Saturday, May 04, 2013

Kentucky Derby doings obscure the state's dire state, rural papers' correspondent writes

As the nation prepares to watch the Kentucky Derby today, Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., state-capital correspondent Ronnie Ellis reminds his mostly rural readers that "What the world sees during Derby Week, however, isn’t the Kentucky most of us witness the rest of the year."

For example, Ellis writes, "Our state can’t afford a little money for a social work program operated by the Department of Public Advocacy that can alter the despair of drug addiction and save the state millions. And lawmakers can’t find money to buy textbooks for school children or help pay for day care for working single mothers who will likely have to resort to welfare."

Ellis notes that many "wealthy industrialists and mining executives" are at the Derby, "but you won’t see many of the little people left to live in the wake of the pollution and poverty their profits leave behind. . . . Children whose lives were cut short by abuse even while they were supposedly under the protection of the state won’t watch the Derby this year, either. But a lot of those people who were elected to protect them will be dancing and drinking at the elegant parties."

He concludes, "Still, the more I think about it, the more I think the Derby extravagance is just what we need. Lord knows, we all need a little break from reality. So I hope everyone has a great time, and I hope the hangover isn’t too painful. But I hope we’ll spend the other 51 weeks of the year trying to help those other folks who live here, the ones too busy trying to stay afloat or just stay alive to enjoy the Derby." (Read more)

Man-bites-dog story more than a novelty; illustrates lack of animal control in many rural areas

For decades journalists have defined news as "man bites dog," not the everyday occurrence of dog bites man (or woman, in this case). But have you ever read a story about a man biting a dog? The Des Moines Register ran one today, and its headline began, "Man bites dog . . . "

Daniel P. Finney reports that "Caren and Laine Henry walked their pet beagle along a gravel road near Laine’s father’s home in rural Madrid on Sunday afternoon" when "a 50-pound Labrador retriever mix . . . bit into her right thigh and abdomen, puncturing the skin in both places. Then the dog went for her face. . . . Laine Henry hustled to help his wife. He fought the dog, which bit his left arm." Caren Henry told Finney, “He finally had to bite the dog in its nose, and it let loose.”

The story is more than a journalistic novelty; it illustrates the lack of animal control in much of rural America. The incident occurred in the northeast corner of Dallas County, which "does not have a vicious dog ordinance that would require criminal penalties for the dog’s owner and potentially lead to the animal being put down," Finney reports. "If the dog clears veterinary health tests after 14 days, it will be released back to its owner. The county has no animal control facilities and no place to quarantine or cage a potentially vicious dog. Des Moines police had impounded the dog in 2012 for attacking another dog." (Read more)

Friday, May 03, 2013

Reality TV producers still like shows 'set in the South with loud, unpolished, young kids'

Shane Gandee of "Buckwild"
died in April at the age of 21.
Reality TV has found success with shows focused on rural people doing things that are considered rural, which mostly seems to involve people acting like idiots, country bumpkins, or being weird to the point of almost being scary. The recently canceled "Buckwild" is a good example. The incredibly popular show featured a group of young West Virginians mostly being loud and obnoxious, and for the most part, stupid. The show was only canceled after one of the stars died.

So, when do TV networks stop trying to find ways to make fun of the perceived notions of rural people? According to Jason Linkins on the Huffington Post, it won't be any time soon. Linkins said he was the recipient of an MTV memo about proposed new shows, with one show listed as "A BUCKWILD replacement; i.e., a show set in the South with loud, unpolished, young kids."

Center for Rural Stategies President Dee Davis told Linkins, "Every community has aberrant people, easy-to-exploit exceptions for reality television producers looking to put reckless behavior on display. All of the producers of these shows say that they are trying to augur some authenticity, but in the end, they end up using their subjects for ridicule. There are certain people who they feel they have permission to ridicule," and the rural poor are one such group. (Read more)

We wrote about "Buckwild" here, here and here, and about rural depictions in reality TV here.

