Friday, July 27, 2012

Mayor's courts of Ohio are a relic unlikely to change, since they fatten small-town coffers

They've been called "Boss Hogg backwood justice," and the more specific "rap sheet" against local mayor’s courts in rural Ohio says some judges spend public funds on holiday parties and flower arrangements, fail to properly account for hundreds of thousands of dollars, and use speed-trap traffic fines to prop up village budgets, Justin Conley and Rebecca McKinsey report for the Columbus Dispatch. Despite longstanding criticism, they write, "No one seems willing or able to make changes" to fix what's wrong with the courts, which dispense justice to tens of thousands of Ohioans and demand fines totaling millions of dollars every year.

The state doesn’t require the mayors or magistrates in the courts to have law degrees, and is hardly paying attention to them, write Conley and McKinsey, fellows in Ohio University’s Statehouse News Bureau. The state Supreme Court doesn't go after the officials when they violate the law by failing to provide information to the high court, and "The state auditor’s office, which has found repeated instances of misspending and other problems, says it doesn’t have enforcement power to take corrective action." Former state Sen. Kevin Coughlin, a Cuyahoga Falls Republican, said he thinks mayor's courts "have no place in a modern society where you have to have complete integrity in your judicial system.”

The senior justice of the Supreme Court, Paul E. Pfeifer, is the most vocal critic of mayor's courts. “People . . . come out of there feeling like they just participated in a bad spaghetti western,” he said, “where the cabinet maker or coffin maker takes off his apron, sits on a bench with a gavel and metes out justice.” Like many critics, Pfeifer said mayor’s courts are often more about fattening a community’s bottom line than protecting its residents. Some collect far more from mayor’s courts than from all local taxes combined.

There were 318 mayor’s courts in Ohio in 2011, and 76 percent of them were in villages with fewer than 5,000 residents. Supporters, many with ties to small communities, say mayor’s courts are convenient, easy to navigate and inexpensive. “For every one that may not be up to snuff, there are a hundred that do an excellent job,” Magistrate Charles "Kip" Kelsey told the Dispatch. “The fact that Louisiana and Ohio are the only two states that have these mayor’s courts — are we then backward? Or maybe we’re forward. I like to think that maybe we’re progressive." New York and West Virginia have similar courts. (Read more)

Rural areas have higher home ownership than national average, much of it free and clear of debt

Amid all the talk about home ownership being harder and harder to obtain -- and it is -- reporter Lance George has uncovered some revealing statistics about who has done the best job of settling in and paying on a mortgage, and of paying it off. George, writing in the Daily Yonder, cites census and federal housing data showing that in 2010, 65.1 percent of U.S. homes were occupied by their owners. In rural communities, the number was 71.6 percent.

Home ownership, the reporter notes, varies across demographic groups, and among regions within rural and small-town America. It is highest in the Midwest, at 74 percent, and lowest in the West, at 68 percent. "Delaware has the highest rural and small-town homeownership rate, at 77.8 percent, followed closely by Minnesota and Michigan, at 77 percent."

The biggest rural-urban disparity in the data was free and clear ownership. "Nearly 42 percent of homeowners in rural and small town America own their homes free and clear of mortgage debt, compared to roughly 27 percent of suburban and urban homeowners with no mortgage," George reports, offering possible reasons: a large number of manufactured homes with shorter loan terms and an older demographic; mortgage debt declines with age. (Read more)

Pa. court narrowly strikes down law limiting localities' rights to limit oil and gas drilling zones

A drilling well pond in Derry, Pa.
(Pittsburgh Post-Gazette photo by Andrew Rush)
A appellate court panel has struck down a new law that barred local governments in Pennsylvania from using zoning to prohibit oil and gas drilling in certain areas. Marc Levy of The Associated Press reports the decision was a defeat for Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett and the booming natural-gas industry, which had long sought the limitations. The governor's office said an appeal to the State Supreme Court is likely.

