Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Two years after nationwide legalization, hemp industry slumping because of patchwork regulations, oversupply

"It’s been nearly two years since the 2018 Farm Bill was signed into law, legalizing industrial hemp production nationwide and fueling hopes of a hemp farming boom. But that hasn’t panned out yet, with growers around the country still struggling to reap the benefits of the burgeoning crop sector," Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico's Weekly Agriculture. "After millions of acres of hemp were planted in 2019, production is way down this year; many growers gave up because of a steep drop in prices and the lack of a market for their crops."

Another big problem is inconsistent state regulations. "The Agriculture Department has approved hemp programs for 29 states and is negotiating with another 12," McCrimmon reports. "Some state agricultural officials were so unsatisfied with the regulatory framework that USDA proposed last year that they decided not to move forward with hemp initiatives. (Among the biggest complaints are the strict limits on THC that can be present in hemp crops and the stringent testing requirements to certify those levels of the psychoactive chemical.)"

Unclear federal oversight has also hurt the fledgling industry. The Food and Drug Administration "has yet to put forth regulations on cannabidiol, the widely popular compound derived from hemp that’s increasingly found in products from pills to pet foods. The agency’s CBD guidance has been awaiting approval from the White House since July," McCrimmon reports.

One thing hemp farmers have going for them: though they were excluded from an earlier round of federal aid for farmers hurt by the pandemic, the USDA announced in late September that hemp growers could apply for a slice of $14 billion in new relief.

Over 1/3 of rural bankers in 10 mid-America states report recession conditions, but overall economic confidence rising

Creighton University chart compares current month to month and year ago; click here to download it and chart below.

A Creighton University survey of rural Midwestern bankers in October found a cautiously optimistic outlook, with the overall Rural Mainstreet Index climbing slightly above growth-neutral, its highest reading since January. The index ranges between 0 and 100 with a reading of 50 representing growth-neutral. In September the overall index was 46.9, but this month's was 53.2.

The index is a survey of bankers in about 200 rural communities with an average population of 1,300 in 10 states where agriculture and energy are critical to the economy: Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming.

"Recent improvements in agriculture commodity prices, federal farm support, and the Federal Reserve’s record low interest rates have underpinned the Rural Mainstreet Economy. Still, more than one-third, or 35.5%, of bank CEOs reported their local economies were experiencing recessionary economic conditions," reports Creighton economist Ernie Goss, who does the survey.

One banker said that politicized misinformation about a coronavirus vaccine has led many locals to say they won't get the vaccine when it becomes available. Failure to achieve a high vaccine rate, and therefore control the spread of the coronavirus, will hurt economic recovery, the banker told Goss.

Other findings of interest in this month's survey:
  • Overall index advanced for a sixth straight month to its highest level since January of this year.
  • More than eight of 10 bank CEOs identified restaurants/bars as experiencing the greatest negative impact from covid-19.
  • Only 3% of bankers named farmers as experiencing the greatest negative covid-19 impacts.
  • For only the third time in the past 82 months, the farmland price index advanced above growth neutral.
  • Bank CEOs estimated that farm equipment sales will fall by an additional 3.1% over the next 12 months.
  • More than one-third, or 35.5%, of bank CEOs reported that their local economies were experiencing recessionary economic conditions.

Total rural coronavirus cases top 1 million as new rural infections break record for fourth week straight

New coronavirus infections from Oct. 11 through 17
Daily Yonder map; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version with county-level data.

"Covid-19 spread in rural America at a record-breaking pace again last week, adding 160 counties to the red-zone list and bringing the total number of rural Americans who have tested positive for the coronavirus to more than 1 million," Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder. "Rural America had 82,188 new infections last week, a 16 percent increase and the fourth consecutive week of record-breaking levels of new cases. With last week’s cases, the total number of rural residents who have tested positive for the coronavirus broke 1 million (1,068,949), according to data compiled by the nonprofit USA Facts."

The new-infection rate in rural counties "now exceeds the urban rate by 63%, according to this week’s Daily Yonder analysis, which covers Sunday, October 11, through Saturday, October 17," Murphy and Marema report. Almost 70% of rural counties are now classified as red zones by the White House Coronavirus Task Force, meaning they have at least 100 new infections per 100,000 people.

Click here for more analysis and charts from The Daily Yonder, including an interactive map with the latest county-level data.

New telehealth program aims to help rural patients with chest pain figure out whether they're facing a heart attack

A new health care program in North Carolina—which could be replicated elsewhere—aims to help rural patients with chest pain avoid a potentially unnecessary and expensive trip to the emergency department. 

"The $1.2 million program, slated to begin in mountainous Wilkes County early next year, will bring doctors and nurses to the scene of medical emergencies through telehealth," Liora Engel-Smith reports for North Carolina Health News. "The doctors and nurses — most of them experts in emergency medicine — will help first responders evaluate patients with chest pain to decide the most appropriate next step, be it a hospital visit or a trip to a county health department for further tests."

The program could save both patients and the health-care system a lot of money, said Simon Mahler, professor of emergency medicine at Wake Forest Baptist Health, which helps oversee the program. "Mahler hopes the program will serve as a blueprint for similar initiatives for cardiac patients in other rural corners of North Carolina," Engle-Smith reports. "Heart attacks, strokes and other cardiovascular diseases — the state’s leading causes of death — affect and kill rural residents far more often than their urban counterparts." That's true nationwide as well.

New database shows coronavirus infection clusters in a dozen rural jails in the Mountain West

"The Mountain West, which for months avoided the worst of the pandemic, has rapidly devolved into one of the most alarming hot spots in a country that recorded its eight millionth confirmed case on Thursday, a day when more than 65,000 cases were announced nationwide, the most in a single day since July," Lucy Tompkins, Maura Turcotte and Libby Seline report for The New York Times. "Seventeen states, including many in the Mountain West, have added more cases in the past week than any other week of the pandemic. And the spread through sparsely populated areas of rural America has created problems in small towns that lack critical resources — including doctors — even in ordinary times."

Prisons and jails, often overcrowded and unsanitary, have been a major driver of coronavirus spread in many parts of the country. "Nationally, jails and prisons have seen disproportionate rates of infection and death, with a mortality rate twice as high as in the general population and an infection rate more than four times as high, according to recent data," the Times reports. "A New York Times database has tracked clusters of at least 50 coronavirus cases in a dozen rural jails in Montana, Idaho, Utah and New Mexico during the pandemic. Among them: the Purgatory Correctional Center in Hurricane, Utah, with 166 infections; the jail in Twin Falls, Idaho, with 279; and, in New Mexico, the Cibola County Correctional Center, which has reported 357 cases."

