Friday, May 23, 2014

As budgets keep shrinking, some states are getting creative to increase parks' revenue and traffic

Memorial Day weekend will probably find many state parks busy, but plunging state budgets are forcing many states to get creative to attract tourists, Sandy Johnson reports for Stateline. "State general revenue for parks has plunged from a nationwide average of 59 percent of park funding in fiscal 1990 to 33 percent in fiscal 2012." (Stateline graphic)

That has led many parks to look for ways to make up the difference, often at the expense of visitors through new or increased prices and fees, such as non-refundable transaction fees on credit cards, Johnson reports. 

A model created by Michigan in 2010 has proven to not only be successful, but is saving visitors park fees while increasing the number of visitors, Johnson writes. When residents renew their vehicle registration, the state offers them an opportunity to pay an $11 fee for a passport, which allows them access to 102 state parks and 75 boat launches for the next year. The passport, which costs significantly lower than the regular season pass, has been popular, with 24.7 percent of people buying one in 2011 and 27.3 percent in 2012. The state needed only 17 percent of people to purchase a pass to break even.

Other states have followed suit, Johnson reports. Idaho replaced its $40 season pass with a $10 passport available with yearly license plate renewal. Last year 95,800 people bought the passport, compared to the 15,000 people who usually buy the pass at $40. The move has generated more than $1 million.

Kansas offers a pass with vehicle registration for $15,50, much less than the $25 if someone buys a pass at a park or a government office, Johnson writes. Washington sells a pass for $30, and lets participants make a donation to several causes, including state parks. "Texas added a line to its vehicle registration form asking people to donate $5 (or more) for upkeep of state parks; the state comptroller projects $1.6 million in revenue a year from the small donation," Stateline reports.

Cleaner air from less coal burning expected to raise electricity costs for millions of Americans

This ad is based on false assumptions. See below.
Tougher clean-air regulations that have shuttered some coal plants, along with competition from natural gas and solar power, plus a brutal winter that caused prices to surge by 1,000 percent in some areas, could mean higher electricity costs this year for many Americans, reports EnergyWire.

"The Department of Energy predicts power prices will go up by an average of 4 percent this year," EnergyWire says. The DOE also "projects that by the end of the decade, coal plants with the capability of powering 33 million homes will shut down. That could lead to an additional 13 percent price hike by 2020, energy officials said." (Read more)

Coal "used to produce 40 percent of the nation's electricity, more than any other fuel. Because it is cheap and abundant and can be stored on power plant grounds, it helps keep prices stable and power flowing even when demand spikes," Jonathan Fahey reports for The Associated Press. "Natural gas, which accounts for 26 percent of the nation's electricity, has dropped in price and become more plentiful because of the fracking boom. But its price is on the rise again, and it is still generally more expensive to produce electricity with gas than with coal." 
"Current rules are expected to force power companies to shut down 68 coal plants across 20 states between 2014 and 2017, according to Bentek Energy, a market analysis firm," Fahey writes. Environmental Protection Agency clean-air rules, which are expected to be announced in June, "could accelerate the move away from coal - if it survives the legal and political challenges that are sure to come." (Read more)

The Washington Post's Fact Checker column finds fault with a National Mining Association radio ad that says electric rates are going up 80 percent.

Distressed Appalachian counties could turn to beekeeping to help improve the economy

Economically distressed counties in Eastern Kentucky could soon find anther source of income to help stanch the loss of coal -- beekeeping. With the number of U.S. bee colonies falling from 3.44 million in 1989 to 2.64 million in 2013, and demand for honey still high, Tammy Horn of Eastern Kentucky University's Center for Development Entrepreneurship and Technology said Kentucky has the potential to fill the U.S. need for honey, Kristi Branham reports for The Lane Report. Horn will become the apiarist for the state Department of Agriculture on June 1.

Bees once thrived in Eastern Kentucky, "but they were decimated by mite infestations in the 1980s and populations have yet to recover," Branham writes. "In seeking to create a viable forest-based bee industry, Horn has partnered with the Appalachian Regional Reforestation Initiative, with support from other state agencies and universities. She describes the bee industry as an economic tiger with five tails: honey production; wax production; queen bee production; pollination; and extension work."

Horn "works to inspire coal companies to again plant the high-nectar or high-pollen-producing native Appalachia trees that bees love, such as tulip poplars, black locust and sourwoods, as well as wildflowers to help support beekeeping and related sustainable forest industries," Branham writes. "There are obstacles, one of which is convincing the USDA to acknowledge trees as crops."

