Friday, April 07, 2017

Growing number of community college students, even in rural areas, are homeless

UCLA's Students 4 Students has sheltered eight
long-term students since October. (NYT photo)
A growing number of community college students, including those in rural areas, are homeless, Elizabeth Harris reports for The New York Times. The Wisconsin HOPE Lab at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, released a study last month of 70 community colleges in 24 states, finding that 14 percent of students are homeless. California State University released a similar study last year that found that 8 to 12 percent of community college students in California are homeless. Harris reports, "In 2015-16, 32,000 college applicants were identified as 'unaccompanied homeless youth' on federal student aid forms, a number widely considered to be a low count."

Sara Goldrick-Rab, founder of the HOPE Lab and a professor of higher education policy at Temple University in Philadelphia, said one the main reasons for student homelessness is an increase in low-income students that lack a safety net if they run into financial problems, Harris writes. If they lose their job, or get kicked out by roommates, they might lack the funds to find another place to live, while at the same time, their parents are unable to afford to help them out financially.

Other reasons are an aging student population—the average age for community college students is 29—and a lack of high-paying jobs for people without college degrees, Harris writes. The HOPE study found that only 11 percent of homeless students made more than $15 an hour.

Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor of the California Community Colleges, told Harris, “This is not just happening in urban poor communities. It affects kids from working-class families across the state, in rural communities and in communities of color. Homelessness now affects working-class and formerly middle-class families.”

BLM changes its homepage from backpackers watching a sunset to a black wall of coal

The Bureau of Land Management’s homepage was transformed Thursday from a photo of two backpackers watching the sun set over a wide open range of fields and hills to a solid wall of coal, Daryl Fears reports for The Washington Post. "The photo speaks volumes about the way the Trump administration is prioritizing the land. BLM, under the Interior Department, controls more than half a billion acres, including national monuments and wilderness areas that humans visit and where a variety of animals roam, but the feature image is all about coal." (BLM homepage on Wednesday and Thursday)
"It follows President Trump’s campaign promise to bring back the coal industry and his recent executive order lifting a moratorium on new coal leases," Fears writes. "It also follows the issuance of a lease to mine 56 million tons of coal in Utah."

KFC to stop using chickens with antibiotics by 2018; farmers will need to raise more chickens

Kentucky Fried Chicken announced today that it will stop using chickens that contain antibiotics by the end of 2018, Zlati Meyer reports for USA Today. "Other quick-service chains, such as Chipotle, McDonald's, Burger King, Panera and Wendy's, have made similar pledges to eliminate antibiotics in their chicken. But KFC said it believes it is on the cutting edge in trying to go without antibiotics when it comes to on-the-bone chicken."

KFC, which works with more than 2,000 farms in a dozen states, said the change won't result in higher prices at its 4,200 U.S. outlets, but it will require growers to "raise more chickens in order to meet KFC's size demands without the antibiotics," Meyer writes. "KFC also recently pledged to eliminate artificial colors and flavors from all of its core products by the end of 2018 and to have 100 percent of the menu, except for drinks and third-party products, free of food dyes by the end of this year."

Study argues that human behavior is overarching reason for decline in bee populations

Bee Informed graphic
Humans are the biggest reason for the decline in honeybee populations, says Robert Owen, author of The Australian Beekeeping Manual, in a study published in the Journal of Economic Entomology. Other studies have blamed neonicotinoid-based pesticides, varroa mites, disease and poor nutrition for declining honeybee populations.

Owen writes, "Although the environmental and economic implications of honeybee decline may be mitigated by changes in human behavior and governments in some instances share the responsibility for implementing these changes, I would argue that most change should occur in the behavior of individual keepers."

Owen partly blames the decline of bees on overuse of pesticides and antibiotics. He also argues that "the global trade in honeybees and honeybee products has spread pathogens that might otherwise have remained localized" and "migratory beekeeping has spread pathogens within countries." Also, the lack of skill or dedication among hobbyist beekeepers lead them to inadequately inspect and manage colonies for disease.

As an example, he said that of the 2.66 million managed honeybee colonies in the U.S., "1.8 million were transported to the Central Valley of California in February 2016 to pollinate the almond crop." He writes, "It is likely that these colonies spread mites, beetles, viruses and other pathogens between colonies involved in almond pollination."

Invasive mussel boosts Great Lakes cisco (lake herring); one biologist fears boom and bust

Cisco caught in Lake Michigan (U.S. Fish and
Wildlife Service
photo by Katie Steiger-Meister)
The Great Lakes cisco, also known as lake herring, appears to be making a comeback, thanks to an invasive species, Steven Maier reports for the Great Lakes Echo, a project of the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University. Matt Herbert, an aquatic ecologist with the Nature Conservancy, said invasive quagga mussels have depleted nutrients in the lakes. Since cisco do well in low-nutrient environments, they now have space to thrive.

Cisco, which typically grow about 12 to 15 inches long, but have been measured as long as 24 inches, "at one point supported one of the largest commercial fisheries in the region," Maier writes. The species disappeared in the 1950s, mainly because of overfishing, invasive species and habitat degradation. Herbert said "Lake Erie once boasted one of the largest cisco populations of the lakes, but those populations were hit especially hard and have since been lost entirely."

While work is being done to restore cisco to the Great Lakes, some experts worry that this could be a boom-and-bust story, Maier writes. Curt Karboski, a biologist with the Lower Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office in Amherst, N.Y., told Maier that recent "huge catches" are based on a few stocking years. "He would like to see the age distribution even out before he can feel comfortable that the cisco are on track," Maier writes.

May 3 webinar will show how to do fact checks

Lou Jacobson, a senior correspondent for PolitiFact, co-author of the Almanac of American Politics and a staff writer for the Tampa Bay Times, will conduct a webinar at 1 p.m. ET May 3 on how to write fact-checking stories. The course will concentrate on where journalists should start when working on a fact-check, how to best interact with expert sources, and how to write the article.

Also covered will be: Which claims are checkable and which ones aren’t; how to go about your research on the web; how to craft query emails to experts; and how PolitiFact and other fact-checkers come up with their truth ratings. The cost is $39. The webinar is presented by DigitalEd and MediaShift. For more information or to register click here.

Thursday, April 06, 2017

Wisconsin Legislature will leave public notices alone; battles still going on in N.C. and other states

The Wisconsin Legislature's budget committee has dropped legislation that would have removed many paid public notices from newspapers in the state, the Wisconsin Newspaper Association reports.

"The Joint Finance Committee also removed the provision from the budget that would have eliminated the public notice of timber sales," WNA Executive Director Beth Bennett wrote in an email to me,bers. "There are many members of the legislature that must be thanked for their support of the newspaper industry. The WNA encourages each of you to thank your state representatives as soon as possible."