A recent coronavirus surge at the Cascade County Detention Center in Great Falls, Montana, illustrates how quickly infections can spread among incarcerated populations and the community beyond. "More than 300 inmates and staff members have been infected in a facility meant to hold 365 people, the county’s first major outbreak in a region where the virus is suddenly surging," the Times reports. "Infections at the jail make up about a quarter of all known virus cases in the county. Health authorities say that the jail’s outbreak, which began in mid-August, was not believed to be the main cause of the community’s recent surge, but that it had led to some cases." The jail's medical director told the Times that the jail had released 29 people who were considered actively infected within the past two months.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Domestic violence up in rural America during pandemic

"Preliminary research from radiologists and anecdotal information from those who work with domestic violence victims show that across the board, incidents of domestic violence in rural America are up," Liz Carey reports for The Daily Yonder. "Researchers at the Southwest Rural Health Education Research Center found that the prevalence of domestic violence-related emergency department visits among women in rural settings was higher than in non-rural settings in all regions of the country except the Midwest." From 2009 through 2014, 15.5 rural women out of every 100,000 visited an emergency room because of a domestic violence incident, compared to 11.9 urban women out of 100,000.

Health officials and advocates have been concerned that the pandemic would worsen domestic violence and make it more difficult for victims to get help. "Trapped alone with their abusers, women faced the prospect of higher tension, lower income, and increased substance use – triggers for domestic violence. At the same time, it was harder for women to reach out for help because of barriers like lack of transportation and independent income," Carey reports.

That's especially true for women in rural areas, who are more isolated and have less access to medical services. Also, one shelter worker noted, many rural women in her area tended not to seek help even before the pandemic. She speculated that their more conservative culture and religious norms might discourage them from reaching out, Carey reports.

Network of conservative websites masquerade as unbiased local news; see interactive map for local examples

Brian Timpone's network of "news" websites from 2010 to 2020
New York Times graphic; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.

A fast-growing network of nearly 1,300 websites aims "to fill a void left by vanishing local newspapers across the country," Davey Alba and Jack Nicas report for The New York Times. "Yet the network, now in all 50 states, is built not on traditional journalism but on propaganda ordered up by dozens of conservative think tanks, political operatives, corporate executives and public-relations professionals, a Times investigation found."

The websites masquerade as local-news outlets, employing simple layouts and providing enough wire stories and community event content along with its political coverage to lull readers into thinking they're legitimate news sites. "But behind the scenes, many of the stories are directed by political groups and corporate PR firms to promote a Republican candidate or a company, or to smear their rivals," Alba and Nicas report. "The network is largely overseen by Brian Timpone, a TV reporter turned internet entrepreneur who has sought to capitalize on the decline of local news organizations for nearly two decades. He has built the network with the help of several others, including a Texas brand-management consultant and a conservative Chicago radio personality." 

Timpone is involved with or oversees a network of interconnected media companies with nebulous ownership such as Locality Labs LLC, Metric Media, Newsinator, Franklin Archer, and Interactive Content Services, Alba and Nicas report.

Some liberal operatives are trying the same scheme, but lately it's been mostly conservatives—and not just Timpone. "The Free Telegraph' states nowhere on its homepage that it’s published by the Republican Governors Association," Christine Schmidt reports for Harvard University's NiemanLab. "Politico and Snopes uncovered a network of sites in key 2020 states (The Ohio Star, The Minnesota Sun, The Tennessee Star) created by Republican consultants and mislabeling people paid to elect a GOP candidate as 'investigative journalists' who were now covering them."

Health reporters, editors, news director to discuss 'Covering the Pandemic' in online program at 7 p.m. ET Thursday

The world’s biggest story in 75 years is also a local story for everyone: the coronavirus pandemic. It has posed special challenges for news organizations at a time when they were already challenged: the politicization of public health, pushback from audiences, confusing data, and pandemic fatigue – among audiences and journalists.

To help journalists with this story, the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists will hold an online panel discussion, “Covering the Pandemic,” at 7 p.m. ET Thursday, Oct. 22. The panelists will all be from Kentucky, but the discussion should be helpful anywhere in the country:

• Alex Acquisto, health reporter, Lexington Herald-Leader

• Jennifer P. Brown of Hopkinsville, who recovered from Covid-19 and wrote about it in her online newspaper, Hoptown Chronicle

• Ben Sheroan, editor, The News-Enterprise of Elizabethtown, who will speak to the pushback newspapers receive from their coverage of the pandemic

• Brian Neal, news director at Lexington’s WLEX-TV, who will address the fatigue factor experienced by journalists

The discussion will be moderated by Melissa Patrick, reporter for Kentucky Health News.

There is no charge to attend the program, which will be held via Zoom, but registration to receive the Zoom link is required. To register, send an email to john.nelson24@gmail.com.

Federal judge blocks plan to cut food stamps for jobless

"A federal judge on Sunday formally struck down a Trump administration attempt to end food-stamp benefits for nearly 700,000 unemployed people, blocking as 'arbitrary and capricious' the first of three such planned measures to restrict the federal food safety net," reports The Washington Post.

"In a scathing 67-page opinion, Chief U.S. District Judge Beryl A. Howell of D.C. condemned the Agriculture Department for failing to justify or even address the impact of the sweeping change on states, saying its shortcomings had been placed in stark relief amid the coronavirus pandemic, during which unemployment has quadrupled and rosters of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program have grown by more than 17 percent, with more than 6 million new enrollees," Spencer Hsu reports.

The administration's proposed change would likely disproportionately affect rural residents, who are more likely to rely on benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly called food stamps. In 2018, 85 of the 100 counties that relied most on SNAP were rural. It's not an exact metric for hunger, but suggests that need for food assistance is disproportionately rural.

Farmers remain loyal to Trump despite pain from trade wars and pandemic, thanks in part to hefty taxpayer subsidies

Some states (dark purple) received more in net farm subsidies than they lost from the trade war, but most states lost out. Map from The Conversation; click here for the interactive version.

Farmers overwhelmingly supported President Trump in 2016, and most plan to do so again, despite the economic pain caused by the trade war with China and the pandemic. One big reason for that is record-high government subsidies, which have made up the highest single source of farmer income for the past two years running, Wendong Zhang and Minghao Li write for The Conversation. Both are assistant professors of economics, Zhang at Iowa State University and Li at New Mexico State University.

"Just as some states were hurt more by the trade war than others, not all states benefited equally from the payments. The subsidies heavily targeted the Midwest, reflecting the political influence of rural constituents in these states. Most of the states that came out ahead – such as Iowa and Nebraska – tend to vote Republican and have relatively large agricultural sectors."

The Trump administration has also distributed almost $30 billion in aid to farmers hurt by the pandemic. "Again, a large chunk of the payments have gone to red Midwestern states such as Iowa, which alone received almost $1 billion of the first $10.2 billion disbursed," Zhang and Li report. "Payments have been accelerating as Election Day approaches. Combined with trade-related and pre-Trump subsidies, total payments this year are expected to reach a record $46 billion."

The agriculture sector may be hurting for a long time to come because of the trade war, which "may already have done long-term damage to American farmers," Zhang and Li report. "The tariffs on U.S. agricultural products led Chinese companies to seek out cheaper sources for food and feed. Brazilian farmers sold record amounts of soybeans to China in May and June and are now enjoying their highest profits from the crop in history."

Friday, October 16, 2020

Postal Service agrees in Montana federal court settlement to reverse nationwide changes that slowed mail service

"The U.S. Postal Service agreed Wednesday to reverse changes that slowed mail service nationwide, settling a lawsuit filed by Montana Gov. Steve Bullock during a pandemic that is expected to force many more people to vote by mail," Iris Samuels reports for The Associated Press. "The Postal Service agreed to reverse all changes, which included reduced retail hours, removal of collection boxes and mail sorting machines, closure or consolidation of mail processing facilities, restriction of late or extra trips for timely mail delivery, and banning or restricting overtime."