"Bees typically thrive in the mountains, and lots of rural Appalachian land is underutilized since its slopes make row crop production difficult," Branham writes. "Honey prices are up, and so is demand for and plantings of crops pollinated by bees. The 2014 Kentucky State Fair will sell honey at $8.50 per pound, up by more than 40 percent from the 2012 price of $6. And if bees gather their pollen from sourwood, the price could range from $10 or $12 per pound." (Read more)

Rain comes to drought-stricken Texas Panhandle, but a lot will be needed for region to recover

It's finally raining in the Texas Panhandle today, but recovery from a severe drought in the region would take 18 to 30 inches of rain in the next six months, and the area averages only 20 inches or so of rain per year. "The drought is causing some people to relocate," Mary Jane McKinney writes in the Canadian Record, in the town named for a river that's been running very low. "The sissies are leaving. . . . To survive the drought you need grit and hope beyond optimism. Dryland farmers are hoping for a 3-inch rain in early June." McKinney also advises locals to keep pets indoors, because bobcats are invading the town to hunt deer attracted by lawn grass.

Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said at an Edwards Aquifier Authority board meeting that the drought, which began about four years ago, is "among the five worst in the past 500 years," Scott Huddleston writes for San Antonio Express-News. The severe drought conditions could drain 32 public suppliers—most of them in rural areas—of their water supply within the next 45 to 90 days, reports Betsy Blaney of The Associated Press. While about 8,600 business and residential connections could lose their water supplies within 45 days, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said Wednesday that if a supplier runs out, water will be trucked in.

"Statewide, 387 public suppliers have imposed voluntary restrictions on users while 778 have announced mandatory restrictions," Blaney writes. "A lack of rainfall is to blame for most suppliers’ situations as Texas wades through a fourth year of drought. The situation is worst in West Texas, where some areas are now drier than the 1930s Dust Bowl." Reservoirs, which are normally 84 percent full this time of year, are 64 percent full, the lowest amount for this time of year since 1990. (Read more) (Texas Commission on Environmental Quality map)

EPA, Duke Energy reach agreement about cleanup of February coal ash spill into Dan River

The Environmental Protection Agency and Duke Energy reached an agreement Thursday about cleanup of the 39,000 tons of coal ash spilled in February into the Dan River, Bruce Henderson reports for the Charlotte Observer. "The agreement covers continued monitoring of the river, removal of ash and assessments once the work is done. It sets timelines for Duke to submit work plans but does not include an overall deadline to finish the work."

"The settlement, filed under the federal Superfund hazardous-sites law, allows the EPA to seek penalties of $1,000 to $8,000 a day if Duke’s work doesn’t follow its conditions," Henderson writes. If EPA has to take over the cleanup, Duke will pay $500,000. Duke also agreed to pay the agency’s costs of responding to the spill, which are currently about $1 million. (Read more)

Thursday, May 22, 2014

School lobbies support waivers from new school-lunch rules; Senate panel forges compromises

UPDATE: After lobbying by the first lady, the Senate Agriculture Committee put a condition on its approval of white potatoes — not as chips or fries — for the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program. Thursday's amendment "gives the administration the ability to pull potatoes back out if a mandated study recommends that they not be included," David Rogers reports for Politico. "The committee also opted for compromise and gave Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack some flexibility in addressing complaints from school districts regarding the level of whole-grain foods they must include in lunch and breakfast meals. Since July 2012, the rule has been that 50 percent of all grain products be 'whole grain rich,' but this standard is slated to go to 100 percent before classes resume next fall." The compromise would give Vilsack six months to deliver a report “that assesses whether there is an acceptable range of whole grain products currently available” to meet the 100 percent standard."

Using school-meal programs to fight childhood obesity isn't going as smoothly as Michelle Obama hoped, mostly because some kids are turning down fruits, vegetables and whole-grain foods in favor of fatty, sugary alternatives. From 2011 to 2013, more more than 1,400 schools with over 1 million children dropped out of the National School Lunch Program, Erik Wasson reports for The Hill. And now school boards, backed by Republican lawmakers, are asking Congress to let them opt out of the program if they're losing money on it.

A Republican House subcommittee on Tuesday approved a spending bill that "would force the U.S. Department of Agriculture to give a temporary waiver to school lunch programs that can show they were operating at a net loss for the last six months," Wasson writes. "That provision is supported by the National School Boards Association as well as the School Nutrition Association. They also support other efforts, including a bill by Rep. Kristi Noem (R-S.D.) to stop imposition of more stringent standards coming down the pike." (Read more)

At the heart of school complaints are 2012 standards that "call for students to be served low-fat dairy products, lean protein, foods rich in whole grain and fruits and vegetables," notes The Washington Post editorial board. "Children can decline part of these balanced meals, but they must take at least one serving of fruits or vegetables. These standards weren’t developed by fringe food activists or imposed from the first lady’s office. They come from the Agriculture Department and are based on recommendations from experts at the Institute of Medicine. Given that a third of American children and teenagers are overweight or obese, this initiative is common sense."

