Friday, December 14, 2012

Small daily paper keeps Newtown and us informed; here's advice on covering school safety and guns

Today's horrific school shooting that left 26 victims dead was not in a rural place, strictly speaking, because it happened in a town of 27,000 people in the New York metropolitan area. But Newtown, Conn., is an exurb, not a suburb, with plenty of rural areas in a township of almost 60 square miles, one of the state's largest.

The Newtown Bee has been busy all day. "Newtown was stunned with disbelief and then shattered with grief Friday as few tragic details of a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School filtered out through authorities," the 8,000-circulation daily reported in its first full story. Here is the paper's first breaking-news report.

The paper provided photographs, like the one above by Associate Editor Shannon Hicks, to other news outlets. Kendra Bobowick reported on a memorial Mass; Andrew Gorosko covered the governor's visit. The paper's most circulated story appears to be this one by Associate Editor John Voket, headlined "Stories Of Heroism Emerging From School Shooting Tragedy." They include a custodian "who, as shots were ringing out, reportedly ran through the school halls making sure classroom doors were locked from the inside. And the school nurse who fought the urge to run toward the commotion to help, instead following the protocol and training she received never thinking she would have to use it." (Read more)

"Journalists will have to provide clear-eyed context to help the nation come to terms with the shooting" and inform debates about school safety and gun control, writes Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute. His guide, "What journalists should know about school shootings and guns," is here.

UPDATE, Dec. 16: Poynter's Julie Moos talks about the Bee's coverage with Hicks, a volunteer firefighter whose unit was called to the scene after she arrived as a journalist. When Voket arrived, she "passed the baton" to him and donned firefighter gear, she said. But at her editor's request she went back to the office to coordinate coverage. That's community journalism. (Read more)

Duluth paper, in wake of Vilsack's statement that rural America is less relevant: Where's the outrage?

In contrast to the outrage expressed at Mitt Romney's comment that 47 percent of Americans were unlikely to vote for him because they benefit from one government program or another, so he wouldn’t be campaigning too hard to reach them, no one has railed about Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack's recent comments that rural America is “becoming less and less relevant” to government and to politicians, the editorial page of the Duluth News Tribune notes.

"Where were the tractors rolling up Pennsylvania Avenue in protest? Where were the ranchers and farmers and outdoors-lovers demanding to be heard? No one would have blamed rural America, including nearly all of northeastern Minnesota and northwestern Wisconsin, for being up in arms," the paper opines. "What Vilsack was saying, essentially, was that the U.S. government and its elected leaders aren’t bothering to represent rural areas because there’s no political payoff or ballot-box support."

Yes, "More people are living in cities and suburbs. And President Obama, a Democrat, retained the White House in spite of overwhelming Republican support from the nation’s rural areas," the paper says. "But none of those are reason enough for elected leaders to ignore an entire segment of the population, as Vilsack said is happening. Elected representatives and others in government are supposed to work for all, not just for those who support their elections and re-elections." When they don’t represent all, those snubbed are entirely justified in expressing their strong disagreement. (Read more)

A contrasting view comes from Tim Hearden of Capital Press, a Western farm-news service: Despite what Vilsack says, "Rural Americans managed to string together an impressive array of successes during President Barack Obama's first term. Political pressure from farmers and ranchers played a big role in stalling key parts of Obama's agenda that they don't like," such as a cap-and-trade emissions system and "stringent new meatpacker rules." But it must also be said that cap-and-trade would have paid farmers for carbon sequestration and the meatpacker rules could have helped small producers.

Military weeding out obese and overweight troops

Between 1998 and 2010, CNN reports, the number of active-duty military personnel deemed overweight or obese more than tripled. In 2010, 5.3 percent of the force -- or 86,186 troops -- received at least a clinical diagnosis of overweight or obese, according to the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center. The trend has prompted the Pentagon to re-examine its training programs, and it is now actively weeding out soldiers deemed unfit to fight. It is also a tidy way to trim the budget at the same time as federal cuts loom. (CNN photo)

During the first 10 months of this year, 1,625 soldiers were dismissed for being out of shape. That's  about 15 times the number discharged for that reason in 2007 at the peak of wartime deployment, CNN reports. Overweight are considered "substandard" fighting units and a threat to national security and the nation' ability to maintain an adequate defense. Obesity is now the leading cause of ineligibility for those wishing to join, say military officials.

Rural America is more obese than America as a whole. In Kentucky, a state that ranks high in obesity, military recruitment rates (as a percentage of the recruits per 100,000 youth aged 18-24) have dropped steadily from 2007, when it was 2.53 percent, to 2010, when it was 1.94 percent. Perhaps the state's high obesity rate was a reason. (Read more)

Writer asks: Why have corporations and foundations not embraced rural philanthropy?

"Wonder what happened to the push for rural philanthropy?" asks Rick Cohen in Politico. "It has long been a truism that foundations follow election results. How could they not? On Nov. 6, the majority of voters in rural America cast their ballot for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Rural voters accounted for only 14 percent of the electorate but favored Romney with 61 percent of their votes. That showing obviously doesn’t reflect how the overall election results turned out, so what’s the upshot?"

