Friday, September 21, 2012

Makers of guns and ammo see very different scenarios for sales, depending on result of election

A shop in Sidney, Neb. (John Gress, NYT, 2008)
There haven't been any substantial changes to gun-control laws under President Obama, and no attempts for any by his administration, but outdoor retailers and gun makers are anticipating a bump like the one they saw in the sales of 2008 if he is re-elected in November, reports Shelly Banjo of The Wall Street Journal.

However, if Gov. Mitt Romney ousts Obama, outdoor stores like Cabela's and Bass Pro Shops, and manufacturers like Smith & Wesson and Olin Corp., the maker of Winchester guns and ammunition, see a whole different world of retail. "If Mitt Romney is elected, there's no perceived threat on the freedom to own guns, people might decide to spend disposable income on things like outerwear instead," said Joe Arterburn, a Cabela's spokesman.

Banjo reports that "nearly 12 million background checks for gun sales took place in the U.S. this year through Aug. 31, up 56 percent from the same period in 2008, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Customers must undergo background checks before buying firearms from federally licensed sellers. Collections of federal excise taxes on the sale of new firearms and ammunition, a proxy for gun sales, rose to $453 million in 2009, a 45 percent jump from the year before. That's a significant surge compared with the average 6 percent annual increase reported by the Treasury Department's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau from 1993 to 2008."

"Businesses are trying to plan, order inventory and staff stores, and you have this event coming down that could significantly impact sales," said Wells Fargo analyst Matt Nemer. The stores are simply responding. And consumers are responding to National Rifle Association campaign-related ads, which warn voters of increased gun regulations if President Obama is re-elected. Adam Fetcher, a spokesman for the Obama campaign, defended the president's policies. "President Obama's record makes clear that he supports and respects the Second Amendment and the tradition of gun ownership in this country, and we'll continue to fight back against any attempts to mislead voters," he said. The Romney campaign declined to comment to the Journal. (Read more)

As large farms replace mid-sized and smaller ones, rural communities suffer loss of local spending

"It’s not difficult to see the dominant trendline in agriculture when nearly every view of the landscape provides evidence," writes Heidi Marttila-Losure in the summer issue of Dakotafire, a regional reporting project of small news outlets in the eastern Dakotas.

"The tractors and planting rigs that were out in the fields this spring were double the size they were a generation ago; a farmer can cover hundreds of acres in a day," she writes. "Simply put, there are bigger farms, and fewer farmers.The percentage of the workforce employed in agriculture in the United States declined from 22 percent to 2 percent from 1930 to 2002, and since then it’s fallen still further, to something less than 1 percent." (Photo by Martilla-Losure)

And there's a problem with that, she notes, and it's something, sadly, people get around to talking about only after they've discussed big-farm economics. It's this thing about rural communities getting more economic and social benefit from mid-sized farms than from large ones.
Large farms, Martilla-Losure writes, buy in massive quantities, usually going to larger outfitters in larger communities or to direct suppliers for better prices. Some, in fact, are bound by contracts with corporations to buy from a certain much larger supplier, so there's not even an option for shopping local.  Small and mid-sized farms, on the other hand, stay home to buy. Research bears that out. Farms with a gross income of $100,000 made nearly 95 percent of their expenditures locally, according to the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Production's "Community and Social Impacts of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations" report. Farms with gross incomes higher than $900,000 spent less than 20 percent locally. (Read more)

Lax rules for disposal of drilling waste lead to injection of other toxic materials into the earth

One of the trucks, after it was enveloped by
flames fed by fumes from injection-well waste.
(Chemical Safety Board photo)
In January 2003, two tanker trucks exploded, killing three workers after fumes from what was supposed to be waste saltwater from injection wells ignited and burned in Rosharon, Tex. What the workers were really unloading, to be buried deep inside the earth, were thousands of gallons of volatile materials, including benzene and other flammable hydrocarbons. "What happened that day at Rosharon," explains ProPublica reporter Abrahm Lustgarten, "was the result of a significant breakdown in the nation’s efforts to regulate the handling of toxic waste."