The agreement, which requires the Postal Service to prioritize election mail, applies to all states. "The settlement agreement was reached a day ahead of a hearing in the U.S. District Court," Samuels reports. 

Bullock sued the service and Postmaster General Louis DeJoy Sept. 9, arguing that changes made in June decreased access to mail services in Montana. That not only made it harder for Montanans to vote by mail, he alleged, but also delayed delivery of job applications, payments, medical prescriptions, and more.

Pandemic no excuse for lazy reporting, veteran editor says

City Council candidates in Midway, Ky., participated in an online forum with Midway Messenger student reporters Oct. 5.
By Jim Pumarlo

Editors and reporters are facing some of their biggest challenges in gathering news during the pandemic. Access to everyday sources is increasingly limited with no relief on the horizon.

Reporters no longer can walk into offices unannounced, and appointments are restricted. Remote work remains the norm at many places.

And don’t expect immediate responses to phone calls. Individuals are often consumed by Zoom meetings as the new norm for communications.

Logistics are demanding enough to connect with your regular corps of newsmakers. Then consider everyday readers – the local names and faces who provide so many distinctive stories – who may be approached by a reporter for the first time. They are likely more hesitant – at least extra cautious – as they protect personal health.

Solid reporting still can be done during these extraordinary times, but it takes extra effort. Small and large newspapers are generating excellent stories not only on the pandemic but also on the everyday churn of news.

At the same time, it’s disheartening to see those newsrooms that have taken the shortcuts, all to the detriment of substantive content:
  • Residents object to a proposal under consideration by a school board. The reporter, watching a TV broadcast of the meeting, quotes the speakers but fails to identify them.
  • The primary election determines which candidates for local offices will advance to the general election. Winners are reported, but without vote totals and no apparent attempt to get comments from any of the winners or losers.
  • Three longtime city employees retire, representing nearly 100 years of service. The communications director is the sole source for the story, which is basically a brief bio of each employee.
  • Any number of announcements from new sports coaches to political candidacies to community initiatives are handled by press releases only – no conversation with a reporter.
  • A major employer reopens after being shut down during the pandemic. The story recites what is on the company’s website.
Navigating the pandemic unfortunately has resulted in far too many single-source stories without the benefit of Q & A by reporters. Press releases are published verbatim. Questions are posed, and responses returned via email or text message. Government actions are reported, but there is no follow-up on how decisions affect residents and businesses.

Reporting indeed demands additional effort during the pandemic. It also takes more planning as contacting individuals often requires multiple inquiries.

So take the extra steps. Connect via Zoom or telephone. Zoom offers reporters the option to record and post video of their interviews. Also, digital recording via Zoom offers automatic transcription so reporters can use bits and pieces for tweets, Facebook and other social media, and video clips for YouTube. Meet face to face, wearing a mask and practicing social distancing. In-person interviews allow reporters to describe the environment and elaborate on details that distinguish feature stories.

At minimum, reporters need to be honest and transparent with readers. Let them know the nature of the “interviews” – whether information is gathered by an exchange of emails or text messages, participation in a virtual event, or watching a broadcast.

And don’t forget the long-term impact of lackadaisical reporting. Sources will become accustomed to “feeding” stories word-for-word to reporters and may well be more reluctant to engage in an interview.

I remain a firm believer that local newspapers have an edge in the fractured media landscape by being the premier clearinghouse of information in your communities. Your newspaper family represents a valuable, collective set of eyes and ears. But you must use those resources to remain the go-to source for news and advertising.

Consider this event that caught the attention of an entire town and was reported in media across the state:

A speeding vehicle crashed into a historic building causing extensive damage to the business and upstairs apartments. The building was immediately condemned until next steps were determined. Onlookers streamed to the site; roads were closed. The post went up on the newspaper’s website. The report included comments from an eyewitness to the crash, but otherwise relied solely on press releases.

Two days later, the same two stories appeared verbatim in the print edition. Still no interview with the business owner, the employees present when the accident occurred, or the upstairs tenants who felt the building shake. No identification of the displaced residents or information about assistance for temporary shelter. No mention of fundraising efforts or accompanying contact information. No initial dollar estimate of the damage. The fundamental 5 Ws and H of all stories were nonexistent in the report.

For other aggressive reporters, what is the tool you'll use for your live channel? When a story breaks, how fast can you be there live and broadcast in real time? Do you have a URL set up, and do your readers know about it?

Then consider other missed opportunities for the newspaper to shine in its coverage and distinguish itself from competing media. Connect with the building inspector and an engineer to offer perspective on how such a crash resulted in such extensive damage. Chronicle the origins and tenants of the building, one of the more historic structures in the downtown. Work with city officials to videotape the damage and post it on the website. You can add to the list.

Newspapers across the country are fighting for their survival due to economic repercussions of covid-19. Circumstances have prompted editors and publishers to regularly promote the message: “We’re here 24/7 reporting on the stories in your community.”

Such pronouncements are only as persuasive as the supporting evidence.

Jim Pumarlo, a former newspaper editor, writes, speaks and provides training on community newsroom success strategies. He is author of Journalism Primer: A Guide to Community News Coverage (2011), Votes and Quotes: A Guide to Outstanding Election Coverage (2007) and Bad News and Good Judgment: A Guide to Reporting on Sensitive Issues in Small-Town Newspapers (2005). He is at www.pumarlo.com and welcomes comments and questions at jim@pumarlo.com.

Weekly's 'one-woman newsroom' fired after radio interview

Ashley Spinks (Radio IQ photo by Mallory Noe-Payne)
The sole remaining journalist at the Floyd Press in rural Virginia says she was fired by owner Lee Enterprises after talking publicly about difficult work conditions. Lee said the recent interview with Radio IQ was one reason editor-reporter Ashley Spinks was fired, Mallory Noe-Payne reports for Virginia NPR affiliate WVTF. Spinks also spoke to The Daily Yonder in early September.

Lee, one of the nation's largest newspaper chains, bought more than a dozen dailies and weeklies throughout Virginia from BH Media for $140 million in March. It cut costs across the board, firing reporters, outsourcing work and furloughing staff. Spinks was furloughed in March and saw the paper's freelance budget slashed, Noe-Payne reports.

Spinks "says she was told she was let go Tuesday afternoon because she had spoken 'disparagingly' about Lee Enterprises on social media and had given an interview without corporate permission," Noe-Payne reports. "She says she was also told she had violated 'journalistic ethics.' She says she asked for specific examples and was given none."

Though Lee wouldn't otherwise comment on Spinks' firing, the company said it would post her job immediately and is will cover her absence in the meantime. Spinks said in a tweet that she was fired while the paper was incomplete, less than 24 hours before going to print, and that it was three days before her wedding, which her superiors knew, Noe-Payne reports.

