Monday, November 28, 2022

AppHarvest, called 'future of farming,' is running low on cash

 Artificial intelligence at AppHarvest determines which 
tomatoes are ripe enough to harvest. (AppHarvest photo)
In the Appalachian foothills of Morehead, Kentucky, AppHarvest built the largest greenhouse in the U.S. Its impassioned plans to open more high-tech, indoor farms and be an example of the "future of farming" have been paused as it struggles with cash flow. In its third-quarter securities filing, the company told investors "'that it’s running out of cash,'" reports John Cheves of the Lexington Herald-Leader. The company said, "Absent additional sources of financing, we expect that our existing cash and cash equivalents will only allow us to continue our planned operations into the first quarter of 2023."

The company "will focus on trying to turn a profit over the next few years at its three existing farms, in Morehead, Berea and Somerset, and a fourth, in Richmond, that should be operating soon. The farms grow tomatoes, leafy greens for salads and berries," Cheves writes. "To raise the necessary capital for its next 12 months — an estimated $85 million to $95 million — AppHarvest hopes to sell its 15-acre Berea farm to its distributor, Mastronardi Produce Limited, and then lease back the facility."

AppHarvest CEO Jonathan Webb, a Kentucky native, told Cheves that he remains committed to his goal of employing large numbers of people at high-tech farms around the eastern half of the state. "If you’re asking today, we’re going to focus on saying, let’s get these four farms up and running in 2023, and month by month in 2023, we’ll continue to evaluate options to expand the business,” Webb told Cheves. “But I would say if you let the past be a predictor of the future, we started with absolutely nothing two and a half years ago and we’ve built eight million square feet of stuff. Anything we do going forward will never be as hard as what we’ve already done on the development side."

"People in Eastern Kentucky are understandably skeptical about companies that come into the region and make promises about jobs," Webb told Cheves. "But AppHarvest actually has built farms, hired people and started to deliver produce to market. . . . Hopefully when we have this conversation in the end of ‘23, you’ll see a company that is less about talk — and less about me talking, candidly — and more about results."

On Giving Tuesday, please consider a gift to the Institute for Rural Journalism, publisher of The Rural Blog

In the beginning, there was Thanksgiving. Then there was Black Friday, named by retailers for the positive ink it brings to their business ledgers. Then there was Small Business Saturday, Subscribe Sunday and Cyber Monday. And now, as a relief or antidote to all the getting, there is Giving Tuesday.

"It’s a simple idea," the organizers say. "Find a way for your family, your community, your company or your organization to join in acts of giving. Tell everyone you can about what you are doing and why it matters. Join a national celebration of our great tradition of generosity. And together we’ll create ways to give more, give better and give smarter."

The gifts can be of time, talents or money. If you're making monetary contributions, please consider supporting the publisher of The Rural Blog, the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky. The institute is supported by an endowment at the university, which accepts online donations. To make an online donation, click here. If you want to make a gift with more immediate impact, make out a check to the university, put "Rural Journalism, operating" on the memo line and mail it to us at BLD 217, University of Kentucky, Lexington KY 40506-0042.

Thanks for whatever you can do. At a time when audiences are being asked to pay more for journalism, so it can remain robust in the service of democracy, we hope you will find The Rural Blog and its publisher worthy of your support.

Melanoma cases are more common in rural areas; one reason: lack of dermatologists, Michigan researchers say

Melanoma is the the third most-common cancer found in rural America. A new study from Cancer Reports on residents from rural Michigan that shows the frequency and deadliness of undiagnosed skin cancer among rural residents when compared to urban dwellers. "One reason for that dramatic disparity: lack of dermatologists in rural counties," reports Eric Freedman of Capital News Service in review of the report. "Michigan has almost twice the number of dermatologists per capita practicing in urban counties And 38 of the state’s 62 rural counties have no dermatologists at all."

Lead researcher Richard Shellenberger, an internal medicine specialist at Trinity Health Ann Arbor Hospital in Ypsilanti, told Freedman, “The lack of doctors in rural areas was a significant factor. It takes a special person to say, ‘I want to practice in the Upper Peninsula; I want to practice in rural Northern Lower Peninsula.’”

3D structure of a melanoma cell derived by ion abrasion
scanning electron microscopy. (Image from Unsplash)
If cancer is diagnosed late, it is more likely to be severe. Dearborn dermatologist Karen Chapel told Freedman, “The more deeply melanomas invade the skin, the higher their risk of metastasizing – spreading to internal organs – and being deadly."

Steven Daveluy, professor at the Wayne State University School of Medicine, told Freedman that rural residents are more than three times as likely to work outdoors than their urban counterparts, increasing their exposure to the sun,

While there is a national dermatologist shortage, the lack is more acutely felt in rural areas. Daveluy gave Freedman an example of a farmer he treated: "After years of sun exposure working outdoors, he found an open sore that wouldn’t heal on his scalp. He didn’t like to go to doctors, plus he was busy working his farm to keep everything running, so he delayed coming to get treatment. When he did come, the sore had grown significantly. Due to his delay in seeking care, his surgery was more extensive.”

Chapel and Shellenberger gave Freeman a short list of items that could help ease the medical care gap between rural and urban areas, which included telehealth, incentives for rural rotations by medical students, and government support for new physicians entering rural communities with a focus on specialty physicians.

As U.S. farmlands remain dry, California counts the cost of its drought: $1.7 billion, thousands of acres unplanted

U.S. Department of Agriculture Drought Monitor map, adapted by The Rural Blog; click on it or the legend to enlarge.
Lack of rain has forced many Western farmers to leave their lands fallow, and the Department of Agriculture's Drought Monitor shows many other farming areas are also parched. But perhaps the most significant drought is in the No. 1 agricultural state, California.