"The site at Rosharon is what is known as a 'Class 2' well," Lustgarten writes. "Such wells are subject to looser rules and less scrutiny than others designed for hazardous materials. Had the chemicals the workers were disposing of that day come from a factory or a refinery, it would have been illegal to pour them into that well. But regulatory concessions won by the energy industry over the last three decades made it legal to dump similar substances into the Rosharon site -- as long as they came from drilling. Injection wells have proliferated over the last 60 years, in large part because they are the cheapest, most expedient way to manage hundreds of billions of gallons of industrial waste generated in the U.S. each year.''

ProPublica has analyzed records summarizing more than 220,000 well inspections conducted between late 2007 and late 2010, including more than 194,000 for Class 2 wells. This most recent installment of by the independent, nonprofit news agency on U.S. injection wells had reporters examining federal audits of state oversight programs, interviewing dozens of experts and exploring court documents, case files, and the evolution of underground disposal law over the past 30 years. The report is exhaustive and includes several links showing that fundamental safeguards are sometimes being ignored or circumvented by use of the Class 2 rules. (Read more) For a state-by-state count of unauthorized, overpressurized and leaking injection wells, go here.

Coal company to pay $575,000 to resolve claim it falsified water quality reports

A large strip-mining company has agreed to pay $575,000 in a case that involved thousands of alleged instances of fraudulent or improper water-pollution discharge reports in Kentucky. Bill Estep of the Lexington Herald-Leader reports that International Coal Group has reached an agreement in principle with the state and environmental groups to settle claims against it, according to a status report on the lawsuit the state Energy and Environmental Cabinet filed this week in Franklin Circuit Court.

The deal with ICG, if approved in court, writes Estep, "would end its part of a controversy that came to light in the fall of 2010. That was when environmental groups announced they had discovered widespread problems with water-pollution discharge monitoring reports from ICG and Frasure Creek" Mining, a second party to the suit that is not part of the proposed settlement.

"Coal companies must monitor pollutants coming from surface mines and report the data to the state, which is supposed to investigate if pollutants exceed certain levels," Estep explains. "The groups said in reviewing reports from ICG and Frasure Creek from 2007 and 2008 they found cases of mineral discharges exceeding legal limits by up to 40 times. There also were forms signed by supervisors before tests were actually done, data copied and pasted from one quarter to the next, and testing dates scratched out and rewritten. Some reports were missing. The groups argued the reports were falsified and that Kentucky was not doing a good job reviewing them for violations. A Kentucky official later acknowledged the state had not done enough to make sure mining companies were submitting accurate information."

UPDATE: Frasure Creek Mining has announced it is no longer mining coal in Kentucky because its financial problems have prevented it from resolving the court-ordered mediation over water quality violation fines, The Associated Press's Dylan Lovan reports. Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet attorney Michael Haines said the company is no longer making a profit. Frasure Creek attorney Jack Bender said the company was willing to pay the $310,000 fine that was originally settled upon before a coalition of environmental groups challenged it. But Appalachian Citizens Law Center attorney Mary Cromer said the company should "not be able to get out of having to pay any penalties just because they say they're in financial trouble," and that it should have to prove its financial hardship to the court. (Read more)

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The grass that took the West may have a tiny but potent enemy: a fungus with a scary name

Ecologist Susan Meyer stands in cheatgrass in
Utah's Skull Valley. (NYT photo by Michael Friberg)
Called "the black fingers of death," the tiniest fringe, the barest wisps of darkness on white wheat-colored grass may, in fact, save an iconic American landscape from perhaps the most disruptive invasive plant in the country.

"Black fingers, the fungus with the horror-movie handle, is the new artillery that wildland biologists are firing at cheatgrass, a weed that has remade the landscape of the Intermountain West," writes Felicity Barringer of The New York Times. The fingers, "no longer than a baby’s eyelashes," are like "little marching armies of toothpicks." Fungus armies, that is.