Spinks got a wave of support and encouragement on Twitter. "Spinks says she’s grateful for the outpouring of support," Noe-Payne reports. "She’s received multiple tips for future journalism opportunities as well as enough financial donations to keep her afloat for some time." Nonprofit newsroom ProPublica has offered to fund an investigative project about local water quality.

Spinks told Payne she's not worried about herself. "It’s not about me… it’s about the situation, which is the dismantling of local journalism and I think people are rightly and deeply concerned about that."

Trump administration rejects emergency aid for California fires, including state's first million-acre blaze

Update: The Trump administration quickly reversed its decision to deny California wildfire aid after widespread outcry, The New York Times reports.

"Fueled by extreme heat and tinder-dry conditions, wildfires exploded across California in September, blazing through almost 1.9 million acres, destroying nearly 1,000 homes and killing at least three people. One wildfire, the Creek Fire, became the largest single blaze in California history and grew so fierce it spun up fire tornadoes with 125-mph winds," Tim Elfrink reports for The Washington Post. "But the Trump administration this week refused to grant an emergency declaration that would open up hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding for areas devastated in those fires, California state officials confirmed to The Washington Post early Friday."

The Trump administration has granted similar declarations for other wildfires earlier this year, so it's unclear why California's request was denied. "President Trump has previously threatened to withhold emergency fire aid to California over disputed claims that the state isn’t doing enough to prevent wildfires," Elfrink reports. He has repeatedly criticized California for poor forest management, but state and local governments only control 3 percent of the state's forests; the federal government owns and manages 57%. 

The fires have gotten so big because of climate change, which spurred a record-dry February, and because the stretched-thin firefighting forces prioritized more densely populated areas over rural fires where fewer people were in immediate danger.

Quick hits: China's corn buying; rural poverty that created Dolly Parton; how coal miners helped shape labor laws . . .

Here's a roundup of stories with rural resonance; if you do or see similar work that should be shared on The Rural Blog, email us at heather.chapman@uky.edu.

China is by far the top customer for U.S. corn six weeks into the marketing year. Read more here.

In Appalachia, people watch covid-19, race issues from afar. Read more here.

The rural poverty that created Dolly Parton. Read more here.

A look back at how coal miners helped shape U.S. labor laws. Read more here.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Promotional trailer released for film adaptation of controversial Hillbilly Elegy memoir, which debuts Nov. 24


On Wednesday Netflix released the first trailer for "Hillbilly Elegy," an adaptation of J.D. Vance's controversial 2016 memoir about growing up in an Appalachian-transplant family in Middletown, Ohio, between Cincinnati and Dayton.

"Vance’s memoir delves into the social mores and political beliefs of poor conservatives, and, upon publication, was quickly heralded as a touchstone for making sense of Donald Trump’s election," Yohana Desta writes for Vanity Fair

The film could finally net an Oscar or two for director Ron Howard and stars Amy Adams and Glenn Close as a feuding mother and daughter. The trailer alone, Desta writes, is "awards bait of the highest order." The film will debut in theaters and on Netflix on Nov. 24.

USDA agency awards $28.7 million in grants to fund programs to fight stress among farmers and ranchers

The National Institute of Food and Agriculture recently announced $28.7 million in grants for programs meant to combat stress among farmers and ranchers, who are among the most likely to die by suicide compared to Americans in other professions.

The grants come from NIFA's Farm and Ranch Stress Assistance Network, first authorized by the 2008 Farm Bill but not funded until the 2018 Farm Bill. The bill had only$2 million for the program, but Congress increased funding this year, Stephanie Hanes reports for The Christian Science Monitor.

The money was split up among four entities that will develop and coordinate regional programs over the next three years. The University of Illinois received $7.18 million for its North Central Farm and Ranch Stress Relief Center, a 12-state collaborative in the North Central region. 

The National Young Farmers Coalition in Hudson, N.Y., received $7.16 million to create an inclusive and comprehensive network for stress relief on farms and ranches in the Northeast, according to the NIFA press release.

The University of Tennessee received $7.18 million to coordinate a program among 12 Southern states and two U.S. territories (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands).

Washington State University in Pullman received $7.18 million for its Western Region Agricultural Stress Assistance Program, coordinated across 13 Western states and four U.S. territories.

Cannabis farmers are stuck without disaster aid or useful crop insurance because federal law disqualifies them

Farmers have had a rough two years, partly because of wild weather: derechos in the Midwest, wildfires in the South and West, and hurricanes in the Southeast. But while most can get disaster aid or crop insurance payouts, cannabis farmers have access to neither, and it's a threat to the fledgling industry.

Cannabis cultivation was authorized in the 2018 Farm Bill, but "because federal law defines marijuana as an illegal, dangerous drug, neither federal agencies nor conventional banks and major insurance companies will work with marijuana businesses even if they are legal under state law," Sophie Quinton reports for Stateline. "Nor are marijuana businesses eligible for federal disaster relief."

Though cannabis growers can buy crop insurance from local providers, one farmer told Quinton he couldn't find a policy worth the money. "Producers and industry supporters now are pushing for changes to federal relief law and seeking state disaster aid," Quinton reports.

Shortage of rural case numbers may hide coronavirus spike

The coronavirus pandemic has been surging in rural areas in recent weeks, but the relatively low number of cases can make the trend look less concerning than it is. But the percentage of recent rural cases has often been just as bad as those hitting big cities in the Sun Belt this summer, Manny Fernandez and Mitch Smith report for The New York Times. The Daily Yonder reported on Wednesday that new coronavirus infections in rural counties jumped a record 16% last week.

"North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana, for example, have announced the country’s highest number of cases on a per capita basis. Already, the North Dakota and South Dakota numbers exceed the per capita figures seen at the peak of summer surges in the Sun Belt," Fernandez and Smith report. "Other states with large rural areas — including Wyoming, Idaho, West Virginia, Nebraska, Iowa, Utah, Alaska and Oklahoma — have recently recorded more cases in a seven-day stretch than in any other week of the pandemic."

In South Dakota, Republican Governor Kristi Noem blamed the recent surge on an increase in testing, even though the state saw a new high in the number of people hospitalized for covid-19, The Associated Press reports. Only one county in the state (Edwards County) isn't a red zone, the Yonder notes, and that's mainly because the population is so small that a small variation in cases can swing the needle a lot. Red-zone counties are defined by the White House Coronavirus Task Force as those with a new-infection rate of at least 100 per 100,000 people in one week.

The sheer lack numbers might make people less likely to pay attention, Fernandez and Smith write: "Wessington Springs, S.D., or Shelby, Mont., are unlikely to produce the same alarming imagery amid a pandemic as New York City or Houston, where mobile morgues and packed E.R. hallways became icons of suffering."

Presidential candidate surrogates debate farm policy

"Samuel Clovis Jr., a member of Farmers and Ranchers for Trump, represented President Donald Trump's re-election campaign while Pam Johnson, an Iowa farmer and former president of the National Corn Growers Association, represented Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden's campaign on Tuesday in a Farm Foundation discussion of the two candidates' agricultural platforms," Jerry Hagstrom reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer. "In a civil discussion, Clovis and Johnson agreed on many issues, particularly the importance of conservation and agricultural research, but disagreed on Trump's records on trade and support for ethanol." Read more here.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

GAO says Education Department and CDC gave conflicting, incomplete guidance to local school officials on reopenings

"President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos talked out of both sides of their mouths on school reopening, a new government watchdog report finds," Evie Blad of Education Week writes about a report by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

"On the one hand, DeVos stressed that plans on how to reopen school buildings during the covid-19 pandemic were 'state and local decisions.' On the other hand, Trump and DeVos suggested schools' federal funding may be at risk if they don't allow students to return for in-person learning," Blad reports.