Pure form of chemical that caused West Fertilizer explosion is banned in some countries

Several countries have banned pure ammonium nitrate because it is so explosive. The chemical is being blamed for the West Fertilizer explosion that killed 15 people, injured 200, destroyed more than 100 homes, and has caused more than $100 million in property losses. (Photo by 

The worst part is that the explosion didn't need to happen, Tim Murphy writes for Mother Jones. "The U.S. Department of Defense has pressured manufacturers overseas to neutralize their own products, warning that anything less constitutes a threat to American personnel," Murphy writes. "But in the United States, with the backing of the chemical industry, explosive ammonium nitrate has held onto a small but powerful share of the market as the fertilizer of choice for citrus growers."

Lawmakers have had plenty of chances to ban the substance, most notably after Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh used it, and after 9/11, when "the Department of Homeland Security began offering incentives to companies that sought to neutralize the explosive properties of fertilizer," Murphy writes.

The Fertilizer Institute, "the nation's leading lobbying organization of the chemical and agricultural industries, successfully squashed all regulatory efforts," after Oklahoma City, Murphy writes. Some companies have started to come around since 9/11, but the progress has been slow. (Read more)

Shooting of 2-year-old by 5-year-old brother illustrates ubiquity of guns in many rural areas

The accidental shooting death in rural Southern Kentucky of a 2-year-old girl by her 5-year-old brother shows one rural-urban disparity of the gun-control debate, report Travis Loller and Dylan Lovan for The Associated Press. (Photo by Lovan: the family's home in Cumberland County)

Rural children grow up around guns, and the rifle used in the shooting was made specifically for children, writes Loller and Lovan. Cumberland County Coroner Gary White said what's more unusual than a child having a gun is "that a kid would get shot with it."

Cumberland County Judge-Executive John Phelps said, "It's a normal way of life, and it's not just rural Kentucky, it's rural America -- hunting and shooting and sport fishing. It starts at an early age. There's probably not a household in this county that doesn't have a gun." The county has about 7,000 people. (Read more)

The young boy "had a lethal weapon in his hands because that rifle, and tens of thousands like it, are designed, made and marketed to appeal to the 'youth market' with images much like many that would likely be placed at the grave of a two-year-old girl," the Lexington Herald-Leader says in an editorial.

The recent failure of legislation to require universal background checks for gun purchases hinged on senators from states with large rural populations. It may be revived with an exemption that would exempt residents who live hundreds of miles from a gun dealer, which we wrote about here when it was first proposed.

Crackdown on illegal border crossings at barriers, checkpoints chases traffic to rural areas

Rural residents in Texas and Arizona say a government crackdown to stop people from illegally crossing the border through cities and in vehicles has forced armed drug dealers and immigrant smugglers to travel on foot across rural areas instead, making those areas dangerous for U.S. citizens, Mark Potter reports for NBC News. (NBC hidden camera footage was taken on a private ranch in Arizona.)

Jeffrey Self, of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said some barriers and checkpoints have reduced daily undocumented drive-throughs from as many as 50 to zero, Potter reports. ICE claims that as a victory, pointing to counts that show the number of illegal detainees at the border dropped from 1,643,679 in 2000 to 356,873 in 2012. But in places like the Rio Grande Valley, numbers rose 65 percent from 2011 to 2012, from 59,000 to 97,000, and have risen another 55 percent at this point this year, Potter reports.

A U.S. border vehicle barrier in Arizona. (Mark Potter/NBC)
Rural residents are seeing a constant stream of people crossing through their property, Potter reports. One Arizona resident, speaking on the condition anonymity, told Potter, "She fears what she described as an increase in drug and immigrant smugglers crossing her land by day and night," and keeps a gun with her at all times. Texas rancher Linda Vickers said she regularly sees, and often photographs, illegal immigrants cutting across her land as they try to evade agents," often seeing groups of 10 or 20 crossing her property. She said, “In the state of Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley, the border is not secure and I don’t think you’ll find a person, a real person, to say it’s secure."