The Commonwealth Court panel ruled 4-3 that the limitations, in a bill regulating the gas industry, were unconstitutional under state law. The majority opinion found that the provisions upended the municipal zoning rules that had previously been followed by other property owners, unfairly exposing them to harm. Seven municipalities had sued to overturn the five-month-old law. "Among the most objectionable provisions towns cited were requirements that drilling, also known as hydraulic fracking, waste pits and pipelines be allowed in all zoning districts, including residential ones, if certain buffers are observed," Levy reports.

Drought could move Farm Bill, or a 1-year extension

Speaker John  Boehner said yesterday that before the House leaves Washington in a week for its August recess, it "will address the livestock disaster program" that has been made more critical by the worsening drought. That could be done by a one-year extension of the Farm Bill now on the books, which expires Sept. 30, but that course would pose for Boehner the same political problems that have kept a new Farm Bill from getting a House floor vote.

"Two-thirds of the continental United States was under moderate to exceptional drought with 40 percent of U.S. counties declared agricultural disaster areas," notes Charles Abbott of Reuters. "Livestock producers with drought-stunted pastures face skyrocketing feed prices," and "Programs that allowed the Agriculture Department to share the cost of livestock feed or to help fruit, vegetable and tree farmers expired at the end of 2011."
Democrats who have been pleading for passage of the new Farm Bill now say they would be willing to vote for a one-year extension "as a vehicle to negotiate a larger comprehensive deal with the Senate," which has passed its own bill, David Rogers reports for Politico. That tactic would also give Republicans in farm country "some protection" as they head back to their districts, he notes.

Democratic votes would be needed to pass a bill because many conservative Republicans with little agribusiness in their districts object to some of the subsidies, particularly dairy, in the bill approved by the House Agriculture Committee. Perhaps more importantly, they say it would cut too little from the food-stamp program, which is about 80 percent of the bill's cost. "With the severe drought now pounding much of the country, this has become a genuine political problem for farm state Republicans running in November," Rogers writes. "And the House leadership must contend with friendly fire now from fellow Republicans in the Senate." (Read more)

In an editorial titled "Ease up on the drought drama," The Washington Post said, "The flawed bill is irrelevant to the farm belt’s current predicament, and it could perversely magnify losses from future natural disasters" because its shift to crop insurance "encourages farmers to cultivate marginal land and engage in other risky practices." (Read more)

Got marquee? This arts idea is downright poetic

Many a small town worth its salt has a movie theater marquee waiting for some terrific homebred poetry to entertain and enlighten the masses, and an arts alliance in need of a good community involvement idea. Thanks to some bright folks in Stevens Point, Wis., and to the marquee value of having a daily blog as well-read as the Daily Yonder, here it is: The Haiku Marquee Project, in which the state's student body -- from pre-school to high school -- has been asked to submit haikus for display at the town's Fox Theater this fall. (Yonder photo)

Reads the release in the Stevens Point Journal: "This is a cooperative venture between the Arts Alliance of Portage County, the Sanders family, which owns the Fox Theater, and the Woodrow Hall Jumpstart Award. The two haiku will be posted on the marquee each month, and 10 honorable-mention poems will be displayed in the Fox Theater show window. Haiku should consist of three lines and no more than 17 syllables. Poems must be the original work of the poet."

Qualified? Interested? Poets may submit no more than three haiku to: Haiku Marquee, Fox Theater, 1124 Main St., Stevens Point, WI 54481; or email them to The deadline for submissions is Sept. 14. Include your name, address, phone number and, if you are a student, grade level.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

How many oil and gas inspectors per well does your state have? it may be hard to tell

The protection of property and the environment from damage by oil and gas operations depends greatly on the strength and attitude of state regulatory agencies, but their relative strength in personnel terms can be hard to calculate, Ellen Gilmer of Environment & Energy News reports.

"A recent overview of state shale gas regulations showcases major gaps in data available to compare, state by state, the force of oil and gas agencies," Gillmer writes. "Oklahoma, for one, doesn't know how many producing wells it has. . . . This lack of data comes at a time when understanding the workload of state inspectors has become crucial as states grapple with booming shale development and often shriveling budgets."