Bennett added, "Our readers should also be thanked for the hundreds of calls that were placed into legislative offices over the past several weeks; reader support made a big impact on the success of our effort to preserve public notice."

The battle in Wisconsin is one of several going on in state legislatures around the country. Two bills reducing notice have passed in Arkansas and a major battle in going on in North Carolina. For tracking of the issue, see the Public Notice Resource Center.

Low salaries lead to shortage of teachers of career and technical training in rural areas

High schools, especially in rural areas, lack qualified instructors to teach career and technical education (CTE) courses, according to a Stateline analysis of a 2016 report on teacher shortages by the U.S. Department of Education and its Office of Postsecondary Education. Stateline found that two-thirds of states report a CTE shortage, with states such as Maine, Maryland and New York having had shortages for almost 20 years, and Minnesota and South Dakota for a decade.

The main reason for the shortages is that "salaries are too low to compete with salaries in technical fields," Stateline's Sophie Quinton reports. "Too few young people are specializing in career and technical education in college. And it’s hard to attract teachers to isolated schools in rural areas." A study of 37 state directors by Advance CTE found that attempts to attract teachers with financial incentives have not been successful. (Stateline graphic: Reasons state directors say they can't fill CTE jobs)
That's creating problems, especially in rural areas where students are less likely to attend college and high schools can prepare them "to step into jobs that require some extra training but not a college degree, such as home health aides, a profession expected to grow by 38 percent over the next decade, or entry-level jobs in construction and the skilled trades," Quinton writes. "The construction sector, like health care, is expected to grow faster than the national average in the years to come."

Lawmakers in many states are trying to solve the problem, Quinton writes. "The Virginia Legislature and the boards of education in New York and South Dakota have adjusted CTE licensing requirements in recent years to make it easier for people to start teaching. Last year, North Carolina and Virginia created licenses that allow technical workers to teach part time. People from industry in Alabama, Florida, Kentucky and Ohio already have a similar option." Tennessee "allows people who have worked in industry to count their years of work experience as years of teaching experience."

Problems still persist in states like Minnesota, where a report from a state task force "found that across five in-demand specialties, a third of all CTE teachers had been hired on short-term special permission licenses," Quinton writes. "In some of those specialties the share was higher: nearly 40 percent for manufacturing, 50 percent for construction and 54 percent for medicine."

FDA nominee compares opioid epidemic to Ebola, Zika viruses; calls crisis 'most immediate priority'

FDA nominee Scott Gottlieb (Reuters photo)
The nation's opioid epidemic, which is especially problematic in Appalachia and other rural areas, is a “public-health emergency on the order of Ebola and Zika," President Trump's nominee to head the Food and Drug Administration said at his Senate confirmation hearing on Wednesday. Scott Gottlieb, a physician and entrepreneur, said the crisis "requires dramatic action by the agency and the rest of government."

"Gottlieb described the FDA as 'complicit, even if unwittingly,' in helping to fuel the opioid epidemic, Laurie McGinley reports for The Washington Post. "Officials, he said, 'didn't fully recognize the scope of the emerging problem' several years ago and needed a new strategy to combat the issues involved. Developing that strategy, he added, would be his 'highest and most immediate priority' and would involve taking a hard look at the FDA's framework for approving painkillers and pressing for greater availability of nonaddictive painkillers."

"Gottlieb said he would take an 'all-of-the-above approach' in trying to find solutions to the opioid problem but also added that the issue has become too big for the FDA to solve on its own," McGinley writes. He said, “This is a staggering human tragedy that is going to require dramatic action on the part of the agency." Gottlieb, a high-ranking FDA official during the George W. Bush administration, is popular with Republicans and "his confirmation seems all but assured," McGinley reports.

30-50% of prescribed antibiotics not needed, CDC says; food giants vow to phase out use on poultry

At least 30 percent of antibiotics prescribed in 2014 in U.S. doctor's offices, hospital clinics and emergency departments were unnecessary, says a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The study found that "total inappropriate antibiotic use, inclusive of unnecessary use and inappropriate selection, dosing and duration, may approach 50 percent of all outpatient antibiotic use."

During the study year 266 million courses of antibiotics were dispensed to outpatients in U.S. community pharmacies, or five prescriptions for every six people, CDC says. (CDC map: Outpatient antibiotic prescriptions per 1,000 people in 2014)
Researchers from Australia's Bond University asked parents of children 12 and younger when it was appropriate to use antibiotics for common upper respiratory illnesses. They found that doctors often prescribe unnecessary antibiotics for children to placate worried parents of "just in case," reports Teresa Carr of Consumer Reports magazine. Doctors want high satisfaction ratings from patients, according to a 2014 survey of 155 doctors by researchers at the University of Wisconsin and Rogers Memorial Hospital in Oconomowoc, Wis. "Almost half the physicians believed that the pressure to obtain better scores prompted inappropriate prescribing, including unnecessary prescriptions for antibiotics," Carr writes.

There's another side to the issue that needs more attention – the misuse and overuse of antibiotics on livestock and poultry, Ben Chandler, president and CEO of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, writes for The Courier-Journal in Louisville. (Kentucky ranks first in per-capita antibiotic prescriptions.)

Chandler notes that 70 percent of antibiotics considered important to human medicine in the U.S. "are for use on food producing animals. Typically, the drugs are given to animals on a routine basis – even if they aren't sick – to promote growth and to compensate for crowded unsanitary conditions. That practice turns farms into breeding grounds for antibiotic-resistant bacteria that cab travel off the farms and into our communities."

Tyson Foods, the world's largest meat company by revenue, and Perdue Farms are transitioning away from antibiotic use in their branded chickens, Chandler notes. Fast-food industry leaders including "McDonald's, Subway, Chick-fil-A, Wendy's, Chipotle, and Taco Bell have made various commitments to phase out of the routine use of antibiotics from the chicken supply chain. Subway's commitment was for all meats."

Electric execs say Trump's moves for coal won't have much effect on their shift away from the fuel

Amid President Trump's promises to revive the coal industry, six coal-fired power plants have closed since November and more than 40 are set to close within the next four years, Coral Davenport reports for The New York Times. That includes Arizona's Navajo Generating Station, the largest coal-fired power plant in the West, which is expected to seize operations by 2019.

"Trump campaigned on a pledge to restore the limping American coal industry, vowing to bring jobs and production back to a sector that has been on a steady decline for over a decade," Davenport writes. "But to do that, he would have to revive demand for coal by electric utilities, which for decades have been the largest consumer of the heavily polluting fuel. Nearly all the coal mined in the U.S. generates electricity."

Electricity executives say Trump’s rollbacks of Obama administration regulations "make little difference to them," Davenport writes. "They still plan to retire coal plants—although perhaps at a slightly slower pace—and, more significant, they have no plans to build new ones." One reason is that electric utilities, like Southern Co., plan investments "on a 50-year horizon, the expected life span of a new power plant. Its planners do not see coal as economically viable in that time frame."