The GAO also concluded that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has provided unclear and sometimes contradictory guidance about how schools should minimize the spread of the virus. The report also criticized the Department of Education for leaving out details about wearing masks and social distancing when it summarized the CDC’s guidelines on its website, Blad reports.

"The report's findings echo concerns school administrators have voiced for months as they struggle to interpret layers of local, state, and federal directives amid changing information about the virus and how it spreads. Their push for clearer federal instructions started as early as March, when governors around the country ordered mass closures of their buildings to stop the spread of the virus," Blad reports. "And some complained that the Trump administration's push for schools to open in-person added political fuel to an already raging fire."

A paper in progress by two political scientists suggests that community support for President Trump had a significant influence on many school districts' decisions to resume in-person classes.

Local support for president, more than coronavirus spread, may have influenced rural schools to reopen, research finds

"As cases of the virus continue to spread, the role that schools do or do not play in spreading the virus, and the wisdom of keeping school doors shut to try to contain the pandemic, have become divisive subjects," Andrew Ujifusa reports for Education Week. "There's evidence that the presence of unions and community support for President Donald Trump had a significantly bigger influence on school districts' decisions about holding in-person classes than the local spread of the coronavirus, two researchers say."

Michael Hartney of Boston College and Leslie Finger of the University of North Texas, both political-science professors, examined more than 10,000 school districts' reopening plans and "the correlation between those decisions and indicators based on politics, public health, and market forces," Ujifusa reports. "The paper also embodies the challenge of measuring how political considerations have driven school reopening decisions during the pandemic amid a flurry of factors. And some would disagree that political and not practical considerations have been the overriding factor in many districts' decisions."

Though the paper doesn't point to definitive answers about when schools should reopen, "It might help fuel debates about what factors schools have relied on and should be relying on the most when making big decisions that must balance the safety and well-being of their students, staff, and communities," Ujifusa reports.

One caveat about the report: though it links Trump support with schools' decision to reopen, the researchers didn't look into local broadband connectivity as a factor in reopening (though it's arguably difficult to assess broadband connectivity because of the Federal Communications Commission's faulty data maps). Without widespread broadband connectivity, it's more difficult to do distance learning, and that could have influenced schools to reopen in-person classes. So it's possible that poor broadband connectivity and Trump support, both common in rural areas, may be somewhat conflated.

New coronavirus cases jumped a record 16% in rural counties last week; see the latest county-level data

Coronavirus red zones, Oct. 4-10. Daily Yonder map;
click the image to enlarge it or click here to view the interactive version.

"Covid-19 continued its record-breaking spread in rural counties last week, climbing by more than 16% over the previous week and placing six out of every 10 rural counties on the red-zone list," Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder. "Just over 71,000 rural Americans tested positive for the novel coronavirus last week, October 4-10, according to a Daily Yonder analysis based on data from USA Facts. The previous week’s revised total was 60,883 new cases."

Another 140 rural counties were placed on the red-zone list last week; the White House Coronavirus Task Force defines red zones as counties with at least 100 new infections per 100,000 people in a week. "Sixty-one percent of the nation’s rural counties are on the red-zone list (1,198 of 1,976 counties). In metropolitan America, about 47% of counties are on the red-zone list (538 of 1,115)," Murphy and Marema report. 

Click here for more detailed regional observations about rural coronavirus trends and an interactive map with the latest county-level data.

Census count can end early, Supreme Court rules

The Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that the Trump administration can halt the 2020 census count early, a decision that could result in hard-to-count populations in rural areas and elsewhere receiving less government funding and Congressional representation. 

"The brief unsigned order formally only pauses the population count while the administration and a host of groups advocating a more accurate census battle in a federal appeals court over whether the count could be stopped early," Adam Liptak and Michael Wines report for The New York Times. "As a practical matter, however, it almost certainly ensures an early end because the census — one of the largest government activities, involving hundreds of thousands of workers — cannot be easily restarted and little time remains before its current deadline at the end of this month. In fact, some census workers say, the bureau had already begun shutting down some parts of its count despite a court order to continue it."

The Trump administration sought to wrap up the count at the end of September, but in late September a federal judge ruled that the count had to continue until the end of October. Rural response to the census has consistently lagged, and as early as mid-April, the Census Bureau begged Congress to extend the deadline to the end of October, Zach Montellaro reports for Politico.

But Congress never granted the extensions, and in early August, Census Bureau director Steven Dillingham, a Trump appointee, announced it would withdraw its request for an extension and deliver the results to Trump by the end of 2020 (a decision that came from outside the bureau, according to the Commerce Department's inspector general).

USDA to extend free school-meal waivers through June

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Friday that it will extend regulatory waivers that allow schools to serve free meals until the end of the school year in June.

"The department is allowing the Summer Food Service Program and Seamless Summer Options to continue through June 30, 2021, essentially letting school cafeterias serve any student for free without checking their qualifications for free or subsidized meals," Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico's Weekly Agriculture. "They also have more flexibility to meet nutritional standards and other requirements."

After bipartisan pressure, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue agreed in August to extend the programs through the end of 2020, but said the USDA couldn't go any further without more funding, McCrimmon reports. So Congress gave the USDA the authority and funding to extend the waivers in a recent spending bill.

However, "despite the flexibility provided by USDA for months, there’s been a notable drop in the number of meals served to students, and the School Nutrition Association says Congress still must allocate more money for the feeding programs," McCrimmon reports.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

U.S. Postal Service is a rural lifeline in jeopardy

The post office in Seco, in far southeastern Kentucky, is open two hours a day. It's one of thousands of rural USPS locations that has cut hours to reduce costs. (National Geographic photo)

"Rural post offices and mail carriers connect our smallest towns to the world and provide a sense of community. But a burdensome financial structure, and lack of federal aid amid a pandemic, threaten their future," Sarah Smarsh reports for National Geographic

In addition to adeptly summarizing the necessity of the U.S. Postal Service to rural Americans and threats it faces (such as urbanization and privatization), Smarsh's photo-rich piece recounts her childhood in rural Kansas and what the mail meant for her and her family. Read more here.

Trump administration sends record subsidies to farmers

Federal payments to farmers are projected to hit a record $46 billion this year as the White House funnels money to Trump’s rural base in the South and Midwest ahead of Election Day," Alan Rappeport reports for The New York Times. "The gush of funds has accelerated in recent weeks as the president looks to help his core supporters who have been hit hard by the double whammy of his combative trade practices and the coronavirus pandemic."

The American Farm Bureau Federation forecasts debt in the farm sector to increase by 4 percent to a record $434 billion this year; meanwhile, farm bankruptcies have continued to rise.