The analysis by the environmental think tank Resources for the Future uses maps to illustrate state  regulation. We reported on it here.

Corporate livestock farm takeover making competition disappear in meat marketplace

Over the past 50 years, the number of U.S. has declined by more than a million, but more animals than ever are being raised, slaughtered, and processed. The very largest of the farms on which these animals are raised now account for a huge proportion of production.

Indeed, since 1980, the percentage of the market held by the four largest farm corporations has steadily risen so that today, 85 percent of beef, 65 percent of pork and 51 percent of chicken is in their hands, according to the Pew Environment Group report. That, of course, means that small farmers are responsible for a dwindling percentage of the nation's meat. (Pew photo)

The Pew report concludes that the wholesale corporate farm takeover is resulting is "the disappearance of open and competitive livestock markets." In turn, this transformation in livestock agriculture "has led to concerns about the economic leverage that large corporations hold over independent farmers and ranchers," the reports notes. So much so that "early in 2010, the USDA and the Department of Justice initiated an unprecedented series of joint public workshops around the country to investigate the state of competition in agriculture markets. Hundreds of independent livestock producers attended the workshops, and many testified that it is increasingly difficult to survive economically. They urged the USDA’s Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) to better regulate the anti-competitive practices of large agribusiness."

In 2010, the GIPSA proposed rules, as required by the 2008 Farm Bill, intended to protect independent farmers and help reduce the power of consolidated meatpackers. In August 2010, a bipartisan letter from 21 senators to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack urged speedy adoption of these regulations, but the final rule, released in December 2011, contained only a few of the needed reforms. Some members of Congress are asking for further rescission of some of these intended protections. (Read more)

Postal Service report says it could make post offices into vital business hubs

A new report by the USPS Office of Inspector General titled “21st Century Post Office: Non-Postal Products and Services” presents an excellent summary of some of the things that the Postal Service could do to bring in new revenue and revitalize brick-and-mortar post offices. And the Save the Post Office blog, champion of salvaging every rural postal outpost, is thrilled. (Australian post office photo from Save the Post Office)

"The OIG looked at foreign postal systems, took suggestions from postmasters, and reviewed its own previously published reports on the subject. The new OIG report is packed with interesting possibilities," the blog reads: "Here’s a list of just some of them, in no particular order (and elaborated slightly): Public internet access services (like wi-fi and computer kiosks); government services on behalf of federal agencies; government services on behalf of state and local agencies, like paying traffic fines, acquiring fishing and hunting licenses; banking services, such as savings accounts, check cashing, foreign money orders, electronic money transfers, and prepaid cards; other financial services, like retirement planning and insurance; e-bill paying for utility, medical and credit card; job services; selling packing materials and offer packing services; cell phone products and services; fax and photocopy services; notary services; greeting cards, toys, calendars and stationary; ATMs.

"The OIG also mentions having the Postal Service get into leasing and warehouse services. Rather than "shedding excess capacity," as the Postal Service puts it, why not do something with the space? Many of the post offices being closed and sold are right in the middle of busy downtowns. The space in the back where the carriers used to work (they've been relocated to an annex on the outskirts) could be rented out to all sorts of retail businesses, offices for professionals, and government and social services agencies. Some could be turned into wi-fi equipped cafes, the way bookstores have done — and the way the post offices do it in Uganda!"

So, what, pray tell, is holding things back? "Congress and private corporations, of course," it answers.  "For decades, the private sector has lobbied Congress, complained to the PRC, and done everything it could to make sure the post office didn't cut into its profits." (Read moreYou can read the entire USPS report here.

EPA won't ban pesticide suspected in bee die-offs

Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency formally refused to recognize that honey bees face an “imminent hazard” in denying a request by beekeepers to immediately suspend the use of pesticides that pose harm to pollinators. ( photo)

The Center for Food Safety says the announcement comes in response to a petition filed by 25 beekeepers and environmental organizations, citing significant bee kills linked to neonicotinoids, a class of pesticides that has already been banned in several countries. “We’re disappointed. EPA has signaled a willingness to favor pesticide corporations over bees and beekeepers,” said Steve Ellis, a petitioner and owner of Old Mill Honey Co., with operations in California and Minnesota.