Mike Styler, head of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, said of cheatgrass: “It’s changed the entire ecology of the West.” Creatures that depend on the sagebrush habitat, from butterflies to the greater sage grouse, which is being considered for protections under the Endangered Species Act, are severely stressed by its proliferation. And because cheatgrass and development are moving closer together, a few years ago a cheatgrass-fueled fire near Boise unfortunately burned down homes.

Dr. Susan Meyer is a U.S. Forest Service ecologist based in Provo, Utah, and her work these days is centered on figuring out how this fungus, which looks like a miniature mohawk haircut, does its lethal work, and how, exactly, to get the tiny spears do more of it. Barringer writes, "The black fingers of death, Pyrenophora semeniperda, may help restoration ecologists like Meyer reclaim some beachheads in the vast swath of land already conquered by cheatgrass," Barringer writes. "For decades, scientists have been trying to stop its advance, to little effect."

Lately, the effort has gotten attention from all sorts of places, and the pressure to control cheatgrass is increasing. Financial support for the fungus research has come from the Joint Fire Science Program of the National Interagency Fire Center.  (Read more)

Study: Rural people more likely to get Alzheimer's

Rural residents are twice as likely to get Alzheimer's, according to a University of Edinburgh study that collected "all over the world and spanned several decades," Nikki Tucker of Medical Daily reports. Researchers say limited access to health care, exposure to unknown substances, and socioeconomic factors may lead to the increased risk.

Prior studies have analyzed the difference in what effects rural and urban areas might have on the disease, but because of debate about what constitutes "rural" and "urban," results have been deemed inconclusive. (Read more) The study was published in the International Journal of Epidemiology.

What will really happen if there's no Farm Bill by Sept. 30? Not that much

Congress is not going to pass a new Farm Bill before its election recess, which is set to begin next week. That means that 2008 funding for programs including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (generally known as food stamps) and direct payments to farmers will technically expire on Sept. 30. In theory, some "fairly scary things" will happen, reports Julie Rovner of National Public Radio. But in reality, "almost none of the changes would happen right after Sept. 30," at which time, Congress could have passed a new bill.

Technically, federal price supports will revert back to 1949 levels without a new bill or an extension of the old one. That would mean the government would "pay huge bonuses" for certain crops, but not for others, because some commodities were added after to the list after 1949. It also would raise prices for commodities such as milk and soybeans. But, Montana State University economics professor Vincent Smith told Rovner the real reason Farm Bill supporters are pushing for a new bill has more to do with budget politics than the actual mechanics of it.

"They want to have a Farm Bill now that locks Congress and the taxpayer into obligations based on either the Senate or the House bill," Smith told NPR. "What they're concerned about is that, if serious deficit-reduction talks take place, then a lot more money than was initially identified to come out of the farm bill by the 'supercommittee' a year and a bit ago will have to come out of the Farm Bill."

"We actually have until about Jan. 1 before we run into a lot of administrative problems with this bill reverting to some very high prices," Mary Kay Thatcher, director of congressional affairs for the American Farm Bureau Federation, told Rovner. The 2008 measure covers all of this year's crops, even if they haven't been harvested yet. The first crop that would be affected by new price supports would be winter wheat, which is harvested in the Spring, Rover reports. (Read more)

Western foresters think terrorists might start fires

Western land managers said they received notice from the Federal Bureau of Investigation yesterday that terrorists might start forest fires in stands of beetle-killed trees to cause widespread chaos and cost the federal government millions in fighting them, Robert Gehrke of The Salt Lake Tribune reports. It's unlikely the threat will be realized, even though it could make forest neighbors more wary. There's also the possibility that media coverage could spread the idea in the wrong circles.