Farmers had already been receiving large amounts of government aid. For the past two years in a row, direct federal aid has been the single largest source of income for farmers, accounting for nearly a quarter of farm income, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture

Harvest a particularly dangerous time of year for drivers on rural roads; follow safety tips

"Harvest is a high-risk time for crashes on public roads. The sun sets earlier each night and slow-moving farm equipment may not be well-marked or visible, sometimes lacking lights and reflective tape. Speed adds to the danger for motorists and farmers. Additionally, as ownership of agricultural land continues to consolidate, farmers are on the road more hours and driving equipment longer distances, towing implements and products between field and farmstead," according to the National Children's Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety.

Farm equipment collisions with motor vehicles on public roads have caused at least 240 deaths and 135 non-fatal injuries since 2015, according to the AgInjuryNews.org database (which is thorough, but not exhaustive, so the total is likely higher).

Read here for tips on how to stay safe on the roads this time of year.

Mining companies pivot from thermal coal as utilities seek other energy sources

With cheaper and greener energy sources widely available, American utilities are moving away from using coal to generate electricity. So, many mining companies are pivoting away from thermal coal.

For instance, "activist investors are urging Contura Energy Inc. to accelerate its plan to get out of mining thermal coal for power plants, to focus instead on the more lucrative type that’s used to make steel. And Arch Resources Inc. is seeking to shed its thermal assets to also concentrate on metallurgical coal, after an effort to shift them to a joint venture was blocked last week," Will Wade reports for Bloomberg.

"Thermal coal demand in the U.S. has been sliding steadily for years," Wade notes. "Power plants are expected to burn about 433 million tons this year, less than half of what they needed a decade ago, and down 20% from 2019, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Meanwhile, global steel production, the driver for met coal demand, has been climbing steadily since April."

The Trump administration has gone to great lengths to keep thermal coal viable, as shown by documents that detail the administration's failed efforts to save the Navajo Generating Station in rural Arizona, the largest coal-burning power plant in the Western U.S., Eric Lipton reports for The New York Times.

Poor rural broadband access, faulty FCC data maps, limit federal telehealth plan's potential to help

"With the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services rolling out its Rural Action Plan last week, there has been much focus on the implementation of telehealth as a solution to rural health care," Liz Carey reports for The Daily Yonder. But lack of broadband access limits the $30 million plan's potential to help.

"While telehealth was gaining ground in some areas before the pandemic, it exploded in the months following the start of the pandemic. Since then, all eyes have turned to telehealth visits as a way to solve the problem of dwindling numbers of healthcare workers in rural areas and to bring specialty providers to rural areas," Carey reports. "But some rural officials argue telehealth isn’t much of a solution if rural residents don’t have access to the broadband internet services that their urban counterparts do. While government officials and companies throw equipment and money into telehealth, what’s really needed rural officials say, is rollout of rural broadband infrastructure."

There are three major obstacles to telehealth access, according to Kyle Kopko, director for The Center for Rural Pennsylvania. The first is getting access to the technology, like smartphones or tablets, he told Carey. Having consistent broadband access and being able to afford to pay for it are the other two. 

Another problem, he told Carey, is that the Federal Communications Commission falsely says that 98 percent of the nation has access to broadband. "In fact, a study on broadband availability in Pennsylvania by researchers at Penn State, released in 2019, found that while the FCC says that 100 percent of Pennsylvania has access to broadband connectivity, zero counties in the state (yes, zero) had reliable and consistent broadband access for at least half of their residents," Carey reports.

"Other roadblocks to getting more widespread broadband access include state laws that prohibit municipalities from operating or installing broadband," Carey reports. "According to BroadbandNow, an internet service that helps consumer find and compare Internet service providers, more than 20 states have laws banning municipal broadband."

Monday, October 12, 2020

Thursday webinar to discuss managing the trauma that comes from reporting on trauma

At 2 p.m. ET on Thursday, Oct. 15, the Pennsylvania News Media Association will host a free one-hour webinar on how journalists can effectively manage the trauma that comes from reporting on traumatic events. 

From the website: "Reporting on traumatic events has become an all-too-familiar responsibility for editorial teams. Just as first responders need to be aware of the effects their work on the front line brings to them as individuals, so must the journalists who report on stressful and tragic situations . . . We will provide essential tips for reporters to ensure your own physical and emotional well-being as it relates to performing the duties of your job. We'll also include information about mental health and provide coping strategies as well as details about support groups, both externally and within your own media organization."

Though the webinar is free, pre-registration is required. Click here for more information or to register.

Weekly fact check: 'Russia hoax' claims revived; how racist, sexist attacks about Kamala Harris proliferate online

Citing unverified "Russian intelligence," President Trump and many supporters are reviving claims that Hillary Clinton was responsible for the investigation into Russia's involvement with the 2016 election. "But that so-called intelligence is largely a reflection of publicly available information at the time. Federal investigations since then have documented multiple links between Trump associates and individuals tied to the Russian government," FactCheck.org reports.

"On the subject of President Donald Trump’s covid-19 diagnosis, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden misquoted Trump as saying, 'I probably got it from Blue Star parents.' That’s not what Trump said," FactCheck reports. In an Oct. 8 interview on Fox News, Trump said he always assumed he might get infected because, as president, he must often meet with people and can't always remain social distant. He cited as an example a Sept. 27 White House reception for the families of soldiers who died in action. "I met with Gold Star families. I didn’t want to cancel that," Trump said. "But they all came in and they all talked about their son and daughter and father. And they all came up to me and they tell me a story . . . And they tell me these stories and I can’t say, 'Back up, stand 10 feet.' I just can’t do it."

Sen. Kamala Harris, Biden's running mate, has been increasingly the target of racist, sexist attacks on social media, Karen Tumulty, Kate Woodsome, and Sergio PeƧanha report for The Washington Post. Their report digs into how and why such rumors are spreading online.

Confidential data shows thousands of undisclosed coronavirus cases in Illinois at schools, prisons, meatpacking plants and more

"Newly obtained confidential statewide data shows that coronavirus outbreaks in workplaces, schools and prisons are driving Illinois’ rising cases — and many of these outbreaks have never been made public," according to a joint investigation by Georgia Gee with Columbia University's Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism, Derek Kravitz with Columbia's Brown Institute for Media Innovation, and Sky Chadde with the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

State health officials said they refused to release the locations of many outbreaks because of state and federal laws meant to protect the identity of infected people. The same thing could be happening in other states.

Columbia's Documenting Covid-19 project and the Midwest Center obtained the internal data from the state health department, which covered four days between July and September, as part of an open-records request. The data gives detailed information and case counts for nearly 2,600 separate cases across the state. Federal, state and county prisons and jails are the single largest source of infections. That's largely driven by the Cook County Jail in Chicago, but there have been significant outbreaks at other prisons in rural areas such as Robinson Correctional Center in Crawford, Gee, Kravitz and Chadde report. Such outbreaks brought the total of prison cases to at least 3,500 as of Sept. 30—nearly double the figure reported by the Marshall Project and The Associated Press.

County election officials on the front line against voter fraud

Many Republican officials, led by President Trump, have voiced concerns that mail-in voting is ripe for fraud. But a new article from Carolina Public Press shows how county election workers in North Carolina process each ballot, and how they safeguard against fraud. Similar pieces could be educational for readers in other states. 