Cohen writes that rural America also has revealed itself to be less powerful than ever through the failure to pass a Farm Bill, and he wonders how rural has been forgotten by those who owe it for their power. He remembers "when President Barack Obama first took office, (how) a hot concept among savvy political think-tankers was the idea of the U.S. as a 'Metro Nation.' This is the concept of 300 metropolitan regions as the economic engines of the U.S." Cohen writes that he recalls "the excited response of foundations to the Metro Nation concept, even as Metro Nation proponents made the obligatory bromides about the importance of rural America. Nonetheless, the strategy was to focus on metropolitan areas and somehow, with the increasing prosperity of those metropolitan areas, it was thought that rural areas would be carried along."

But, he notes, they haven't. He wonders then why U.S. foundations aren't seeing the connection between putting money into rural America where, after all, their profits emanate in the form of energy, timber and farming, and prosperity for us all. (Read more)

Gas boom boosts rural income, but not all benefit; in 3 Ky. counties government provides more than half

The nation's oil and gas boom is driving up income so fast in a few hundred small towns and rural areas that it's shifting prosperity to the heartland, according to USA Today, which looked at federal Bureau of Economic Analysis data. Inflation-adjusted income is up 3.8 percent per person since 2007 for the 51 million Americans in small cities, towns and rural areas, versus 1.8 percent in urban areas, Dennis Cauchon and Paul Overberg report. Credit the energy boom -- mainly hydraulic fracturing -- and some temporarily strong farm prices for the rural windfall.

The analysis also revealed that Owsley, McCreary and Wolfe counties in Kentucky are the only places in the nation that rely on government programs such as Social Security, food stamps and Medicaid for more than half of their income. (Read more)

Crop a few sizes too small: Future Christmas tree harvest likely grinchy because of drought

At Brad Miller's Christmas Tree Farm in Mindoro, Wis., almost his entire Christmas tree planting of 2,500 this year did not survive the dry, scorching summer. Across Wisconsin, reports Matt Hoffman of the LaCrosse Tribune, nearly 1 million Christmas trees are harvested from more than 1,000 rural farms on an average year. This year, more than 20 percent of the state's growers suffered drought damage, with losing as much as 40 percent of their crop. This means that in six to 10 years, when those trees are set to be harvested, the crop will be small, if at all, for those farmers. The outlook nationwide is not much different.

In Michigan, the $40 million annual crop is also at risk,  reports the Great Lakes Echo of the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University. Christmas trees, traditionally grown in poor soil, have always been at the mercy of weather -- of all kinds. Wisconsin's Miller explained that even those few trees that survived the summer are at risk. A deep frost isolates a sapling's roots from moisture, he said, explaining he hopes a large snow pack will insulate the ground from extreme temperatures. However, Miller said, even if an early spring arrives, “We’ll probably lose more over the winter.” (Read more)

Thursday, December 13, 2012

New poll shows Republican Party is the rural party, and not much more than that, at least for now

The latest NBC-Wall Street Journal poll has more bad news for the Republican Party. Just look at the "favorable" and "unfavorable" ratings, Chuck Todd, Mark Murray and their NBC News colleagues write in the network's morning political-news briefing, First Read:

"The GOP’s fav/unfav rating in the poll now stands at 30% - 45% (minus 15), which is down from 36% - 43% (minus 7) right before the election. That’s compared with the Democratic Party’s 44% - 35% rating (plus 9). And other than self-described Republicans and conservatives, just two other groups have a net positive view of the GOP: folks who live in rural America (39% - 33%) and folks who live in the South (39% - 38%); that’s it."

When the poll respondents were asked to give a word or short phrase about the party, "65% offered a negative comment, including more than half of Republicans," First Read reports. "By contrast, 37% gave negative descriptions of the Democratic Party, while 35% were positive. A Republican politician or operative might look at our poll and say, 'Well, the good news is that our numbers can’t get any lower.' That might be true, and they could very well drag Democrats down with them if there isn’t a deal [on the 'fiscal cliff']. But there’s another way to look at the poll: Republicans have a lot to gain, too. And if they want to be a competitive national party again and not simply a regional, rural party, they need to make gains." (Read more)

Candidates avoid buying ads in weekly newspapers, show they're 'clueless' about rural communities

Editor-Publisher Ross Connelly of the Hardwick Gazette in northern Vermont looked at 12 other weekly newspapers published in the area during the week before the November election, and found that candidates running for the state legislature advertised in those papers, but those running for statewide and federal office mostly steered clear of weeklies.

Elections at least every two years boost weeklies' advertising, but Connelly's observation is not just about money. "Vermont weekly newspapers, almost all of which are independent, are small businesses owned by people who live in this state . . . employ local residents and are integral parts of the economy in their towns," but statewide candidates bought ads on "distant, often corporately-owned television or radio stations that broadcast over large regions of the state."

"The candidates, who preach about the importance of the economy, who preach about the importance of strengthening the job market, of the importance of buying local, did not find it in their interest to support these small businesses by buying local," Connelly writes. "Statewide candidates, many of whom came up through local ranks, should not forget the lessons they learned when they held local office or served in the state's legislature: retail campaigning works, and is useful, for them and citizens . . . If we're not important enough for you to come to our towns to meet us and support our local businesses, why should we think you are important to us? We don't like to be taken for granted. Why should we vote?"

Connelly's editorial appears in the December newsletter of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors, the cover story of which is an editorial from Steve Andrist of the Crosby Journal in North Dakota. He writes about the $16 million U.S. Senate race between Republican Rep. Rick Berg and Democrat Heidi Heitkamp, who defeated Berg by fewer than 3,000 votes.

