Friday, February 08, 2019

Research shows closure of local newspapers leads to more straight-ticket voting and political polarization

Communities that have lost their local newspaper become slightly more polarized politically, and often have less influence with their state and national elected officials, according to a recently published study in the Journal of Communication.

"As local newspapers close, Americans rely more heavily on available national news or partisan heuristics [sometimes defined as "mental shortcuts"] to make political decisions," write the researchers: Joshua Darr of Louisiana State University, Matthew Hitt of Colorado State University and Johanna Dunaway of Texas A&M University.

Their study used genetic-matching techniques to compare statistically similar counties. It found the closure of a local paper caused "a small but significant" decrease of 1.9 percent in split-ticket voting in presidential and senatorial elections.
"Evidence of increasing political polarization of the public is shown by this and other studies, and one contributing factor is that voters without local news options are more likely than usual to vote on the basis of party identification alone," Elena Watts writes for The Daily Yonder. "Concurrently, the void left by defunct local newspapers creates opportunities for political parties to employ tactics that help replace objective sources of information with their highly polarized perspectives."

Watts explains why newspaperless communities may lose influence: "National media outlets cover legislative leaders in terms of whether they support or oppose their respective political party ideologies. So, as national media dominance increases, and with it, political polarization, legislators have more incentive to respond to the needs and preferences of their political parties than to those of their districts . . . Legislators already often consider how national media will portray their actions and responses more than they consider how their constituents will receive them. Therefore, residents of counties without sources of local news are losing influence with their legislators because of the increasing political polarization, likely brought about, at least in part, by growing national media influences."

N.M. bid to ban traps on public land shows rural-urban split

The renewal of "a years-long effort to ban trapping on public lands in New Mexico," following the lead of adjoining Colorado and Arizona, has laid bare the state's urban-rural divide, Andrew Oxford reports for the Santa Fe New Mexican.

"With House Bill 366, Lawmakers are reigniting a visceral debate over the humane treatment of animals and deep-rooted traditions," Oxford writes. "Critics argue that banning trapping on public land will not stop the sort of illegal trapping that usually spurs outrage."

Trappers are supposed to get a state license, mark traps "with an identifying number and abide by rules about where they can place their traps," Oxford explains. "Banning the practice, ranchers say, will only deprive them of a method that is key to defending their cattle from predators such as coyotes" and be "one more blow at a way of life many of them already view as under threat."

Animal-welfare advocates who favor the ban "argue that trapping has been ineffective, pointing to the coyote’s spread across North America," Oxford reports. "When the House Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee took testimony from the public about the issue on Thursday, however, the biggest argument against trapping was simply that it is cruel," and dangerous to people and their pets. The committee is expected to send the bill to the full House on Saturday, Oxford writes, but "trapping bans have faltered in the Senate in the past, leaving its outlook uncertain."

USDA Rural Development official moving to White House drug-control policy office as rural affairs adviser

Anne Hazlett
Anne Hazlett, who has served as the assistant to the secretary for Rural Development at the Department of Agriculture since June 2017, is leaving that role to serve as the senior adviser for rural affairs at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

“In her new role at ONDCP, Hazlett will help shape policy aimed at improving the quality of life in rural America, coordinate interagency efforts on drug control activity impacting rural communities, and build coalitions and grassroots strategies in these areas centered on prevention, treatment, and recovery,” a press release said.

Hazlett worked with ONDCP to create a White House Rural Opioid Federal Interagency Working Group to help improve coordination of federal resources in rural areas. She was also deeply involved in building the Community Opioid Misuse Toolbox. 

Hazlett has a deep background in rural issues. Before Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perfue tapped her for the Rural Development position, Hazlett served as majority counsel to the Senate Agriculture Committee. In her home state of Indiana, she ran the Department of Agriculture and helped create the state Office of Community and Rural Affairs.

Lincoln land in Land of Lincoln selling on Lincoln's birthday

Thursday, February 07, 2019

More than a third of rural counties have experienced long-term population loss over the past century

Map by Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire
A little more than a third of the nation's 1,948 rural counties lost population between 1900 to 2010, another third gained population, and the last third had a mixture of both, according to newly published research from the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire.

About 15 percent of Americans live in rural areas; the percentage has been declining for more than a century. The 35 percent of counties that have experienced long-term, significant population loss now have about 6.2 million residents, a third less than in 1950. Depopulation mostly started with young adults moving to cities or suburbs; the slide in population continued because fewer women of childbearing age were left in rural areas to boost the population. Read the full report here.