Utah Division of Forestry director Dick Buehler said the agency is taking the threat seriously. It was reported in May that an al-Qaida-affiliated magazine published articles encouraging people to set fires in the U.S., particularly in Utah, Idaho and Montana, Buehler told Gehrke. The threat referred to dry conditions and stands of dead, beetle-scarred trees, which he said was an indication that someone was paying attention to forest conditions. The division investigates every forest fire, and said none of this summer's were started by terrorists. FBI spokeswoman Deborah Bertram told Gehrke she couldn't confirm that an FBI bulletin regarding terrorist-started forest fires was sent, but Utah Rep. Ken Ivory said a "terrorism expert" told him forests were a target. (Read more)

Study says Roundup Ready corn causes health problems in rats; some scientists question research

A long-term diet of herbicide-resistant corn caused tumors, organ damage and premature death in rats, according to French researchers who have conducted the first animal feeding test to determine effects of eating genetically modified food over a lifetime, Clive Cookson of The Financial Times reports. The study focused on the most widely planted herbicide-resistant corn, Monsanto's Roundup Ready.

The study, which was published in the peer-reviewed journal Food and Chemical Toxicology, divided 200 rats into groups of 10. Some were fed Roundup Ready corn, some Roundup-laced drinking water and some Roundup Ready corn that had been sprayed with Roundup. Researchers concluded that not only is eating GM corn harmful, but Roundup itself causes health effects even at concentrations below the legal limit for residues in water supplies.

Other scientists have criticized the study's methodology, saying tumor-prone rats were used, there were too few control groups of rats, and the study was also led by Gilles-Eric Seralini, a critic of genetically modified food. (Read more)

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Tough vote for rural members? House won't vote on postal reform before November elections

An overhaul of the U.S. Postal Service will not even be discussed in the U.S. House before the November elections, Bernie Becker of The Hill reports. After the Senate passed a bill, House Republicans suggested they would start moving their own version during the summer. They now say one reason for the delay is that it could be a tough vote for members from rural areas, where the majority of suggested post office closings and changes would happen, Bcker reports.

Lawmakers working on postal issues are trying to "lay the groundwork to ensure at least something gets done on the issue" during the post-election lame-duck session that will already be packed with "pressing fiscal issues," Becker reports. Republican Rep. Darrell Issa of California, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, who introduced the postal reform bill, said he believes the Republican leadership will support bringing the bill to the House floor after the election. (Read more)

Coal plays role in election, largely because of Ohio

Romney and Ohio miners (Getty Images)
Coal has become a hot-button topic on the campaign trail as "Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama have wholeheartedly embraced" it, "despite past statements from Romney and Vice President Joe Biden that pollution from coal-fired power plants kills people," reports Sean Cockerham of McClatchy Newspapers. The issue is mostly become a big one because "the coal-producing state of Ohio is among a handful that are expected to decide the election."

Ohio is ranked 10th in coal production and gets 86 percent of its electricity from coal, and "is among the most crucial prizes in the presidential campaign," Cockerham writes. Virginia and Colorado are also significant coal producers and "key battleground" states. There's also a lot of talk about what a Romney presidency could mean for the industry in the top coal-producing states: Wyoming, West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Texas.

Romney is telling voters that the Obama administration is waging a "war on coal," the battle cry of many state and federal lawmakers from coal-producing states. He's promised to reverse Environmental Protection Agency regulations if elected, and recently attended a political rally at an Ohio underground coal mine. Obama has played up coal differently, suggesting the country should invest in "clean coal" technologies. His campaign has circulated radio ads in Ohio "hammering on that theme and portraying Romney as the one who's really anti-coal," Cockerham reports. (Read more)

New market hours may cost reporters their privileged peeks at USDA's crop forecasts

The world's largest agricultural trading company, Cargill, is urging the U.S. Department of Agriculture to change a decades-old practice of giving news services, including Bloomberg and Reuters, advanced access to market crop reports and forecasts. The process, known as "lock-up," involves sequestering reporters in a room to prepare detailed stories as soon as crop reports are released by USDA.