North Carolina readers may have more reason for concern about voter fraud than the average American: the state did have a fraudulent voting scheme recently. "In 2018, a team of operatives for the Republican candidate in the 9th Congressional District collected, paid for and, in some cases, tampered with the ballots of more than 1,000 voters," Victoria Loe Hicks reports. "The scheme failed because of anomalies in the vote tallies: The GOP candidate won by preposterous margins in some of the precincts involved. That raised red flags that something was amiss, and, after a monthslong investigation and dramatic hearings," the state election board ordered a new election. 

Study shows how rural small businesses' proximity to each other in town helps them weather the pandemic

The pandemic has hurt many small businesses and local economies, especially in rural areas. But relief is slower to reach rural businesses. So the Brookings Institution's Bass Center for Transformative Placemaking and the National Main Street Center studied how small businesses' proximity to each other in a commercial corridor, or shopping district, could help them survive, Michael Powe and Hanna Love report for the Brookings Institution.

"The benefits of urban downtowns are well documented, as density and proximity to people, jobs, and amenities can help fuel population and economic growth. And although NMSC has long touted the similar benefits of revitalizing downtowns in rural communities, the advantages of rural downtowns are not as widely documented," Powe and Love report. "Now, understanding these dynamics is more imperative than ever. The pandemic is putting rural downtowns—many of which are still struggling to recover from the last recession—in an increasingly precarious economic position due to their heavy reliance on retail and restaurants, as well as their limited access to the capital and broadband infrastructure small businesses now need to survive."

The Bass Center and NMSC recently conducted a survey of small businesses that netted more than 2,000 respondents, many in rural areas. They asked about the businesses' physical proximity to other businesses and how the pandemic has affected their bottom lines. "Regardless of location, small business owners reported acute economic hardship, with many drawing on personal savings, retirement accounts, and personal assets to cover their operating costs through the crisis," Powe and Love report. 

But proximity and density made a difference. In nearly every circumstance, small businesses in older commercial corridors and Main Streets—with proximity to other businesses, resources, and amenities—were more likely to leverage their physical location to withstand the crisis than businesses in other locations," Powe and Love report. "Prior to the pandemic, during stay-at-home orders, and at present, small businesses in commercial corridors and Main Streets more often used their locations to coordinate with other nearby businesses, collaborate with business associations, adapt operations, and attract people visiting other nearby businesses or tourist attractions."

Friday, October 09, 2020

Trump leads among rural voters by 24 points, says Pew poll that also finds deep division between the two sides

For a larger version of the chart, click on it.
President Trump leads Democratic nominee Joe Biden among registered voters in rural areas, 59 percent to 35 percent, according to a new poll by the highly respected, nonpartisan Pew Research Center. Biden leads among suburban voters, 51 to 43, and among urbanites 70-25. Overall, he leads 52-42.

Trump's handling of the pandemic appears to have helped Biden; 57% of voters "say they are very or somewhat confident in Biden to handle the public health impact of the coronavirus, while 40% express a similar level of confidence in Trump," Pew reports. In June, Biden held a narrower, 11-percentage-point lead on handling the coronavirus outbreak (52% Biden, 41% Trump).

The poll starkly demonstrates a deep divide. "Fully 89% of Trump supporters say that if Biden wins, they not only would be very concerned over the country’s direction, they believe it would lead to “lasting harm” for the country. A nearly identical majority of Biden supporters (90%) say Trump’s election would result in lasting harm to the United States."

Pew notes, "The survey was in the field when Trump announced on Twitter, early on the morning of Oct. 2, that he and first lady Melania Trump had contracted covid-19. There are no significant differences in voter preferences, or in confidence in the two candidates to handle the impact of the coronavirus, before and after his announcement."

UPDATE, Oct. 11: A new ABC News-Washington Post poll taken Oct. 6-9 has Trump ahead among rural likely voters, 58% to 38%. Biden leads in the suburbs, 53-44, largely on the strength of a big gender gap; among suburban women, he leads 62-34; among suburban men, Trump leads 54-43. The poll did not break down rural voters by sex, probably due to the relatively small rural sample.

New study details rural-urban divide in gun suicides

"A new study shows rural congressional districts have far higher suicide rates than urban ones and that firearms are a major factor," Heath Druzin reports for Guns and America. "The study from gun control advocacy group Everytown For Gun Safety underscores a rural-urban divide exacerbated by uneven access to mental health care and the relationship between access to firearms and suicide rates."

Suicide accounts for most gun deaths in this country, and firearms are the most common way for people to die by suicide. According to the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 24,000 Americans died from firearm suicide in 2018, Druzin reports.

"The difference in suicide rates between rural and urban areas has grown over the last two decades, according to a 2018 CDC study," Druzin reports. "What is unique about the Everytown study is that it examines suicide rates by congressional district. The highest rates were in districts with large rural populations in the West and South."

Upper Midwest leads in new rural coronavirus infections

New coronavirus-infection rates in nonmetropolitan counties, Sept. 27-Oct. 3.
Daily Yonder map; click here for the interactive version.

The coronavirus is spreading rapidly in the Upper Midwest, where high rates of new infections are the norm in most rural counties. More than 90 percent of rural counties in Wisconsin, South Dakota, and North Dakota have troublesome levels of new infections, according to a Daily Yonder analysis. Iowa has 66 of its 78 rural counties (or 85%) with high rates of infection. Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, and Minnesota each has high rates of infection in two-thirds of their rural counties," Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder. "Those rural counties are on the Daily Yonder’s red-zone list. The red-zone is a White House Coronavirus Task Force designation that identifies localities that need to do more to control the virus. Red-zone counties have infection rates of 100 more new cases per 100,000 over a seven-day period." Read here for more, including an interactive map with state data.

Two books out this year feature great rural journalism on the opioid epidemic and unsolved murders of the civil-rights era

As the days shorten, it's a good time to curl up with a book. Poynter's Kristen Hare reviews two for your consideration, both with lots of rural reporting.

Jerry Mitchell's Race Against Time chronicles how the Mississippi reporter's reporting years ago "helped revive civil-rights cold cases and put proud members of the KKK behind bars. The book deals with our country’s racist, murderous past, but also feels very relevant right now," Hare writes. After a long career at the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, founded the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting in 2018. He won a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" in 2009.

From the editor's note: "For the past 30 years, Mitchell has devoted his career to reopening unsolved cold cases in from civil rights era. His work on multiple landmark cases — the assassination of Medgar Evers, the Mississippi Burning murders, the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, and the firebombing of Vernon Dahmer — has helped put killers from the Ku Klux Klan behind bars for life, decades after they thought they had gotten away with murder."

In the second book, Death in Mud Lick, Pulitzer-Prize winning former Charleston Gazette-Mail reporter Eric Eyre takes a deep dive into the opioid epidemic in a small West Virginia town, detailing one woman's fight to seek accountability from major pharmaceutical companies after her brother's overdose death.