Farmers sue Monsanto, allege dicamba-resistant soybean seeds violate antitrust laws; fear makes some buy

A new lawsuit claims that Monsanto, now owned by German firm Bayer, violated antitrust laws when it began selling a new kind of soybean seeds.

The seeds, which go by the brand name Xtend, have been genetically modified to survive after being sprayed with the controversial herbicide dicamba. "In just the past three years, Xtend soybeans have taken over 60 to 75 percent of the American soybean market," Dan Charles reports for NPR. "But some farmers say they're buying these seeds partly out of fear."

Though farmers say they bought the seeds to produce bigger harvests and keep their soybean fields free of weeds, many also say they bought them because they had no choice. Dicamba is notorious for vaporizing and blowing onto neighbors' fields, so when one farmer begins using the herbicide, surrounding farmers may feel like they have to comply or see their own soybean crops damaged, and some farmers say Monsanto salespeople are using that fear as a sales tool, Charles reports.

"Several law firms now have filed a lawsuit on behalf of farmers against Monsanto, arguing that the company violated antitrust law by selling dicamba-tolerant seeds. The lawsuit claims that the company understood that the risk of drifting dicamba could drive competitors out of the market," Charles reports.

Though Bayer declined an interview request from NPR, its public statements insist that dicamba will not harm neighboring crops if used correctly, and points out that reports of dicamba damage dropped last year after it and other organizations held training sessions for farmers. "The company's critics, though, say fewer crops are getting damaged in part because so many farmers have decided to buy Bayer's product: crops that dicamba can't harm," Charles reports.

Midwest farm bankruptcies most numerous in a decade

Low commodity prices, growing global competition, and trade disputes are nudging already-struggling Midwestern farmers to file for Chapter 12 bankruptcy at levels not seen in at least a decade, according to a review of federal data. Chapter 12 bankruptcies allow farmers and fishermen to repay creditors over three to five years.

Total U.S. farm debt topped $409 billion last year, according to the data. "Bankruptcies in three regions covering major farm states last year rose to the highest level in at least 10 years. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, had double the bankruptcies in 2018 compared with 2008. In the Eighth Circuit, which includes states from North Dakota to Arkansas, bankruptcies swelled 96 percent. The 10th Circuit, which covers Kansas and other states, last year had 59 percent more bankruptcies than a decade earlier," Jesse Newman and Jacob Bunge report for The Wall Street Journal. "States in those circuits accounted for nearly half of all sales of U.S. farm products in 2017, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data."

The bankruptcies didn't come out of the blue: more than half of U.S. farm households lost money farming in recent years because of low prices on commodities such as corn and soybeans and increasing competition from Brazil and Russia. Low milk prices and overproduction has taken a major toll on dairy farmers. Upheaval in international trade has contributed to the crisis too, including tit-for-tat tariffs with China, the European Union, Canada and Mexico, Newman and Bunge report.

"Agribusinesses such as Archer Daniels Midland Co., Bunge Ltd. and Cargill Inc. are feeling the heat, too. Even though lower crop prices translate into less-expensive raw materials for the commodity buyers, tariffs impact the global flow of goods and in some cases drive down prices, cutting into profits," Newman and Bunge report. "Low prices and mounting farm debts have sparked fears of more farm closures to come, among both large-scale farms that grew rapidly on rented land and small farms run by families working multiple jobs."

Montana agricultural economist wants to make the state, a major beef producer, a mecca for veggie burgers

Barnett Sporkin-Morrison
Montana is famous for its cattle ranches and the beef they produce -- there's a reason Arby's has a roast beef sandwich called the Big Montana -- but a 35-year-old agricultural economist is hoping to make the state just as famous for veggie burgers.

"Barnett Sporkin-Morrison is a . . . former diplomat recently recruited by the Great Falls Development Authority to take charge of its Food and Agriculture Development Center," Timothy Clark reports for Route Fifty. "His goal is to attract venture capital that’s now being mostly spent around Silicon Valley and high-tech regions of the Northeast to develop plant-based proteins—foods like tofu, lentil burgers, roasted chickpeas and other alternatives to meat—that could appeal to modern consumers."

Sporkin-Morrison told Clark he worries about the future of rural Montana and hopes that, by taking advantage of the increasing popularity of meat analogues, he can make it possible for locals to make a good living while staying in Central Montana. Great Falls, pop. 59,000, is in the heart of Montana's farming region.

