Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Weekly editor-publisher, one of several speakers at Nov. 15 workshop on Covering Substance Abuse and Recovery, tells why and how she covers it, and why you should too

Sharon Burton has been getting national attention for her series "The Cost of Addiction" in her weekly Adair County Community Voice in Columbia, Kentucky. On Nov. 15, in Ashland, Ky., she will discuss with journalists how to cover a subject that can be difficult and many don't want to cover.

"It's something that's affecting everyone's lives, and we need to be talking about it and we need to be looking for solutions," Burton says in a video interview with Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog. IRJCI is sponsoring the workshop with Oak Ridge Associated Universities, where research has shown that the stigma attached to drug abuse inhibits news coverage and community conversations about it.

Burton, who has a local competitor, says in the video that she understands rural journalists' reluctance: "It's not a pleasant thing to discuss, and I think a lot pf people feel embarrassed because they're talking about their loved ones. . . . A lot of times, they're talking about themselves." However, people have mostly been cooperative when approached for a story, she says: "They want to help other people. . . . They want to share their experiences and help others."

For details and registration, click on the link in the paragraph below.
Burton says rural newspapers contribute to the stigma of drug abuse when they cover it only as a criminal-justice issue: "We as newspaper people have probably been some of the most cynical when it comes to, you know, 'Put em in Public Record and throw 'em in jail' kind of attitude."

She says the problem is primarily a health issue, but also also affects the general public through higher jail costs and difficulty of employers and prospective employers to find drug-free employees.

At Covering Substance Abuse and Recovery: A Workshop for Journalists, Burton says, "I hope to encourage them" to help their communities: "If nothing else, to say its worth the effort." For details on the workshop, registration and accommodations, click here. The fee is $50 until Nov. 1 and $60 until Nov. 8, when registration will close. Space is limited.

Websites in Michigan are latest examples of partisans publishing biased content meant to look like local news

A conservative group has launched nearly 40 sites masquerading as local news in the battleground state of Michigan, and plans to launch thousands more nationwide, Carol Thompson reports for the Lansing State Journal.

Matt Grossmann, director of Michigan State University's Institute for Public Policy and Social Research, told Thompson he noticed the sites through promoted posts on Facebook, and did some digging after he saw the partisan slant of the stories and the unfamiliar site names. He discovered a "vast network of related outlets" meant to look like local news sites. 

The publisher, Metric Media LLC, says on its "About" section that it aims to fill the "growing void in local and community news after years of steady disinvestment in local reporting by legacy media." It is run by conservative lobbyist Bradley Cameron, whose "biography also says he has worked for pharmaceutical manufacturers, technology companies, and is retained by national conservative leaders to respond to 'government targeting of their operations and initiatives'," Thompson reports.

Cameron's plans are big, but his approach isn't new. In recent years, partisan operatives have been increasingly capitalizing on the "vestigial credibility" readers give local news to publish sites that look like local news but publish highly biased content.

"As local news becomes less profitable as a commercial business (and re-spun as more of a public good) but still retains high levels of trust, some political players see its situation as an opportunity," Christine Schmidt reports for Harvard University's NiemanLab. "Among them has been a series of conservative news sites with opaque funding that focus almost entirely on portraying governments as wasteful and corrupt." The problem isn't so much with politicians promoting agendas as concealment of that, and their attempt to capitalize on the trust earned by newspapers, Schmidt writes.

Some liberal operatives are doing likewise, but lately it's been mostly conservatives. "The Free Telegraph' states nowhere on its homepage that it’s published by the Republican Governors Association," Schmidt notes. "The California Republican sprinkles heroic headlines about GOP Rep. Devin Nunes ('Devin Nunes Exposes Collusion, Left Gets Abusive') until you scroll down to see 'Paid for by the Devin Nunes Campaign Committee' in tiny type at the bottom," Schmidt reports. "Politico and Snopes uncovered a network of sites in key 2020 states (The Ohio StarThe Minnesota SunThe Tennessee Star) created by Republican consultants and mislabeling people paid to elect a GOP candidate as 'investigative journalists' who were now covering them."

County-level map shows estimates of rural food insecurity

Daily Yonder adaptation of Urban Institute map shows food insecurity and associated factors such as housing costs and health risks in rural and mostly rural counties. Click on the map to enlarge it, or click here for the interactive version.
"Food insecurity on average tends to be a bit higher in rural counties versus urban ones. But there’s a tremendous variety in food insecurity across rural counties – and even within the same states," Tim Marema reports for The Daily Yonder. That reality is displayed in a newly published Urban Institute report about food security in the U.S. in 2017, the year with the most recently available data, and an interactive map with county-level data. About 40 million Americans, including 12.5 million children, are estimated to be food insecure. 