The state's drought is scalding its way into its third year and cutting its agricultural output. "In the fall, rice fields in the Sacramento Valley usually shine golden brown as they await harvesting. This year, however, many fields were left covered with bare dirt," reports Ian James of the Los Angeles Times. About 752,000 acres have gone unplanted. "Gross crop revenues fell $1.7 billion, or 4.6%, this year. Revenues of the state’s food processing and manufacturing industries declined nearly $3.5 billion, or 7.8%."

Don Bransford is a rice farmer and board president of the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District along the northern Sacramento River. "Bransford typically farms about 1,800 acres of rice. But the drought was so severe this year that water deliveries to area farms were drastically cut," James writes. "Bransford didn’t plant a single acre. Many other farms went idle as well. . . . This year the drought has pushed the fallowing of farmland to a new high." Bransford told James, “It’s a disaster. This has never happened. Never. And I’ve been farming since 1980.”

The severity and length of the drought have compounded the suffering. Loss of farmland is a piece of that, along with farmworker job loss. "The researchers said California lacks sufficient programs to assist laborers who lose farm jobs," James reports. "They said it’s crucial 'to identify and assist communities that rely on seasonal and permanent agricultural jobs that are vulnerable to drought'."

California farmers have turned to pumping groundwater, but "Such heavy reliance on wells will face new limitations in the coming years," James writes. "In areas where rice farms have long depended solely on flows from the Sacramento River, many growers have no wells. Without water flowing in canals, farmers were left without options."

The continued drought leaves an uncertain future for wildlife such as salmon and migratory birds, James reports: "While the dry fields show the drought’s immediate toll, farmers expect it could take a year to determine how severe the ecological ripple effects turn out to be." Tim Johnson, president and CEO of the California Rice Commission, told him that millions of wetland-dependent birds are threatened, and could alter their migratory paths along the Pacific Flyway.

As demand for lithium batteries accelerates, so does the race to extract the mineral, from many different places

  Tubes enter a brine evaporation pool for extraction of lithium at an
old mine in SilverPeak, Nevada. (Photo by Bridget Bennett, NPR)
Some lithium mines look more like Caribbean wading pools. However, these briny pools are part of the mining process of extracting lithium from water instead of rock: water is pumped into the earth and then a salty concoction is pumped back to the surface and a lovely blue evaporation pool is formed. Once the pool dries and is reprocessed, lithium can be mined.

Market demand has companies investing in mines, and solid plans have been made to reopen a mine in North Carolina. “Reopening a closed mine, for a multitude of reasons, is an easier lift than launching one from scratch, and soaring prices make projects that were shuttered for economic reasons suddenly more profitable,” reports Camila Domonoske of National Public Radio. “Analysts agree that soaring demand for lithium means new mines will need to be built — which means hard conversations about where to place them and how to build them as responsibly as possible, given the substantial footprint of any mine.” Companies are even searching for lithium in recycling heaps, geothermal power plant brine, and volcanoes.

Electric vehicles use lithium in their massive batteries and as the U.S. curbs its way toward EV acceptance, the demand for lithium will continue to soar. Proposals for new mines are popping up nationwide but are met with conflicting agendas, Domonoske reports: “One proposed site threatens the only habitat of a rare Nevadan wildflower, for example, while another has outraged both indigenous groups and ranchers.”

Rystad Energy analyst Susan Zou told Domonoske, “For the next three to five years, the world will largely be relying on already-operating mines to scale up as fast as they can. Actually, in the past six months, we have been already quite surprised to see how fast those existing projects have responded to the lithium price hikes.”

Among its many positives, lithium shows a path toward less dependence and pollution from fossil fuels. “Lithium-ion batteries are a key part of every feasible path to reducing the climate crisis. Electric vehicles can help reduce the use of gasoline and diesel.” Domonoske says. “Giant batteries can store electricity from wind and solar farms to displace coal and natural gas. The batteries' promise: the quality of life that fossil fuels have provided, minus the fossil fuels themselves. What this means for demand for minerals like lithium is almost hard to comprehend.”

The U.S. lithium market began in Silver Peak, Nevada, site of an old silver mine. “More than 50 years ago, it kicked off a revolution in lithium mining by proving you could extract the mineral from liquid, not just from rock,” Domonoske reports. “For decades it's been the sole domestic producer of lithium in the United States. Now the small mine is in the process of doubling its output, and facing new rivals, as part of a massive global phenomenon that's reshaping multiple industries.”

Companies are betting that the cost of mining lithium will lead to exponential rewards. Kwasi Ampofo, the head of minerals and mining at BloombergNEF, told Domonoske, "There's something interesting about high prices. It incentivizes everything."

Sunday, November 27, 2022

As viruses spread, parents send sick kids to school, citing need to work, learning concerns and pandemic weariness

Schools across the nation have been hit hard by a slew of respiratory viruses, and some parents are sending their children to school sick or sending them back to school while still infected. They cite an inability to take more time off work, concern about their children missing in-class instruction and a weariness from dealing with the pandemic, Alex Janin reports for the Wall Street Journal.

In a typical year, Jackie Follansbee, a school nurse in Yakima County, Washington, would send two to three children a week home for returning to school sick, she told Janin. Now, it’s two to three “repeat offenders” a day, she says. In Kentucky, the Pike County school board has amended its attendance policy to increase the number of parent notes that can be used for excused absences from school from five to 10, Kristi Strouth reports for the Appalachian News-Express.

Schools across the country are sending notes to parents urging them to not send their children back to school until their child is fever-free for 24 hours without medication and symptoms are improving, Janin reports. And in some cases, nurses are calling families to remind them that symptoms of viral illnesses can last for a week or more.