CFS says "This spring and summer, beekeepers from New York to Ohio and Minnesota, are reporting extraordinarily large bee die-offs, due, in part, to exposure to neonicotinoid pesticides. The die-offs are similar to what beekeepers have reported in the past few weeks in Canada (where EPA has admitted there are 120 bee kill reports). On average, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that beekeepers have been losing more than 30 percent of their honey bee colonies each year since 2006, but some are losing many more times that number." (Read more)

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

As wild hogs invade Northwest, officials start a 'Squeal on Pigs' campaign to track them down

The proliferation of wild hogs has spread to the Northwest, to the point that Washington, Oregon and Idaho have started a "Squeal on Pigs" campaign to get rural residents to report the porcine invaders.

“Early detection and rapid response are key,” Amy Ferriter, Idaho’s invasive species coordinator, told Rocky Barker of the Idaho Statesman in Boise. “The invasive species councils of the Pacific Northwest consider this a priority.” Wild hogs are estimated to cause $1.4 billion a year in damage to crops, wildlife, pastures and livestock. (Read more)

Read more here:

Little weevils eat pestiferous vine in Eastern states

Tiny beetles have become the most recent state employees in Maryland, devouring invasive Asian weeds that are usually destroyed with chemicals or heavy machinery," Candus Thomsom of The Baltimore Sun reports. The plant is known as the mile-a-minute weed, and its newfound nemesis, the weevil, only feasts on it. The weed grows six inches a day and covers all other vegetation, strangling it. Though the plant first started in Pennsylvania, it's now found in 12 East Coast states, and state officials hope the tiny weevils can help control its spread.

Maryland's State Highway Administration released weevils this summer at seven wetlands, and four more sites are scheduled to receive them. Officials had already released Japanese beetles to eat the weed. They cause immediate damage by eating the leaves, but the weevils "lay waste to the whole plant over time," Thomson reports. Weevil larvae burrow into stems, killing the plant and preventing it from releasing seeds. The federal government approved use of weevils to control mile-a-minute growth in 2004, and they've been released in 10 states since then. (Read more)

Injection wells getting more scrutiny as result of earthquakes and concerns about hydraulic fracturing

The advent of large-scale horizontal hydraulic fracturing to produce natural gas has focused new attention on injection wells, an old technology that is being used to dispose of drilling fluids after a frack job is completed.

The nonprofit, nonpartisan investigators at ProPublica have produced a four-part series (whichs eems likely to grow) on the subject, available here. Abrahm Lustgarten writes in the mainbar, "Over the past several decades, U.S. industries have injected more than 30 trillion gallons of toxic liquid deep into the earth, using broad expanses of the nation's geology as an invisible dumping ground."No company would be allowed to pour such dangerous chemicals into the rivers or onto the soil. But until recently, scientists and environmental officials have assumed that deep layers of rock beneath the earth would safely entomb the waste for millennia. There are growing signs they were mistaken." (Read more)

Injection wells are increasingly being blamed for earthquakes, usually small but occasionally damaging. Mike Soraghan of Environment & Energy News writes about a 5.6-magnitude quake that hit central Oklahoma last November. Jerri Loveland, who still can't afford to pay for the damage to her home, doesn't blame fracking. "Coming from an oil-industry family, she sees the connection as having more to do with the millions of gallons of salt-laden water that comes up with the oil and gets reinjected in deep wells nearby. In rare cases, that wastewater can lubricate faults and unleash earthquakes." But Oklahoma oil and gas officials have rejected advice against putting injection wells near geologic faults.

House leaders look for ways to help farm-district members after blocking floor vote on Farm Bill

"Having blocked the pending five-year Farm Bill, House Republican leaders now appear to be racing ahead of their own Agriculture Committee to come up with some alternative to protect the party’s farm state candidates during the upcoming August recess," David Rogers reports for Politico. "Disaster aid for livestock producers hard hit by the current drought was one option under discussion Tuesday, as well as a one-year extension of the current law due to expire Sept. 30.