San Juan, Tex., Police Chief Juan Gonzalez told Potter his department has never dealt with so many undocumented immigrants, while Benny Martinez, the chief deputy of the Brooks County Sheriff's Office in Falfurrias, said of illegal crossings, "It hasn’t gone down at all, not here.” (Read more)

Thursday, May 02, 2013

Groups push for ban on 'neo-nic' pesticides blamed for shrinking bee populations

Photo by StudioSmart
A substantial decline in bee populations, blamed largely on a pesticide called neonicotonoids, led European nations to place a two-year ban on their use, and has groups in the U.S. pushing for a similar ban, reports Richard Schiffman for Salon. Neonicotonoids, or "neo-nics" are used on 75 percent of American farmlands.

Neo-nics contain a chemical that attacks the nervous system, are deadly to bees, and can also harm their navigation system, foraging and communication abilities, reproductive patterns, and immune systems, making them susceptible to sudden colony collapse, which is where workers leave the hive for no apparent reason and never return, Schiffman writes. (Read more)

U.S. beekeepers lost 40 to 50 percent of their bees this winter, which is up from an average annual loss of 30 percent over the past 10 years, reports Elizabeth Grossman for Yale Environment 360. In March, a group of beekeepers and environmentalist filed a suit against the Environmental Protection Agency, "for its conditional registration of certain neonicotinoids, contending that the agency did not properly ensure environmental health protections, particularly with respect to pollinators." The EPA said it is working to improve the use of neonicotonoids to ensure the safety of bees, writes Grossman. (Read more)

Tool reveals number of SNAP recipients in locality

A new interactive tool created by Slate, an online magazine, allows users to easily and quickly find out how many people in a particular city, county or state participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, Chris Kirk reports for the magazine. As of January, 15 percent of Americans were on SNAP. The tool can be found here.

Thanks to Stephen Lega, news editor of the Lebanon Enterprise, a weekly newspaper in Central Kentucky, for bringing our attention to this.

Forest industry brings biillions to many states

The forest industry is known for states that rely heavily on timber, such as Oregon and Washington, but is also has a major impact in states such as Kentucky, where it is a $10 billion annual business but gets little attention. (Photo by University of Kentucky forestry professor Jeff Stringer)

Pennsylvania leads the country in production of hardwood timber, while Kentucky and Tennessee usually rank second or third. West Virgina and North Carolina round out the top five, said aid Jeff Stringer, professor of silviculture in the UK Department of Forestry and an author of the study.

Production of hardwood timber, which employs more than 51,000 people in Kentucky, resulted in $6.4 billion in direct revenue, with an additional $3.6 billion in indirect and induced contributions, Carol Lea Spence, of the UK College of Agriculture, reports for UK Ag News. Seventy-five percent of the land is family-owned, and includes more than 700 individual facilities. (Read more)
 
Oregon, which leads the country in softwood timber production, employs 76,000 people, accounting for 6.8 percent of the state's economy, while resulting in $5.2 billion in total income and $12.7 billion in total industrial output, according to The 2012 Forest Report. Washington, which ranks second in softwood, accounts for $5 billion, making it the state's third largest commodity, according to the Washington Mill Survey.

Wind energy boosts economy, jobs in Great Plains, Rocky Mountains, other rural areas

A new study concludes that wind energy production can lead to higher incomes and more local jobs, especially for rural residents, reports the Daily Yonder. Among the more than 1,000 counties studied in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains, for the period from 2000 to 2008, "for each megawatt of wind power installed in the county," the county's personal income increased more than $2,000, from $9,300 to $11,500.