In 2005, 71 percent of American Electric Power's output was coal-fired, but is now 47 percent and is expected to keep going down, Davenport notes. At the same time its natural-gas share has increased from 20 percent to 27 percent. "Over the next three years, the company plans to invest about $1 billion in new wind and solar generation and $3 billion in new transmission lines to move that electricity."

"With or without the Clean Power Plan, power companies say, coal is simply no longer the fuel of choice for keeping the lights on in America—and they do not expect it to make a comeback," Davenport writes. "Cheaper natural gas and renewable sources like wind and solar power have replaced it. This decision is also driven by economics. Electric company executives are including in their long-term profit-and-loss calculations an expectation that the federal government will eventually tax or regulate carbon dioxide pollution."

Interior's inspector general says agency isn't ensuring coal reclamation projects get priority

A report by the inspector general at the Department of the Interior found that its Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement is failing to make sure states give coal reclamation projects priority over non-coal projects: "As a result, non-coal reclamation is completed while coal-related hazards persist."

The report said the agency is failing to crack down on five of the 25 states—Mississippi, Louisiana, Montana, Texas and Wyoming—"that get grants from the Abandoned Mine Land fund," Dylan Brown reports for Greenwire. "The fund comprises fees charged on every ton of U.S. coal for cleaning up mine sites abandoned by companies before the law was signed in 1977."

The five states keep getting grants though regulators have determined that all their eligible coal sites have been reclaimed. That leaves less money for states like Wyoming, the biggest coal state, which "has an inventory of $90 million in unfunded reclamation," Brown writes. But Wyoming is also part of the problem, he notes: "Its inventory is growing as the state spends on non-coal projects. From 2013 to 2016, Wyoming spent $214 million on non-coal projects and $166 million on reclamation."

Federal count of black-lung cases remains too low

Progressive massive fibrosis in underground miners 
 with more than 25 years experience (Coal Workers’ 
 Health Surveillance Program, Ky.,Va.,W.Va,1974–2015)
Cases of black-lung disease in Appalachia are still being grossly underreported, Jessica Lilly, Roxy Todd and Glynis Board report for West Virginia Public Broadcasting. Fewer than 100 cases have been officially reported in the past five years, but using data from 11 clinics in Virginia, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio, NPR's Howard Berkes found 962 cases in the past 10 years. Berkes found 186 cases in West Virginia at federally funded lung clinics since 2009, with numbers likely higher because some clinics reported only a few years' worth of data.

A 2016 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Berkes's investigation found that black-lung disease is surging among Appalachian coal miners. Lawmakers responded in December to the report and investigation by asking the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, the U.S. Department of Labor Coal Mine Workers' Compensation Program and black-lung clinics funded by the Health Resources and Services Administration to work together do a better job obtaining counts of progressive massive fibrosis, the most progressive form of black lung.

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act "included special provisions that make it easier for coal miners to get black lung benefits," West Virginia Public Broadcasting reports. "Republicans introduced an alternative plan to replace Obamacare, but the first attempt failed to get support. Still, this might not be the end of America’s health care story. In a recent visit to West Virginia, Vice President Mike Pence vowed to keep fighting to repeal the ACA. If the ACA is repealed, gaining black lung benefits could become much more difficult for miners, effectively harming a group of people President Trump promised to protect."

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Student journalists in rural Kansas discover that principal lied about credentials, so she resigns

An investigative report by journalists at a high school in rural southeastern Kansas revealed that the school's new principal lied on her application, leading to her resignation, Samantha Schmidt reports for The Washington Post. When six journalists for The Booster Redux, the paper at Pittsburg High School, began investigating principal Amy Robertson, they found that the website for Corllins University, the private school where she said she got her master’s and doctorate degrees, didn’t work. They also found no evidence that it was an accredited university, and later learned it was a diploma mill.

Redux reporters Gina Mathew, Kali Poenitske,
Maddie Baden, Trina Paul, Connor Balthazor
and Patrick Sullivan (Photo by Emily Smith)
The students started "a weeks-long investigation that would result in an article published Friday questioning the legitimacy of the principal’s degrees and of her work as an education consultant," Schmidt writes. "On Tuesday night, Robertson resigned." Newspaper adviser Emily Smith told the Post, “Everybody kept telling them, ‘Stop poking your nose where it doesn’t belong.'" Smith, who said the students had the full support of the superintendent, "were at a loss that something that was so easy for them to see was waiting to be noticed by adults.”

The team of five juniors and a senior "revealed that Corllins had been portrayed in a number of articles as a diploma mill, a place where people can buy a degree, diploma or certificates," Schmidt writes. "Corllins is not accredited by the U.S. Department of Education, the students reported. The Better Business Bureau’s website says Corllins’s physical address is unknown and the school isn’t a BBB-accredited institution."

Best Places map
The students reported that during a conference, "Robertson 'presented incomplete answers, conflicting dates and inconsistencies in her responses,'" Schmidt writes. Robertson claimed she attended Corllins before it lost accreditation, but "she declined to comment directly on students’ questions about her credentials, 'because their concerns are not based on facts,' she said. In an emergency faculty meeting Tuesday, the superintendent said Robertson was unable to produce a transcript confirming her undergraduate degree from the University of Tulsa, Smith said."

"During the course of their reporting, the students spent weeks reaching out to educational institutions and accreditation agencies to corroborate Robertson’s background, some even working through spring break," Schmidt writes. "Smith, had to recuse herself from the story because she was on the committee that hired Robertson. So the students sought the help of Eric Thomas, executive director of the Kansas Scholastic Press Association, and other local and national journalists and experts. Under Kansas law, high school journalists are protected from administrative censorship."

Supt. Destry Brown told the Pittsburg Morning Sun, “I appreciate that our kids ask questions and don’t just accept something because somebody told them. And that would have been the easy thing to do. So I will always support our kids. The unfortunate thing is that internal in our office we were already working on a lot of that and eventually the chickens would have come to roost. They made it very public, which probably speeded that process. Things may have happened differently but maybe had the same result in the end. It would have been later, rather than earlier. I feel like they did a great job with the research they did. They shared that with me. We took some of that and followed up.”

More states get or seek federal waiver to let Medicaid pay for addiction treatment

To help combat the opioid epidemic among low-income residents, several states have been granted a waiver, or are seeking permission for a waiver, to "an obscure Medicaid rule that prohibits the use of federal dollars for addiction treatment provided in facilities with more than 16 beds," Christine Vestal reports for Stateline. California, Maryland, Massachusetts and New York have been granted waivers, while Arizona, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, Utah and Virginia are seeking similar permission.