Berg wanted to travel through Crosby and Tioga to speak with local newspapers on a last-minute campaign swing; Andrist, right, writes that Berg's campaign staffers were "peeved, or disappointed, or maybe just surprised, when we politely said 'no'." Berg wanted these interviews to happen on a Tuesday, deadline day. Andrist says that proved the campaign's cluelessness about rural places and people.

"You'd think a congressman hoping to be senator of one of the country's most rural states would have a clue about life in a rural community," Andrist writes. "Rural communities, you see, have weekly newspapers. That means they have only weekly deadlines. Tuesday is drop-dead day at most weekly newspapers, which you would think might be well known to a person who grew up in a rural community and represents a whole bunch of them and often has reason to communicate through local media. Unless he's here to announce a multi-million dollar grant to the local hospitals, or to blow up the local courthouse, there's no way we're going to hold a deadline for him."

Andrist also says neither Berg nor Heitkamp spent "a red cent on community newspaper ads in oil-patch hotbed communities like Crosby or Tioga or Bowbells. ... We do know that during this heated, protracted, expensive campaign, not so much as a classified ad was placed in most weekly papers across the state. But there were plenty of requests for free coverage and letters to the editor."

However dismaying, or angering, those pieces might be for local newspaper reporters and editors, former Minnesota editor Jim Pumarlo, right, reminds them in his latest monthly column that election coverage shouldn't be over just because the election is, because followup stories can hold the winners "accountable. It also can enrich your reporting and interpretation of local public affairs." All three columns and several more can be found in the ISWNE's December newsletter, here.

Suspension of ethanol-in-gasoline rule wouldn't affect markets very much, Fed banker writes

In the wake of this summer's drought, corn prices skyrocketed, squeezing U.S. grain supplies. This reignited the debate about the Renewable Fuel Standard, which requires a certain percentage of ethanol in gasoline and has expanded the U.S. ethanol industry. The industry has produced so much of the biofuel that it soon will have a surplus. Some believe that temporarily waiving the RFS mandate will reduce ethanol production and reduce corn prices, Nathan Kauffman of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City writes in The Main Street Economist, a publication of the bank. However, he says ethanol production isn't likely to decrease that much, even during a waiver period.

That's because the RFS mandates that ethanol be produced to supply gasoline blends through the next decade. "A temporary waiver would not relieve the pressure on current production to build credits to satisfy future mandates," Kauffman writes. The ethanol industry has become more market-based as production has soared, he continues, and if energy prices rise faster than commodity prices, ethanol profits could increase, raising production regardless of the RFS mandates. Ethanol is also the primary octane enhancer and fuel oxygenater on the market, with few alternatives. "Thus, it is markets, not mandates, that ultimately will determine the scale of ethanol production and its use of scarce corn," Kauffman writes. (Read more)

Demand for water from Colorado River will outpace its supply by 2060, federal report says

Drought, climate change and population growth will greatly decrease water supply in the Colorado River basin by 2060, according to a federal study. It predicts that river supplies will fall short of demand by about 3.2 million acre-feet, more than five times the amount of water consumed annually by Los Angeles. The Bureau of Reclamation study, authorized by Congress, acknowledges the difficulties in trying to project supply and demand over 50 years. To generate the report, the bureau worked with agricultural, environmental and tribal groups, as well as the river basin states: Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming. (Associated Press photo by Matt York)

"Water managers have known for years that long-term average flows of the Colorado are not as great as they were early in the last century when the river's supplies were divvied up among the states," Bettina Boxall of the Los Angeles Times reports. A warming climate is expected to increase evaporation, decrease snowpack and accentuate drought, she writes. The report cites previous water-flow studies that predict a reduction of 9 percent, and developed a range of supply and demand scenarios to determine estimates.

The report lists a number of proposed solutions to mitigate water loss. Those measures include desalination of seawater and brackish water for potable water supplies, and recycling and conservation. Some proposals, such as a pipeline from the east and towing icebergs to Southern California, were immediately dismissed as unfeasible by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. (Read more)

Farm Bill talks still stuck in North-South divide

"With time running out, House and Senate farm-bill leaders were still acres apart Wednesday night after an exchange of offers that only highlighted their competing visions of how to reshape commodity subsidies," with a distinct North-South divide, veteran D.C. agriculture-policy reporter David Rogers writes for Politico.

Senate negotiators have agreed to include rice, peanuts and wheat in a new income-insurance program that would take the place of direct payments, but the Senate's offer, which "covers 75 percent of what had been the difference between the competing baselines for these three crops," is not enough for the House, Rogers reports.

From there, it gets more complicated, but Rogers is the best at explaining it. He concludes, "without a deal soon — the only choice will be no Farm Bill, and starting all over again in a new Congress." To read his story, click here.

Washington state nonprofit that helps felons re-enter society is facing cuts, might have to close

In recent years, prisons have been built en masse in rural areas, heralded as economic beacons for local communities that needed jobs and local economic growth. But, what happens when the prisoners housed in those facilities re-enter society, perhaps in the locality? In Washington state, a local program in the big prison county has been helping prisoners assimilate into local society. It provides a valuable service, even with its small staff and budget, Sheila Hagar of the Walla Walla Union Bulletin reports.