One is respiratory syncytial virus, which is hardest on infants and seniors. As of Nov. 19, about 16% of PCR tests for RSV in the U.S. were positive, more than double the 7.5% at the same time last year, according to voluntary lab reports to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Then there's flu. As of the first week of November, the flu-hospitalization rate among U.S. children was the highest rate since 2009, the CDC says.

Increased infection and the need for school-aged children to stay home until they are well is also affecting workplaces, Abha Bhattarai reports for The Washington Post.

"A new round of viral infections — flu, RSV, Covid-19 and the common cold — is colliding with staffing shortages at schools and day-care centers to create unprecedented challenges for parents and teachers," the Post reports. "More than 100,000 Americans missed work last month because of child-care problems, an all-time high that’s surprisingly even greater than during the height of the pandemic, according to new data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics." 

Youth suicide rates are higher in areas with shortages of mental-health professionals, study of all U.S. counties finds

U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration map, adapted by The Rural Blog; click on it to enlarge.

Counties that have shortages of mental-health providers tend to have seen their rates of youth suicide increase in recent years, a study has found.

The study, published in JAMA Pediatrics, found that after adjusting for demographic and socioeconomic characteristics, counties with a mental-health workforce shortage were associated with an increased youth suicide rate, and an increased youth firearm suicide rate, when compared to counties with no or partial mental health shortage designations.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among U.S. adolescents, with rates rising over the last decade.  Using youth suicide data from every U.S. county, the researchers found that among all the counties where a youth suicide occurred, more than two-thirds, or 67.6%, were designated as mental-health workforce-shortage areas. The designation is made by the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration, which assigns a score between 0 and 25, with higher scores indicating greater shortages. The study found that the adjusted youth-suicide rate increased 4% for every 1-point increase in the score. It also found that there were geographic disparities, with higher suicide rates in rural and high-poverty areas, where mental-health professionals are scarce. 

Dr. Aaron Carroll of the Indiana University School of Medicine and Denise Hayes of the university's School of Public Health, argued in an accompanying editorial that money directed at hiring more mental-health care professionals alone will not solve this problem.

Help is available for anyone who is thinking about suicide or knows someone who is considering it. To get help, dial 988, which is the new suicide and crisis lifeline. The three-digit mental health crisis hotline offers free, confidential support and is available 24 hours a day. (Read more)

Friday, November 25, 2022

Higher interest rates complicate life for many farmers

Spring wheat was harvested in Kentucky to make way for a soybean crop. (Photo by Amrira Karaoud, Reuters)
The short-term, variable-rate loans that most American farmers take out after fall harvest and before spring planting "to pay for everything from seeds and fertilizer to livestock and machinery" now carry higher interest rates, and "Producers are wrestling with how to pay for that debt," Reuters reports.

P. J. Huffstutter and Bianca Flowers interviewed 24 farmers and bankers and reviewed data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. They found that some farmers are having to defer capital improvements because of higher interest rates.

"Montana farmer Sarah Degn had big plans to invest the healthy profits she gleaned for her soybeans and wheat this year into upgrading her planter or buying a new storage bin," they report. "Those plans have gone by the wayside. Everything Degn needs to farm is more expensive."

Some farmers try to get loans by the end of the year or early January "to take advantage of suppliers' early-pay discounts and to ensure they won't be caught short as global supplies of fertilizers and chemicals remain tight," Huffstutter and Flowers write. "This rising cost of credit is straining some producers' liquidity and prompting them to look at reducing fertilizer or chemical use, or plant fewer seeds next spring. That, in turn, could reduce crop yields, and place upward pressure on the cost of producing that food."

Changes in newspaper industry lead to changes in public-notice laws; recent examples in Minnesota and Wisconsin

By the Public Notice Resource Center

The newspaper industry that existed when public-notice laws were originally enacted is a thing of the past. There are fewer newspapers and they have less circulation. The papers are physically smaller and sometimes they’re designed, edited and/or printed at great geographical distances from the local markets in which they circulate. They’re also published electronically with a reach and immediacy that were unprecedented in the pre-internet era.

These changes have made it increasingly difficult for newspapers and government agencies to discharge their responsibilities under public-notice laws enacted many decades ago. As a result, state press associations otherwise reluctant to open up public-notice statutes to legislative meddling now may find it necessary to advocate changes to ensure relevancy of the laws that determine which papers qualify to publish the notices.

A Minnesota law that took effect Aug. 1 provides a model for press groups that may want to expand eligibility requirements.

Minnesota Newspaper Association Executive Director Lisa Hills says two developments convinced MNA it was time to modernize its public-notice statute. First, an association representing local government asked MNA for its help in meeting their members’ publishing requirements. The group emphasized it had no interest in engineering a wholesale shift of notices to government websites. Then a county experienced a temporary absence of any newspapers qualified to publish notices.

After drafting a list of possible revisions, MNA scheduled a series of public-notice webinars seeking feedback from members. “We got great participation from our members so they fully understood what we were hoping to achieve,” says Hills. MNA also sought input from local- government groups, who supported the new law and “appreciated that MNA took the initiative to update the law.”

The new law requires newspapers to publish notices on MNA’s statewide public-notice website and to include an index link to the public-notice section on their own website. It also simplified the law and aligned it to modern realities, allowing electronic editions to help meet print-publication frequency standards. It also replaced circulation minimums with a requirement that “a nominal percentage” of a paper’s print circulation must be distributed in “the area to which a public notice is directed, or where there is a reasonable likelihood that the person to whom it is directed will become aware of the notice.” It reduced the minimum printed space from 1,000 square inches to 800 and eliminated language that caused confusion over the definition of newspaper markets.

Other states have passed laws amending eligibility requirements for pubic notices. South Dakota authorized e-editions to satisfy print-publication frequency standards, but the only state we know that approved a bill liberalizing eligibility standards as comprehensively as Minnesota is Wisconsin.