"Farmers are wondering why the stall on that and what the Farm Bill will offer, said House Speaker John Boehner, reflecting the concerns of Republicans from agricultural districts. “We understand the emergency that exists out in rural America and we’re concerned about addressing it as quickly as possible.” Boehner said he was working with Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, but Lucas did not appear to be fully in the loop. “I’d like some clarification of what I’m picking up on the grapevine,” Lucas told Rogers, who writes: "Asked if he was preparing a new package, the Oklahoma Republican answered with some exasperation: 'I’m not writing a package at this moment. I’m just trying to figure out what is going on for sure.'"

"Given the serious drought, there’s little question that the pressure from farm state lawmakers is growing," Rogers reports. "And Boehner, who spent his early years on the House Agriculture Committee, seems eager to respond. Livestock producers are most vulnerable because of the loss of good grazing lands as well as higher prices for feed. The House and Senate farm bills promise disaster aid for the current year, but without action, these producers are left without the protection enjoyed by field crops, for example, covered by crop insurance. Two leadership aides said a full-year extension of the current farm program was being discussed. But this was news to the Senate Democratic leadership and could be a perilous path given the fact that it would mean extending the current system of direct cash payments to producers at a cost of close to $5 billion a year."(Read more)

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

House leaders likely to delay Farm Bill until after election, to keep political messaging consistent

The last time Republicans took over the House, they couldn't produce a Farm Bill on schedule. This time, they are bottling up one the House Agriculture Committee has approved rather than have a floor fight between their traditionalists and their new Tea Party faction, led by Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, at left with Speaker John Boehner. (Getty Images photo by Mark Wilson)

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says nothing is more important to rural America than passage of the bill, partly because "the government’s capacity to respond to the drought is somewhat limited due to the lack of disaster programs," Julie Harker of Brownfield reports. But it seems that even the worst drought in decades won't get the Farm Bill to the floor for a vote anytime soon, David Rogers reports for Politico.

The bill would cut $35 billion from mandatory spending over 10 years, exactly the kind of cuts Congress promised to make last year, Rogers notes, but that's not enough for Tea Party types. He writes that the Republican leadership would rather delay a vote until a "lame duck" session after the November elections than "disrupt its political messaging."

Delaying the Farm Bill is "new ground for any Congress," Rogers writes. "Never before in modern times has a farm bill reported from the House Agriculture Committee been so blocked." He says there has never been a situation like this in 50 years of farm bills. "There have been long debates, often torturous negotiations with the Senate and a famous meltdown in 1995 when the House Agriculture Committee couldn’t produce a bill" in the wake of the last Republican takeover. "But no House farm bill, once out of committee, has been kept off the floor while its deadline passes."

Rogers writes, "There's some logic to letting voters reshuffle the deck before tackling tough issues," but that's not what's happening in this situation. "The Senate has already approved its farm bill; even if Republicans were to win [Senate] control in November, the GOP’s majority will be so narrow that Democrats will be able to block wholesale changes. In the House, the only certainty about a lame duck is there will be even more unhappy people hanging around," he writes. The real reason for Speaker John Boehner to delay the farm bill is that "He doesn’t like the answers he sees," Rogers says, "not because there will be better answers after the election."

Rogers writes that Boehner would rather "run out the clock with symbolic anti-red tape, anti-tax votes on which the GOP is more united" than "wrestle with this problem" of passing the Farm Bill before Sept. 30, when the current farm law expires and Congress will be panting to go home and campaign. The August recess means there are few days left to legislate before the election. (Read more)

Coalfield politicians more likely than coal operators to blame feds for Appalachian coal's decline

Massive layoffs and falling production make it hard to ignore the decline of the coal industry in Appalachia. As Debra McCown of the Bristol Herald Courier reports, the story of Southwest Virginia families struggling with shrinking paychecks and diminishing job security "is increasingly common these days." McCown reports miners and the companies they work for fear increased regulation "will hasten the decline" of their industry. (Herald Courier photo by Earl Neikirk)

Appalachian coal production was down 7.7 percent in the first half of 2012, according to the U.S. Energy and Information Administration. McCown noting that four years ago, the boom-and-bust industry was enjoying a boom. Since then, coal-company share prices have plummeted. Shares of Alpha Natural Resources, Virginia's largest coal firm and one of the largest in the country, are now selling for just $8; they sold for more than $40 at the same time last year. Alpha spokesman Ted Pile told McCown cheap natural gas, a mild winter and "burdensome regulations" from the Environmental Protection Agency have caused the coal bust.