But some schools have said the new standards are too costly, Alyson Klein reports for Education Week. "Under the proposal, schools with waivers would not have to comply with 2012 meal pattern standards that require schools to 'increase the availability of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fat-free and low-fat fluid milk in school meals; reduce the levels of sodium, saturated fat and trans fat in meals; and meet the nutrition needs of school children within their calorie requirements.'" (Read more)

"Ripping a hole in the law would be a mistake," the Post opines. "The Government Accountability Office found that the decline in school lunch participation has been driven by fewer people paying full price, not truly needy students going without subsidized meals. If wealthier families want to feed their children other things with their own money, fine. Their choices should not be used as pretext to demand anything less than reasonable, healthy foods in publicly supported cafeterias." (Read more)

Report examines the condition of rural education in the U.S. using state-by-state analysis

States in the South most need to prioritize addressing rural education issues, according to "Why Rural Matters 2013-2014," a yearly report by the Rural School and Community Trust, a lobby for rural schools.

The rankings are based on five main categories: importance of rural schools in a state, diversity, socioeconomic challenges, educational policy context and outcomes. Researchers "added the state rankings on each indicator and then divided by the number of indicators to produce an average," their report says. The five average gauge rankings were combined to determine an overall average ranking, termed the Rural Education Priority ranking.

Mississippi was the state with the lowest combined score. It was followed by Alabama, South Carolina, North Carolina, Arizona, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Arkansas, Georgia, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana and West Virginia. The states rated best were Maine, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maryland, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Vermont, New York, Wyoming and Delaware.

"Growth in rural school enrollment continues to outpace non-rural enrollment growth in the United States, and rural schools continue to grow more complex with increasing rates of poverty, diversity and students with special needs. . . As that evidence mounts, it is becoming impossible to ignore the national relevance of these students, families, schools and communities," according to the report."

The full report, as well as a report on each state is available by clicking here. (Overall state rankings from highest priority to least priority of needing changes)

Rural N.C. students lag in college entrance exams; six-week program helps them prepare

Rural students in North Carolina are ill-prepared for college, with 2013 SAT scores from the state's top 10 agricultural counties averaging 75 points lower than the state average, Reema Khrais reports for North Carolina Public Radio. "Students from tobacco intensive counties scored 142 points below their Wake County (Raleigh) peers and were also approximately 27 percent less likely to even attempt the exam, according to data collected by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences" at North Carolina State University.

A program at N.C. State, aided by a private $3 million endowment, aims to help the state's rural students make strides to get college-ready, Khrais writes. ASPIRE, which reaches 30 counties, is an intensive six-week experience that helps prepare students for college entrance exams. Income and lack of parent involvement are the main reasons students need the extra support, said Sam Perdue, the college's director of academic programs.

The college also has an initiative that "helps high school students who want to start their education at a state community college or another university and transfer to NCSU, Khrais writes. "Selected students participate in special activities at NCSU that support their academic development. Those who complete the program and meet certain benchmarks are promised entry to the university their sophomore year." (Read more)

Net-neutrality proposals could spell 'game over' for small media entrepreneurs, minority journalists say

A plan to reduce Internet neutrality could kill the careers of small-time media entrepreneurs and "stifle innovation and creativity by discouraging the development of new media ventures, particularly those founded by people of color or that seek to serve diverse communities," according to a pair of independent African American  journalists who rely on the Internet to reach their audience, Tracie Powell reports for the Columbia Journalism Review.

The Federal Communication Commission's proposed rules on net neutrality were met with criticism, and the agency revised the plan and proposed some exceptions. Still, some feel the proposal don't create equality, but it will instead expand it.

The pair of journalists discussed in a video interview "how they already face an uphill battle when it comes to grabbing eyeballs and advertising dollars from larger, better-funded and staffed competitors," Powell writes. "If the FCC adopts new rules that will allow prioritization of some content—and some content providers—over others, it will mean game over for them as well as other digital media innovators, they said." (Read more)  

New anti-abortion laws in South, most recently in La., increase difficulties for women in rural areas

"The Louisiana State Legislature on Wednesday passed a bill that could force three of the state’s five abortion clinics to close, echoing rules passed in Alabama, Mississippi and Texas and raising the possibility of drastically reduced access to abortion across a broad stretch of the South," Jeremy Alford and Erik Eckholm report for The New York Times. "The new rules passed by Republican legislatures require that doctors performing abortions must have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals, a provision likely to shut down many abortion clinics across the region."