The same day his book came out, Eyre resigned from the paper to deal with his advancing Parkinson's disease. Nevertheless, he has waded back into the fray: He's one of the the co-founders of the new Mountain State Spotlight. In a recent newsletter to readers, Eyre wrote: "The story is far from over. (Looks as if I’ll be adding an epilogue to the epilogue by the time the paperback comes out next year.) A bellwether trial to hold giant companies accountable for the opioid crisis is scheduled to start Oct. 19 in Charleston. I’ll be covering the trial or potential settlement for Mountain State Spotlight, a new nonprofit investigative news outlet in WV."

States allowing online driver-license renewals, written tests

The pandemic has prompted many states to allow online renewals of driver and motor-vehicle licenses, and now some are even allowing driver-licensing tests to go online, another boon for rural residents in states where the licensing function is regionalized and requires out-of-county travel.

"Prospective drivers in Minnesota can go online at home to take their knowledge tests for a learner's permit," which is required before a road test for a license, which must still be done in person, Kate Elizabeth Queram reports for Route Fifty. "Test takers can’t consult manuals or online resources, and the test will close and record an automatic failure if another browser window is opened during the 30-minute window. Proctors are required to check a box before the test launches pledging that they won’t allow the use of other study materials, though that will be entirely on the honor system."

Queram notes similar measures in other states: states "Wisconsin and North Carolina, allowed certain teenage drivers to apply for a waiver for the road test. Georgia implemented a similar policy in April, but amended it a month later to require a modified road test instead. Others, including California and Massachusetts, extended the expiration dates for learner's permits, allowing teens to continue practicing their driving until road tests resumed."

Quick hits: EPA weighs ban of chlorpyrifos pesticide; scientists say invasive insects could increase 36% by 2050

Here's a roundup of stories with rural resonance; if you do or see similar work that should be shared on The Rural Blog, email us at heather.chapman@uky.edu.

Non-native insect invasions are projected to increase by 36% between 2005 and 2050, an international team of scientists predicts. Read more here.

The Environmental Protection Agency is weighing whether to ban chlorpyrifos, a pesticide linked to brain damage in children, but says science that finds it dangerous is inconclusive. Read more here.

A new book chronicles the forces that shape agriculture in the era of climate change. Read more here.

A church leader writes about how to respond when a fellow Christian turns to him for help with an opioid addiction. Read more here.

Can Minn. model for helping stressed farmers be replicated?

Ted Matthews talks to a client. (MCIR photo by Thomas Gauvain)
Farmers are among the most likely to die by suicide, compared to other occupations; that includes hundreds in Midwestern states in the past few years. But Minnesota has a program deemed so successful that other states are calling to seek advice on replicating it. At the center of it all is Ted Matthews at the Rural Mental Health Outreach Program, who has been the "go-to counselor for Minnesota farmers for decades," Marissa Plescia reports for the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting.

Matthews "takes calls at all hours, including weekends, though he said he’s so passionate for the work that he barely notices the hours he puts in," Plescia reports. "Handling the growing number of farmers who seek counseling as climate change and trade wars uproot their lives requires working around the clock, he said."

Matthews has a matter-of-fact approach that people say they appreciate. After Pam Uhlenkamp separated from her husband earlier this year, she called Matthews right away, Plescia reports. Uhlenkamp remembers that he told her in their first sesssion: "Today sucks. Tomorrow is going to suck. The next three weeks are going to suck."

"He was very honest with me," Uhlenkamp told Plescia. "Sometimes in life you kind of need the two-by-four across the head that says, 'Yep, this is awful and this is the reality'."

The story is part of a yearlong project exploring the ways farmers and farming communities tackle mental health and is supported with a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network.

Thursday, October 08, 2020

Fact-checking the vice-presidential debate

Wednesday evening's vice-presidential debate likely changed few minds, but it was a calmer affair than last week's slugfest between President Trump and Joe Biden. Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris both stretched the truth at times, according to FactCheck.org.

Here's some fact-checking on issues with rural resonance:

  • Pence said that "universal mail-in voting" will create a "massive opportunity for voter fraud." But election experts say fraud is rare and difficult to accomplish beyond a small scale.
  • Harris said Trump's tax law benefited "the top 1% and the biggest corporations," but that was misleading, since most households received some tax cut.
  • Pence said Biden is going to "raise your taxes," but Biden's plan only raises taxes for those making more than $400,000 a year.
  • Harris said the Trump administration knew the disease was serious on Jan. 28 but called it a hoax, minimized its threat and discouraged people from wearing masks. As for the hoax claim, Trump didn't call the virus a hoax, but said one was being perpetrated by Democrats who found fault with his administration's response to the coronavirus. 
  • Pence said the Trump administration "saw 500,000 manufacturing jobs created" in its first three years, but that ignored the 164,000 manufacturing jobs lost in the pandemic.
  • Harris falsely said the trade war with China cost the U.S. 300,000 manufacturing jobs. The U.S. gained 146,000 factory jobs in the first 18 months after the tariffs took effect.
  • Pence said there are no more hurricanes today than there were 100 years ago. That ignores the fact that climate change makes hurricanes stronger and slower, and thus more dangerous.
  • Harris said people with pre-existing conditions would no longer have protection under the law if the Supreme Court overturns the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. But that would only affect those who get individual insurance plans; the protections would mostly remain in place for those with employer-sponsored health plans.
  • Pence said that Biden wants to abolish fossil fuels and ban fracking. But Biden has said he wants to ban only new fracking on public lands. Most fracking occurs on private land. 

California's first million-acre fire got so big partly because of climate change, partly because rural fires weren't a priority

The August Complex fire perimeter Monday
(L.A. Times map by Swetha Kannan)
Dozens of smaller fires in northern California have merged in recent weeks to form the August Complex, the largest wildfire the state has ever seen. On Monday it became the first in state history to achieve 'gigafire' status, meaning it covers at least 1 million acres. Experts say the fire shows how climate change and factors such as mismanaged forests are worsening the state's fire danger, Hayley Smith and Rong-Gong Lin II report for the Los Angeles Times.

The fire, which covers a large portion of the Mendocino National Forest, is about the size of the developed part of the Bay Area. "The August Complex has contributed to the worst fire season California has ever recorded: 4 million acres in California have burned to date — far exceeding the previous record of more than 1.8 million set in 2018," Smith and Lin report. "One firefighter, Diane Jones, 63, lost her life trying to battle the blaze." Communities have been evacuated as firefighters try to control the fire. 

A record-dry February primed the land for a conflagration. "Increased global temperatures driven by carbon emissions also contributed to 2020’s extreme fire conditions," Smith and Lin report. "California saw its hottest August on record, only to break at least six more temperature records in September. Fourteen of the last 21 years have also seen below-average rainfall in the state."

The complex "makes up more than all of the fires that occurred between 1932 and 1999," Gov. Gavin Newsom said Monday. "If that’s not proof-point testament to climate change, I don’t know what is."

Another reason the fire got so big? The state prioritized fighting fires in the Bay Area over rural areas because the pandemic left the state with fewer firefighters, says Scott Stephens, professor of fire science at the University of California, Berkeley. "It was just an overwhelming number of fires early. And then resources that were then stretched thin,” Stephens told the Times. "And this one, just based on a prioritization, was given a lower priority, and it continued to get bigger and bigger."