The top 25 percent of counties increased their total county income by an average of $2.6 million, and saw an increase of 132 jobs, the Yonder reports: "The study also found that the economic impact of wind-energy production increased if a county had a greater percentage of rural population, was located farther from a highway interchange or major city, or if a greater percentage of the population had earned an associate’s degree." (Read more) (Map by Energy Economics shows the total installed wind power capacity in the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains)

USDA awards grants to rural businesses and agricultural producers to create jobs, new products

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has awarded 110 grants, ranging from $9,000 to $300,000, to help agriculture producers and rural businesses create new jobs and develop new products, the agency announced Wednesday. One grant awards $92,000 to the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe Farm & Ranch Enterprise of Colorado to help the tribe market and distribute Indian cornmeal products (Photo from Facebook: Harvesting corn on the tribal farm)

Another grant, for the Glenmary Gardens in Bristol, Va., gives the business $213,000 to expand the processing and marketing of locally grown fruits and vegetables into jellies, ice cream, and flavored syrups, a press release states. Owner Michael Richard, left, "cannot purchase equipment, but the money can be used for working capital and marketing activities," James Shea reports for the Bristol Herald Courier. He hopes to lease space and build his own production facility. Ultimately, he wants to open a small country store that sells local products." (BHC photo by David Crigger)

Grants of $300,000 were also awarded to Old Wood LLC in Las Vegas, N.M., to expand sales of its engineered-panel and wood-block flooring made from small-diameter trees, and $33,850 to Kentucky Specialty Grains, a farmer-owned company in southern Kentucky near the Tennessee border, that explores the feasibility of soybean production, processing, and marketing initiatives. The complete list of recipients can be seen here.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Agriculture secretary expects first horse slaughter plant to open unless Congress acts quickly

The New Mexico plant (AP photo by Jeri Clausing)
The New Mexico horse-slaughter plant that passed a Department of Agriculture inspection last week could soon be open for business, unless Congress reinstates a ban on the practice, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told Jeri Clausing of The Associated Press.The plant would be the first to operate in the U.S. in six years.

If Congress does not pass the ban, Vilsack said, "We are duty-bound to do what needs to be done to allow that plant to begin processing. . . . I would imagine that it would be done relatively soon."

President Obama's budget proposal would eliminate funding for inspections of horse slaughterhouses, which would prevent their operation. Congress did that in 2007 but repealed the ban in 2011, after concluding that the lack of a bottom in the horse market was worsening the horse crisis. (Read more)

We wrote about the plant passing inspection here, and have covered the controversial subject here, here, here, and here.

Utahan arrested for filming meat plant from public street; Tenn. governor undecided on 'ag-gag' bill

While Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam struggles to decide whether to sign or veto an "ag-gag" bill that would require recordings of animal cruelty be handed over to police within 48 hours, and perhaps interfere with journalism about agriculture, a Utah woman was arrested for filming a slaughterhouse from a public street.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam (AP photo by Eric Schelzig)
Haslam said, "At the end of the day it comes back to: Is it good policy? Is it constitutional, and do we think it’s something that will actually help the welfare of animals and livestock?" reports Andy Sher for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Haslam could also allow the bill to become law without his signature, which is something he did with the controversial bill about teaching evolution in public schools, Sher notes. (Read more)

In an editorial, the Knoxville Daily News called for Haslam to veto the bill, saying it not only protects people who commit cruelty to animals by making it harder to gather enough information, but it goes against freedom of press. The law "would conflict with Tennessee’s Shield Law, which prevents authorities from requiring journalists to reveal any information or source of information used in news-gathering," states the editorial. "Tennessee authorities cannot compel anyone engaged in news-gathering to surrender photographs and video images." (Read more)

Amy Meyer and her dog. (Photo by
greenisthenewred.com)
In February in Draper, Utah, just outside Salt Lake City, Amy Meyer used her cell phone to record images of a cattle slaughterhouse from public property, reports Jim Dalyrmple for the Salt Lake Tribune. After slaughterhouse officials complained, Meyer was questioned by police and let go, but then was arrested under Utah's recently passed ag-gag law, on a charge of committing a Class B misdemeanor. The charge was dropped but she could have faced up to six months in jail, Examiner.com reports.

We also wrote about ag-gag bills here, here and here.