Of the estimated 22 million Americans who have a drug or alcohol addiction that needs treatment, only 10 million receive it, Vestal reports. The opioid epidemic killed 33,000 people in 2015, and the epidemic is especially problematic in rural areas and Appalachia. (Stateline map: Where Medicaid pays for longer addiction treatment or has been asked to)
Tom Price, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, said in March that he "would continue the Obama administration’s waiver policies for residential facilities with 16 or more beds," Vestal writes. "The 16-bed provision was originally intended to discourage investment in what the 1965 Medicaid law called 'institutions for mental disease,' and to instead promote the expansion of smaller, community-based mental health and substance abuse centers."

Eliminating the 16-bed prohibition "means millions in new federal Medicaid dollars will flow to treatment centers that now rely on limited state and local grants," Vestal writes. "In addition to offering inpatient treatment to patients who need it, state Medicaid addiction programs must include all available addiction medications, intensive outpatient therapy, recovery support services such as job training and housing, substance abuse prevention programs, case management and physical health services. States also must prove that adding more residential treatment slots to the list of Medicaid treatment options will cost no more than continuing to prohibit it."

Illegal border crossings into U.S. down, but more money (much from drugs) going into Mexico

While the Trump administration has been focused on securing the U.S.-Mexico border to keep illegal immigrants out, border security officials say an even bigger problem is the people leaving the country with money from Mexican drugs sold in the U.S., Ron Nixon and Fernanda Santos report for The New York Times. "Though the cartels sometimes hire legitimate companies to buy goods like silk and ink cartridges and export them to Mexico, where they are sold for pesos, a more common method is to simply pay someone to drive the cash over the border."

About $300 million in cash that was headed into Mexico has been seized since 2008, reports the Times. That is likely just a fraction of the actual total, customs officers and border patrol agents told the Times. So far this year, they said, seizures of southbound cash are up 48 percent through March: $18.6 million compared with $12.6 million over the same period last year." Officials cite a decline in apprehensions of undocumented migrants trying to enter the U.S. for allowing them to increase the number of officers looking for money and guns going into Mexico. (Times graphic: Border crossings into the U.S. are down)
A 2016 report from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives found that about 70 percent of firearms seized in Mexico from 2009 to 2014—more than 73,000—could be traced back to the U.S., reports the Times. The bureau's parent agency, the Department of the Treasury estimates that drug trafficking from sales in the U.S. generates $64 billion annually.

"The money travels in many ways, including by mail, in boxes full of money orders worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and, in bundles along highways, stuffed in suitcases or in hidden compartments, much like the drugs that come north," reports the Times. "Sometimes, it goes from one country to the other in the form of payments and deposits that would be legitimate but for the fact that they are made with drug profits."

Kansas legislature falls short of overriding governor's veto of Medicaid expansion

The Kansas House on Monday fell three votes short of overriding Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s veto of a bill to expand Medicaid in the state, Peter Hancock reports for the Lawrence Journal-World. Expansion would have extended Medicaid coverage to an additional 150,000 people. The vote meant that the bill never returned to the Senate.

The final vote was 81-44, the same vote that passed the measure in February. Two lawmakers that voted against the bill in February voted in favor of overriding the veto, but two lawmakers who supported the bill, changed their votes for the veto override, Hancock reports. One who switched to favor the bill said he voted to help struggling hospitals in his district.

Brownback, a critic of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, "argued in his veto message that expanding Medicaid would burden the state with what he called 'unrestrainable' costs," Hancock writes. He also argued "that the bill 'funnels more taxpayer dollars to Planned Parenthood and the abortion industry." A Catholic Democrat noted that all four Kansas bishops support expansion.

Scientists discover 'neo-nic' pesticides in Iowa drinking water for the first time

Small traces of neo-nicotinoids, or neo-nics, which are some of the most widely used agricultural pesticides, have been discovered for the first time in drinking water, says a study by researchers at the University of Iowa and the U.S. Geological Survey, published in Environmental Science & Technology Letters. Researchers found three members of the neo-nic family (clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam) in tap-water samples collected at the university from May to July last year. The pesticides help control insect feeding on plants.

The samples indicated that the local water plant removed about half the thiamethoxam in the water supply, but none of the other two chemicals. But when the water was treated with activated carbon filters, levels of all three "were substantially lower," and further experiments with such filters removed almost all of them.

The traces of neo-nics were quite small, ranging from 0.24 to 57.3 nanograms per liter—that is, on a scale of parts per trillion, Ben Guarino reports for The Washington Post. Gregory LeFevre, a study author and University of Iowa environmental engineer, told the Post that the discovery was important but not an immediate cause for alarm: “Having these types of compounds present in water does have the potential to be concerning, but we don’t really know, at this point, what these levels might be.”

Guarino writes, "Regulators have not defined safe levels of neo-nicotinoids in drinking water, in part because the chemicals are relative newcomers to the pesticide pantheon. The pesticides, most of which were released in the 1990s, were designed to be more environmentally friendly than other chemicals on the market. The compounds work their way into plant tissue rather than just coating the leaves and stems, requiring fewer sprays. And though the pesticides wreak havoc on insect nervous systems, neo-nicotinoids do not easily cross from a mammal’s bloodstream into a mammalian brain. In 2015, environmental health scientists at George Washington University and the National Institutes of Health published a review of human health risks from neonic pesticide exposure. Acute exposure—to high concentrations over a brief period—resulted in 'low rates of adverse health effects.' Reports of chronic, low-level exposure had 'suggestive but methodologically weak findings,' with a Japanese study associating neo-nicotinoids with memory loss."

Tenn. bill for rural broadband clears state Senate with change to let co-ops offer video service

A Tennessee bill to expand broadband internet to rural areas passed its first hurdle Monday. Requested in January by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, the proposed Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act would start a grant program to provide $45 million over three years for incentives to expand broadband to under-served areas, Jake Lowary reports for The Tennessean.

Before sending the bill to the House, the Senate amended to allowing rural electric cooperatives to offer video service as part of the broadband service but lowering the minimum speed to 10 megabytes per second from 25 mpbs, a federal standard for broadband.

"Current providers of broadband service in rural areas testified in committee hearings that the bill was unnecessary and would create unfair competition for providers that had already offered the service for several years," Lowary reports. But officials said the state ranks 29th in broadband access, with about 34 percent of the population—about 725,000 people, most of them rural—lacking access.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Does failing to attain the American Dream lead to lower life expectancy, especially in rural areas?