The Successful Transition And Reentry organization was founded in 2005, and helps newly released felons who are mandated by law to return to Walla Walla County find housing, jobs and social services. It is the only such program in the state, according to its organization's board president, Chuck Hindman. The program has served 91 clients so far in 2012 on "the tightest of shoestrings," Hagar reports. Glenna Awbrey is the only paid staff, and she runs classes, therapy sessions, mentoring, landlord intervention and case management.

STAR's annual budget is $133,000. That could be cut by $40,000 if the county's Department of Human Services goes through with announced cuts. Awbrey said the budget cuts would end up costing the county in the long run. STAR prevents about half of former felons from re-entering the prison system, saving the county about $45,000 a year per inmate. "If statistics hold, a $40,000 cut in housing funds will cost the public at least $20,000 to incarcerate such people again," Hagar reports. (Read more)

Northeastern states tell EPA they will sue it for not targeting oil and gas industry's methane leaks

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has notified the Environmental Protection Agency that he and six other Northeastern states plan to sue the agency for "failing to address methane emissions from the oil and natural gas industry . . . a powerful climate change pollutant emitted by the industry in large quantities," a press release from his office said.

The states will charge that EPA violated the Clean Air Act by largely ignoring methane when it recently updated air-pollution rules for the industry, which Schneiderman says is "the single largest source of man-made methane emissions in the U.S., and the second largest industrial source of domestic greenhouse gas emissions behind only electric power plants."

The recent rules update targeted hydraulic fracturing, which has made the gas industry boom, but did not address methane. The industry acknowledges that its wells and pipelines sometimes leak methane, but says its facilities generally prevent such emissions.

Such lawsuits require a 60-day notice of intention to sue. The notice is here. Such suits can result in settlements in which EPA agrees to increase its regulation. Joining New York in the case are Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Vermont. (Read more)

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Dollar General to sell tobacco products in most locations by mid-2013; cites 'customer demand'

By the middle of 2013, most of Dollar General's 10,000 U.S. stores will carry cigarettes and other tobacco products. The company has made the decision in response to “competitive pressures” which came about when Family Dollar Stores, a key competitor, began adding cigarettes to its stores last year. In a press release issued by Dollar General, customer demand also drove the company's decision, citing their perception that their core customers -- mostly based in rural America -- are more likely to smoke than the national average.

A 2012 study by the American Lung Association indicated that while rural Americans do smoke more than urban Americans, geography is less a factor in determining who smokes than socioeconomic status. The study also found that pregnant rural women are far more likely to smoke than their urban counterparts. (See actual numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and the American Lung Association study here.)

G. Chambers Williams III of The Tennessean in Nashville reports that business analysts think the idea of selling tobacco at Dollar General is a good one for the company, which tested the product placement last year in Nevada. Analyst Mark Montagna with Avondale Partners in Nashville explained that the company found that the average purchase per customer was $14 where tobacco was sold, versus an average of $11 where it wasn't. But, he added, the one challenge the company will face with tobacco products: additional shoplifting. Anti-smoking advocates expressed regret at the choice. (Read more)

EPA allows toxic waste injection into drinking water aquifers across the country, probe finds

"Federal officials have given energy and mining companies permission to pollute aquifers in more than 1,500 places across the country, releasing toxic material into underground reservoirs that help supply more than half of the nation's drinking water," Abrahm Lustgarten of ProPublica reports. Often, the Environmental Protection Agency allows these aquifer exemptions in Western states where gas extraction has been booming, but drought has made people "increasingly desperate for water."

EPA records show that at least 100 drinking water aquifers "have been written off because exemptions have allowed them to be used as dumping grounds," Lustgarten writes. As part of his investigation, Lustgarten tried to find out which aquifers have been polluted. But the EPA "has not even kept track of exactly how many exemptions it has issued, where they are, or whom they might affect," he writes. Exemptions are apparently issued in conflict with the agency's mandate to protect drinking water.

Hundreds of the exemptions are for "lower-quality water of questionable use," Lustgarten reports. But many of them allow "grantees to contaminate water so pure it would barely need filtration, or that is treatable using modern technology." Exemptions are only supposed to be granted if aquifers are too remote, too dirty or too deep to access for drinking water, and applicants for exemption must convince the government that the water isn't being used as drinking water and never will be. However, the EPA has issued exemptions for portions of aquifers already in use, "assuming contaminants will stay within the finite area exempted," Lustgarten reports.

"In Wyoming, people are drawing on the same water source for drinking, irrigation and livestock that, about a mile away, is being fouled with federal permission. In Texas, EPA officials are evaluating an exemption for a uranium mine — already approved by the state — even though numerous homes draw water from just outside the underground boundaries outlined in the mining company's application," Lustgarten reports. The EPA declined to comment, but sent Lustgarten a written statement saying aquifer exemptions were issued responsibly. However, officials say the agency is quietly assembling a task force to "re-evaluate its aquifer exemption policies." (Read more)

Rural lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender youth feel less safe at school than urban LGBT, study finds

Rural lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender youth reported feeling less safe, facing heightened victimization and having fewer supportive resources than their urban counterparts, according to a study from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network. The study, Strengths and Silences: The Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Students in Rural and Small Town Schools, was released today, and documents more than 2,300 LGBT high school students' experiences using data from GLSEN's 2011 National School Climate Survey.

An unsafe school environment for LGBT high school students contributes to poorer grade point averages, higher absenteeism and lowered aspirations to attend college, the study concludes. The study also reveals that rural LGBT youth have less access to LGBT support resources, including inclusive curricula, supportive teachers, anti-bullying policies and access to gay-straight alliance student clubs.