A sixth-generation Montanan himself, Morrison was born in the state but raised in Wyoming because his dad found a better job there. He most recently spent two years in Guatemala trying to increase their agricultural output, but jumped at the chance to come back home, Clark reports.

Sporkin-Morrison said he hasn't heard any complaints about his organization from ranchers, but pushback from the beef industry has spurred lawsuits in Missouri and several other states to prohibit vegetarian meat analogues from using terms associated with meat, like veggie "burgers," Clark reports.

USDA launches toolkit to help rural communities get broadband service

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Office of Rural Development has created a free toolkit aimed at helping rural communities get broadband service.

The e-Connectivity toolkit includes a list of 27 USDA programs that support broadband deployment, allowing customers to see which ones are the best fit. The programs are organized by the type of customer (e.g., farmers, for-profit businesses, non-profits and government entities) and by what each program offers (such as technical assistance, training and workforce development, agriculture technology research, and permit reimbursement).

The toolkit also includes a user guide and examples of how some rural communities are using e-Connectivity resources to increase broadband services.

"High-speed broadband e-Connectivity is becoming more and more essential to doing business, delivering health care, and, for schoolchildren, doing homework in rural communities," Assistant to the Secretary for Rural Development Anne Hazlett said in a statement. "This user-friendly tool will help rural customers find the many resources USDA has available to support the expansion and use of e-Connectivity in rural America."

The toolkit is part of the ReConnect program, a new broadband loan and grant pilot initiative aimed at funding rural broadband development.

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Report outlines challenges to rural health care

A new report by the American Hospital Association provides a comprehensive look at challenges to rural health care. It divides the 19 challenges into three temporal groups: emergent, recent, and persistent.

The "emergent" category includes:
  • The opioid epidemic. Overdose death rates in rural areas outpace those in suburban and urban areas, but it's harder to find treatment options in rural areas.
  • Violence in communities. Hospitals have to conduct drills to prepare for mass shootings, which are expensive and time-consuming for rural hospitals. Also, human trafficking is increasing in rural communities.
  • Medical surge capacity. Rural hospitals often don't have the resources to effectively handle a disaster. 
  • Cyber threats. Hospitals are frequent targets for hackers, but rural hospitals often don't have the training or resources to stave off such attacks.
The "recent" category includes:
  • Changes in health care delivery. Across the U.S., many health care services that were once only available to inpatients are now available on an outpatient basis. Since outpatient visits cost less, rural hospitals are getting less money for medical services. 
  • Coverage. People with no or inadequate health insurance often can't pay for emergency health services, which means rural hospitals must absorb those costs.
  • Medicaid expansion. The 14 states that have not expanded Medicaid under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act have more uninsured people, which means rural hospitals often have to eat the costs of emergency health care when patients can't pay.
  • Health plan design. "Skinny" health plans, which have higher deductibles and cover fewer services, have become increasingly popular. That can result in scenarios mentioned above, in which hospitals must absorb the costs of care when patients can't pay.
  • Behavioral health trends. Recent studies suggest that mental illness, emotional distress and substance-abuse disorders disproportionately affect rural communities. Rural hospitals often don't have the staff and funding to effectively treat such patients.
  • Economic, population and social changes. For example, higher unemployment means fewer patients can pay for care, forcing hospitals to absorb the cost of emergency treatment.
  • Increased regulatory burden. Rural hospitals have to spend the same amount of time and money on regulatory requirements, but have less money and staff to do so.
  • High cost of prescription drugs. Pharmaceutical spending has skyrocketed in recent years; hospitals often can't afford to keep expensive drugs in stock, and rural residents often can't afford to fill prescriptions.
The "persistent" category includes:
  • Low patient volume. Because of low population density, rural hospitals don't have enough patients to cover high fixed expenses. 
  • Challenging payer mix. Rural residents are more likely to rely on Medicare and Medicaid, but both programs reimburse hospitals at lower rates than private insurers. That makes rural hospitals more vulnerable to policy changes that could hamper payment for services. 
  • Challenging patient mix. Rural residents are more likely to be sicker, older and poorer than national averages, meaning rural hospitals tend to have more to do. 
  • Geographic isolation. Rural residents often have to travel farther to reach health-care facilities, and many don't have reliable transportation. 
  • Workforce shortages. It's difficult to recruit and retain health care professionals to work in rural hospitals. 
  • Limited access to essential services. Fewer health care services are available in rural areas for all the reasons listed above and more. 
  • Aging infrastructure and access to capital. Many rural hospitals need updating but don't have the funds to do it.