"To me, one of the most striking revelations of the map is how food security and insecurity exist side by side in many states," Marema writes. "Blue (low insecurity) and orange (high insecurity) abut in Southside Virginia. Eastern and Western Oklahoma are worlds apart on the food security scale. And single counties with food insecurity dot across the otherwise blue northern Great Plains. Nearly all these counties with food insecurity (red) are home to Indian nations."

Over past two decades, farmers have had to borrow more and stretch some loans over longer amounts of time

Average repayment term on all non-real-estate farm loans at
commercial banks (Agricultural Economic Insights chart)
Though farm income has increased a bit since 2018, farmers are still struggling with ever higher levels of debt, and they're having to stretch payments over a longer amount of time to manage monthly payments, David Widmar reports for Agricultural Economic Insights.

Farm debt has risen steadily since 2015 and is approaching levels last seen in the '80s, Widmar reports. Repayment terms on all non-real-estate farm loans have increased from around 11 months in 2000 to almost 16 months in 2018, with a big dip in the middle during the recession, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.

Terms for equipment and livestock averaged about a year to a year and a half longer in 2018 than in 2000-10, Widmer reports. Equipment loans in the early 2000s averaged about 25 months; in 2018 they were nearly 35 months, about 45% longer. Loans for non-feeder livestock averaged around 11 months in 2000; in 2018 the average was almost 19 months, a 60% increase, Widmer reports.

"On the one hand, longer repayment terms – coupled with historically low interest rates – make it easier for producers to meet the annual debt service obligations of historically high debt levels. Longer terms and low rates are certainly preferred to a scenario of short repayment terms and high-interest rates," Widmer writes. "On the other hand, the extended debt terms leave producers “on the hook” for a longer period of time.

New Yorkers offer bills to revamp, raise rural funding, create Rural Future Corps to send youth to rural areas, maybe stay

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who recently gave up her Democratic presidential bid, has introduced legislation meant to revamp and increase federal funding for rural areas. Rep. Antonio Delgado, also of New York, will introduce a House version, Cara Chapman reports for the Plattsburgh Press-Republican in the state's northeastern tip.

The Rebuild Rural America Act would establish a new $50 billion Rural Future Partnership Fund that would provide flexible, multi-year block grants for regional rural revitalization projects. "Rural regions that work together to become certified would automatically receive a commitment of five-year, renewable funding to support progress on the region’s locally developed goals and objectives," says Gillibrand's summary of the bill.

Gillibrand told Chapman that the bill is needed because "Federal grants are often too narrow and inflexible to support the development needs of rural communities." Rural communities can find it difficult to apply for grants because they often don't have enough staff and expertise, and shouldn't have to employ lobbyists or dedicated grant writers to access funding, she said.

Eligible projects would include entrepreneurship, infrastructure, public services, skills training and job placement, and improving disaster response. Gillibrand's summary of the bill promises a new, streamlined approach to disaster response and recovery that can help aid arrive sooner. 

The bill also proposes launching a "Rural Future Corps," which would be a joint effort of the Department of Agriculture and AmeriCorps to expand services like child care, health care, nutrition assistance, education and job training. Another aim of the program: persuade corps members to stay in the rural areas where they've served after they're done with their stint.

The act would be funded one of two ways, Gillibrand said. "Should a hoped-for bipartisan infrastructure bill come about — the senator noted President Donald Trump's frequent statements that he wants to invest $1 billion in that sector — a $50 billion piece would be dedicated solely to rural America," Chapman reports. "That would be combined with other infrastructure bills the senator has written to make for a comprehensive approach."

Monday, October 21, 2019

West Virginia governor still involved in running family's billion-dollar businesses, though he promised he wouldn't

Gov. Jim Justice
West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice is still involved in running his family's businesses, though he promised during his campaign that he wouldn't do that. "Back then, the billionaire promised to put his business empire aside and focus on public service. In an arrangement that echoed that of President Donald Trump, Justice said his adult children, Jay and Jill, would run his family’s coal mines, resorts and farms," the Charleston Gazette-Mail's Ken Ward Jr. reports for ProPublica's Local Reporting Network.