Like those in some of the other states, most rural hospitals in Louisiana don't have doctors who perform abortions and rely on those services to be performed by "visiting doctors who are ineligible for admitting privileges at nearby hospitals because they do not admit enough patients or for other reasons unrelated to medical skills," the reporters write. Passage of the bill forces many rural patients seeking abortions to drive hundreds of miles away, sometimes to another state. But as anti-abortion laws continue to sweep the South, driving distances keep increasing.

"In addition, some religiously affiliated and other hospitals refuse formal associations with abortion clinics," the Times reports. "But these hospitals still accept emergency patients and have specialists who treat women suffering abortion complications, medical experts say." (Read more)

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

'Fracking' makes it into dictionary; coastal California county with no known oil leases bans it

The word "fracking" is no longer a clever, but unofficial, way to shorthand hydraulic fracturing. The Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary made it an official word, announcing that it has added the noun fracking, and verb frack, to its 2014 edition, Don Mason reports for Fuel Fix. Fracking, which is already used in the Associated Press Stylebook, is one of 150 words recently added to the dictionary. (Read more)

Despite receiving no interest from oil companies, Santa Cruz County became the first California county to ban fracking when a Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 Tuesday to do so, Jason Hoppin reports for the Santa Cruz Sentinel. The "vote bans above-ground production support facilities. In doing so, the new law echoes a similar local effort from the 1980s to ban facilities for offshore oil drilling, an effective regulatory tool that became a model for coastal communities across California."

While there is little chance oil companies will want to drill in Santa Cruz County, residents hope the fracking ban inspires other communities to act, Hoppin writes. County resident Joy Hinz told him, "This is a historic decision and it'll be looked back on as visionary. And it will hopefully spur other counties to do similar things, and to prevent harm before it happens." (Read more)

Memorial Day and D-Day anniversary are good times to publish and air stories about veterans

With Memorial Day and the 70th anniversary of D-Day approaching, it's a good time for newspapers to reflect on veterans and the local, state and national heroes who served our country. The Indiana University School of Journalism has some great resources for media outlets needing a jump start on the two historic dates, including access to columns written by World War II correspondent Ernie Pyle (right) immediately following the June 6, 1944 attack on Normandy. Pyle was killed in 1945 by Japanese gunfire.

Here are three columns by Pyle, as provided by the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors: A Pure Miracle; The Horrible Waste of War; and A Long Thin Line of Personal Anguish.

ISWNE asks that if editors using the material to consider adding a paragraph about the Ernie Pyle World War II Museum in Dana, Ind. Donations can be made through the museum website by clicking here. More stories by Pyle can be found by clicking here. Additional questions can be directed to Stephen Key of the Hoosier State Press Association by clicking here.

How do your state legislators' salaries match up?

State lawmakers in California get a higher salary than any other state, while lawmakers in New Mexico don't receive any salary, but are paid $159 per day in session, Jake Grovum reports for Stateline. The base salary in California is $90,526, while lawmakers in 24 states, many of them mostly rural, make less than $20,000, and lawmakers in 11 states -- Maine, Nevada, Kansas, Montana, Texas, South Dakota, Kentucky, Wyoming, Alabama, New Hampshire and New Mexico -- are paid less than $10,000. (Read more)

Lawmakers are only considered full-time in 10 states -- California, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Florida, Ohio, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Wisconsin, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Lawmakers in 23 states spend two-thirds of their time on the job and in the remaining 17 states they work one-fourth of the time. (Read more)

How much do the lawmakers in your state earn? (Stateline map. For an interactive version click here)

Voters in 2 southern Oregon counties pass measures to ban most genetically engineered crops

Two neighboring southern Oregon counties on Tuesday voted in favor of a measure to ban most genetically engineered crops, Yuxing Zheng reports for The Oregonian. The measures in Jackson County, where it received 66 percent of the vote, and Josephine County, where it got 57 percent, "have managed to hit on some of the most hot-button issues in Oregon: property rights, local control and scarce resources for former timber-reliant counties." (Wikipedia map locates Jackson County; Josephine County borders it on the west)

"The Oregon Legislature in October passed a bill during a special session that named the state as the regulator of seeds. The law exempted Jackson County, where the crops measure had already qualified for the May ballot,"  Zheng writes. That put much of the focus on Jackson County, where supporters of the measure donated $1.3 million, and the opposition campaign from six biotechnology and agriculture companies, including Monsanto and Syngenta, donated $455,000.