Does the alarming trend of higher death rates increasing among middle-aged non-Hispanic whites with a high school diploma or less stem from a despair borne of a feeling that they are have failed to meet society's expectations of a college education and economic success? So says Robert J. Samuelson in his weekly economics column for The Washington Post. Rural areas have higher rates of residents that lack a college or high school degree. (Life expectancy rates in 2010: Health of the States study by the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University and the Urban Institute)
Researchers have found that "the central problem is a 'steady deterioration in job opportunities for people with low education'," Samuelson writes. "One setback leads to another. Poor skills result in poor jobs with low pay and spotty security. Workers with lousy jobs are poor marriage candidates; marriage rates decline. Cohabitation thrives, but these relationships often break down."

Princeton University's Anne Case and Angus Deaton write, "As a result more men lose regular contact with their children, which is bad for them, and bad for the children.” The researchers believe "these 'slow-acting and cumulative social forces' seem the best explanation for the rise in death rates. Because the causes are so deep-seated, they will (at best) 'take many years to reverse'."

Samuelson says that's not the whole story. "But even if their theory survives scholarly scrutiny, it’s incomplete," he writes. "It misses the peculiarly American aspect of this story. The proper question may be: Is the American Dream killing us? American culture emphasizes striving for and achieving economic success. In practice, realizing the American Dream is the standard of success, vague though it is. It surely includes home ownership, modest financial and job security, and a bright outlook for our children."

Samuelson concludes, "When striving accomplishes these goals, it strengthens a sense of accomplishment and self-worth. But when the striving falters and fails—when the American Dream becomes unattainable—it’s a judgment on our lives. By our late 40s or 50s, the reckoning is on us. It’s harder to do then what we might have done earlier. We become hostage to unrealized hopes. More Americans are now in this precarious position. Our obsession with the American Dream measures our ambition—and anger."

County-level map shows seat belt use in 2012

About 14 percent of Americans don't use seat belts, according to a county-level map from The Washington Post using data from 2012 from the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, an ongoing poll by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Numbers are much higher in some areas, especially in northern Plains states of Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota, where about 50 percent of drivers don't wear seat belts. (Post map)
The Post's Christopher Ingraham notes that in Nebraska and the Dakotas, lower seat belt use could be attributed to laws saying police "can only ticket drivers for not wearing seat belts if they've already pulled them over for something else, such as speeding." States with those laws typically have lower seat-belt use. States with higher use have laws where police can stop drivers simply for not wearing a seat belt.

NPR reporter discusses what it's like to cover the rural-urban divide

Kirk Siegler
The rural-urban divide has drawn national attention since the surprise presidential victory of Donald Trump, fueled by overwhelming support in rural areas. National news outlets have dedicated more resources to covering the divide, including NPR, which named Kirk Siegler its beat reporter for the issue. Siegler talked with Corey Hutchins of Columbia Journalism Review about what it's like to cover the rural-urban divide.

"Mostly, it’s been more of an excuse to get out and spend a lot more time in rural parts of America that we haven’t yet," Siegler said. "You’re probably ... going to be hearing more from the rural areas than the urban areas. But I think [the divide] is sort of a popular political term right now and it’s something that resonates with a lot of people. I think [the election] kind of gives more credence to the beat and why we want to get out there and sort of get at the divide a little bit more. To understand what’s going on out in the rural areas, where the economy has been hit really hard from a number of factors, and where people in a lot of communities feel they’re losing control [of] their lives and their heritage and that kind of thing."

"It’s also just sort of a more relevant, interesting way to frame the narrative than what we used to call 'rural affairs'," Siegler told Hutchins. "There are a lot of similarities, and I think there are probably more similarities in some of these places with some hard hit urban areas, too, than people in both places understand. So that’s what we’re trying to get at: not to report a beat that is warm and fuzzy, and allows people in both places to understand that they have more similarities than they do differences, but to get at what the polarization is like, and what’s behind it, and where we might go from here." 

Siegker lives in Los Angeles but grew up in rural Montana. "It’s sort of weird to cover rural America from the second-largest city in America," he said. "That said, I think it lends kind of an interesting perspective to the rural-urban divide in the country if you live in one place and travel to the other place all the time. If you’re from a rural area and have lived in cities most recently, you can kind of understand the tension and the dynamics. That can inform your reporting. There’s probably two sides to that. If we were to embed in a rural place and follow them along, that would also glean some pretty interesting perspectives. But in the realities of journalism today, we don’t necessarily have the resources or the time to do something like that, so this is the next best bet." (Read more)

Opioid epidemic hurting Maine lobster industry; part of 10-part series on opioids in state

Ben Crocker Sr. (right) who said it's hard to hire crew
who are clean, hired Tristan Nelson, a recovering
heroin addict (Press Herald photo by Gregory Rec)
High-paying jobs in the Maine lobster industry have fueled an opioid epidemic, Penelope Overton reports for the Portland Press Herald as part of a 10-part series on opioids' impact on Maine. Last year the state reported 378 opioid deaths, up from 176 four years earlier and only 34 two decades ago, Eric Russell reports in another story. The state, which has the nation's highest percentage of rural population, has an overdose mortality rate of 21.2 for each 100,000 people.

A report from the Maine Medical Association said opioids killed 272 mariners in 2015. One problem is that for years lawmakers have ignored the epidemic in the $1.6 billion-a-year lobster industry, not wanting "to risk tainting the iconic image of the Maine lobsterman, that rough-and-tumble ocean cowboy who braves the elements to hunt lobster, the backbone," Overtone writes. "And the lobstermen were intensely private, preferring to battle their demons on their own and rarely asking for help."

Pat Keliher, commissioner of the Department of Marine Resources, said "many of the 42 commercial fishing licenses suspended in Maine last year involved people who broke state fishing laws to buy drugs or hide their addictions," Overton writes. For example, "an addicted lobsterman might haul someone else’s traps to cover bills that had gone unpaid because of a drug habit." Some boat captains, such as Ben Crocker Sr., who fired four sternmen in 2016 for drug use, say it's hard to find clean workers.

Drug use also has led to "trap wars, where one lobsterman cuts the lines on another’s gear because a trap was set over his own or because he suspects the person might have stolen lobster from his traps," including a case last year that caused $350,000 in damages, Overton writes. Also, a lobsterman is currently on trial for manslaughter for last year sailing his boat into a storm, killing two crewmen, while he was high on opioids.

The problem is that the state, like most states with an opioid epidemic, doesn't know how to curb the problem, Overton writes. Arresting people doesn't work, and "suspending a captain’s fishing license can sentence a whole family to poverty and doesn’t address the issue of addicted sternmen, who are unlicensed."

Maine, like many states with large rural populations, lacks treatment centers, Russell reports in another story in the series. According to federal data, "there are 25,000 to 30,000 people with addiction in Maine who can’t get the help they need, because the "demand for in-patient treatment beds far exceeds the supply."

Scientists say grizzly bears are expanding their habitat around Yellowstone

Map by Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team
Scientists say grizzly bears are expanding their habitat in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, Mike Koshmrl reports for the Jackson Hole Daily in Jackson, Wyo. "Since the population crashed in the 1970s and the animal earned the protection of the Endangered Species Act, grizzlies’ occupied habitat has steadily expanded outward from the population’s core in Yellowstone National Park. That spread has continued at a considerable clip since 2015."

The Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team, a group of scientists and biologists formed in 1973 by the Department of the Interior responsible for long-term monitoring and research efforts on grizzly bears in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, said they have seen an 11 percent change in increasing range of grizzlies in the past few years, Koshmrl writes.

Frank van Manen, head scientist for the group, "attributed the highest-ever numbers of grizzlies dying in 2015 (61 mortalities) and 2016 (58) to the expansion outward from wilderness areas and national parks and into working landscapes,"  Koshmrl writes. Van Manen told reporters, “Bears are simply entering a landscape where the potential for conflict is greater.”

The population of grizzlies within the monitoring area has fallen for two consecutive years, from about 750 animals to 690, reports The Associated Press. "Twenty-seven percent of grizzly range within the region is now outside a 'demographic monitoring area' where bear numbers are assessed annually."

Air Force base in Hawaii to dim exterior lights blamed for deaths of endangered birds

Exterior lights at Kokee Air Force Station
(Center for Biological Diversity photo)
The Air Force this week "agreed to reduce exterior lighting at a mountaintop radar facility on Kauai, Hawaii, to better protect endangered and threatened seabirds," William Cole reports for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

The Center for Biological Diversity had threatened to file a lawsuit against the Kokee Air Force Station, claiming exterior lighting led to "fall out"—tumbling out of the air from exhaustion or striking a structure—of 130 birds in 2015, including Hawaiian petrels, endangered band-rumped storm petrels and Newell's shearwaters, Cole writes. The center, which said the birds are attracted to the light, said most of the 130 birds died. The center threatened to sue in June 2016, saying the Air Force "was violating the Endangered Species Act" by not updating its formal consultation about seabirds with the Fish and Wildlife Service. In response to the Air Force announcement, the center said it will no longer sue.

The Save our Shearwaters program at the Kauai Humane Society said its staff handled 471 downed seabirds in Kauai in 2015, Cole writes. There are an estimated 21,000 Newell's shearwaters and 19,000 Hawaiian petrels remaining in existence, according to the group.

Monday, April 03, 2017

Young, white men hit hardest by heroin epidemic; rural areas see sharp increase in overdoses

Young, white men with lower education and income levels have experienced the greatest increase in heroin use and addiction, a study has found.

Men 25 to 44 accounted for the highest heroin-related death rate (13.2 per 100,000) in 2015, a 22 percent increase from the previous year, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Silvia Martins, the lead author of the new study, told Lindsey Bever of The Washington Post that increases in heroin use and addiction may be related to several factors, including prescription opioid abuse and market forces that favor cheaper alternatives to pills.

"We saw that most of them had already used prescription opioids," Martins, associate professor of epidemiology at Columbia University, told Bever. "We saw that in 2001-2002, only 36 percent of white heroin users reported they had already used prescription opioids before. Now, more than half of them — 53 percent of them — said they had used prescription opioids before. So we believe there is a link to the prescription opioid epidemic. Other potential reasons for that are the fact that heroin has become cheaper in recent years in the U.S."

The study, published in the academic journal JAMA Psychiatry, looked at data from two nationally representative household surveys from 2001-2002 and 2012-2013, analyzing responses from nearly 80,000 respondents. It showed that the number of people who reported using heroin at some point in their lives has climbed over the decade from 0.33 percent of the adult population to 1.61 percent, or roughly 3.8 million Americans. The number of those who met the criteria for heroin use disorder, or addiction, more than tripled from 0.21 percent in 2001-2002 to 0.69 percent in 2012-2013, according to Bever.

Synthetic opioids, including heroin and fentanyl, are the main cause of overdose deaths across the U.S., according to the CDC. More than 33,000 people died of opioid overdose in 2015. Nearly 13,000 people died last year from heroin overdose alone.

President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Wednesday creating a commission to cope with the escalating epidemic. The commission, which will be led by Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, will work to "combat and treat the scourge of drug abuse, addiction, and the opioid crisis," the White House said in a statement.

Federal government struggles to hold drug makers accountable for their role in opioid epidemic

Post graphic: Opioid overdoes on the rise
As the opioid epidemic continues to plague the U.S., especially Appalachia and other rural areas, the federal government is struggling to hold drug manufacturers responsible for damage done by their products, Lenny Bernstein and Scott Higham report for The Washington Post.

For example, the Drug Enforcement Administration spent years investigating Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals, one of the largest makers of the highly addictive painkiller oxycodone, only to have the company reach a deal in which it "would agree to pay a $35 million fine and admit no wrongdoing," reports the Post. The investigation centered in Florida, where the company failed to report suspicious orders of 500 million of its pills between 2008 and 2012—66 percent of all oxycodone sold in the state. During this time, before it cracked down on "pill mills," Florida was the major source of painkillers for Appalachia.

The company first came under suspicion in 2009 when "members of a Tennessee drug task force in a sting operation seized several 100-tablet bottles of ­Mallinckrodt-made oxycodone," reports the Post. "Task force agents alerted Mallinckrodt. The company’s lot numbers were printed on the labels, allowing for easy tracking of the pills. Under federal law and DEA policy, pharmaceutical companies such as Mallinckrodt are required to 'know their customers' and monitor the pattern, frequency and amounts of drug orders. When suspicious orders occur, companies must immediately notify the agency or risk losing their DEA licenses to sell or manufacture controlled substances, as well as face civil and criminal penalties."

"According to the documents and sources familiar with the settlement talks, Mallinckrodt was willing to acknowledge its responsibility to report suspiciously large orders placed by its customers, a network of wholesale distributors," reports the Post. "But the company said that it should not be held responsible for what happens to its drugs once the distributors send them to their customers, such as doctors and pharmacies. Mallinckrodt contended that the DEA has never required manufacturers to know their customers’ customers and that the agency provided the company with conflicting advice about its responsibilities under the law."

Larger rural towns that lack urban competition thrive, while smaller surrounding towns struggle

Off the beaten path, larger rural towns in regions that have little competition from urban areas, are thriving—sometimes at the expense of smaller surrounding towns, Kirk Johnson reports for The New York Times. "Of nearly 2,000 rural counties in the U.S., about 60 percent added jobs last year, while 40 percent contracted, according to federal figures." The most successful towns and counties were ones "close enough to a big city, but not so close as to be crushed by the competition," that have "good access by air and highway for passengers and freight" and "enough trained workers if and when new companies knock on the door."