Cargill provides market information and grain bids to farmers, and has proposed a "radical change" to this process, Gregory Meyer of The Financial Times reports. "As we understand it, the current lock-up and release process allows some members of the news media to access the reports early," Cargill said in the filing to USDA. "That has never been an issue in the past because markets were closed at release time. But in an environment in which markets are actively trading while critical reports are being released, anyone with early access will have an unfair advantage."

"Wait a minute," says Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. "Cargill seems to think that reporters will trade on this information, or share it prematurely with people who might. These journalists agree not to do that, and they should be taken at their word. There has never been an issue wiht their behavior in this regard."

The filing is a response to U.S. futures exchanges extended hours that allow trading during USDA reports, something that was previously avoided when markets took a break around the time of releases. Some say the new system prevents them from digesting facts before trading on them, Meyer reports. USDA is considering changing release times and has been accepting public comment on the matter. It may announce a decision this week. (Read more)

Western wildfires expected to increase as climate keeps warming

With two months left in fire season, this year is likely to be one of the worst on record for wildfires in the West. The area burned this year is 30 percent more than in an average year, with fires consuming more than 8.6 million acres, according to the National Integrity Fire Center(Climate Central map shows current wildfires)

Also, what defines a "typical" wildfire year in the West is changing, as spring and summer temperatures continue rising and snowpack continues to shrink. Several studies have shown that the risk of fires will increase as the climate continues to change.

For every degree Celsius the temperature rises, the size of area burned in the West could quadruple, according to the National Research Council. Temperatures in the West have been estimated to increase from 3.6 to 9 degrees FahrenheitClimate Central reports. In a 42-year analysis of U.S. Forest Service records for 11 Western states, Climate Central found that compared to an average year in the 1970's, there were seven times more fires in the past decade greater than 10,000 acres each year. There were more than 100 fires on average per year from 2002 to 2011, compared to less than 50 during the 1970's. (Read more)

To see Climate Central's full western wildfire report, click here. The group has also created an interactive map that shows currently burning wildfires, which can be found here.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

More problems found with USPS surveys and community meetings about threatened post offices

The U.S. Postal Service a few weeks ago started implementing POstPlan, its restructuring by closure or reduction of hours at hundreds of post office across the U.S., mostly in rural areas. As ordered by the Postal Regulatory Commission, USPS is scheduling public meetings about offices that have no postmaster right now, but as Steve Hutkins of Save the Post Office reported last week, community surveys were only mailed to post-office boxes and meetings were planned during work hours. Hutkins has now uncovered more issues with the plan's implementation.

The PRC told USPS that some of its survey questions were confusing and might mislead customers. Three of four options on the survey regarding the customers' preference are about closing the post office, and the PRC said customers might not understand that. The USPS didn't revise the survey, opting to explain the survey question in an accompanying letter instead. Hutkins reports that "people are not getting the fact that three of the options involve closing the post office," as reported by newspapers in Virginia, where several offices in the Tidewater region will be affected by POstPlan. Many other news reports have been paraphrasing the survey without clarifying the options, Hutkins writes.

Community preference from at least two rural offices -- in Waters, Mich., and an unnamed one in Eastern Kentucky -- has been ignored, Hutkins reports. The hours at both were reduced before POstPlan began, but they were still included in the plan list. Surveys have been sent to customers, and community meetings planned anyway. The community meeting at the Malden, Wash., office is scheduled to be  held in the post office lobby, a 629-square-foot space, Hutkins reports. In Jonesville, Tex., a lobby meeting is scheduled on Tuesday, Nov. 6 at noon -- the middle of Election Day. (Read more)

In redefinining 'rural,' Senate version of Farm Bill could cut funds for neediest rural areas

The Senate version of the Farm Bill would streamline definitions of “rural” but one result "could be less funding for the very areas that most meet what many Americans would consider the targeted recipients for these programs," Farm Bill policy expert Aleta Botts writes for The Rural Blog and the Daily Yonder.