Journalism students explore effects of recession on Michigan economy, and find some success stories

The Great Recession had one of its deepest impacts in Michigan, where automakers have struggled and residents have fled cities such as Detroit to find a more promising future somewhere else. Business-journalism students at Central Michigan University are scouring the state in search of stories about the economic hardships people have faced, while writing about people, or towns, that are finding ways to help Michigan get back on its feet, reports Micheline Maynard for Forbes. (Photo by Reinventing Michigan: Monroe Family Organics used seven acres last season to grow crops such as sweet corn, radishes, broccoli, peppers, bok choy, tomatoes and baby leaf lettuce. )

Maynard, an author, blogger, and journalist who has written for The New York Times, served as a visiting professor at CMU, and this week announced the program, called Reinventing Michigan. Each of the stories takes a look at one town or group of people, showing how the economy has been affected by the recession. Examples include the industrial town of Greenville, which lost its main source of business, and stories highlighting how residents have helped try to re-shape their local economy, such as one detailing how an organic farmer in Alma has created a new market in the area, Maynard reports.

Inmates graduate from technical course; mother upset her son's suspected killer is allowed in it

Six Tennessee inmates completed a unique program that in a short span of time teaches them skills they can use on the outside. But the mother of a murdered man is angry that the her son's suspected killer was allowed to take the class, saying he shouldn't be given that kind of opportunity, reports Mark Bell for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, near Nashville. (Photo by Rutherford County Sheriff's Office: Inmate John Lamendola, far left, takes an electricity class.)

The beginning electricity class was the first higher-education course taught at the Rutherford County Adult Detention Center, reports the locally owned Murfreesboro Post. The families of inmates paid $300 for the course. Sheriff Robert Arnold said "inmates who completed the class learned a skill to get a decent-paying job and the ability to take care of their families." (Read more)

One of those inmates, John Lamendola, is suspecting of murdering Kevin Barrett, and assaulting and kidnapping his girlfriend. Barrett's mother, Barbara Thompson was shocked when she read the Post story, reports Bell. Thompson said of the sheriff, “I just don’t think he should be receiving praise in the newspaper for allowing someone accused of a capital murder to participate in this type of program."

Arnold defended his decision to include Lamendola, saying he is a pre-trial inmate under the jail’s classification system, and is “eligible to be released on bond, although he has been unable to make bond. If he was out on bond, he could be attending school or working a job." State Rep. Mike Sparks also defended the decision, saying thyat if “We could use this man and get him working in the jail doing maintenance, then I think that is also a cost savings.” (Read more)

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Rural school in Oregon tests readiness of staff by having gunmen attack with blanks

Halfway, Ore. (Photo by Richard Cockle, The Oregonian)
Masked gunmen entered a rural school in Oregon and opened fire on a meeting room full of teachers. When no one was killed or injured, staff members realized the gunmen were shooting blanks. It was a drill intended to test employees' readiness in case of an actual attack, reports Richard Cockle for The Oregonian.

Employees at Pine Eagle Charter School in Halfway, a northwest Oregon ranching town with a population of 288, have received training from the sheriff's department on active-shooter scenarios, but this was their first time being "attacked" by shooters, writes Cockle.

Some people have been critical of the training, but Principal Cammie DeCastro told Cockle that most are in favor of it, and the goal of the drill was to learn how people would react, so better emergency plans could be made. The next move could include arming teachers or having armed and trained volunteers from the community watch the school in shifts. (Read more)

Donations for Boston victims far surpass those for victims of more damaging fertilizer blast in Texas

Donations for victims of the Boston bombings have surpassed $26 million, which shows the support of the nation when disaster strikes. Yet, the more damaging explosion at the West Fertilizer plant in rural Texas has generated far less support, with donations estimated at less than $1 million. The blast killed 14 people, injured 200, destroyed more than 100 homes, and has caused more than $100 million in property losses, reports Blake Ellis for CNN Money. (Getty Images photo by Chip Somodevilla: Damaged apartments in West, Tex.)

Residents of West are in dire need of food, shelter, transportation for displaced families, medical help, and will need assistance in rebuilding, Ellis writes. Dan Ford, a resident of nearby Waco, said that while he understands the support Boston has received, he said, "We've been greatly overshadowed by the Boston tragedy. We need help."