Pursued aggressively by the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, 2021 Wisconsin Act 32 authorized digital subscribers to count towards statutory paid-circulation thresholds and allows free-circulation newspapers to publish notices in municipalities that don’t have a paid-circulation paper to handle the responsibility. Aside from not having to possess a valid periodical permit, free papers must meet all of the other statutory requirements. WNA Executive Director Beth Bennett says so far there are only two cities in Wisconsin where free-circulation papers distribute notices.

Nature nips: Ode to a maple; one horse saved; series on hog production summarized; wild turkeys rule New England

Darlyn Brewer Hoffstott's maple (Photo: Kristian Thacker, NYT)
In an ode to a huge, dying maple tree in Pennsylvania, Daryln Brewer Hoffstot writes for The New York Times, "'Standing people' is what the Cherokee called trees. I feel as if I am losing a member of the family."

Ever wondered how that jellied cranberry sauce is made? The Times tells us.

A horse won races, was retired and sold to farmers who sent him to a kill pen when he wore out. Donors to animal sanctuary in New York saved him, Rural Intelligence reports.

Madison McVan of Investigate Midwest has summarized the four-part series he did this fall about changes in hog production.

In New England, wild turkeys "were once hunted nearly to extinction; now they’re swarming the streets like they own the place," The New Yorker reports. "Sometimes turnabout is fowl play."

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

This Thanksgiving can be for the birds

Rufous hummingbird (Audubon)
For Thanksgiving weekend, here's some bird-lover fan service that it isn't all turkey talk:

Can you hear a bird chirping right now? You might be getting a mental-health boost; a new study found that being in the presence of birds made people feel more positive.

Did you know? Gray owls can hear voles buried under two feet of snow. New research is unraveling the clever design of this gorgeous owl.

Birds don't wear shoes, but some bird feet can inspire new designs. Check out the footwear on the American Coot's "wonderfully weird feet".

Chocolate and Chip are two North Carolina turkeys who are still chatting it up thanks to President Biden's pardon. They seemed grateful.

Sometimes you can't make more money, but you can go out and and start bird watching. Look up! It's free and as good as cash.

Reading the news can sometimes lead to a spiral of despair. Let it go by getting into birds.

Get ready to rumble and show your team spirit with these inspirational players.

Happy Thanksgiving AND don't forget to mark your 2023 calendar for the Great Backyard Bird Count Feb. 17-20!

Collected research on health effects of fracking prompts physicians and advocates to call for stricter regulations

A natural gas fracking well pad in Valencia, Pa.
(Photo by Ted Shaffrey, The Associated Press)
A consistent pattern has emerged linking health symptoms to horizontal hydraulic fracturing to produce oil and gas. The evidence has researchers calling for new restrictions on where fracking wells can be drilled. “A paper by the Yale School of Public Health this summer showed that children living near Pennsylvania wells that use fracking to harvest natural gas are two to three times more likely to contract a form of childhood leukemia than their peers who live farther away,” reports Jon Hurdle of Yale Environment360. “That followed a Harvard study in January that found elderly people living near or downwind from gas pads have a higher risk of premature death than seniors who don’t live in that proximity.”

The oil and gas industry has insisted that its processes protects against water contamination and notes that there is no causation study proving that fracking causes any harm to groundwater. "The industry coalition cited earlier studies, including one by Duke University in 2017, which found no evidence of groundwater contamination over three years,” Hurdle reports “and another by Pennsylvania State University in 2018, which reported no deterioration in groundwater chemistry in Bradford County, a heavily fracked area of northeastern Pennsylvania.”

Hurdle continues, “In April, the nonprofit Physicians for Social Responsibility and Concerned Health Professionals of New York, which consists of health professionals, scientists, and medical organizations, published its most recent compendium of investigations into risks and harms linked with fracking. Since 2014, the compendium has tallied 2,239 peer-reviewed papers that found evidence of harm, with nearly 1,000 of those papers published since 2018.” Concerns about fracking harm "have prompted bans in France, Ireland, and Bulgaria," Hurdle notes.

For U.S. medical providers and advocates, the multiple studies have formed a pattern of connection. "There are enough studies now that show that fracking threatens the health of workers and communities and threatens the mental and physical health of people who work nearby and children who go to school nearby,” Dr. Ned Ketyer, president of Physicians for Social Responsibility Pennsylvania told Hurdle. But he cautioned that the studies show correlation, not causation. "There’s enough of those associations now between fracking and bad health outcomes that should be informing regulators, politicians and industry that there needs to be a better way."

Beavers are more than loggers: A fascinating look at America's curious builders of a lot more than dams

Photo by Charlie Hamilton James, National Geographic
A ‘weird rodent’ goes swimming by his head bobbing a bit as he reaches his dam. Affectionately known as the four-footed logger, this beaver and his family have changed this forest forever. . ..

In a look at wonderful bedside books for the holidays, James Fallows of Breaking News recommends an unusual pick about a quirky animal that we don’t often consider a game changer: the American beaver.

Beaverland: How One Weird Rodent Made America by Leila Philip shows how beavers built America as much as humankind. “The book explains their biology, their oddity, their habits, their surprisingly profound effects, their interaction with (and fate at the hands of) human beings of different eras and cultures, their role in commerce and human civilization, and more," writes Fallows. "The book is mostly narrative, from historical records and Philip’s own first-hand reporting."

Beavers are part of the native fauna of North America, but they have a unique set of gifts that other animals do not have. Beavers fell trees and rebuild their environments much the way humans do. In this excerpt below Philip makes her case that beavers are 'forest Shiva': "Beavers are a keystone species, an organism so critical to the survival of a biological community that they function like the keystone in a medieval archway… Many animals use tools and are important to biodiversity, but only beavers and humans dramatically alter the landscape to create the environment they need (or want).

