock producers and food companies. "Every American who owns a car, light-duty truck, motorcycle, snowmobile or outdoor power equipment will benefit by the House vote that has the effect of blocking the sale of gasoline containing 15 percent ethanol, known as E15," said Charles Drevna, president of the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association. (Read more)

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Appalachian officials object to Fla. governor's plan to stop drug-monitoring program before it starts

The new Florida governor's plan to scuttle a yet-to-start program to monitor painkiller prescriptions "has sparked an uproar in Appalachian states that say they are deluged with illegally bought pills from South Florida pain clinics," Arian Campo-Flores reports for The Wall Street Journal from Miami.

"The tracking system would include a centralized database to help identify buyers who are accumulating large numbers of pills and the doctors who are overprescribing them. In his recently released budget proposal, however, [Gov. Rick] Scott [CFNews13 photo] recommended repealing the 2009 law directing the state to set up the system," the Journal reports. "Scott has raised concerns about the database's effectiveness and its possible intrusion on patient privacy. Pointing to a $3.6 billion budget deficit for the coming fiscal year, he also worries that the state would end up paying for a program that lawmakers designed to be funded by federal grants and private donations. Most drug-monitoring programs in other states rely on both federal and state funds."

Scott's move has prompted expressions of disappointment from some of his fellow Republicans in Florida and strong objections from politicians of both parties in Kentucky and West Virginia, hotbeds of for abuse painkillers such as oxycodone.  "It seems Gov. Scott wants Florida to become the oxy-tourism capital of the world," Kentucky Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo, a Democrat from Hazard, told the Journal. (Read more)

Republican 5th District U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers of Somerset, the new chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, sent Scott a sharp letter on Feb. 17 expressing alarm and dismay. "Now is not the time to back down from this life or death challenge," Rogers wrote, calling Scott's move "equal to firing firefighters while your house is ablaze; it neither makes sense nor addresses an urgent crisis. Governor, your state, more than any other, must take this crisis seriously. . . . Your state's participation is paramount to the success of our nation in fighting this problem, helping addicts get treatment and prosecuting pushers." (Lexington Herald-Leader photo by David Perry)

Rogers dismissed concerns about privacy, saying Florida's program, like those in other states, has strict regulations governing access to the data. Noting his new position, "I can certainly appreciate the fiscal pressures with which you are confronted in balancing a tight state budget. However, this is a matter which warrants sacrifices elsewhere." For a story from the Herald-Leader's Bill Estep, click here.