What strategies are working against the opioid epidemic?

The opioid epidemic is a major issue in every state, but not all are tackling it in the same ways. The National Academy for State Health Policy, a nonpartisan group of state health officials, met recently with policymakers from a dozen states to talk about what they find challenging and what is effective. "States generally share a few common goals: prevent addiction, stop people from dying, and get people into treatment," Kitty Purington writes for NASHP. The group identified strategies that are showing results:
  • Track opioid prescribing to keep drug-seeking patients from getting pain-pill prescriptions from multiple doctors.
  • Invest in harm reduction by training more people to administer naloxone and making the anti-overdose drug more readily available. 
  • Build capacity for medication-assisted treatment. MAT is the gold standard for treating opioid addiction, but many areas, especially rural, don't have access to it because of a lack of qualified prescribers or treatment facilities.
  • Watch newly freed addicts. The first two weeks after an opioid addict's release from prison or jail is particularly dangerous, since users are much more likely to fatally overdose then. Rhode Island is trying to counter this by offering MAT to inmates statewide. While inmates can't receive Medicaid benefits, NASHP suggests that states begin enrolling them before their release so they can access treatment as soon as possible. 
  • Ensure access in rural areas. Rural residents often face higher barriers to treatment than suburban and urban residents, including transportation difficulties, lack of facilities and/or qualified prescribers, lack of broadband to access telehealth addiction services, and stigma. 
  • Expand Medicaid. Addicts in states that have expanded Medicaid generally have more access to affordable treatment.

Fact-checking the State of the Union address

President Trump's State of the Union speech last night was "once again was chock-full of stretched facts and dubious figures. Many of these claims have been fact-checked repeatedly, yet the president persists in using them," Glenn Kessler, Salvador Rizzo, and Meg Kelly write for The Washington Post's Fact Checker column. The three fact-check nearly 30 of the president's statements last night. Here are a few:

"Wages are rising at the fastest pace in decades." Wages rose 3.1 percent from December 2017 to December 2018, not accounting for inflation, which is the biggest such increase since the December 2007 to December 2008 time period, not decades. When adjusted for inflation, wages grew 1.3 percent in the past year, making it the largest increase since August 2016. "It’s worth noting that although real wage gains were higher in 2015 and 2016, that was a period of almost no inflation. So Trump can claim some credit for decent real wage growth now with inflation back at about 2 percent," Kessler, Rizzo and Kelly write.

"We virtually ended the estate, or death, tax on small businesses, ranchers and family farms." The fact checkers call this "an enormous stretch. Trump often claims he saved family farms and small businesses by gradually reducing the federal estate tax," Kessler, Rizzo and Kelly write. "Reducing the estate tax primarily benefits the wealthy. The estate tax rarely falls on farms or small businesses, since only those leaving behind more than $5 million pay it. According to the Tax Policy Center, nearly 5,500 estates in 2017 — out of nearly 3 million — were subject to the tax. Of those, only 80 taxable estates would be farms and small businesses."

"We recently imposed tariffs on 250 billion dollars of Chinese goods — and now our Treasury is receiving billions of dollars." Treasury data show an increase of $6.7 billion in customs duties collected in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, and that could be mostly because of tariffs. "But the exporters do not pay the tariffs; it is the importer, who in turn passes it on to consumers. A study by the Council on Foreign Relations estimated that 115 percent of the money raised from tariffs is being used by the administration to aid farmers hurt by the tariffs, so it’s a net loser," Kessler, Rizzo and Kelly write.

Fact-checkers also disputed some of the assertions made by Democrat Stacey Abrams in her televised response to the president. She "presented a distorted picture of the U.S. economy since the Republican-backed tax bill became law," D'Angelo Gore writes for FactCheck.org, which allows free publication of its work, with attribution.

Why didn't Trump mention coal in the State of the Union?

President Trump said in his State of the Union address Tuesday night that the American economy is soaring, partly because of what he calls a "revolution in American energy." He noted that the U.S. is the world's biggest producer of oil and natural gas, and is a net exporter of energy for the first time in 65 years. But he never mentioned coal, once his favorite energy topic.