While the Boston bombings and the West explosion are both national tragedies, media attention has focused more on Boston and the emotions and fears raised by a terrorist attack. Ethan Austin, co-founder and president of GiveForward, told Ellis, "The explosion in Texas was an accident. The reaction was sadness. The bombings in Boston were a heinous and malicious act that brought back memories of 9/11. The reaction was anger. Stories inspiring high-energy emotions like anger have a much higher likelihood of going viral. Stories inspiring low-energy emotions like sadness do not tend to go viral."

Also, Boston is a major city, with 600,000 residents in the city limits and about 4.6 million in the metropolitan area. West is home to 2,800 people, and the closest big city is Waco, which has just over 200,000 residents. (Read more)

Longtime journalist reflects on conference designed to build non-coal economy in Central Appalachia

Journalist Al Smith, who has written for community newspapers in Kentucky for 50 years, recently attended the Appalachia’s Bright Future Conference, a three-day event in Harlan, Ky., that focused on improving the economy and jobs in Central Appalachian coal country without having to rely solely on coal for resources. Smith wrote an opinion piece about the conference for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

"This was a meeting of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, citizens who know how bad things are in the mountains, that their traditional 'boom and bust' economy in the coalfields may never 'boom' again," Smith wrote. "But instead of running away, or surrendering to despair, they think they can have a bright future —'if we build it,' say their leaders."

Smith stressed that the KFTC, which numbers 5,000, is not fighting a war on coal, but for transitioning away from coal, especially in regions where coal is no longer viable. They are working on "building local economies through arts and culture, a local food economy, land and stream reclamation, supporting entrepreneurship, sustainable forestry, expanding broadband Internet access, and affordable housing," writes Smith.

Smith quotes how Dee Davis, director of the Center for Rural Strategies, summed up the initiative: "It is not who out there we can blame for our troubles. It's how we can take responsibility for ourselves and this place." (Read more)

We wrote about the conference Tuesday.

Willie Davis, son of Dee Davis, also attended the conference, and writes about his experiences for the Daily Yonder.  

CoLab Radio also attended, and wrote a piece about the conference.

Single farmers looking for a date, a relationship or a spouse have a place to turn in 16 states

With rural populations continuing to decline, and fewer people taking up agriculture, farm life can get lonely for singles, and a single farmer on a farm miles from the nearest residence or town can have a hard time finding a mate or a date. A dating group called Singles in Agriculture, hopes to change that, reports Justin Juozapavicius for The Associated Press. (AP Photo by Matthew Holst: Glenn Ackeberg, of Lindon, Ill., dances with Barb Ruttledge, of Walnut, Ill., during a Singles in Agriculture event.)

The group, which has chapters in 16 states, "holds get-togethers in rural communities for people who want to live on the land," writes Juozapavicius. "The participants tend to be older than those in other singles groups and favor a style that's more small town and traditional."

Member Kevin Lilienthal, who farms soybeans and corn in Iowa, said "Farming is not an easy life. Your (dating) pool is very small to begin with," and with many young people leaving for urban areas, and never coming back, "Any type of relationship is just a challenge." (Read more)

Monday, April 29, 2013

The story of returning veterans is a big one that can be hard to cover; here's some help

The return of almost 2 million veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is a big story for rural journalists because military service members come disproportionately from rural communities, and the services they need are often more difficult to get in rural areas. The story can be hard to cover, for many reasons, but several experts and advocates provided insight and guidance for reporters at a regional conference of the Society of Professional Journalists in St. Louis on April 27.

One reason returning vets can be hard to cover because they are “a hard-to-find community” and state and local agencies are slow to get data from the federal Department for Veterans Affairs, and when they get it, it may not be accurate, said Erica Borggren, director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs and a nurse who was on the combat staff of Gen. David Petraeus.

That’s not the biggest problem with the federal agency, said Joe Franzese, coordinator of the “Warrior to Warrior” program of the Illinois National Guard and Health and Disability Advocates. “Due to the complexity of this bureaucratic system within the VA, a lot of veterans aren’t getting the care they need,” said Franzese, a Marine vet.