USDA Rural Development programs use varying definitions of “rural area,” Botts explains. “Rural water programs are allowed to go only to cities, towns, or unincorporated areas of fewer than 10,000 people. The limit for community facility programs (which pay for libraries, health centers, and many other community brick-and-mortar investments) is 20,000, while the limit for business programs is 50,000.” The Senate bill would use a 50,000 limit for all programs.

That could hurt rural areas with small populations, Botts writes. She notes testimony by the National Rural Water Association that more than 400 communities will have to wait until at least next year for water-project money. “This is an oversubscribed program and has been for years,” she writes.  “If it is oversubscribed now with its limit at 10,000 people, what will result when the population limit is raised to 50,000?”

The bill sets aside half of one rural water program’s funds to communities with fewer than 3,000 people and gives a “priority” to areas with fewer than 5,500. “But more than 80 percent of the funding already goes to areas of 5,000 or fewer, according to the National Rural Water Association testimony, so this language may actually mean little in practice,” Botts writes. For her full article, click here.

Seed companies develop drought-resistant corn

This summer's ravaging drought destroyed corn crops across the Midwest and Great Plains, creating a slew of problems for farmers, consumers and livestock producers. Agriculture biotechnology companies have been pouring millions into drought-resistant genetically modified corn seeds that can withstand an extended dry period. (Los Angeles Times photo by Ricardo Lopez: Researcher examines drought-resistant corn)

Monsanto recently got approval for its DroughtGard seed corn, and other seed makers, including Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc. and Syngenta, have  begun selling drought-tolerant but conventionally bred corn varieties. Companies are also trying to develop drought-resistant soybean, cotton and wheat strains that can "thrive in a world that's getting hotter and drier," reports Richard Lopez of the Los Angeles Times.

The majority of seed corn is already genetically modified to repel pests and create higher yields, and there are public concerns arising about the "unforeseen consequences of this genetic tinkering," Lopez reports. But researchers say creating drought-tolerant or resistant seeds is a priority, especially in the wake of this year's oppressive and costly drought. "We don't need to stigmatize these approaches," Kent Bradford, head of the Seed Biotechnology Center at the University of California, Davis.  (Read more)

Groups oppose leaving coal-ash regulation to states

More than 300 groups, saying they represent millions of people from all 50 states, sent a letter to the Senate last week opposing the Coal Ash Recycling and Oversight Act, which would prevent the federal government from regulating coal ash, which contains heavy metals including arsenic, lead and mercury. Billions of tons of it are stored in ponds, landfills and mines in almost every state. (Greenpeace photo of Tennessee coal ash pond)

The Coal Ash Recycling and Oversight Act was introduced last month and would prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from finalizing its proposed coal ash rule and from ever issuing coal ash regulations. The bill would reinforce an EPA decision from 2000 that waste from burning fossil fuels doesn't need to be regulated under the Solid Waste Disposal Act. The issue got fresh attention in December 2008, when a Tennessee Valley Authority coal-ash pond broke and released 1 billion tons of waste into the Emory and Clinch rivers in east Tennessee, Environmental News Service notes. TVA is a federal agency, but the pond had been regulated by the state.

EPA proposed coal-ash regulation in 2010, then backed off. The groups' letter says that the Coal Ash Recycling and Oversight Act would nullify "450,000 public comments, essentially silencing the voices of nearly half a million Americans who supported protective regulations." The groups say they have no confidence in state-by-state management of coal ash. (Read more)

Federal grants will improve telehealth services for rural veterans in Virginia, Montana and Alaska

A disproportionate number of veterans are in rural areas, and telehealth could soon improve their health care, which is often lacking because of limited resources or long-distance travel to Department of Veterans Affairs  hospitals. The Department of Health and Human Services has partnered with the VA to provide almost $1 million to rural veterans' health care providers to improve VA telehealth and HHS state health information exchanges. The three states with the highest rates of rural veterans -- Virginia, Montana and Alaska -- will each receive about $300,000.