"Gone were lines about his effort to end the 'war' on coal the Obama administration waged that were in his 2018 address to Congress," Dino Grandoni writes for The Washington Post.  The omission could be because the Trump administration has had a difficult time reviving the coal industry, Grandoni ventures; total coal consumption in the U.S. was expected to hit a 40-year low last year, though the final figures are not yet in.

"The Energy Department's plan to subsidize hurting coal plants at the behest of Trump campaign booster and coal baron Robert Murray never got off the ground," Grandoni notes. "Despite the rollback of some air-pollution rules extending the life of some coal facilities, the closure of coal plants nationwide has continued apace during Trump's presidency — with 16 gigawatts of coal-fired power going offline in 2018, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance." Meanwhile, increasingly cheap natural gas, solar and wind energy are replacing coal-fired power plants even in Central Appalachia, Grandoni writes.

He questions whether Trump's policies are responsible for the energy sector's growth, noting that the U.S. has been the world's top oil and gas producer since 2012, and that new extraction technologies like hydraulic fracturing are the biggest driver of the boom.

Public-notice fight resumes in legislatures; rural Utah papers score a win, but bills are moving in other states

The annual battle over paid public notices in newspapers has begun in legislatures across the country. Missouri and Indiana seem likely to pass bills that would put government and foreclosure notices only online, and not in newspapers, but bills have failed in other states, including Utah, where an appeal to help rural newspapers may have won the day.

The Utah bill, for notices to parties in legal actions, was defeated by four votes in the state House on Tuesday. One lawmaker argued that rural newspapers depend on revenue from public notices, Benjamin Wood reports for The Salt Lake Tribune. "Large newspapers with large circulation can replace that revenue with commercial ads," said Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville. This is an unnecessary provision that appears to do more harm than good."

"The Missouri Press Association is battling two bills," Barry Smith reports for the Public Notice Resource Center. "The one dealing with foreclosure notices "is identical to legislation that was voted out of committees in both the House and Senate last year before stalling. It would move foreclosure notices from newspapers to ill-defined 'internet website(s)' that would almost certainly be operated by trustees angling to profit from the notices they are required to publish before auctioning delinquent properties. "Two of the largest trustee law firms in Missouri have been the primary proponents of the legislation."

Missouri's other bill would require each government body to post required public notices on the front page of its website, if it has one, It also calls for a catchall website where the secretary of state would publish notices for government offices that don't have a website, Smith reports. That bill is also similar to a bill that failed to pass in 2018.

"Perversely, MPA’s effort to stop these bills will be complicated by a clause in the Missouri Constitution requiring the full text of all statewide ballot measures to be published in newspapers throughout the state," Smith writes. "That provision created a political backlash after the state spent almost $6 million on notices last year due to the unusual volume and complexity of issues placed on the ballot for November’s election."

Secretary of State Jay Ashcroft warned the House Appropriations Committee that some newspapers had "jacked up their rates" and that if the legislature doesn't pass the bill this year, putting out public notices for another bill next year could cost even more, Smith reports.

In Indiana, a bill would move foreclosure notices from newspapers to county or sheriff's websites. Bill sponsor Wendy McNamara, R-Evansville, argued the bill is necessary because a few papers are charging too much, Smith reports.

Similar bills have been recently introduced in Colorado, Maine, North Dakota, Utah, Virginia and Wyoming. The Colorado and Wyoming bills died in committee, the Virginia bill unanimously passed the Senate last week, the North Dakota bill passed the House last week, and no action has been taken on the Maine bill, Smith reports.

Tuesday, February 05, 2019

New survey method can help rural places understand the impact of the opioid epidemic and how to respond

Public health researchers from Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health have developed a survey method that helps local officials better understand better how to respond to the opioid epidemic.

"Researchers surveyed the population of people who inject drugs to understand their drug use and needs for essential public health services, including drug treatment and overdose-prevention resources," Michael Grass reports for Route Fifty. "Using these data, the study team was able to quantify the size and characteristics of the population of people who inject drugs."

The researchers developed and refined the technique by working with officials from Cabell County, West Virginia (Huntington), which has been hard hit by opioids. They found that 1,857 people in the county of 95,000 had used injection drugs such as heroin in the previous six months. Though Cabell County is largely urban, the researchers say the technique can help rural counties.

"This research demonstrates that rural communities can leverage innovative population-estimation methods to better understand population-level needs for services among people who inject drugs," Dr. Sean Allen, an assistant scientist in the Bloomberg school’s Department of Health, Behavior and Society, said in a statement.