"Beavers need water, so they cut down trees and flood forests to create ponds. In doing so, they kill trees but create new habitat for hundreds of animal species that rely on those new waterways. Once they abandon a dam, having determined that life there is no longer manageable due to lack of food, it begins to drain and the pond grows back as meadow, then underbrush, then eventually forest, the soil enriched by years of accumulated pond rot and muck. They are forest Shiva, destroying illusion to create insight, putting into motion cycles of growth and regrowth, and creation through destruction. And today, beavers are back in many North American landscapes."

A peek at Fallows' list gives many glorious reading options, from beavers to truth about love.

The purple tomato will be one of the most visible products of genetic modification, still a touchy subject for many

Purple tomatoes could be in U.S. stores in
2023. (Photo by JIC Photography, flickr)
A purple tomato? Is that a thing? “For the last 14 years, Cathie Martin and Eugenio Butelli from the John Innes Centre in Norfolk, England, and their team have been working on developing the purple tomato,” writes Yan Yue, a Ph.D. candidate at the Quadram Institute, for The Conversation, a platform for journalistic writing by academics. “Their aim was to engineer a tomato that contained higher levels of anthocyanins, which can be used alongside unmodified tomatoes to study the benefits of anthocyanins. The team chose to modify a tomato because the fruits are delicious and widely consumed.”

The U.S. created the "Flavr Savr" tomato in 1994, which was the first genetically modified food. GM technology moved into corn, cotton and even pink pineapple. GM foods have battled a bad reputation with the public, but science bears out the benefits for plants, animals and people, Yue writes: “Many breeds of genetically modified foods have made them more resistant to disease. It’s also possible to modify foods to make them more nutritious. Take, for example, golden rice. This grain was engineered to have higher levels of vitamin A, in order to tackle deficiencies of this nutrient in impoverished countries.”

As the purple tomato was developed, the benefits of anthocyanins became evident. “Higher levels of anthocyanins in purple tomatoes actually work to double their shelf life compared to red tomatoes,” Yue writes. “Another benefit of high levels of anthocyanins is that they attract pollinators and animals to disperse seeds, which increases reproductive success of the plants and their yield. Anthocyanins also protect plants from UV damage and protect them from pathogens, which maximizes their survival.” The list of benefits goes on.

Despite the positives, GM foods still have to overcome the "continued ignorance of the general public alongside the reluctance of government policymakers,” Yue writes. "This is why the regulatory approval of purple tomatoes in the U.S. this September is so exciting. . . . It’s expected that purple tomatoes will be available for sale in the U.S. as soon as 2023."

Trimming holiday spending, getting ready for markdowns

Photo by Rebecca Campbell, Unsplash
Grinch-like inflation remains high, and American consumers are planning to trim their holiday-season spending and giving. “Households, retailers and charities nationwide, feeling the pinch of inflation, are bracing for a humbug holiday season,” report Rachel Wolfe and Jon Hilsenrath of The Wall Street Journal.

With that blue news, Americans should know it’s possible that the economy can shift gears and individuals may change their plans. “Economists have found that households don’t always do what they say on survey answers,” Wolfe and Hilsenrath write. “A drop in gasoline and food prices or a bump in the stock market could boost holiday spending. The best news would likely be a measure of relief from inflation.”

Retail inventories are higher than in the past two years, so companies are finding some surplus. The Toy Association, “which represents companies responsible for 96% of all toys sold in the U.S., forecasts a season of price cuts. Apparel prices also are headed down, according to DataWeave Inc., an analytics company that tracks online prices for thousands of retail items,” Wolfe and Hilsenrath report.

If there is an escape from inflation pricing, it will come in the form of markdowns. “After raising prices for months, some firms are betting that markdowns will buck up sales and clear inventory.” Target Corp. executives said last week that consumers have pulled back on spending, sapping sales and profits, and prompting the company to plan discounts to clear out unwanted inventory during the holidays.

Feds put lesser prairie chickens in the southern part of their range back on the endangered species list

Lesser prairie chicken (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo)
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has put the southern population of the lesser prairie chicken back on the endangered-species list, citing “fairly drastic” differences in the outlook for survival of the species in different areas of the Great Plains.

"The new rule lists the southern distinct lesser prairie chicken population in eastern New Mexico and the southwest Texas Panhandle as an endangered species," Scott Streater reports for Energy and Environment News. "The northern distinct population in the northeast Texas Panhandle, southeast Colorado, south-central Kansas and western Oklahoma is being listed as a threatened species."

The rule will be published in the Federal Register Nov. 25 and go into effect 60 days later, on Jan. 24, 2023. The threatened population will be covered by a controversial provision of the Endangered Species Act, — the Section 4(d) rule — that exempts "certain agricultural activities, livestock grazing and controlled fires from a provision barring incidentally killing, harming or harassing prairie chickens, if those engaging in such activities commit to certain conservation practices," Streater writes. It does not exempt energy production, a key issue for producers in the Permian Basin of Texas and New Mexico.

The Fish and Wildlife Service said the protections are needed to save the bird, which Streater notes "is known for its colorful mating ritual each spring. . . .Populations have declined across its range by an estimated 90 percent since the early 20th century, when birds numbered in the hundreds of thousands, to a total of about 32,210 birds today."

Tuesday, November 22, 2022

'There's no nitrogen police.' When farming regulation fails to protect our water

(Photo by Léon McGregor on Unsplash)
Nebraska has a wide-spread water nitrate problem. So does California, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin to name the states with the highest levels of drinking water contamination per 2020 data released by the Environmental Working Group.