Other key findings from the study include: 87 percent of rural LGBT youth reported being verbally harassed because of sexual orientation, 91 percent reported hearing the word "gay" used negatively, 79 percent said they frequently heard other homophobic remarks, only 13 percent reported that school personnel ever intervened when they heard negative remarks about sexual orientation. Rural LGBT students in the South and Midwest were more likely to feel unsafe than those living in rural parts of the Northeast and West. (Read more)

Frontier still exists; millions of Americans live on it

We've all read that the Census Bureau declared the American frontier closed in 1890. But while the westward-moving, north-south line vanished from maps, the frontier persisted in many places, under the census definition of fewer than 6 people per square mile. And with recent population losses in the Great Plains and other rural areas, the frontier has in some sense reappeared, as Deborah and Frank Popper make clear today for the Daily Yonder, with an article and this map (click on it for a larger image):
"This vast remnant frontier has never drawn the national attention that the pre-1890 one got. The New Mexico-based National Center for Frontier Communities (on whose board we serve) estimates that the frontier has approximately 5.6 million people, about 1.8 percent of the population on 46.7 percent of the land area. The NCFC definition, which depends on both density and distance from metropolitan areas, shows that people living in small, remote places with poor transportation and communication links to the rest of the country are disproportionately poor and elderly."

Frontier areas have 5.6 million people with special needs, the Poppers note, and they give details. They conclude, "Frontier justice once meant gunslingers and local lawmen, vigilantes and posses. It was often rough, terrible. Today we need a new kind of frontier justice, fairer national treatment for a vital but overlooked American place." (Read more)

University program aims to help rural Kentucky children learn about entrepreneurship

A University of Kentucky program is attempting to teach Kentucky's rural youth about entrepreneurship through web-based and hands-on approaches, Tim Thornberry of Business Lexington reports. E-Discovery Challenge incorporates curriculum and hands-on approaches to apply what students learn to create successful business teams within participating schools, project manager Melony Denham told Thornberry.

E-Discovery Challenge leaders train elementary and middle school teachers to use the program's curriculum in the classroom. After the training, teachers can then use that curriculum in a way that works best for their school schedules. The program consists of nine sessions that can be completed at the time of teachers' choosing during the school year. Classes devise a "business model" during the program that will end with a planned sales event, during which students can make money off of their business venture. Students are given $15 as seed money, which is returned to teachers for the next class, and they get to keep any profit they make and split it among their team members.

The project is in its fourth year and uses an Appalachian Regional Commission grant to operate. It is administered by the university. Denhem told Thornberry that she's encouraged that many teachers will continue the program, and now the focus is on training more teachers so it can reach more students. (Read more)

Agriculture research needs more money that would be spent more competitively, Obama advisers say

"A blue-ribbon panel of scientific and technology advisers to President Obama warns that the nation risks losing its longstanding supremacy in food production because research in agriculture has not kept up with new challenges like climate change, depleted land and water resources and emerging pests, pathogens and invasive plants," Stephanie Strom of The New York Times reports.

Two of the president's advisers urged a commitment of $700 million in additional money for new agriculture research that would be spent in very different ways than what is currently sanctioned for research: competitively, instead of doling out money in a formula to land-grant universities, which use much of the money for salaries of faculty who do research.

The report says the U.S. agricultural research enterprise isn't prepared to meet seven 21st Century challenges: competition for water, impacts of climate change, impacts of biofuel productions on food yields, new pests and pathogens, environmental impacts, health and nutritional concerns, and international food security.

The panel found that federal funding for agriculture research has remained about the same for the past 30 years, while financing for research in other areas of science and technology has increased. Because federal agriculture research funding isn't given competitively, it isn't spurring innovation and is often duplicating research conducted by private companies, the report says. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is the largest funder of agriculture research, but about 66 percent of its money goes to its own research units.

Some of USDA's research funding to land-grant universities is used for faculty salaries, but the bulk of the money is spent on corn and soybeans, "for which private companies enlist battalions of highly educated plant breeders, geneticists, laboratory technicians and other skilled workers in research and development," Strom writes. (Read more)

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Interior secretary limits wild-horse sales after probe suggests a big buyer was selling them for slaughter

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, left, said he will tighten rules on wild-horse sales by limiting the number people can buy and making it easier to prosecute those who sell mustangs for slaughter, Dave Philipps of ProPublica reports. Salazar told the Colorado Springs Gazette that he was responding to a September ProPublica investigation that "questioned the fate of animals sold to Tom Davis," Philipps writes.

Davis, a livestock hauler in southern Colorado's San Luis Valley, has bought more than 1,700 horses through the federal wild-horse program since 2009 and sold 70 percent of them. He said he sold the animals to "good homes," but wild-horse advocates fear he sold them to Mexican slaughterhouses. Davis later told Colorado officials that he shipped horses out of state, in violation of inspection laws, and the case has been turned in for prosecution.

People who buy wild horses from the federal government sign contracts saying they won't sell them for slaughter. Salazar is changing that language to say buyers can face prosecution for any "material misrepresentations" or for selling them to middlemen who sell them to slaughterhouses. The new rules say that people can only buy five wild horses every six months, with larger orders requiring signed approval from the Bureau of Land Management's deputy director.