Though company representatives almost always say the regulations are hurting production, coalfield politicians in McCown's story were more likely to blame Washington than were company representatives or miners. "The negative impact of growing regulation by the EPA has become the battle cry among Republicans campaigning in coal country this year," McCown reports. Sierra Club Virginia Chapter President Glen Besa told McCown that blaming the EPA for mining job losses is "merely political," adding that the lack of a diversified economy in Appalachia is the "underlying cause" of the economic downturn in the coalfields. (Read more)

USDA modifying conservation programs to help farmers struggling with drought

The Department of Agriculture is allowing flexibility in its conservation programs to help livestock producers affected by the persistent drought. Secretary Tom Vilsack also intends to encourage crop insurance companies to "provide a short grace period" for farmers unable to pay their premiums because of crop losses, a USDA release said..

The flexibility will allow conditions of the Conservation Reserve Program, Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Wetlands Reserve Program to be modified to allow haying and grazing on lands enrolled in those programs. The USDA will also encourage crop insurance companies to forego charging interest on unpaid crop insurance premiums for an extra 30 days for spring crops, which are being devastated by drought. (Read more)

Fracking debate challenges objectivity and integrity of scientists, government regulators and journalists

The debate about environmental ramifications of horizontal hydraulic fracturing to produce natural gas continues to rage. Today's news digest from the Society of Environmental Journalists was dominated by a long list of fracking stories, some of which may help you sort out the facts.

New York Times environmental writer Andrew Revkin wrote on the paper's Dot.Earth blog, "Transparency and peer review matter in considering the merits of the science" cited by both sides of the debate. He had complimented a University of Texas Energy Institute report that downplayed fracking consequences, then discovered the lead researcher's ties to the gas industry weren't mentioned in the report, "leaving it up to journalists and watchdogs to reveal."

Photo: America's Natural Gas Alliance
Terrence Henry of State Impact reports Public Accountability Initiative, a nonprofit watchdog group, discovered Groat's financial ties to the gas industry, something he failed to mention in his fracking report. The PAI also investigated the University of Buffalo's fracking report stating the practice was becoming safer, and "identified a number of problems that undermine its conclusion." The executive summary of that investigation can be found here; the full analysis is here.

A recent Duke University study on fracking said some Pennsylvania aquifers might be at risk of contamination, but Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York geologist Tom Johnson told David Bertola of Buffalo Business First that the study raises many questions. “To me, the story here is not even so much about what is said in the paper, it’s a matter of some researchers here that put out an article is full of innuendo,” Johnson said. “They admit in several places that there’s more study that needs to be done.”

Some research is conducted by university professors, but is funded by the gas industry to help prove its claims about the safety of fracking, Jim Efstathiou of Bloomberg reports. A 2009 study predicted that drillers would avoid Pennsylvania gas fields if the state taxed their industry (as every other state does), and lawmakers voted against the tax. But Efstathiou notes the study was commissioned by drillers and led by an industry-friendly economist. Gas drillers "are taking a page from the tobacco industry playbook: funding research at established universities" that will counter critics' concerns, he writes.

Inside Higher Ed's Kaustuv Basu delved further into how the fracking battle is increasingly being fought at universities. A forthcoming study in New York says newborn babies' health is adversely affected by fracking, and Laura Olsen of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that officials in Washington County, Pennsylvania, are beginning a one-year air quality study near several gas-drilling sites. Meanwhile, the Obama administration refused to take a side in the debate, as the government continues its review of fracking risks, Peter Behr of Energy and Environment News reports(Subscription may be required).