China buys more soybeans after trade talks, but not much

China promised to buy 5 million metric tons of soybeans from the U.S. after last week's trade talks, but is in no hurry. On Friday it bought over 1 million tons, and on Monday purchased another 612,000. 

One researcher said he thinks China's promise to buy more soybeans was a stalling tactic, Tyne Morgan reports for Ag Web. Ken Smithmier, ag-market research chief for ClipperData, told Smithmier, "In my opinion, these look like statements from China that buys them time in the trade negotiation and makes U.S. officials happy, but for those of us in the grain market every day running the numbers to see how much they typically buy every year, it really doesn't amount to a whole lot."

Soybean futures rose Monday because of the sales, but market experts say the sales are underwhelming, Karl Plume reports for Reuters. The sales were "a bit disappointing compared with expectations," Rich Nelson, chief strategist with Allendale Inc., told Plume. But Nelson said he remains hopeful, and noted bad crop weather in South America, our main competitor in soybeans.

Brazil, the world's top soybean exporter, is expected to produce its largest soybean crop ever this year despite unusually hot, dry weather that could diminish the harvest, Plume reports. Since the U.S. is still imposing a 25 percent tariff on soybean exports, China may be motivated to buy more from Brazil instead.

President Trump has insisted on a March 1 deadline for trade talks with China before he imposes more tariffs.

TVA may charge customers to cover coal ash cleanup

"The Tennessee Valley Authority is admitting publicly for the first time that it made a deal that could put ratepayers on the financial hook for the misdeeds of a contractor accused of poisoning an entire workforce," Jamie Satterfield reports for the Knoxville News Sentinel. "TVA is publicly acknowledging — via a small section in a 2019 quarterly earnings report — ratepayers may have to foot the bill for Jacobs Engineering’s treatment of disaster cleanup workers at the nation’s largest coal ash spill at the public utility’s Kingston plant a decade ago.

After a 7.3 million ton coal ash spill at the TVA's Kingston Fossil Fuel Power Plant in December 2008, the TVA hired Jacobs Engineering for $60 million to clean it up and keep both the workers and the nearby town of Swan Pond safe from the toxic ash, Satterfield reports.

Jacobs supervisors admitted under oath later on that they lied to the approximately 900 cleanup workers about the site's safety and exposed them to toxins. More than 40 workers have since died and more than 400 are sick or dying because of their exposure to the waste. Dozens of cleanup workers or their families sued Jacobs, Satterfield reports.

TVA customers could be on the hook for a lot of money if the company passes on its expenses to ratepayers. A state investigation into the coal ash cleanup revealed that TVA promised to pay any legal bills Jacobs incurred from lawsuits stemming from the cleanup, and "in its latest filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, TVA is for the first time admitting publicly it also has a deal to cover any damages the sickened workers might recoup — if they win what could be a yearslong legal battle against Jacobs," Satterwhite reports.

Record number of women lead state agriculture agencies, just as more women are owning and running farms

A record 13 women have been elected or appointed to lead state agriculture departments, a number that could rise since five states still have their top ag jobs open, Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico's Morning Agriculture.

Women already led the departments in California, Idaho, Missouri, Oregon, Utah and Virginia before 2019, and since the beginning of 2019, have taken the job in Colorado, Florida, Hawaii, Maine, Ohio, Oklahoma, and South Dakota,

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried told Politico, "We’re breaking down glass ceilings . . . giving them opportunities to not just work the farm but step up in trade associations, step up in leadership." And Karen Ross, who has served as secretary of California's Department of Food and Agriculture since 2011, told Politico that she has seen an increase in women in ag leadership roles since she took office.

The rise in women in state-government agricultural leadership mirrors an overall increase in women in farming; more women are running cattle ranches and family farms. Women make up 31 percent of U.S. farmers and ranchers, run 14 percent of all U.S. farms and ranches, and own 30 percent of U.S. farmland. That number could increase, since 44 percent of all Future Farmers of America students are girls, according to Jeanne Bernick, a principal and market strategist with ag firm KCoe Isom.

Fact-checkers team up to check Trump speech, response

News media need to fact-check President Trump's State of the Union address and the Democratic response tonight. Tom Jones of The Poynter Institute says the fact-checkers will be on the prowl with some new tools and an alliance.