But Justice has remained deeply involved in his businesses, and has often used official public appearances and "the trappings of his office" to promote them. "Over the past year, he has hosted a news conference at the governor’s office to tout a settlement between his coal companies and his administration’s tax collectors," Ward reports. "He has used an interview at the Governor’s Mansion to press his luxury resort’s $75 million lawsuit against its insurance companies. And he’s turned an appearance at a statewide business gathering — held at that same resort — into breaking news about his family’s plans to reopen a coal mine."

As the Republican and former Democrat seeks a second term in 2020, critics in both parties complain that Justice is often an absentee governor who isn't doing much to lead the state through issues such as the opioid epidemic and the decline of coal industry jobs, Ward reports.

Justice wouldn't comment for Ward's story, but issued a statement through a company spokesperson saying that his interactions with the business are limited, but "because the businesses employ thousands of West Virginians, I continue to have an interest in their success and do check in on them from time to time. . . . There are also times where I have specific historical knowledge of a particular aspect of one of the businesses, and Jay and Jill will ask me about it."

"Unlike his recent predecessors, Justice has refused to place most of his holdings into a blind trust, which would put them under the control of an independent manager and shield him from at least the appearance of a conflict. Instead, the governor has retained ownership in 130 corporate entities, and his assets are valued by Forbes magazine at $1.5 billion," Ward reports. "Many of Justice’s businesses, from coal mines to farms to a casino, are regulated by the state, and some of them do business with the administration."

Justice has denied that his business dealings present conflicts of interest because he has turned control over to his children, but his actions undercut that argument, Ward writes.

Daily asked 10 tiny towns in N.D. and Minn. to see how well they responded to information requests; only 6 complied

The Grand Forks Herald in North Dakota did an interesting test earlier this year: the paper wanted to see how well small towns keep public documents and how they respond to an open records request, so they audited 10 randomly-chosen area towns with fewer than 350 residents. The results? Six provided the requested records, two never responded, and two flat-out refused to comply with state law, Tess Williams reports.

The towns that complied were: Edinburg, Hoople, and Petersburg in North Dakota; and Beltrami, Grygla, and Lake Bronson in Minnesota. The towns that didn't respond to numerous phone calls, emails and messages from reporters were Forest River, N.D., and Middle River, Minn. And the towns that refused to comply were Aneta, N.D., and Brooks, Minn., Williams reports.  (The only town with a news outlet is Grygla, where the Grygla Eagle was consolidated several years ago with three other weeklies into the Tri-County Canary.)

"A city clerk in Brooks, Minn., declined to provide the records and said she did not have enough time. The City Council, she said, told her 'they would just as soon have me not do it,'" Williams reports. "A clerk in Aneta, N.D., said the City Council decided it would not 'be of any value for us to send them over' because the town is so small."

Stephanie Dassigner, deputy director of the North Dakota League of Cities, said the audit's findings were not surprising, since small-town governments are often short-staffed, which makes wait times longer.

"Another problem encountered by the Herald’s audit was finding accurate contact information for city leaders. Most counties list contact information for city and township officials on county webpages, but after the audit, Herald reporters aren’t sure all of the numbers were accurate or up to date," Williams reports. "Dassigner said it’s sometimes a challenge for small communities to publish or update contact information."

The Herald came up with the idea for the audit last year, after northern Minnesota town Roosevelt wouldn't provide city records to the paper and a city council member allegedly threatened the reporter covering the story. "It prompted the Herald to wonder: Is Roosevelt’s civic disorganization and lack of response to record requests unique? Or is it a widespread problem in towns of similar size?" Williams reports.

Herald publisher Korrie Wenzel said the results of the audit were "unsettling." He told Williams: "In this day and age, when we talk so much about open government and transparency, it’s unbelievable that we are unable to obtain even basic documents from 40 percent of the towns we asked."

The state attorney general's office encouraged the Herald to file a request for an opinion on Aneta and Brooks for not providing records; Wenzel says the paper plans to pursue such action, Williams reports.

Major drug companies settle Ohio counties' opioid suit for $260 million just as first federal trial was about to start

"The nation's three biggest drug distributors and a major drugmaker reached a $260 million settlement with two Ohio counties over the deadly havoc wreaked by opioids, just hours before the first federal trial over the crisis was about to begin Monday," Julie Carr Smyth and Geoff Mulvihill report for The Associated Press. The counties are Cuyahoga (Cleveland) and Summit (Akron).