The VA said its telehealth system, once it's fully integrated nationwide, will be capable of providing at least 1.2 million medial consultations annually for veterans who would otherwise have to travel long distances to be treated, Robert Longley of reports. Under the Honoring America's Veterans Act signed by President Obama last month, the VA is authorized to waive co-payments for veterans who use telehealth services. (Read more)

Some baby boomers like colder, rural places to retire, for the seasons and lower costs

Several rural towns in cold-weather states including Maine, Washington and Montana, have become retirement destination for older members of the baby boom generation, The Associated Press reports. Camden, Me., Durango, Colo., Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, Kalispell, Mont., and the San Juan Islands in Washington's Puget Sound are frequently cited as some of the best places to live for retirees.

"Boomers and retirees these days are considering a much wider range of destinations for retirement, often choosing states that don’t commonly come to mind, such as Maine and Montana," Mary Lu Abbott, editor of Where to Retire magazine, told AP. “The Sun Belt remains popular, but many people prefer a four-season climate and enjoy the changing of seasons. They seek towns that are safe and have active, appealing downtowns and good hospitals nearby, and increasingly they’re looking for places with a lower cost of living and lower overall tax rate.” (Read more)

Monday, September 17, 2012

Drought is likely to cost consumers next year

The massive drought that hit many U.S. farmers hard this summer will be felt by consumers next year in the form of higher food prices, according to The Food Institute. A family of four will likely spend $351.12 more on food in 2013, about $6.75 a week. The data was gathered by calculating the actual financial effect of the drought, which reduced corn yields, causing feed prices to rise, making livestock producers unable to afford it.

The increase will be felt most at meat counters, Lisa Keefe of Meatingplace reports. Annual costs of meat will rise about $44 next year for a family of four and about $30 for a two-person home. Beef costs would account for almost one-third of those estimates. Fresh produce will be the next most expensive, adding about $23.44 to a family's annual grocery spending. "These spending predictions could vary as substitutions are made in one category or another," Keefe reports, adding that consumers could choose to spend more on canned and frozen products to offset higher prices for fresh meat and produce. (Read more)

More than half of Georgia in exceptional or extreme drought, but governor seems to deny it exists

Georgia has been dealing with extreme to exceptional drought through the summer at the same level or worse than states in the Midwest and Great Plains, but its farmers' plight has been largely ignored by the news media, and at least publicly by its own governor. The state has spent more years in drought than in normal conditions since 1999, and more than half of it is now in extreme or exceptional drought. Yet, Republican Gov. Nathan Deal says there is no drought and hasn't yet declared one. (U.S. Department of Agriculture map: Red shows exceptional drought, dark red shows exceptional)

Environmentalists, scientists and farmers say drying rivers, streams and reservoirs and rainfall data are proof of the drought, but the state's resistance to more drastic measures to remedy drought "stems from its desire to protect its business-friendly image," Neela Banerjee of the Los Angeles Times reports. "Atlanta is the brightest symbol of the 'New South,' and the Southern miracle depends on the use of natural resources, and the key resource is water," said Flint Riverkeeper Executive Director Gordon Rogers. Georgia's political agenda is largely set by Atlanta and surrounding areas, inhibiting attention to issues facing smaller, more rural communities to the south, Banerjee reports.

When the drought of 2007-08 hit Atlanta hard, Banerjee reports the government took "dire steps" to ensure adequate water supplies, but the state is downplaying the current drought. The state Environmental Protection Division's official position is that asking urban residents to conserve water would not help the drought-riddled part of the state, even though hydrologists say it would increase stream flows and improve water quality, which typically deteriorates during drought. Deal has annexed the state climatologist's office from the University of Georgia into his administration, leaving some to charge that it reduces the office's independence. (Read more)

Farm groups want Supreme Court to exclude forestry activities from Clean Water Act permitting

A group of farm organizations last week filed a friend-of-the court brief with the U.S. Supreme Court regarding the Clean Water Act's permitting requirements for stormwater runoff from forestry activities, Farm Progress reports. The American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Pork Producers Council and the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives are urging the court to exempt stormwater runoff from forestry activities from Clean Water Act permitting. (American Agriculturist photo)

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals last year ruled the Environmental Protection Agency's silviculture rule invalid. The groups explain in their brief that Congress decided in its 1987 Clean Water Act amendments that stormwater from agriculture and forestry "has always been intentionally excluded from federal permit requirements," Farm Progress reports. The groups say the logging shouldn't be considered an industrial activity, which means its stormwater discharges must be approved under the EPA's National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System.