Jackson County farmer Elise Higley told Zheng, "We fought the most powerful and influential chemical companies in the world and we won." But those opposed to the measure aren't giving in that easily. Barry Bushue, president of the Oregon Farm Bureau and spokesman for Good Neighbor Farmers, said in a press release, "While this election is over, this debate is not. We will continue to fight to protect the rights of all farmers to choose for themselves how they farm." (Read more)

U.S. Customs is expected to release confiscated hemp seeds in Kentucky today

UPDATE, May 27: Seeds were planted on a University of Kentucky farm today.
Lexington-Herald Leader/Bill Estep
Following a two-week battle between state officials and federal agents, U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Louisville is expected today to release 250 pounds of confiscated hemp seeds, after the Drug Enforcement Administration approved an import permit, Bruce Schreiner reports for The Associated Press. The DEA had said growing hemp may be legal, but importing hemp seeds is not, necessarily.

The move comes one day after the Kentucky Industrial Hemp Commission "approved regulations setting guidelines for research projects that are meant to reintroduce the crops," Schreiner writes. "Eight pilot projects are planned in Kentucky, with six universities helping with research. One issue that was still unresolved last week was whether private farmers could participate in the projects."

State Agriculture Department chief of staff Holly Harris VonLuehrte, who said total state production of hemp is expected to be less than 20 acres, said farmers would be required "to sign documents stating they would adhere to regulations overseeing the hemp project," Schreiner writes.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Feds approve Colorado consolidation plan intended to reduce rural health premiums

In a move that could lead to changes in other states, the federal government "approved Colorado's plan to consolidate several geographic rating areas used to determine health insurance premiums, which officials hope will reduce consumer costs in mountain and rural areas," reports The Denver Post. Under federal health reform Colorado "was divided into geographic rating areas based on medical-care costs, which in turn determined a range of premiums on the state health exchange. Colorado has some of the nation's highest premiums.

The new plan reduces the number of rating areas from 11 to nine, combining four rural areas into two larger rating areas, while retaining seven urban rating areas, the Post writes. "Two Western Slope mountain rating areas consisting of 21 counties, including pricey mountain resorts, will be combined into one new rating area. Also combined would be two Eastern Plains rating areas consisting of 26 counties." 

"Insurance division officials have said consolidating the higher health cost regions into larger rating areas will spread the risks and the costs of providing health care more equitably over a larger population," the Post writes. (Read more)

House USDA budget would limit special meals program to rural children, target lunch standards

In a surprise move House Republicans on Monday proposed a $20.9 billion budget for agriculture and food safety programs that includes language that "specifies that only rural areas are to benefit in the future from funding requested by the administration this year to continue a modest summer demonstration program to help children from low-income households—both urban and rural—during those months when school meals are not available," David Rogers reports for Politico.

"Since 2010, the program has operated from an initial appropriation of $85 million, and the goal has been to test alternative approaches to distribute aid when schools are not in session," Rogers writes. "The White House asked for an additional $30 million to continue the effort, but the House bill provides $27 million for what’s described as an entirely new pilot program focused on rural areas only."

"Democrats were surprised to see urban children were excluded," Rogers writes "And the GOP had some trouble explaining the history itself. But a spokeswoman confirmed that the intent of the bill is a pilot project in 'rural areas' only."

The bill also opens "the door for starchy, white potatoes to be added to the list of qualified vegetables under the WIC supplemental feeding program for pregnant women and their young children," Rogers writes. "The Agriculture Department would also be required to establish a waiver process for local school districts which have found it too costly to comply with tougher nutrition standards for school lunch and breakfast programs." (Read more)

USDA allocates $15 million to help farmers, ranchers and private forest owners in poor rural areas

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says rural areas experiencing "persistent poverty" in 20 states will receive $15 million intended to assist farmers, ranchers and forest owners. The funding will will be provided as part of the USDA's StrikeForce initiative, reports Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter.

Natural Resources Conservation Service Chief Jason Weller said USDA has provided $652 million in targeted conservation funding since 2010 and through StrikeForce is partnering with 80 percent more farmers and ranchers than before. USDA will give both technical and financial assistance through NRCS. Strikeforce funds may be employed for activities such as water conservation and soil protection. To apply, click here.

More than 700 areas participate in the StrikeForce effort. Involved states include Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia and West Virginia. (Read more)

Vision plan gives Texas oil towns makeover ideas before inevitable oil bust depletes local economy

While the booming oil business brings prosperity to some small towns, the good times don't last forever, and when the oil dries up, those towns are left scrambling to survive the loss of their major source of business. But guided by an architectural and economic vision plan from the University of Texas San Antonio, some Eagle Ford Shale communities are using available funds to give their towns a serious makeover before the local oil business declines, Pamela King reports for EnergyWire.