The agreement requires distributors AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson to pay a combined $215 million. Drug manufacturer Teva must pitch in $20 million in cash and $25 million worth of Suboxone, an opioid-addiction treatment drug. Five other drugmakers had settled earlier; after the new settlements, the only defendant left is Walgreens. The current plan is for Walgreens and other pharmacies to go to trial within six months if it doesn't settle first, Smyth and Mulvihill report.

The trial was closely watched as a test of how well drug companies' arguments would go over in similar cases; the drug industry is embroiled in more than 2,600 lawsuits from state, local and tribal governments. "A federal judge in Ohio has been pushing the parties toward a settlement of all the lawsuits for nearly two years," AP reports. "Industry CEOs and attorneys general from four states met Friday in a daylong session in Cleveland, where the offer in place was a deal worth potentially $48 billion in cash and drugs over time to settle cases nationally. But they couldn't close the deal, partly because of disagreements between state and local governments over how to allocate the settlement, which would have come from the three big distributors, Teva and Johnson & Johnson."

Attorneys general from North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Texas, which are leading the talks, said that they're continuing the effort and that the Ohio settlement helps, AP reports.

Don't miss out on the Rural Women's Summit, Oct. 27-29

Chavez speaks at the 2018 National Rural
Assembly (DY photo by Shawn Poynter)
Don't miss out on the first-ever Rural Women's Summit in Greenville, South Carolina, on Oct. 27-29. The event aims to bring together a diverse group of rural officials, business and nonprofit leaders, funders and advocates to discuss and encourage policy and public-interest efforts that benefit women in rural America. It's run by the Rural Assembly, a group that seeks to build a "smarter, greener, more inclusive rural America," according to its website.

The Daily Yonder will present highlights from the convention, along with interviews with speakers and panelists. Today they ran an interview with one such speaker, immigrant-rights advocate Marlene Guerrero Plua Chavez. Chavez is the director of community outreach and engagement for Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid, which gives free civil legal services to 68 counties in the state.

Chavez told the Yonder that she's seeing growing animosity towards migrant farmworkers in rural areas. "We know that there’s always been a divide in our rural areas and I know that many groups and many, many people have worked together with rural leaders to unify us. But at this particular time and moment, under this [federal] administration, it has prompted more hate in our communities. And I think this is overall, encompassing our entire society, our entire nation, where we have so much hate in our communities right now. And because of that, particularly in rural areas, I see how that has manifested and how that has made more hostile environments for our communities."

Some states consider ways to fund local news, but critics worry it could undermine the news media's watchdog role

U.S. news deserts (University of North Carolina map; click it to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.)
As newspaper numbers decline, rural areas have been and are more likely to lose local coverage than their suburban and urban counterparts, April Simpson reports for Stateline, a publication of The Pew Charitable Trusts. "More than 500 of the 1,800 newspapers that have closed or merged since 2004 were in rural communities," she writes, citing the 2018 report, "The Expanding News Desert," by Penelope Muse Abernathy of the University of North Carolina's Center for Innovation and Sustainability in Local Media."

The loss of local coverage often makes it difficult for rural residents to find out about local news or relevant state issues. It also means less accountability for local officials and less-informed voters, Abernathy said in her report. On top of that, for more than a decade rural areas have been losing coverage by metropolitan media, as newspapers close their regional news bureaus.

Some states are considering funding efforts to support local news, but critics worry that doing so might undermine the press’s role as a government watchdog. Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and publisher of The Rural Blog, told Simpson: "There’s this adversarial relationship that exists and needs to exist."

In Massachusetts, one proposal "would establish a commission to study journalism in under-served communities and make public policy recommendations. Similar conversations are happening among advocates and legislators across the country, including in New Jersey, New York and Ohio," Simpson reports. "Potential solutions include more money for public broadcasting, providing tax incentives to persuade media outlets to close local news gaps and following the path of New Jersey, which in 2018 created a fund to bring news and information to under-served communities."

At the federal level, one proposal would amend the federal tax code to make it easier for news organizations to achieve nonprofit status, which could be important to smaller news outlets, and another (more important for large companies) would allow them to collectively negotiate content distribution with news aggregators like Google and Facebook, Simpson reports.