Salazar said the rule changes should prevent wild horse from ending up at slaughterhouses, but he acknowledged that "Fundamental fixes to the wild horse program, which has been dogged by controversy and mounting costs, have so far eluded his agency," Philipps reports. Salazar oversees the BLM, which cares for most of the 35,000 wild horses on public lands in the West. They are protected from capture or slaughter. (Read more)

Rural school districts win Race to the Top money

More than 50 school districts, including 22 in a largely rural Kentucky group, will share $400 million in four-year "Race to the Top" grants from the U.S. Department of Education to "personalize and deepen" learning and improve student achievement and teacher effectiveness, the agency announced today.

"Few of the winners, however, serve mostly rural students, with the largest concentration in the Kentucky co-op," Michele McNeil of Education Week reports. This is the first Race to the Top money awarded to individual school districts or groups of districts applying as a consortium.

The exact grant amounts are still to be determined, but will range from $10 million to $40 million. The Green River Regional Educational Cooperative in Kentucky is expected to get about $40 million for 22 districts in the western half of the state, most of them rural. The application also includes the Ohio Valley Educational Cooperative, an agency created by several north-central districts.

Another grant of at least $20 million will go to the Idea Public Schools, a charter-school system in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas. (Two urban charter schools also won grants.) Other rural or semi-rural grantees include the Iredell (County)-Statesville Schools in North Carolina and the Lindsay Unified School District, in the Sierra Nevada foothills east of Tulare, Calif.

Race to the Top was launched in 2009 as the Obama administration's primary education-reform effort. “Race to the Top sparked as much reform in some states that didn’t receive funds as in those that did – a trend we want to see continued with the Race to the Top-District competition, where the number of strong district applicants was greater than the funding we had available,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said. “We want districts to keep moving on these blueprints for reform to transform the learning environment and ultimately prepare every student for college and their career.”

For more information, including a list of winners, budget ranges and additional materials, to to this web page:

A blight-resistant American chestnut tree has been created, but can it fit into the changed landscape?

"The American chestnut once towered over everything else in the forest. It was called the 'redwood of the East.' Dominating the landscape from Georgia to Maine, Castanea dentata provided the raw materials that fueled the young nation's westward expansion, and inspired the words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Henry David Thoreau," Allen Breed of The Associated Press reports. But then the chestnut blight struck, and by the 1950s, the tree was nearly extinct. (Photo by Breed: 50-foot tall American chestnut in Grassy Creek, N.C. shows no signs of blight)

Scientists have been trying to revive the tree for decades, and now after 30 years of careful breeding and crossbreeding, The American Chestnut Foundation thinks it has developed a blight-resistant tree it is calling the "Restoration Chestnut 1.0," Breed reports. The AFC has adopted a master plan for planting millions of chestnut trees in the 19 states of its original range. Volunteers in state chapters of the group have established seed orchards that will produce regionally adapted nuts for transplanting into the wild.

But uncertainty about the tree's future remains, Breed reports. "The restoration tree is being introduced onto a physical and economic landscape that has long since learned to do without the once-indispensable American chestnut," Breed writes. There are concerns about whether it will crowd out other species, and how to convince landowners and governments that reintroducing the chestnut is worth it. There are also some who "will question the wisdom of trying to bring back something that could not survive on its own or, worse yet, 'engineering' a replacement that can," Breed reports. (Read more)

World's biggest, oldest trees dying at faster pace

The world's largest and oldest trees are dying at an alarmingly fast pace, researchers have found. Their study, to be published in the journal Science on Friday, warns that more research to understand and slow the loss of these trees in "urgently needed," Jim Robbins of The New York Times reports. Australian National University professor and lead author David Lindemayer said the tree deaths appear to be happening in all types of forests at all latitudes. (Reuters photo: diseased ash tree in center)

Researchers said the cause is a combination of factors, including a hotter, drier climate, logging, clear-cutting, changes in forest fire prevention and management, invasive insect attacks and diseases. These 100- to 300-year old trees sustain biodiversity "to a greater degree than many other components of the forest," making their die-offs very concerning, researchers say. "Big, old trees are not just enlarged young trees," University of Washington professor and study co-author Jerry Franklin said. "Old trees have idiosyncratic features – a different canopy, different branch systems, a lot of cavities, thicker bark and more heartwood. They provide a lot more habitat and niches."

Big trees also provide food supplies to numerous animal species, and store large amounts of carbon, recycle soil nutrients and contribute to the flow of water and climate within an ecosystem, Robbins reports. "It is a very, very disturbing trend," James Cook University professor and co-author Bill Laurance said. "We are talking about the loss of the biggest living organisms that play a key role in regulating and enriching our world." (Read more)

K.C. Star looks into mechanical beef-tenderization process that increases risk of E. coli infection

In a yearlong investigation, Mike McGraw of The Kansas City Star discovered that the beef industry relies on a mechanical process to tenderize a lot of its meat, and that the process exposes unwary consumers to higher risk of infection from E. coli bacteria.

The industry doesn't want to label mechanically tenderized meat with cooking instructions, leaving consumers in the dark about that risk, McGraw reports: "The result: Beef in America is plentiful and affordable, spun out in enormous quantities at high speeds, but it's a bonanza with hidden dangers. Industry officials contend beef is safer than it's ever been," the Star reports. (Star photo by Keith Myers: Workers at Tyson Fresh Meats plant, Dakota City, Neb.)