"In the worst case, communities morph into ghost towns when the oil and gas industry departs, leaving residents without jobs and businesses with a significantly diminished customer base," King writes. "In the best, municipal officials will grasp the boom time as an opportunity to explore other economic opportunities." (UTSA graphic: Vision plan for La Vernia, Texas)
In the Eagle Ford region that means olive oil processing, geothermal, agriculture, water recycling and desalination, tourism, hunting and wine and beer making, UTSA's Thomas Tunstall told King. Tunstall noted that "improving medical facilities, education, broadband access and town branding are some of the elements that can help communities 'lay the groundwork' for diversification."

Some towns, like La Vernia, located about 25 miles from San Antonio, are missing out on millions of dollars by not taking advantage of higher sales tax revenue to reinvest in the community to keep people shopping locally, King writes. The La Vernia plan says: "While there are various places where people can meet, there is no one place—a singular place or civic place, such as a plaza or park—where citizens can gather to hold both formal and informal community celebrations." Culture and community gatherings are key elements of UTSA's plan.

For now, towns like La Vernia need to take advantage of the good times to prepare for the eventually downturn in the local economy, King writes. La Vernia has seen its poverty level drop from 2000 to 2012 from 12.3 percent to 6.2 percent, and the town's median income increased 33.8 percent during that same time. (Read more)

Rural Ohio students get creative to complete graduation project that prepares them for life

Seniors at a rural high school in southeastern Ohio are gearing up for the future through a program that requires students to design a project that helps them prepare for life outside high school, Karen Kasler reports for Statehouse News Bureau. The 35 seniors at Federal Hocking High School in Athens County spend a minimum of 100 hours on the project "coming up with the ideas, researching and designing them and seeking help outside the school." (Kasler photo: Willie Marks won Best in Show for this futon he built out of trees he cut down.)

Students "have to defend their idea to faculty before they do it and then describe how they did it once it’s done," Kasler writes. "Then they show off their projects to the community with multi-media presentations featuring photos, video and props. The requirement is to spend a hundred hours on it, but many far exceed that."

Supt. George Wood told Kasler, “Every one of these kids are going to be our neighbors. They’re going to pay taxes. They’re going to make decisions about what goes on in our community. They better be able to do this kind of work. And I’m pretty confident our kids can.”

Projects ranged from rebuilt trucks, tractors and race cars, photography exhibits, a computer game, a video series on surviving in the wilderness, a local history exhibit, a lined fishing pond, a horse pen and a futon made out of wood from a tree the student chopped down. (Read more)

Culinary delights abound at Appalachian Food Summit; organizers promote culinary tourism

Food lovers gathered in Eastern Kentucky's Knott County on Sunday to celebrate Central Appalachia's diverse array of dishes and promote tourism through good food and good times. What started as a Facebook page where people talked about their love of the area's food turned into the inaugural Appalachian Food Summit, which drew in visitors "from several states to explore the possibility of culinary tourism," WYMT-TV of Hazard reports. (WYMT photo: sorghum and blackberry jam)

Lora Smith, one of the organizers, told WYMT: "The great turnout that we've had today is really showing an appetite people have both for local foods and for building local food infrastructure for supporting things like sustainable agriculture. Some people like to do culinary tourism. They like to travel around and try different food places. We're seeing that today. We have people here from every state in the central Appalachian region." (Read more)

Monday, May 19, 2014

While most of the Midwest is losing farms to consolidation, two states buck the trend

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's recently released Census of Agriculture showed that from 2007 to 2012 the number of U.S. farms declined by nearly 100,000. Midwestern states lost 29,000. The number of farms decreased by 11 percent in Wisconsin, 8.1 percent in Minnesota and 6.8 percent in Michigan. North Dakota, Kansas, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio also experienced losses. But two states, Nebraska and South Dakota, saw growth, with the number of farms in Nebraska increasing by 4.7 percent and in South Dakota by 2.6 percent.

Nebraska, which has the nation's youngest average age of farmers, 55.7 years, compared to the national average of 58.3, had one of the biggest increases of any state and recently became the nation's No. 1 cattle-feeding state, Kate Tormey reports for Stateline Midwest. "Livestock production and a strong ethanol industry provide a ready market for Nebraska’s large corn supply, and the state also boasts a wide range of companies that use the commodities its farmers produce."

"Policymakers, meanwhile, have established several programs to promote the industry, with one emphasis being support for young farmers," Tormey writes. Nebraskans who rent land, livetsock or equipment to a new farmer can get a 10 percent income tax credit, and other programs help students "learn how to create successful business plans and ranch-transfer programs."