Monday, July 23, 2012

ProPublica publishes a guide to voter-ID laws; booklet shows possible difficulty of getting IDs

The nonpartisan, nonprofit investigative news service ProPublica has published a guide to voter-identification laws, which have been passed in more than 30 states and could have an impact on this year's elections for offices from president to school board. To read it, click here.

UPDATE, July 24: The Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University law school has just published a booklet, The Challenge of Obtaining Voter Identification, which has maps illustrating how difficult it might be for many rural residents without a government-issued photo ID to obtain one.
This map of Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia (click on image for larger version) shows that in most areas with the greatest concentrations of rural black voters, no state driver’s license offices are open more than two days per week. The figure also shows that many of these states’ part-time offices are located in the areas with the highest concentrations of black voters. The crosshatched areas outline the 13 contiguous Black Belt counties in Mississippi, the 11 contiguous counties in Alabama, and the 21 in Georgia where all state driver’s license offices are open two days per week or less.

Faced with high grain prices from drought, meat producers are importing cheaper, foreign corn

Oppressive drought is inflicting much hardship on farmers across the U.S., forcing ranchers to shrink cattle herds and corn and fresh meat prices to soar. With all new estimates predicting no quick end to the dry weather, some livestock producers are beginning to import cheaper corn from overseas. (Photo: Corn & Soybean Digest)

Meat companies, including top pork producer Smithfield Foods, are importing Brazilian corn, something that "is an unusual thing," U.S. Grains Council Global Strategies Director Erick Erickson told Gregory Meyer and Samantha Pearson of the Financial Times. Bulk corn hasn't been imported to the U.S. since 2008, according to ports database Piers, and then it was in seed form, not for animal feed. Experts say meat companies can buy Brazilian corn at a $12 per ton less than U.S. corn, Meyer and Pearson report. 

This doesn't mean the U.S. is being forced to stop corn exports; the Department of Agriculture estimates 40 percent of globally traded corn will come from the U.S. But international merchants still selling last year's U.S. corn crop are "growing nervous" about slowing exports, Meyer and Pearson report. (Read more)

Some fracking foes mislead public with false claims

Some critics of horizontal hydraulic fracturing to extract natural gas say it contaminates groundwater with carcinogens, impacts human health and causes widespread air pollution. But some scientists say they are misleading the public just as much drilling companies who may twist the facts about fracking.

Many of the claims made by critics "have little or nothing to back them," reports Kevin Begos of The Associated Press. Reports that breast cancer rates rose in a heavy gas drilling area in Texas are false, he reports. Fears that natural radioactivity in drilling waste could contaminate drinking water aren't being confirmed either, he writes, and concerns about air pollution aren't typically paired with information about how burning natural gas is cleaner than burning coal. Duke University professor Avner Vengosh, who studies groundwater contamination, told Begos, "The debate is becoming very emotional, and basically not using science" on either side. (Read more)

Extension agents were first hired to 'see both sides of the question, give wise counsel and leadership'

County extension agents have been helping rural communities across the U.S. with a everything from farming to food preservation to finances to 4-H, for a century or more, and as land-grant institutions mark the 150th anniversary of the law that led to their creation, some are marking the 100th anniversary of extension programs in their states.

Charles Mahan, right, was hired as the University of Kentucky's first full-time county agent in 1912, two years before Congress established the Cooperative Extension Service, Katie Pratt of UK Ag News reports. By the spring of 1913, UK had hired six more agents, and the first home demonstration agents, now known as family and consumer sciences agents, were hired the following year. County 4-H agents have existed since at least 1917, though under a different title and on a part-time basis until the 1960s.