Like many states Nebraska continues to have a tug-of-war between environment regulators and some farmers. "There are few staff to monitor Nebraska’s vast swaths of farmland, thousands of cattle feedlots, large hog operations and chicken farms. And the agencies’ own regulations don’t give the staff many tools to combat malpractice," reports Yanqi Xu of Flatwater Free Press.

The most regulators can do is give guidance through mandatory educational training; however, if a farmer doesn't attend a training, there is no penalty. The Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy lacks the teeth to stop "a farmer from applying far more nitrogen fertilizer than is needed – fertilizer that can seep as nitrate into the water supply," Xu writes.

"There’s no nitrogen police." Mike Sousek told Xu. Sousek, the Lower Elkhorn Natural Resource District General Manager, described how regulators were slothful with violation action but continue to hand out new feedlot permits “like Halloween candy".

Engelmeyer Farms is a case and point of how Nebraska’s enforcement can be slow and toothless: "The West Point feeder cattle and hog facility has had high nitrate in some of its downstream wells since 2007. . . . In 2011, nitrate readings peaked at an astronomical 413 parts per million. The Environmental Protection Agency’s safe drinking limit for nitrate is 10 parts per million," Xu reports. After more inspection "the state’s only guidance was that Engelmeyer Farms needed better record-keeping."

The cycle of testing, researching and non-action continue. Farmers fight the research finding by asking for more testing. Boards set regulations and then ignore their own guidance. "But the board [Lower Elkhorn NRD] decided not to go along with its own rules . . . Instead, it voted to conduct more testing."

Xu notes, "Being a board member who favors regulation is often a good way to lose your board seat."

Paxton buys six Gannett newspapers in North Carolina

Paxton Media Group, which recently became the fifth largest U.S. newspaper publisher by number of papers, has bought six North Carolina papers from the largest but gradually shrinking publisher, Gannett Co.

Starting Dec. 1, Paxton will own the Times-News of Burlington, The Courier-Tribune of Asheboro, The Dispatch of Lexington, the New Bern Sun Journal, the Jacksonville Daily News and the Kinston Free Press.

The Sun Journal recounts the recent history of the three easternmost papers, which reflects the high rate of ownership churn in the industry:  "Previously under Freedom Communications, the newspapers were sold to Halifax Media in June 2012. GateHouse Media Group purchased the papers in January 2015 and in 2019, it was announced that New Media Investment Group, the parent company of GateHouse Media had reached an agreement to merge Gannett into GateHouse. The three newspapers have operated under the Gannett/USA Today Network since that time."

CEO Jamie Paxton
Paxton, based in Paducah, Ky., "is operated by fourth- and fifth-generation Paxton family members," the Sun Journal notes. "The group owns more than 100 newspapers throughout the Southeast and Midwest. In the past few years, Paxton has acquired properties in Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and Indiana," some from Gannett.

It already has several North Carolina papers, including The Daily Dispatch of Henderson, The Sanford Herald, The Enquirer-Journal of Monroe, the News-Topic of Lenoir, The Daily Courier of Forest City, The Daily Herald of Roanoke Rapids, The High Point Enterprise, and several weeklies.

"In a meeting with staff members on Friday, Gannett leadership stressed that Paxton will be a good home for these North Carolina newspapers, especially since Paxton understands markets of eastern North Carolina's size," the Sun Journal reports. "Paxton leadership assured staff members that they believe strongly in newspapers and local journalism."

Jamie Paxton, president and CEO of the company, said “PMG believes strongly in the value of local newspapers and the vital role they play in the communities that they serve. We appreciate being chosen to be the new stewards of these important community assets and intend to work hard to maintain the trust that these publications have earned over their long and storied history.”

FSA chief calls for relaxing rules on conservation-reserve land to help young livestock producers build their herds

(Photo by Priscilla Du Preez, Unsplash)
The federal Farm Service Agency is looking for ways to use Conservation Reserve Program land to help younger producers by putting marginal row-crop land into livestock production. FSA Administrator Zach Ducheneaux told Chris Clayton of Progressive Farmer, "We've got CRP land sitting all over the country. If we think about incentivizing the proper use of that instead of penalizing the regular use of it."

Erin Ogle, who works with the Southern Iowa Land Use Conversion Project in Taylor County, told Clayton, "There is a place for CRP, but producers also see the benefits of programs that would allow them to integrate livestock as well. There is a lot of CRP in Iowa, especially in southern Iowa." That’s where Ducheneaux recently advocated a change in federal law to help.

Ducheneaux told Clayton that Congress needs to stop the mindset of separating conservation and production: "Right now, policy dictates landowners face a 25% rental-payment penalty for CRP ground that is hayed or grazed unless the ground is in a county that has a D2 "severe drought" or higher designation by the U.S. Drought Monitor . . . That land is becoming more productive if we use it thoughtfully and it is a better reserve for the future if we use it thoughtfully."

As of July, USDA is accepting offers for more than 3.1 million acres from agricultural producers and private landowners through this year’s CRP Grassland Signup, the highest in history, its website says, along with providing some CRP highlights:
  • Top states were Colorado (642,000 acres), South Dakota (nearly 425,000 acres) and Nebraska (nearly 422,000 acres).
  • States with the highest increase in acres compared with last year include Arizona (141% increase), California (129%), and Utah (122%).

Monday, November 21, 2022

'I've endured.' Eastern Kentucky musicians rebuild after the floods with hope and resilience

Damaged instruments from the Museum of the 
Mountain Dulcimer (Photo by Stephanie Wolf, WFPL)
Decimated by the 2022 flooding, Eastern Kentucky's music community is finding ways to rebuild all that was lost: "The water carried away dozens of historic instruments, including early examples of the hourglass-shaped dulcimer, developed and honed in Knott and Letcher counties in southeast Kentucky, and one once played by Appalachian music legend Jean Ritchie," reports Stephanie Wolf of Louisville's WFPL, discussing the losses at the Museum of the Mountain Dulcimer in Hindman. "About two-thirds of the collection 'just disappeared.' What was recovered will need extensive restoration."