Nebraska also has a program that allows 26 of the state's 93 counties to participate in the Livestock Friendly County program, "which requires local officials to streamline certain zoning and siting rules," Tormey reports.

Plains states get more male as young women who go to college are less likely to return for work

Rural migration is causing more young women than young men to leave rural areas in Kansas and Nebraska. The proportion of young men to young women in the two states is as high as 2 to 1 in some areas, according to study by University of Nebraska doctoral student Robert Shepard. The median increase was just under 7 percent, but numbers rose dramatically in smaller communities.

The study, published in April's Great Plains Research journal, found that "in places with 800 or fewer residents, the proportion of young men increased by an average of nearly 40 percent as people went from their teens to their 20s," according to a university news release. Using census data from 2000 to 2010, Shepard "found that more than half of 1,627 villages, rural townships, precincts and other locales with 800 or fewer people experienced an increased ratio of young men to young women."

Shepard concluded that more women than men left rural areas to attend college, and more of those female college graduates found employment in urban areas, while more male college graduates return to rural areas for employment. Shepard said: "Where some of the men can come back because there are a lot of traditionally male jobs like agriculture and industry to return to, many rural communities don't often provide the same opportunity to women. As long as that imbalance is there, it's going to limit the development or growth of that age group." (Read more)

Retired army captain with PTSD teaches farming, beekeeping to help vets deal with the disorder

Army Captain (Ret.) James McCormick
(Charleston Gazette photo by Kenny Kemp)
James McCormick, 46, a retired Army captain, realized one day that working in his garden was a comfort that helped him get past his haunting memories of wars with Iraq. He wondered if others like him could benefit from farming, so he began teaching veterans from local shelters the art of agriculture. "He envisioned a special program where veterans could lease land from the government for farming," Sandy Wells writes for The Charleston Gazette.

With the help of state Agriculture Commissioner Walt Helmick, McCormick's brainchild became the West Virginia Veterans and Warriors to Agriculture Project. The Congressional Medal of Honor Society gave McCormick a service award in 2012; only three are given each year. "As a contract worker for the state Department of Agriculture, he works diligently to introduce displaced veterans to the rewarding business of farming and beekeeping," Wells writes.

McCormick said his father fought in Vietnam and struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder. At age 17 in 1985, he joined the Army National Guard and was a part of the military for many years. In 2006, he began gardening to help him deal with his PTSD. Although he tried to volunteer to go to Afghanistan in 2008, he failed to meet the medical standards and was asked to retire. He retired as a captain and opened the farm in 2009.

"We locate funds through nonprofit corporations. If veterans don't have property, the state has thousands of acres," McCormick said. "We can give them a special veteran lease opportunity to raise crops or animals. And we have probably 42 veterans who are beekeepers all over the state." He said that by next year, more than 100 veterans will be raising crops to sell. "Our logo will start showing up on honey and produce. Anybody who goes to buy it will know it is raised by one of our veterans," he said. (Read more)

'Hillbilly' and 'redneck': last acceptable stereotypes?

An online discussion among Appalachian academics sparked a debate among them about "whether bias in academe (and society) is too accepted when it is about the people of the region they study," Scott Jaschik writes for Inside Higher Ed.

The discussion began with a report that a student had been walking around barefoot and a faculty member had called him a hillbilly. Others said that they'd heard similar comments, and that instructors who cautiously think about whether "their comments might offend members of many groups do not feel the same need to be sensitive to those from poor, largely white, rural communities in Appalachia," Jaschik reports.

When the Academe Blog published the debate, it didn't name the institution where the incident occurred, but Rosann Kent, director of Appalachian studies at the University of North Georgia, said she posted the question asking her colleagues what they would do about the other professor's remark. "Kent said what bothered her about the colleague's comment was the quick assumption that this student must be from Appalachia and not just any student who was celebrating the end of the year and the arrival of warm weather by being slightly less dressed than normal," Jaschik writes.

Kent asked an important question: Why is it acceptable to present mountain or hill-country whites in a different way? Although labels like "hillbilly" and "redneck" are demeaning, they're still often used not just in society but in academe. Yes, Hollywood is known for perpetuating stereotypes, but Kent said professors should know to question them. She asked, "Why are we the last acceptable stereotype?" (Read more)

FCC's net-neutrality proposals won't create online inequality, just expand it, reporter writes

Critics are saying that the Federal Communication Commission's proposed rules on Internet neutrality will change everything, mostly at the expense of consumers and small businesses, especially in rural areas. However, Brendan Sasso of the National Journal writes that "The Internet has never been the level playing field that some seem to believe. Big websites have always been able to pay for faster service—and the biggest ones are already spending billions to get it." The FCC's proposal was met with criticism, and the agency revised the plan and proposed some exceptions.