Some caution against allowing the government to have so much input in the news. New Jersey established an independent nonprofit in 2017 meant to strengthen local news coverage, but has barely funded it since then. The fact that the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium's "ruling body is top-heavy with government leaders and employees should give us pause," media writer Jack Shafer writes for Politico. "How can a nonprofit news organization directed by people in the government even pretend to be independent?"

"Nevertheless," Simpson writes, "the Colorado Media Project earlier this month pointed to New Jersey as a model in a report that proposes four strategies to close local news gaps: increasing government transparency, increasing support for libraries and higher education, empowering communities to raise taxes to pay for local news, and helping commercial media outlets convert to a nonprofit model."

Though Cross said the CMP report had good ideas, it goes too far, he told Simpson: "It’s highly unlikely that the public policymakers in Colorado or any other states are going to adopt these types of recommendations because they’re too far-reaching for a lot of policymakers to swallow." (Cross believes that any news organization getting taxpayer money needs a strong structure to gather taxpayers' opinions about how their money is being used; he also thinks preservation of public-notice advertising laws has become as important to small newspapers as it was in their early days.)

Other possible solutions for rural news deserts include expanding public broadcasting or leaning more on philanthropic funding of nonprofit news organizations, Simpson reports.

UPDATE: New York legislators are pushing a bill that would require cable TV companies in the state to provide independently produced news and public-affairs programming, The New York Times reports.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Where GateHouse Media closed two rural Arkansas papers last year, a new, locally owned one thrives

Hempstead (left) and Nevada
counties (Wikipedia map)
In September 2018, GateHouse Media closed two papers in rural Arkansas: The Hope Star, a twice-weekly in Hempstead County (where Bill Clinton was born), and the weekly Nevada County Picayune. But soon afterward, the weekly Hope-Prescott News began publication and is celebrating its first anniversary this month, according to Arkansas Publisher Weekly.

The Hope-Prescott News was established by Hope businessman Wendell Hoover and radio advertising salesman Mark Keith. "Both men believed that communities of Hope and Prescott needed a viable print product after the two other newspapers closed," reports the weekly publication of the Arkansas Press Association. "The first edition was published Oct. 4, 2018, with a 1,000-copy press run. According to the publishers, they now publish a 12-page per week newspaper with a press run of 2,500."

The paper could see a financial boost from ads soon; because it has been continuously published for one year, under state law it qualifies it to publish paid public-notice advertising.

Judge blocks Trump administration plan to weaken sage grouse protections, open up habitat to extraction industries

Sage grouse mating dance (BLM photo by Bob Wick)
A federal judge blocked the Trump administration's plan to weaken protections for the greater sage grouse in 10 Western states. The sage grouse is an unforgettably odd-looking bird whose sagebrush habitat happens to cover a lot of public land the government wants for drilling, mining and logging, Lisa Friedman reports for The New York Times.

The preliminary injunction against the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management is temporary, but District Judge B. Lynn Winmill of Idaho indicated in his decision that the environmental organizations that filed suit are likely to prevail. The environmental organizations had filed suit on the grounds that the BLM didn't consider reasonable alternatives or thoroughly examine the environmental consequences of its actions, Friedman reports.

Sage grouse permanent habitat (Dakota Birds map)
Though the Interior Department argued that new leasing won't happen immediately, Winmill said the Court disagreed, and wrote that the plan was "designed to open up more land to oil, gas, and mineral extraction as soon as possible. That was the expressed intent of the Trump Administration and then-Secretary Ryan Zinke. There is no indication that current Secretary David Bernhardt is proceeding at any slower pace," Friedman reports.

"The decision is the first major legal ruling on the Trump administration’s plan to lift protections for the sage grouse," Friedman reports. "It represents a significant win for environmental activists, who have criticized it as a giveaway to the oil and gas industry that would devastate the nesting habitat of the bird."

Study blames some West Texas earthquakes on fracking

Federal Reserve Bank base map, adapted by The Rural Blog
"A new study from the University of Texas at Austin blames hydraulic fracturing for causing some earthquakes in the Permian Basin of West Texas, dispelling the widely held view that oilfield wastewater disposals wells were solely responsible for the man-made tremors," Sergio Chapa reports for the Houston Chronicle. While the study doesn't prove a cause-and-effect relationship between earthquakes and fracking, it found a strong correlation.

It says fracking could have caused some earthquakes in Reeves, Pecos and Culberson counties. "Previous studies had blamed the earthquakes in oil-producing regions on disposal wells, into which wastewater from drilling, hydraulic fracturing and production activities is injected," Chapa reports.