"PolitiFact will be live-tweeting during the address and the Democratic response," then post a full story. The service of the Tampa Bay Times, which Poynter owns, "is teaming up with The Washington Post, The Reporters’ Lab and FactCheck.org to offer live fact-checking on the new FactStream app."

Journalists from those news outlets will provide real-time updates in the form of "quick takes," instant updates about the accuracy of a statement; and ratings, as links to previously published fact-checks with ratings when the president repeats a claim that has been checked before.

Monday, February 04, 2019

Local officials, especially in rural areas, slow to integrate mapping technology into voter registration systems

"Most states aren’t even halfway along integrating geospatial data into elections, despite expecting voter registration systems to support such information within five years, according to a new survey of election directors," Dave Nyczepir reports for Route Fifty. That's important because geographic information systems can pinpoint voters' locations to ensure they're in the right precinct and receive the right absentee or mail-in ballots. Less effective voter outreach could result in fewer voters getting to have their say in elections.

Though the process is a statewide, local election officials bear the heaviest burden in making the necessary changes. Officials in rural areas are having the hardest time integrating GIS, since they don't have as much access to specialists who can help them troubleshoot. In a recent report from the National States Geographic Information Council, "five out of six election directors reported having access to such resources. GIS resources were fewer in rural areas," Nyczepir reports.

Overall, when local and state election officials were asked how much progress they were making toward GIS integration on a scale of 1 to 10 (with 10 being full integration), the average response was 4, Nyczepir reports.

Report: Driverless cars can't solve rural transportation woes without broadband and better-marked roads

Scanty public transportation means rural residents already have a harder time getting around without a car than people in urban areas. That gap is likely to stay the same or widen once self-driving cars become more common, according to a recent report by the Berkshire County Selectmen's Association, which represents 30 towns in far western Massachusetts. The issues there are much the same as those facing rural areas across the nation.

"Hundreds of country roads in Berkshire County will be off-limits to autonomous vehicles, unless telecommunications gaps are plugged and roads themselves improved," Larry Parnass reports for The Berkshire Eagle.

Rural residents' difficulty in getting around hampers economic development, limits access to health care, and forces schools to spend too much money on transportation, according to BCSA president Andrew Hogeland. He served on the statewide Commission on the Future of Transportation, which issued a report in December with recommendations for improving rural transportation, Parnass reports.

Both the BCSA and CFT reports say school transportation needs a makeover. School buses are a huge expense for rural school districts and sit idle for most of the day, Hogeland said. The reports also agree that the lack of public transportation in rural areas makes aging in place more difficult for seniors and makes residents more vulnerable to food deserts, Parnass reports.

Electric co-ops seen as popular solution to rural broadband, but may take years to improve rural access

Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant signed a bill Jan. 29 to let rural
electric cooperatives form subsidiaries to provide broadband,
but that could take five to 10 years, the Tupelo Daily Journal
reports. (Associated Press photo by Rogelio D. Solis)
Here's a trio of articles illustrating how the lack of quality, affordable broadband affects residents in small towns and rural areas, and how an increasingly popular solution for the problem, rural electric cooperatives, isn't a magic bullet:

Business owners in rural Nebraska have a hard time functioning without broadband, Chris Dunker reports for the Lincoln Journal Star. Jessika Benes, for example, recently opened a mobile veterinary clinic in Adams County, pop. 31,364. Though the local internet service provider advertised decent speeds, in reality Benes said she gets download speeds of 3 Mbps and upload speeds of 1 Mbps.

"The molasses-slow speeds have made it difficult to effectively manage her website where her clients book appoints, have hampered her ability to pursue continuing education online, and have delayed the deployment of telemedicine services," Dunker reports.

Retired teacher Molly Radford, who lives in rural Georgia near the Florida line, gets even worse speeds. Though she pays for 3 Mbps download, it is so slow it barely registers on most speed tests. "Her frustration boiled over last year when it became clear her provider – the only one available – had no plans to upgrade service in the area as promised. When she confronted the carrier, she was told she would lose access to what little service she had, in addition to her phone line, if she canceled her internet service," Jill Nolin reports for the Valdosta Daily Times in Georgia.

Radford and the rest of Brooks County's 3,300 residents get their internet service from an electric cooperative. State legislators are trying, for the third time, to pass a measure empowering electric and telephone cooperatives to provide broadband. "A lead proponent of the measure, Rep. Penny Houston, a Republican from Nashville, is pushing the idea this year with a sense of urgency, citing a looming application deadline for $600 million in federal loans and grants for rural broadband," Nolin reports. "Enabling the state’s 41 electric co-ops, or electric membership corporations, to enter the broadband game would bolster the state’s case for claiming a share of that money. Mississippi’s governor signed a similar measure into law last week."