Mahan wrote that one of his top jobs was to "develop sane, safe, local leaders who can be trusted to think things through, see both sides of the question, give wise counsel and leadership." He "helped determine that extension agents' function should be primarily education, offering unbiased, research-based information to their clients," Pratt reports. That continues to be the philosophy of Cooperative Extension, she writes. Though extension's role has evolved since 1912, Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service Director Jimmy Henning told Pratt that the agency is still "seeking to find and serve people where they are and in ways they want to receive information." (Read more)

Report: Women in four of five rural counties live shorter lives

Rural women live shorter lives than urban women, according to a data analysis by the Daily Yonder and the Nebraska-based Center for Rural Affairs. In four out of five rural and exurban counties, women have shorter lives, report the Yonder's Bill Bishop and CRA's Roberto Gallardo. (Yonder map; click on it for larger version)
The average age of death for women was 81.3 years in 2009, the most recent year with available data. Out of 2,500 rural and exurban counties, women in only 540 of those reached the national average age of death, Bishop and Gallardo report. Women in the upper Midwest live "considerably longer lives" than those in the Southeast. The pair report that this pattern is similar for rural men. (Read more)

Feds have guide to help rural areas with economy

Rural communities now have access to a guide outlining federal funding that's a available to help with economic development. The Federal Resources for Sustainable Rural Communities guide contains information about how rural places can protect healthy environments, improve infrastructure and provide useful services to residents.

The guide also includes information about funding and technical assistance available to rural communities from the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency. Rural Development Undersecretary Dallas Tonsager said during a speech in Lincoln, Neb., "Creating great places to live, raise families, provide recreational opportunities and infrastructure for high paying jobs in rural America is very important ... This publication will provide easy, one-stop access to federal funding sources." To see the guide, click here.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Award winner says failing to do good rural journalism tells rural people that they are 'not that important'

All that is, can or should be great about community journalism was on display July 20 as two rural newspaper journalists with very different but equally distinctive careers received the Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism.

Jennifer P. Brown, opinion editor and former editor of the Kentucky New Era in Hopkinsville, and Max Heath, retired vice president and executive editor of Landmark Community Newspapers Inc. received the award from the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists and the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.

The award is named for the rural newspaper publisher who is a national SPJ Fellow and co-founder of the Institute, based in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications at the University of Kentucky. Last year Smith was the first recipient of the award, which is presented for a career of public service through community journalism in Kentucky, or anywhere by a current or former Kentuckian, with preference given to those outside metropolitan areas.

In her remarks to the awards dinner crowd at Eastern Kentucky University's Center for the Arts, Brown, left, gave a clear picture of the fortitude and high goals often required be a good community journalist.

"You have to be careful with friendships, and you have to tell the truth. And then you see the subjects of your stories in the toilet paper aisle at Kroger," she said. "Often, I learn that we don’t expect enough from people. I mean we don’t expect enough from our own journalists and from the people we cover. Setting the bar high usually works. I hate to see people at smaller papers accepting crumbs. If you don’t do good journalism at small papers —and doing good journalism includes filing open records requests and complaining when the open meetings law is violated —then you are telling people who live in rural areas that their place in life, in the world, is not that important."

Heath established the editorial principles that have earned Landmark national recognition. He told the crowd that his work on journalism ethics and freedom of information was guided by the values of SPJ.

For more from Brown and Heath, and more about the award, click here.

Obama making rural radio pitch in Ohio, Pa. areas

President Obama did poorly among rural voters in 2008, but he is still chasing their votes, because they could make a difference in some big swing states in this year's election. The latest evidence of that is a 60-second radio ad that his campaign started Friday on stations serving rural areas of Ohio and Pennsylvania.

The campaign is spending at least $35,000 in markets such as Pittsburgh; Fort Wayne, Ind.; Youngstown, Ohio; and Huntington, Charleston and Parkersburg, W. Va.," Alexander Burns of Politico reported. In a later post, he writes that Obama is "making the case that his policies help people in smaller towns sustain their way of life" and notes, "Rural radio is a fairly low-cost way to try and peel away voters who may be less drawn to Mitt Romney than to a generic Republican candidate."

In the ad, which is part of Burns's latest post, Obama says he wants rural young people to be able to say, "We can succeed here just like we can in the big city." He starts the ad by noting, "My grandparents came from the Midwest." His maternal grandparents were from Kansas.