Doug Naselroad, co-curator of the museum, told Wolf that it was difficult for him to dig up the courage to visit after the flood. When he finally did get up the nerve, he felt "like you're Indiana Jones exploring his own tomb. You have trepidation and dread looking in at the things you cherish and trying to will them back."

Eastern Kentuckians are familiar with flooding, Wolf writes, "but there's a distressing redundancy in the responses I heard when asking people about this particular weather event, which swept through Central Appalachia but did the most concentrated damage here, in the southeast part of the state."

Sarah Kate Morgan at Hindman Settlement School in Knott County, where she serves as director of traditional arts education, told Wolf, "For the next year, we're going to be focused on rebuilding what we lost instead of reaching out, like we usually do. We won't be able to do as much of the good work that we used to . . . and I fear that we'll lose some momentum."

Toward the end of their interview, Wolf shares, "Morgan fetched her own mountain dulcimer from her on-site apartment, saying, 'It'd be nice to play music for a second,' Her brief set included a subdued rendition of Ernie Carpenter's Elk River Blues and Ola Belle Reed's 'I've Endured'. When I thanked her for the performance, she answered as though I'd done her a favor: 'It was good for me to share.'"

Wolf continues, "Naselroad and his team have begun the long process to restore both the luthiery and the factory, and he hopes to be building instruments again in an alternate facility before the end of the year. As for the museum and its recovered instruments, their story just got bigger: not merely artifacts of the builders and musicians who brought them to life, but now, witnesses to a historic crisis, and participants in the collective recovery."

"The things that can be restored, that can be repaired, that survived? I think it's a powerful statement," Naselroad told Wolf. "Our heritage can't be destroyed."

3M factory creates Post-It adhesives and harmful PFAS chemicals, tainting drinking water in the area, EPA says

UPDATE, Nov. 24: Wisconsin Watch passes along what to do about PFAS in your water.

EPA map shows selected radii from Cordova, Ill., plant
Early this fall, rural Cordova, Ill., and its surrounding 3-mile radius along the northern Mississippi Rover received news that the area's 3M plant has been polluting the river with PFAS chemicals. "Plant chemicals have found a way into the river and their home wells," report Bennet Goldstein of Wisconsin Watch and Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco of WNIJ Northern Public Radio.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency detected PFAS or "forever chemicals" in the area in 2019. "Now the agency says the drinking water of nearly 300,000 people, including the Quad Cities of Illinois and Iowa, will need additional testing to ensure it is safe," they report.

This fall's announcement and follow-up EPA guidance has confused area residents and public officials seeking to manage the crisis: "City officials in Camanche, Iowa, announced that the municipal water, which serves almost 4,600 people, tested positive for two of the chemicals above EPA limits," Goldstein and Ramirez-Franco write. "The city advised residents to contact their healthcare providers or consider installing home filters. Now officials are informing water customers that the city is seeking 'expert guidance from state and federal authorities' and more guidance will issued once it becomes available. . . . Their announcements have not eased the fears of several Camanche residents, who on social media reacted to the city’s latest press release with dismay." Several commenters simply wanted to know if they could drink the water or not.

The Cordova facility opened in 1970, and the EPA permits the company to discharge its wastewater into the Mississippi River, but 3M must monitor it for PFAS. "This summer, 3M began testing some of the drinking water near Cordova for PFAS and offered to sample about 190 private wells within a 3-mile radius of the plant." they write. "The company later started to contact private well owners with an offer to install in-home water treatment systems, regardless of their sampling results."

Some rural areas reject federal money, citing overreach of federal agency and government mistrust

Elko County (Wikipedia)
Elko County, Nevada, has not had a public health department for more than 15 years, but county commissioners rejected a $500,000 grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention "citing concerns about government overreach. Commissioners and members who opposed the grant said Elko didn’t need more public health resources or a health district or department. They said they were concerned about giving up local autonomy and growing bureaucracy. They also expressed mistrust of the CDC," reports Jazmin Orozco Rodriguez of Kaiser Health News.

Elko County wasn’t the only one who refused to pursue federal aid. "Experts say they were surprised and concerned to see the rare local or state leader, swayed by political partisanship, dismiss funding opportunities for historically limited public health systems," Rodriguez writes. "Officials in Idaho, Iowa, and New Hampshire rejected Covid relief money, their decisions often accompanied by political pronouncements about federal government overreach. . . . A survey of local governments in 15 states conducted by the National League of Cities found more than 200 small governments declined pandemic relief funds."

The Elko County commissioners received letters from health officials and pleas from residents at public meetings asking them to accept the federal money. "Other local leaders saw the need for increased public health resources amid the pandemic. The Elko City Council wrote a letter of support for the CDC grant the day before the commission rejected it," Rodriguez reports.

“Partisan politics has poisoned the well to a point that we’re willing to sacrifice the health of our citizens,” said Brian Castrucci, president and CEO of the de Beaumont Foundation, a national nonprofit that advocates for public health policy. “Is the political grandstanding worth it?”

Adriane Casalotti, chief of government and public affairs for the National Association of County and City Health Officials, told Rodriguez, "Communities across the country have generally clamored for increased funding during the pandemic, which strained already underfunded and understaffed public health infrastructure. In recent months, I’d say, we’ve heard of a handful of health departments that either would not apply for or couldn’t accept … specific grants."

Polarization remains an obstacle, Castrucci told Rodriguez: "This has become a holy war, this has become a war of right and wrong. I don’t know how to get through that to a place where we are prioritizing the health of our nation.”