Region dubbed Magic
Valley (Wikipedia map)
One region that fits that bill, Johnson writes, is "the nine-county south-central region of Idaho anchored by Twin Falls," where unemployment is 3.2 percent—lower than booming Seattle or Idaho’s biggest city, Boise. With a population of 47,000 Twin Falls is easily the biggest community for a hundred miles in any direction, "which makes it a shopping hub," Johnson writes. "Five new hotels have opened since the end of the recession and more than 80,000 people a day drive in to work or shop. It’s a firmly Republican area in a state where President Trump won 42 of 44 counties, and it’s growing. From 2000 to 2015, Twin Falls County’s population increased by almost 25 percent—twice as fast as the nation’s."

"But above all else, city leaders, business owners and residents say, it’s a practical place, where the old small-town values of hardball competition shape political life," Johnson writes. "If an idea gets in the way of economic growth, it should be discarded." Fueled by rich volcanic soil that is perfect for growing crops from potatoes to alfalfa, that in turn fed the dairy cows that grew up in what became known as the Magic Valley, Twin Falls has benefited from Clif and Chobani—which pay $15 an hour, twice the state minimum wage of $7.25. That has forced other companies to raise wages and benefits.

"But the success of Twin Falls poses risks for other rural towns," Johnson writes. "In its heady growth spurt, Twin Falls is sucking the oxygen from some smaller, struggling communities farther out in the country as retailers and restaurants cluster in the center. Rows of closed downtown stores in nearby places like Buhl stand in sharp contrast to Main Avenue in Twin Falls, where businesses like the Twin Falls Sandwich Co. are packed with hungry customers. Idaho’s rural population as a whole fell by more than 5 percent from 2000 to 2015, according to an analysis by Headwaters Economics."

In nearby Gooding, a town of about 3,500 people 45 minutes from Twin Falls, a King’s discount store, which has been in business "around the West since 1915, announced in February that it would close, unable to compete," Johnson writes. Store manager Janice Jacobson told Johnson, “Seems like everything is moving to Boise or Twin Falls.”

Trump budget calls for 25% cut in EPA staff, elimination of 56 programs

Proposed EPA cuts (Post chart; click on it for larger version)
The Environmental Protection Agency would cut staff by 25 percent and eliminate 56 programs, according to a new document that details the agency's 31-percent budget cut ordered by President Trump, The Washington Post reports. EPA's budget would be cut from $8.2 billion in 2017 to $5.7 billion in 2018.

"The Trump administration says the EPA cuts reflect a philosophy of limiting federal government and devolving authority to the states, localities and, in some cases, corporations. But environmental groups say the Trump administration is answering the call of companies seeking lax regulation and endangering Americans’ air and water," Juliet Eilperin, Chris Mooney and Steven Mufson report.

"Reductions in research funds will curtail programs on climate change, water quality, and chemical safety, and 'safe and sustainable water resources,'" the reporters write. "Ken Kopocis, who headed EPA’s Office of Water in 2014 and 2015, said in an interview that the $165 million proposed cut to the agency’s non-point source pollution program would deprive farmers of critical funds to help curb agricultural runoff."

The Post adds, "A program to teach and monitor the proper handling of pesticides would be nearly eliminated, and instead rely fees paid by the industry. The budget document also proposes the elimination of regional programs focused on restoring watersheds and coastal and marine habitats," including programs for the Chesapeake Bay and Great Lakes. The administrator’s Science Advisory Board budget also would be cut 84 percent due to "an anticipated lower number of peer reviews."

Did the Energy Department ban use of climate change terminology in communications?

Sources within the U.S. Department of Energy say the agency has banned climate-change terminology, Eric Wolff reports for Politico. A supervisor at the agency's international climate office reportedly told staff "not to use the phrases 'climate change', 'emissions reduction' or 'Paris Agreement' in written memos, briefings or other written communication." DOE spokeswoman Lindsey Geisler denied the allegations, telling Politico, "No words or phrases have been banned for this office or anyone in the department."

Wolff writes, "Employees of DOE’s Office of International Climate and Clean Energy learned of the ban at a meeting Tuesday, the same day President Donald Trump signed an executive order at Environmental Protection Agency headquarters to reverse most of former President Barack Obama's climate regulatory initiatives. Officials at the State Department and in other DOE offices said they had not been given a banned words list, but they had started avoiding climate-related terms in their memos and briefings given the new administration's direction on climate change."

Native American tribes, many of which did not support Trump, hope he will revive coal

Despite President Trump's lack of popularity among Native American tribes, some are eagerly waiting to see if he follows through on his promise to revive the coal industry, Julie Turkewitz reports for The New York Times. Indian lands hold an estimated 30 percent of coal reserves west of the Mississippi and 20 percent of known U.S. oil and gas reserves.

Among the 13,000 members of the Crow Nation in Crow Agency, Mont., where Hillary Clinton won the surrounding county in November, residents in the impoverished community believe that if Trump follows through on his promise to revive coal, it will revive the Crow's once main source of revenue. Paul Little Light, the tribe's chief executive, told Turkewitz, “A lot of people are not Trump fans here. Very few. But we would be his best friends if he brought back coal.”

Turkewitz writes, "The Crow are among several Indian nations looking to the president’s promises to nix Obama-era coal rules, pull back on regulations, or approve new oil and gas wells to help them lift their economies and wrest control from a federal bureaucracy they have often seen as burdensome." One person on their side is Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, who has said "he would help native nations get fossil fuels to market." (Times map: Crow reservation)
"Stripped of other resources, many tribes have had to rely on pit mines and oil pads to fund their budgets," Turkewitz writes. "This has bred conflict within not only Indian nations, but also individual hearts, with people torn between revenue that feeds their children and a deep commitment to protecting the environment." Ten Bear Reed, who is raising two children on a $9-an-hour casino job, told Turkewitz, “I care about the environment, I really do. But when you see that money, then you don’t care. Because you’re getting the thing you need.”

Turkewitz writes, "On the 2.3-million-acre Crow Indian Reservation in southern Montana, at least half of the tribe’s non-federal budget comes from a single source: a vast single-pit mine at the edge of the reservation, called the Absaloka, which sends brown-black coal by rail to Minnesota’s largest power plant. . . . In 2013, the tribe made a deal with Cloud Peak Energy for a second coal mine, the Big Metal, which could bring $10 million to the Crow in the project’s first five years. Cloud Peak hoped to export that coal to Asia through a proposed terminal in Washington State. That terminal was vetoed by the Army Corps of Engineers under Barrack Obama, but Crow leaders hope to reopen the discussion."

Many rural residents stick with Trump despite his proposals to eliminate local programs

President Trump's proposed budget cuts have caused confusion among his most ardent supporters in rural areas that would be hurt by the cuts, Jenna Johnson reports for The Washington Post. "Many red states like Oklahoma—where every single county went for Trump—are more reliant on the federal funds that Trump wants to cut than states that voted for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton."