The Star investigated the four largest beef packers in the U.S.: Tyson Foods, Cargill Meat Solutions, National Beef and JBS USA Beef. The newspaper also examined "the network of feedlots, processing plants, animal drug companies and lobbyists who make up the behemoth known as Big Beef," and found an increasingly concentrated industry that mass-produces beef at high speeds in mega-factories that dot the Midwest," McGraw writes.

The industry calls the tenderization process, which injects marinades into meat, "blading" or "needling," and it's been around for decades, McGraw reports. Exact figures about the amount of beef that is bladed or needled are scarce, but a 2008 U.S. Department of Agriculture survey found that more than 90 percent of beef producers are using it on at least some cuts of meat. Mechanically tenderized beef isn't labeled, and it's increasingly sold in grocery stores, and "a vast amount" is sold to family-style restaurants, hotels and group homes. Many times, those buyers don't know the meat has been tenderized.

Blading and needling can drive pathogens deep into meat, McGraw writes. If that meat isn't cooked properly, people can get sick, or even die. The USDA has recalled the marinades injected into beef several times since 2000, and a Canadian recall in October included steaks imported into the U.S. The American Meat Institute listed eight recalls between 2000 and 2009 in a letter to the USDA in 2010. Those recalls sickened at least 100 people, McGraw reports. Food safety advocates say the incidence of illness from tenderized beef is likely much higher.

In a three-part series, McGraw also wrote about the use of antibiotics in animals creating resistant bacteria that threatens humans, a subject we have frequently covered here, and the beef industry's efforts to influence federal dietary guidelines. To read it, click here.

AMI President J. Patrick Boyle defends the machine-marinated product as safe and called the report biased and "a huge disappointment." He said in a statement that the industry was attempting to be transparent by allowing McGraw and Myers "unprecedented access" to two large packing plants, at least one feedlot and a processing plant. "We find it impossible to reconcile the conclusions reached by the Star with data from the Centers for Disease Control, the Food Safety and Inspection Service, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and other agencies."

Sheep farmers hit by drought, high feed prices, low lamb prices and maybe market manipulation

The last few years have been particularly difficult for Western sheep farmers. "Skyrocketing feed costs, a brutal drought and plunging lamb prices have battered" the 80,000 sheep ranchers across the U.S., from small producers to large, Jack Healy of The New York Times reports. "It is the latest threat to shadow a Western way of life that still relies on the whims of summer rains, lonely immigrant sheep herders and old grazing trails into the mountains." (NYT photo by Matthew Staver: feedlot sheep)

Many ranchers have been forced to lay off workers, cut flocks and sell at a loss. Industry groups told Healy that many ranchers have left the business altogether. Colorado rancher John Bartmann told Healy he hass trimmed his 2,000-sheep flock by a third, and he expects to lose $100 on every lamb because of high fuel and feed prices.

The drought and economics take most of the blame, Healy reports: "The drought withered grazing grounds, killed off young lambs and dried up irrigation ditches, and a glut of meat and imported lambs from New Zealand helped send prices plummeting." But some ranchers and federal officials believe "The deck was stacked against the sheep ranchers by the small number of powerful feedlots that buy lambs, slaughter them and sell them to grocery stores and restaurants," Healy reports. As prices for ranchers fell to 85 cents a pound, consumers were paying $7 or more a pound.

The top four meatpacking companies control 65 percent of the lamb market, and "that kind of concentration makes it easier for a few powerful companies to manipulate prices to their advantage,"  Patrick Woodall, research director at Food and Water Watch, and environmental advocacy group, told Healy. Several Western senators and ranchers' groups lobbied the U.S. Department of Agriculture to investigate meatpackers that they suspected were hoarding sheep and keeping prices artificially low. The Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration said it would investigate. (Read more)

Monday, December 10, 2012

Prisons are closing, leaving rural communities with few options for repurposing them

The U.S. prison population started declining for the first time in decades in 2009. Since then officials have been closing prisons, which were once heralded as a growth industry, especially in rural areas. Last year, 13 states closed prisons or were in the process of doing so. Michigan has closed 22, New York will close seven and even Texas, whose prison population has tripled since the 1980s, is closing some. Last week, the Bureau of Justice Statistics announced prison population is declining for the third year in a row, and a new "arc is beginning to take shape," Emily Badger of The Atlantic reports. (Fairfax County Department of Planning and Zoning photo: former East Reformatory prison in Lorton, Va.)

The conventional narrative is that if budget cuts weren't so deep right now, prisons would be allowed to stay open, but Public Safety Performance Project director Adam Gelb said this isn't the case. The public, politicians and public safety professionals are fundamentally shifting the way they think about prisons, he told Badger. Police and court systems now have better ways to prevent re-offending, and have better tools to keep them out of prison cells, including treatment programs, GPS tracking, and alcohol detection ignition locks in cars. And the public "has grown weary of the War on Drugs that helped fuel our prison boom," Badger writes.