Saturday, November 19, 2022

Groups seeking more democracy and better service for the poor from rural electric co-ops in the Southeast rate them

EnergyDemocracy map, adapted by The Rural Blog
Alabama's rural electric cooperatives did the worst on a scorecard issued this week by citizens' groups in the region that want the member-owned utilities to be more democratic and give more help to members who are poor or want the co-ops to become more environmentally conscious.

The groups hope the year-long study, funded largely by the groups themselves, becomes a model for other regions, said Rory McIlmoil of Appalachian Voices, a leading group in the coalition. Similar efforts have been made in Minnesota and Montana, he said.

Many Southeast cooperatives don't make their bylaws publicly available or allow members to attend or speak at meetings of their boards of directors, who are elected by the co-ops' member-owners. "There's a lack of transparent and independent governance," Karan Pol of the Partnership for Southern Equity, a Georgia-based group, said in the webinar announcing the results.

Graphic from Appalachian Voices and EnergyDemocracy; to enlarge, click on it.
A third of the cooperatives in Alabama don't make their bylaws publicly available, and the state's co-ops have the highest fixed fees, which burden the poor, said Jackson Tolbert of Energy Alabama.

Catherine Robinson of One Voice Mississippi, the state that ranked second lowest, said many co-ops don’t follow the recommendations of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association for fair and democratic elections.

Kathy Curtis of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a cooperative member-owner, said she was unaware that member-owners have a voice in the co-op until she became involved in the project.

The groups based their ratings of individual cooperatives on information gathered from co-op websites, bylaws, conversations with co-op staff and the co-ops' tax returns, which are public because they are nonprofits. Some did not cooperate with the survey, and a lack of information gave them a score of zero, but the groups are still accepting information and will revise the published results accordingly, McIlmoil said.

The groups noted some bright spots, such as Powell Valley Electric Cooperative in northeast Tennessee and southwest Virginia, which made "significant reforms" after member-owners organized, said Bri Knisley, Tennessee manager for Appalachian Voices. She said they have "full engagement," with public-comment periods at meetings that have publicly posted agendas.
National Rural Electric Cooperative Association map; click to enlarge

Friday, November 18, 2022

A column for deer season: Lessons learned from hunting

Chris Hardie takes a sip from his grandfather’s Thermos.
Hunting season is upon us. For some, it's time to fill the freezer with venison. For many hunters, it's also a time for reflection. "Life is measured by the passage of time and the season of deer hunting gives me plenty of moments to reflect on past memories," writes Chris Hardie for the Wisconsin Newspaper Association.

"This is my 47th year of gun deer hunting," Hardie writes, "and there is no place I’d rather be on the opening morning than sitting in the woods with my back against a tree. I’m carrying on a tradition started by my grandfather and carried on by my father."

Hardie misses his father and grandpa as friends and hunting partners, "but I feel their presence in the silence of the woods and learned hunting from both of them. . . . Grandpa had a fantastic hunting spot that overlooked an open valley between the woods where deer always crossed. . . . Dad taught me patience – sitting in a good spot and waiting for the deer to come could be very productive. But it took me a few years to learn that lesson, as I would easily get cold or bored as a teenager."

Grandpa had "an old butter knife that he jabbed into a punky log on his deer stand. He’d pull that knife out from the log, wipe it on his pants and butter up the lefse," a soft Norwegian flatbread. Years after his grandpa's death, Hardie found that old knife on the forest floor. "I still have the knife, as well as the Thermos that Grandpa used and one of his old flannel shirts. I wear the shirt the day before the hunting opener and carry the Thermos into the woods every year."

Hardie concludes, "Last year I had the good fortune of harvesting a big buck. Whether I pull the trigger this year is really not that important to me anymore," Hardie shares. "It’s a time of solitude and reflection. . . .Hunting has helped teach me some humility, the virtue of patience and a deep appreciation for creation, bundled with the value of tradition and family. And I still have some lessons to learn."

Editor who backed him says Trump's remarks confuse his voters, but naming of special counsel could help them stick

Gary Abernathy on "PBS NewsHour" Friday
One of the few newspaper editors who endorsed Donald Trump for president in 2016 says Trump proved this week that even his base voters can no longer trust him. But with Trump now the target of a Justice Department special counsel, Gary Abernathy wonders if that challenge might redound to his benefit.

Abernathy, now retired but still living in southern Ohio, wrote in The Washington Post that part of Trump's base sticks with him because, as comedian Dave Chappelle said on NBC's "Saturday Night Live," he is "an honest liar." Abernathy said Chappelle meant that "Trump’s appeal was admitting to the 'commoners' that their suspicions about how the rich play the system were true. 'We’re doing everything that you think we are doing,' he paraphrased Trump as acknowledging, like an insider sharing trade secrets with the masses."

But recently, "Trump seems to be turning his gifts for gaming the system against his allies — something that’s beginning to dawn on his voters," Abernathy wrote, citing Trump's remarks about potential rivals, Govs. Ron DeSantis of Florida and Glenn Youngkin of Virginia while taking credit for their elections. "Trump voters are understandably confused. . . . If Trump will turn on his proteges, his followers are realizing, he’ll turn on any of his acolytes. Even his base can’t trust him now. The separation is happening fast. The divorce will follow."

Those words were published Wednesday. On Friday, Attorney General Merrick Garland named a special counsel to pick up the investigations of Trump, and Abernathy was asked on "PBS NewsHour" if Trump should keep running for president if he is charged with a crime. "I don't know," he said, "but if there's a way to bring Trump's base back to him just at a moment when it seem like maybe they have a reason to separate, this is the type of thing that seems to do just that."

Asked if Republicans will stand by Trump as as the probe moves forward, Abernathy said, "I don't think Republican leaders will coalesce so much behind him. . . . It just seems like anytime Trump comes under attack, the base just wraps itself around him again, like a wall of protection."