The typical way for journalists to do stories about people facing challenges is to ask government or non-profit agencies that serve them, but that won’t always work with veterans, or it might take more time than usual, said Amy Terpstra, associate director of the Heartland Alliance’s Social Impact Research Center.

Some veterans’ service providers see journalists as “vultures” who take advantage of vets and perpetuate bad stereotypes, so reporters have to build trust, Terpstra said. “That relationship-building is really important.”

And as journalists covering the challenges that face many returning vets, they should also cover their successes, said Steve Wahle, an Afghanistan vet and a fellow with The Mission Continues, a veterans-service organization. He said coverage of new vets tends to be about post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries, the signature wounds of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. (Read more)

Program to compensate minority farmers for past discrimination is 'a runaway train,' NYT reports

A 2002 protest (NYT photo by Stephen Crowley)
Minority farmers may be abusing a program that allows people to get money based on alleged discrimination by biased federal loan officers, and lawmakers and lawyers are also reaping the political and financial rewards of the program, reports Sharon LaFraniere for The New York Times.

In 1999, the Clinton administration awarded $50,000 each to African American farmers who claimed they suffered such discrimination. In response, Hispanics and women also claimed discrimination, and the government opened the doors for thousands to claim money, with little or no evidence required to qualify, LaFraniere reports. As a result, the program "became a runaway train, driven by racial politics, pressure from influential members of Congress and law firms that stand to gain more than $130 million in fees," she writes. "In the past five years, it has grown to encompass a second group of African-Americans as well as Hispanic, female and Native American farmers. In all, more than 90,000 people have filed claims. The total cost could top $4.4 billion."

Since it is nearly impossible to verify an accusation of discrimination, the program seemingly encourages people to lie, LaFraniere writes. "Claimants were not required to present documentary evidence that they had been unfairly treated or had even tried to farm. Agriculture Department reviewers found reams of suspicious claims, from nursery-school-age children and pockets of urban dwellers, sometimes in the same handwriting with nearly identical accounts of discrimination."

Small daily newspaper's conservative editorial page tells local 'dim bulbs' to stop stereotyping Iraqis

Some Americans have developed an intolerance or even fear of people of Middle Eastern decent, often thinking anyone from a place like Iraq is somehow linked to terrorism. The Daily News of Bowling Green, Ky., a university town of 55,000 about 110 miles south of Louisville, published an editorial last week calling for an end to intolerance towards those Iraqis who have supported the U.S., and who are making an honest living in our country.

The editorial refers specifically to families who were granted special immigration visas for helping the U.S., and ended up in places like Bowling Green. The editorial said these patriots "came here seeking a better life, but sadly an ignorant few individuals are attacking them with stares and racial slurs." The editorial refers to a pair of men who both lost family while trying to help the U.S. but have been subjected to "people telling them to go back to their own country and catcalls of 'terrorist'."

"Those who throw racial slurs and unpleasant stares at them and their families should be ashamed of themselves," opines the locally owned paper, which has a conservative point of view and a circulation of about 25,000. "America doesn’t turn its back on its friends. Sadly, there are a few dim bulbs who haven’t gotten that message. These men have earned the right to be here and deserve the gratitude and utmost respect of all our citizens." (Read more)

Kansas program keeps young people in rural towns, attracts new ones

The 18-to-29 age group was 23 percent of the U.S. rural population in 1970 but only 14 percent in 2010With more and more young people leaving rural areas, several states have started programs to steer young people toward rural life. Kansas, which is believed to have the first such program, has found success, and is revitalizing small towns with young, fresh faces, reports Kevin Murphy for Reuters. (Reuters photo by Kevin Murphy: Mike Bosch, 34, opened a business in Baldwin City, Kan. Seventeen of his 19 employees are under 40, and half live in the town of 4,500.)