Because of the assumption that disposal wells are responsible for the earthquakes, state authorities tightened regulations on them in late 2014. Steve Everley, a spokesperson for the industry-funded group Texans for Natural Gas, said the industry has supported those regulations, and noted that most of the earthquakes are too weak to cause damage or be felt by most people, Chapa reports.

U.S. authorities guarding against African swine fever

African swine fever has killed as many as half of China's 300 million pigs over the past 13 months, and the disease, which has spread to more than 50 countries, is now advancing throughout southeastern Asia. 

"With these developments, the American pork industry has begun mobilizing. Experts say the risk of a domestic outbreak of African swine fever is increasing," Laura Reiley reports for The Washington Post. "The Agriculture Department’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service led several functional exercises and drills late last month, working off a scenario of an outbreak of the virus in Mississippi that traveled across state lines before it was discovered. Fourteen states participated in the drill." Between 85% and 95% of pigs that catch it die within two weeks. Humans can't catch it, though. 

If the disease spreads to the U.S., the pork industry could suffer billions of dollars in losses, but the damage wouldn't end there. "Widespread loss of pigs could devastate the corn and soy industries, which are primary feed sources, and industries such as beef could be affected by a loss in consumer confidence," Reiley reports.

There is no vaccine or treatment of the disease, and the virus that causes it can live for weeks on tainted slaughtered meat, animal feed, or animal feed additives. That's one reason American authorities are alarmed. "There is insufficient American organic soy, so hog farmers wishing to feed their animals organic soy often import it from China," Reiley reports. "And there are feed ingredients — B vitamins and trace minerals — that are manufactured only in China. The virus can survive for up to a month on these products, so they must be quarantined and heated to kill the virus." The disease could also spread via humans illegally smuggling meat or other infected food into the U.S.

Sen. Kamala Harris announces plan to help rural America

Kamala Harris (Getty Images)
Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris has released a plan to help rural America. Sen. Harris, a senator from California, said President Trump has been fighting a "war on rural America" and that his actions since taking office are a "betrayal" of his campaign promises.

"She said her goal is to 'reverse' those policies by investing $100 billion in a fund for businesses that prioritize hiring from rural communities and support their development," Justine Coleman reports for The Hill."

Here are the highlights of the plan:
  • A rural jobs tax credit for companies that hire people from rural areas. Businesses would receive a $10,000 credit for each new full-time employee per year, with a $250,000 cap.
  • End the trade war with China, which Harris says hurts rural communities and family farmers.
  • Reinstate the Farmer Fair Practice Rules to protect family farmers from large agribusinesses.
  • Incentives for farmers and ranchers to adopt more environmentally friendly practices.
  • Re-establish the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration as an independent office in the Agriculture Department.
  • Crack down on major agriculture mergers.
  • Increased investment into existing and innovative rural-focused federal programs, including the Small Business Administration's rural area programs.
  • Clamp down on Renewable Fuel Standard hardship waivers for oil refiners.
  • Pass Medicare for All to increase rural health-care access.
  • Provide incentives for hospitals to provide women's and children's health services.
  • Reduce child-care expenses and invest in child-care programs.
  • Allow rural health-care providers more flexibility to treat patients in different settings.
  • Incentives to provide more and better health care for rural seniors.
  • More funding for mental health, substance abuse treatment, and telemedicine.
  • Go after pharmaceutical companies that encouraged the opioid epidemic.
  • Increase Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits for families with children.
  • An $80 billion program to build out broadband to rural America.
  • Create a new agricultural worker visa program to address the shortage of farm workers.
  • Direct more funds toward agricultural sciences in colleges to encourage young people to farm.
  • Strengthen rural housing support. 
Click here to compare Democratic candidates' rural policy plans, via The Daily Yonder's 2020 Rural Policy Tracker.

The Rural Blog reports major statements by presidential candidates about rural policy.

Quick hits: 'West By God' play a love letter to West Virginia; banking challenges for cannabis farmers, and more

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.

The new play "West By God" is a love letter to West Virginia, writes Thomas Floyd of The Washington Post. Read more here.

Hemp and marijuana growers face challenges in banking, Sophie Quinton and April Simpson report for Stateline. Read more here.

The trade war with China crushed a growing Chinese market for American cranberries, Adrian Ma reports for NPR. Read more here.

In a recent episode of the About South podcast, co-producer Kelly Vines talks to Dwight Billings, Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Kentucky, about what drew the coal mining industry to central Appalachia and the future of the region. Listen to it here.