Though electric co-ops are now allowed to offer broadband in Mississippi, it could take five to 10 years before individual houses get hooked up, and some areas might never receive it because of the expense of building out the infrastructure. "The associations have to be slow and deliberate in the decision-making process. In addition to the high costs of creating the infrastructure, they cannot raise electric rates to fund the project. And running a fiber optic cable does not guarantee that everyone on the road will want to sign up for internet," William Moore reports for the Daily Journal in Tupelo.

Corn farmers lobby miffed by Bud Light Super Bowl ad

The National Corn Growers Association slammed Anheuser-Busch for its Super Bowl ad that boasted Bud Light doesn't use corn syrup and criticized MillerCoors for using the sweetener in its Miller Lite and Coors brands, The Associated Press reports.

The NCGA, which says it represents 40,000 corn farmers, said in a tweet to Anheuser-Busch that "America's corn farmers are disappointed in you" and thanked MillerCoors for "supporting our industry."

The response from both beer companies highlights their uncomfortable relationship with the corn industry: they use corn syrup to feed yeast in the fermentation process, but are aware of negative public sentiment about the ingredient.

Anheuser-Busch quickly responded that the commercial only sought to "point out a key difference" between Bud Light and its competitors and "provide consumers transparency and elevate the beer category," AP reports. The company stressed that it "fully supports corn growers and will continue to invest in the corn industry."

MillerCoors tweeted back that it does not use high-fructose corn syrup in any of its products, and noted that many Anheuser-Busch products do, AP reports. However, a Twitter user quickly rebutted that the MillerCoors site shows that many of its products use corn syrup (though apparently not high-fructose, the more controversial type), and felt the brand was "being misleading."

Here's the commercial at the heart of the dispute:

Democrats must engage more with rural voters, partly through rural newspapers, rural Dem strategist says

Coastal and urban Democratic candidates must do a better job of engaging with rural voters if they want to have more success in state and national elections, said Matt Barron said in a discussion with environmental and agricultural advocate Austin Frerick for The Daily Yonder. Barron, a Democrat, is a longtime rural strategist who runs the political research company MLB Research. Frerick, a seventh-generation Iowan, ran for Congress in 2018 and is a fellow at Open Markets Institute.

More big-city Democrats might try to reach out to rural voters if they knew how inexpensive it is, Barron said. Because most rural areas lack public transportation, people often have to drive long distances; that means radio ads can be more effective at reaching rural audiences than they are in urban areas. Display ads in rural newspapers also have a high market penetration and, like radio ads, are usually cheaper than advertising in urban papers. "For example, in Arizona, a quarter-page full-color ad in 15 rural weeklies costs $8,740 and reaches 91,000 readers in the state’s rural counties," Barron said.

The disconnect between rural and urban areas is rooted in the growing economic gap between the two areas, Frerick said, noting that many rural areas still have not recovered from the Great Recession. Many urban Americans are not aware of this gap, he said, because political donors "get a false sense of success" when they see the number of impressions garnered by digital ads, but don't understand how much impact $1,000 could have had if it had been invested in a county fair booth.

Noting the "growing number of state parties that have created rural caucuses" in their legislatures, Barron said they "have no capacity – no staff or funding to do the education and outreach to rural voters in their states. They are just names listed on the state party website."

Frerick noted that Democratic Party leaders are all from coastal urban areas, and that they and regular Democratic donors don't realize that rural areas require a different political strategy. "It’s not always about winning every exurban county, but winning 40 percent of the vote compared to Senator Claire McCaskill’s 27 percent of rural voters can make the difference between winning or losing a seat," Frerick said, noting last year's election in Missouri. "The continued poor performance in exurban areas will prevent Democrats from retaking the Senate for years to come."

Barron agreed, and said that the lack of broadband and increasing media consolidation means less news media presence in rural areas, which means rural voters have fewer sources of impartial news that could contradict Republican talking points. "If Democrats don’t have the resources to lay out the case on Republican opposition to key stuff in the farm bill, highway bill, energy and water appropriations bill, and the ramifications of those to rural constituencies, then they will continue to fail electorally in many red and purple places," Barron said.