Best Places map
For example, in Durant, Okla., a town of 16,000 near the Texas border, Trump won 76 percent of the vote, Johnson writes. But his proposed cuts could eliminate several local programs that rely on federal funding, such as the the Boys and Girls Club, the Oklahoma Shakespearean Festival’s after-school arts program, which relies on National Endowment for the Arts grants that Trump wants to eliminate, and the Farm Service Center, "which supports 1,200 local producers and is staffed with employees whose positions were targeted in the budget."

"Durant has already undergone years of state budget cuts, as Oklahoma has been unable to balance its increasing costs with declines in the oil industry, tax cuts and generous corporate tax credits," Johnson writes. "That has made federal funds even more vital to the city, especially for programs that serve the poor and working class."

Durant City Manager Tim Rundel, who grew up in poverty in northwest Arkansas, told Johnson, “It’s very easy to look at a laundry list of things that exist and say, ‘Cut, cut, cut, cut,’ and say, ‘Well, this is wasteful spending’ without really understanding the true impact. The bottom line is a lot of our citizens depend on those programs.”

Jackie Garner, a bookkeeper at the senior center, whose management company receives $35,000 each year from the National and Community Service, which Trump wants to eliminate, told Johnson, “At my house, if we don’t have that money, we don’t have that money. We don’t go out and spend money that we don’t have. We try to find alternative ways to make the things that are important happen. I expect the government to do the same. It’s our tax dollars. We need to be good stewards.”

That has left many local residents confused, mainly because they support most of Trump's views, such as stricter immigration laws, forcing manufacturers to stay in the U.S. and more military funding, but not at the expense of local programs, Johnson writes. Still, many residents in Durant continue to support Trump, while others have adopted a wait-and-see attitude.

Soybean acreage expected to be record high in 2017; corn and wheat numbers down

U.S. farmers are expected to plant a record high 89.5 million acres of soybeans in 2017, while reducing acreage for corn and wheat, Mike McGinnis reports for Successful Farming. Last year farmers planted 83.43 million acres of soybeans. This year they are expected to plant 90 million acres of corn, down from 94 million last year, and 46.1 million acres of wheat, down from 50.1 million.
While the record soybean acreage is not a shock, "It certainly was a bearish disappointment to those hoping producers would not be so eager to switch from their more traditional tendency to stick with corn," Todd Hultman reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer. If the expected numbers are correct, it "means that roughly 6 million of the 8 million acres that corn and wheat drop will go to soybeans. The other 2 million acres are expected to go to cotton. In other words, the slightly profitable carrot that new-crop soybean prices have been dangling was apparently effective, and soybean prices are now set up to take one for the team in 2017."

"Corn on hand of 8.616 billion bushels exceeded Dow Jones' survey estimate of 8.551 billion bushels and translated to record demand of 8.32 billion bushels in the first half of 2016-17," Hultman writes. "Soybean stocks at 1.735 billion bushels on March 1 translated to 2.79 billion bushels of demand in the first half of 2016-17, also a new record high. Wheat's 1.655 billion bushels was also a little more than expected for March 1 and reinforces USDA's bearish ending stocks estimate of 2.27 billion bushels for 2016-17." (DTN graphic: Expected planting of corn, wheat and soybean)

April 10 is deadline to apply for new Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting fellowship

The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting in Champaign, Ill., is accepting applications for its Illinois Humanities Engagement Fellowship, "to help the nonprofit news operation engage more deeply with rural communities," April Simpson reports for Current, a nonprofit news service for and about public media. Illinois Humanities is a private state-level affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

"The fellow will focus on diversifying MCIR’s audience by involving community members in the newsroom’s editorial process and fostering conversations about its coverage," Simpson writes. "The fellow will focus on diversifying MCIR’s audience by involving community members in the newsroom’s editorial process and fostering conversations about its coverage."

Simon Nyi, program manager of media/journalism and business for Illinois Humanities, told Simpson, “The question that we’re trying to answer really is, can a dedicated engagement operation in a newsroom like that help strengthen the relationships the newsroom has with the community, deepen its audience and ultimately result in better, deeper investigative journalism that wouldn’t have happened otherwise?”

The fellowships includes a one-year, $38,000 stipend. The deadline to apply is April 10. For more information, or to apply, click here.

Seven ways life has improved in rural America

Renn's childhood home in Harrison County
Rural life in America isn't as bad as current events might make you think. "In a number of ways life has just plain gotten better in rural America in the past two to three decades," Aaron Renn writes for The Urbanophile. Renn, who grew up in rural Southern Indiana in the 70s and 80s, lists seven ways life has improved for its residents.

1. Water service. The water that city folks sometimes use to water their flowers "with runoff they caught in their 'rain barrel'," is the same water Renn drank growing up. "No city water service was available, so you had no choice but to dig a well or have a cistern. We had a cistern that was filled with rainwater from our roof," and an industry of people would refill it from a tanker truck, Renn writes. "Today, people where I grew up have access to water service if they want it."

2. Trash service. With no public or commercial trash pickup, Renn says that rural folks in Harrison County "had to throw food scraps to animals" and "burn trash in a 55-gallon drum." He adds, "When it filled up with tin cans and the like, or if you needed to dispose of a larger item like a TV, lots of people had their own dumps on their property. Today you can get commercial trash pickup if you want it."

3. Private telephone lines. "Believe it or not, when I was a kid we had a party line," Renn writes. "That means multiple families shared the same phone line. If you needed to make a call, you’d pick up the phone and find out if your neighbors where using the line before dialing. You couldn’t get a private line unless somebody who had one died first. Somewhere along the way, the phone company put in an upgrade and you could get a private phone line. (On the downside, it’s no longer possible to dial people in town using just four digits anymore)."

4. Paved roads. Though most roads in the county were paved, quite a few were still gravel, Renn writes. "Today the roads are all in amazing shape because of the casino, but even before then my road and others were paved using a technique called 'chip and seal.' Basically this involves spraying some kind of tar on the road, then covering it in fine gravel, which is compacted into a paving surface. No more massive clouds of dust."

5. Satellite TV. Renn reasons that there may have been cable in the county seat, "but most folks were stuck with 4-5 over the air channels showing I Love Lucy reruns. Today, thanks to satellite TV, people in rural America have access to every channel you can get in town."

6. Internet Service. "The web hadn’t even been invented back in the 70s and 80s," Renn notes. "The internet was a small, government and academic network. Today, there’s pretty wide broadband availability through either some kind of DSL type service or satellite internet. My father has satellite internet and it works pretty good if you ask me."

7. Amazon, Apple and Netflix. Rural residents now have access to "everything from designer clothing to pretty much every book ever published," Renn writes. "The days of needing to be in a big city with a cool indie record store in order to get good tunes is over. You can now get access to products people in Chicago couldn’t dream of when I was a kid."