Now officials have to figure out what to do with now empty and often isolated buildings. "By definition, they were built to be bedrock-secure, to serve a purpose unlike any other building genre," Badger reports. There are cases of prisons being turned into storage facilities, but in rural areas, options for reuse are very limited. Educational facilities might be the best re-purposing idea in rural communities, Badger writes. Rural communities were sold on the idea of prisons as economic engines. Prison closings "offer an opportunity to rethink the economies of these places and to thoughtfully include local communities in the planning process," Badger writes. (Read more)

Entitlement program keeps some families in cycle of poverty, liberal New York Times columnist says

In the midst of debate about the "fiscal cliff," cuts and changes in entitlement programs like Medicaid, welfare and Supplemental Security Income have been discussed as cost-saving measures. Liberals say entitlement programs help millions of struggling people every year; conservatives say entitlements are abused, costing taxpayers millions that could be spent more effectively elsewhere and fostering a culture of dependency.

Nicholas Kristof, left, a liberal columnist for The New York Times, explores the issue with this glimpse of a facet of SSI: "Parents here in Appalachian hill country pulling their children out of literacy classes. Moms and dads fear that if kids learn to read, they are less likely to qualify for a monthly check for having an intellectual disability." In Breathitt County, Kentucky, he writes, $698 a month "goes a long way."

"This is painful for a liberal to admit, but conservatives have a point when they suggest that America’s safety net can sometimes entangle people in a soul-crushing dependency," Kristof writes. "Some young people here don’t join the military (a traditional escape route for poor, rural Americans) because it’s easier to rely on food stamps and disability payments. Antipoverty programs also discourage marriage . . . Most wrenching of all are the parents who think it’s best if a child stays illiterate, because then the family may be able to claim a disability check each month."

Kristof does not document how many such cases he found in Appalachia, nor does he cite military enlistment data. His headline, "Profiting from a child's illiteracy," does not take into account the circumstances of individual families. But he quotes the woman who runs the literacy program and a local school official, who says, "The greatest challenge we face as educators is how to break that dependency on government. In second grade, they have a dream. In seventh grade, they have a plan."

In a 2009 piece for the Times, University of Richmond political science professor Jennifer Erkulwater noted, "Between 1984 and 1990, Congress loosened SSI requirements, especially for children with mental disabilities. It also said it wouldn't cut off recipients it thought weren't disabled anymore unless it could prove this. As a result, it should come as no surprise that, compared to two decades ago, it is much easier today for younger adults and children ... to receive disability benefits and to stay on the disability rolls longer once found eligible."

Because of those loosened rules, 55 percent of disabilities covered by SSI are "fuzzier intellectual disabilities," Kristof writes. He reports that 1.2 million low-income children, 8 percent of the total, are on SSI. It's a $9 billion annual burden for taxpayers, he writes, but "It can be even worse for children whose families have a huge stake in their failing school." He cites a 2009 study that found two-thirds of SSI kids who turn 18 transfer into the adult program: "They may never hold a job in their entire lives and are condemned to a life of poverty on the dole — and that’s the outcome of a program intended to fight poverty."

Kristof acknowledges that he's no expert on poverty, and says fighting it is complex, "But for me, a tentative lesson from the field is that while we need safety nets, the focus should be instead on creating opportunity, and, still more difficult, on creating an environment that leads people to seize opportunities." (Read more)

UPDATE, Jan. 29, 2013: New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan criticizes Kristoff for not reporting the issue of poverty and federal assistance programs more rigorously. She writes in her column, "The Public Editor's Journal," that Kristof "does plenty of shoe-leather reporting for his columns," and that he travels all over the world and talks to many people about the issues he addresses. But this time, "he did not talk to the primary sources, the parents of poor and developmentally disabled children," Sullivan writes. "Given the provocative nature of his opening statement and its importance in setting up the column's thesis, it should have been completely solid." After reading all the points, counterpoints, objections and defenses in relations to Kristof's column, she writes: "I believe that some of the column's assertions were based on too little direct evidence or used statistical information that is, at the very least, open to interpretation." 

USDA eases school lunch rules, allowing more grain and meat; nutrition advocates say it's OK by them

The U.S. Department of Agriculture will allow more grain and meat in school lunches in response to criticism about new lunch rules that took effect in September. Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a letter to Congress that the USDA will end daily and weekly limits on grains and meat, The Associated Press reports. Several legislators and school administrators complained about the new rules, saying students weren't getting enough to eat. The new guidelines were set to address childhood obesity. They limited salt and calories, and required servings of vegetables or fruits at every meal. (AP photo: Salads at elementary school)

"This flexibility is being provided to allow more time for the development of products that fit within the new standards while granting schools additional weekly menu-planning options to help ensure that children receive a wholesome, nutritious meal every day of the week," Vilsack wrote. The tweak will allow school lunch planners to use as much grain and meat as they want. Many had said grains shouldn't be limited because they are a part of so many meals.

Nutritionists who fought for the new rules support the changes. Center for Science in the Public Interest lobbyist Margo Wootan said the changes are minor and prove that the USDA is willing to work with school nutrition officials to mitigate concerns. "It takes time to work out the kinks," Wootan told the AP. "This should show Congress that they don't need to interfere legislatively." Last year, Congress blocked limits on potatoes and French fries, and allowed schools to count tomato paste as a vegetable. (Read more)

Rural Obesity Prevention Tool Kit created to tackle epidemic: 40 percent of rural U.S. adults are obese

When the Journal of Rural Health recently reported that 40 percent of adults living in rural areas are obese, compared with 33 percent of adults living in urban areas, the size of the disparity was larger than expected and previously estimated. In response to the severity and urgency of the obesity epidemic, the Rural Assistance Center of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has created a Rural Obesity Prevention tool kit which contains resources to help communities develop obesity prevention programs. (Read more)