American Farm Bureau General Counsel Ellen Steen said Congress has never allowed EPA to mandate particular forestry practices because Congress "has always recognized that stormwater runoff from these activities . . . is best left to state and local authorities." (Read more)

Researchers hope artificial bat cave will give clues to fight deadly white-nose syndrome

AP photo by Allison Smith
Conservationists have built an artificial cave near Clarksville, Tenn., in an effort to save bats from the fungus of white-nose syndrome, which has killed millions of bats across the U.S. The Nature Conservancy-built cave is thought to be the first man-made hibernating structure for bats in the wild, which control insects and help pollinate some crops.

The cave is built from concrete with textured ceilings so bats can cling to it, and is about the size of a single-wide mobile home. It was covered with 4 feet of soil, leaving only the air intake, right, that serves as the bat entrance visible from the surface, The Associated Press reports. It is located near a natural cave with an established hibernating population of gray bats, which are to be lured to the artificial cave by ultra-sonic bat calls emitted by loudspeakers.

White-nose syndrome has killed more than 5.7 million bats since it was first detected in 2006. It causes bats to wake from hibernation and search for food in the winter, eventually succumbing to weather or starvation. Scientists have been trying to determine its cause and how to prevent it. During its first two years in a cave, white-nose fungus develops slowly, but spikes in the third, making cleaning of the artificial cave essential so the disease doesn't reach lethal levels. It will be cleaned every spring with Formula 409 when hibernation stops. (Read more)

Democrats trying to use GOP Farm Bill inaction to their political advantage with rural voters

Some Democrats are trying to turn the failure of the Republican-controlled House to pass a Farm Bill into an opportunity to pick up rural votes in November. Analysts are saying it could influence races in Indiana, Wisconsin and North Dakota, where agriculture interests are very influential, Alan Bjerga of Bloomberg News reports. And while it might affect some House races, Bierga writes, it's unlikely that it will help Democrats wrest control of the House.

Iowa State University political science professor Steffen Schmidt told Bjerga that Farm Bill inaction could weaken Republican Senate efforts in rural, conservative states such as North Dakota and Montana, which likely won't be won by Democrats in the presidential election but could be won by Democrats in congressional races. Not passing a Farm Bill has “become a very salient issue in a lot of key battleground races," Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee communications director Matt Canter told Bjerga. Canter added that Senate candidates, particularly in rural states, can localize their races around issues such as agriculture. In the Senate, Republicans only need to add three seats to take the majority. (Read more)

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Virginia publisher, Alabama editor and writer are finalists for Southern newspapers' commentary prize

Staffers of The Tidewater News of Franklin, Va., and the TimesDaily of Florence, Ala., are finalists in the small-paper category for the Carmage Walls Commentary Prize awarded by the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association. The winner will be announced Oct. 1 at SNPA's News Industry Summit in Naples, Fla.

Tidewater News Publisher Steve Stewart editorialized against a Franklin School Board policy that required teachers to give students a grade of 60 when they had scored lower, even much lower. The board reversed itself, and Stewart complimented it in an editorial. For his other editorials, click here.

Executive Editor Scott Morris and staff writer Robert Palmer editorialized during and after passage of the controversial Alabama law that allows police officers to detain motorists they suspect are illegal immigrants and makes it illegal to knowingly give a ride to an illegal immigrant. To read their work, click here.

The finalists among newspapers with circulation of more than 50,000 are Linda Campbell, editorial writer and columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and John Railey, editorial-page editor of teh Winston-Salem Journal. For details, click here.