"Just about all major websites pay for content delivery networks, or CDNs, to carry their traffic. Those CDNs build networks of servers around the country to store website data," Sasso writes. "That way, a Facebook user in New York City trying to watch a friend's video clip doesn't have to retrieve data all the way from Facebook's headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif.  Instead, the user is actually connecting to a much closer server owned by a CDN that Facebook has hired. A worldwide network of servers helps to speed up websites, ease congestion and is better able to handle cyberattacks."

"It would be impossible for someone to start a high-quality video streaming site in a garage without paying for some intermediary to handle traffic. The site would grind to a halt as soon as a significant number of people tried to use it," Sasso writes. "Small start-ups are nearly always at a disadvantage—and the Internet is no exception. For example, skyrocketing bandwidth bills reportedly contributed to YouTube's decision to sell itself to Google in 2006."

"Many of the largest companies like Google, Apple, Amazon and Microsoft build their own data centers to ensure a smooth service for their users, investing billions of dollars to give their websites an edge over the competition," Sasso notes. "The Internet's existing inequities are acknowledged both by advocates and opponents of net-neutrality regulations."

"Paying to ensure fast service isn't the only way that some websites have an advantage over others," Sasso writes. "Search engines, particularly Google, are the main tool that many people use to find information online. Websites at the top of a search page have a huge advantage over sites buried under pages of results. Slight tweaks to Google's search algorithm can make or break a company."

"The idea of total neutrality is especially absurd for people who access the Internet on smartphones and tablets," Sasso adds. "Apple has absolute power over what mobile apps are allowed in its store. Apps can reportedly be banned for being offensive, using too much data, being too glitchy, having small font sizes, infringing on trademarks or numerous other reasons."

Sasso concludes, "Although the Internet has never been perfectly neutral, that doesn't necessarily mean the FCC's attempts to police Internet providers are futile—or that the equality gap couldn't grow. But regardless of what happens with the FCC rules, even the worst-case scenarios won't be creating inequality on the Internet—only expanding it." (Read more)

3 North Carolina Republican senators file bill that would make it a felony to disclose fracking chemicals

As North Carolina prepares for a potential oil and gas boom, the state Legislature may consider a bill that "would make it a Class I felony to disclose trade secrets related to hydraulic fracturing." Violators would be subject to criminal penalties and civil damages, including up to a few months of prison time, Mike Lee reports for EnergyWire. The bill also would keep communities from passing ordinances to control drilling and fracking. (North Carolina Geological Survey map: Possible fracking areas)

"It's the latest twist in North Carolina's quest to write rules allowing drilling and fracking for natural gas," Lee writes. "The state has a potential shale field called the Deep River formation, but it passed a moratorium on development until it can establish regulations to control the industry."

The bill "would put the state geologist in charge of maintaining the chemical information and would allow the state's emergency management office to use it for planning. It also would allow the state to turn over the information immediately to medical providers and fire chiefs," Lee writes. "However, the medical providers and fire chiefs could be required to sign confidentiality agreements after they receive the information." (Read more)

The bill, introduced by three Republican senators, would mostly affect Lee, Moore and Chatham counties, "where potentially lucrative deposits of gas and other minerals are trapped in layers of shale," Andrew Barksdale reports for The Fayetteville Observer. The bill would give the state Mining and Energy Commission until Jan. 1 to finish drafting rules, allow state regulators "to deny permits to drilling companies with shoddy records" and bolster "the state's ability to monitor the toxins that companies mix with fracking fluids pumped into wells." (Read more)

Kansas passes law declaring that it outranks the feds on non-migratory birds like the prairie chicken

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, recently signed a bill intended to prevent federal regulation of the lesser prairie chicken, which in March was designated as a threatened species, Bryan Lowery reports for The Wichita Eagle. Brownback's bill "declares state sovereignty over non-migratory wildlife. It will allow the attorney general to block any attempts by the federal government to regulate the bird in court. Lawmakers ditched an earlier provision that would have enabled Kansas to fine or arrest federal employees attempting to enforce regulations on the birds." (Eagle photo by Michael Pearce)

Brownback said in a statement: “I continue to be very concerned about the validity and effect of this federal action. I will take every possible action to protect the rights of Kansans from the economic effects of this listing." (Read more)

The threatened-species listing for the fowl, which mainly live in Kansas, Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Colorado, has angered some farmers and ranchers, who call the chickens an invasive species. The rule has sparked plenty of feedback, both positive and negative.