PowerUp, a "social and business network that touts rural life for the under-40 crowd and lets them know they are not alone," is trying to reverse the anti-rural trend in Kansas, Murphy reports. The program, which relies on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media outlets, was created a little more than two years ago by Marci Penner, and has 1,200 members. Penner said, "I thought that if we could connect these people they'd be happier and more likely to stay. A lot of people living in these rural areas feel isolated." (Read more)

PowerUp describes itself as people 21 to 39 who "are rural by choice, and who have made a conscious decision to embrace and enhance the rural communities in which they live," according to its website. "It's about connecting, empowering, and engaging with constructive and dynamic new ideas to help change the face and shape of rural through economic opportunities, quality of life, and community involvement."

What's that purple stuff in the fields? The answer is one of many landscape stories worth telling

If journalism is broadly defined as helping people understand the world around them, perhaps rural journalists should take opportunities to explain why the land looks the way it does from time to time. Relatively few rural Americans are involved in agriculture, though it helps define the landscape around them. Shouldn't they know how that landscape works? Here's one example. If it's too late for this year, save it for next spring.

Starting in the Upper South a few weeks ago and now reaching the Upper Midwest, unplanted crop fields have turned a light purple from the flowers of henbit (left, from SierraPotomac.org) and purple deadnettle (above, from SinJones.net), two similar members of the mint family. But most people who drive by the colorful shows have no idea what plants, natural systems and human systems are at work.

In many cases, the plants are thriving on nitrogen fertlizer remaining from previous years' applications, and rains that may have left the fields too wet to plow and plant, notes Pam Smith, crops technology editor for DTN/The Progressive Farmer. And she notes that fields with winter annual weeds like these (chickweed and shepherd's purse are other examples) "provide the perfect site for black cutworm moths to lay eggs" as they migrate from the South, where they overwinter.

Cutworms, which are actually caterpillars, can do heavy damage to seedlings, especially soybeans, so there's an economic menace lurking in those purple flowers. Little stories like these abound on the American landscape. Let's do them.

Feral swine are desirable game, but also one of the worst invasive species, and that means big trouble

We've said it before but we must say it again: Wild pig populations are increasing at a rapid rate, and are responsible for an estimated $1.5 billion in annual agricultural damage. In 1990, fewer than two million wild pigs were reported in 20 states, but there are now six million in 47 states, according to the Savannah River National Laboratory, reports Erica Goode for The New York Times. (Times photo by Sean Proctor: A Russian wild boar was shot at the Renegade Ranch in Michigan)

The pigs, which are thought to have escaped from private shooting preserves or from illegal transport by hunters across state lines, are causing serious problems, especially to farmers and ranchers, because they "rototill fields, dig up lawns, decimate wetlands, kill livestock, spread diseases like pseudo-rabies and, occasionally, attack humans," Goode reports. “The conundrum is that you’ve got one of the world’s hundred worst invasive animals, and at the same time you’ve got a highly desirable game species,” said Dr. John Mayer, the national lab's environmental science director. “It’s a real Jekyll and Hyde type situation with wild pigs.”

Many other countries have similar problems, Jesse Hirsch writes for Modern Farmer: "The fact is, wild pigs have overrun the planet." Nearly half the wild pigs in the U.S. are in Texas, which reports having 2.5 million, Mike Tontimonia reports for Farm and Dairy. This map shows where wild pigs were reported as of November 2011. For a larger version, click on the image; for an interactive version, click here.
The pigs' only predators are humans. Texas hunters claim to have killed almost 755,000 last year. But hunting is part of the problem, not just part of the solution. Hogs in Pennsylvania are hunted for sport in about 26 fenced-in game preserves, some of which charge as much as $900 for trophy boars, reports Amy Worden for The Philadelphia Inquirer. But the state has so many wild pigs that the state wildlife commission wants to prohibit private shooting preserves from owning feral swine. The state Senate passed a bill that would block the regulation and protect two game preserves in the district of the Senate president, who sponsored the bill. Last year Michigan made it illegal to own wild pigs, even in a hunting preserve. Lawmakers in Vermont considered a similar bill earlier this month. For more background on feral swine from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, click here.