In the most recent episode of the American Farm Bureau Federation's Farmside Chat podcast, AFBF president and podcast host Zippy Duvall talks to Tennessee first-generation farmer and family nurse practitioner Matt Niswander about his work to address the opioid crisis in rural America. Listen to it here.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Federal Reserve's Beige Book notes economic trouble in farming sector because of weather, trade, and more

Federal Reserve Bank districts, with regional headquarters
In its recently released Beige Book, a summary of current economic conditions by Federal Reserve district, the Federal Reserve Board reports that agriculture is in trouble.

Farm conditions across the country "deteriorated further due to the ongoing impacts of adverse weather, weak commodity prices and trade disruptions," the report says.

Key farming regions, like the Corn Belt, are especially hurting. Seventh District industry sources interviewed by the Federal Reserve "had mounting concerns about how much of this year’s crop would be able to fully mature before a hard frost hits," according to the report.

In states like Missouri and Arkansas, farm conditions have declined "modestly" since the last report on Sept. 4, and there has been a sharp drop in corn, rice and soybean production. "The outlook among contacts remained relatively pessimistic due to depressed commodity prices and trade uncertainty," says the report.

Heavy rains in the Upper Midwest hurt crop planting, and may harm harm harvests. "Recent forecasts indicated that corn and soybean production in [Ninth] District states may decrease 10 percent and 20 percent, respectively, in 2019 compared with last year," according to the report, noted  by Ryan McCrimmon in Politico's "Morning Agriculture."

Rural Wisconsin doctor in largely Amish and Mennonite town sees some of the world's rarest genetic diseases

Dr. James DeLine outside a home in La Farge, Wiusconsin.
(Milwaukee Journal Sentinel photo by Mark Hoffman)
James DeLine grew up in a rural farming community in Illinois, and gravitated toward rural practice after graduating from medical school. But when he accepted a job as the sole physician in La Farge, Wisconsin, in 1983, he never could have dreamed that his practice would lead him to the cutting edge of genetic disease study, Mark Johnson reports for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

La Farge, pop. 750, is a hotbed of rare genetic diseases because of its large Amish and Old Order Mennonite population. Sometimes known collectively as the Plain People, the Amish and Mennonites generally marry within their communities, which increases the chances that rare genetic diseases will be expressed, Johnson reports. La Farge has the second-largest cluster in the world of sitosterolemia, a very rare disease that causes blood-vessel linings to thicken, and a much higher than average incidence of other rare genetic diseases. As a result, DeLine has worked with geneticists from as far away as England to help diagnose and learn more about such diseases to help his patients.

Four years ago, the La Farge Medical Clinic opened its Center for Special Children, "which focuses on the diagnosis and treatment of children born with rare genetic and metabolic diseases. Many, but not all, of the center’s children come from Amish or Mennonite families," Johnson reports.

La Farge in Vernon County, Wisconsin
(Wikipedia map)
DeLine didn't find out about the high incidence of genetic diseases for some time. Plain People are often wary of outsiders and rarely seek medical help. It took DeLine and his staff years to gain their trust. "Often, they fear that going to a hospital or clinic will mean surrendering the decision-making to doctors who neither respect their beliefs nor understand their financial limitations," Johnson reports. "DeLine, not a religious man himself, accommodates the beliefs of patients and parents; he has always viewed them as the ultimate decision-makers. As a result, the clinic has become a magnet for Plain People. Some travel eight hours from Missouri or Iowa just to see him."

DeLine was on his own for years, but in 2003 his clinic was purchased by Vernon Memorial Healthcare in the nearby town of Viroqua, so now the clinic has two more doctors and a staff of 25, Johnson reports. DeLine says he hopes to practice for another five years or so before retiring.

It will surely be difficult to fill DeLine's shoes, according to Byron Crouse, retired associate dean for rural and community health at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "He’s maintained the Norman Rockwell bedside manner skills, and yet he’s working on the cutting edge of 21st-century medicine, the very newest science,"Crouse told Johnson. "I can’t think of anybody else who has that ability."

Award-winning weekly looks at local homelessness

A homeless veteran gathers his things after officials evicted him from his camp. (Malheur Enterprise photo by Joe Siess)
The Malheur Enterprise, an award-winning rural Oregon weekly, took an unflinching look at the issue of homelessness in the town of Ontario with a story and a photo essay. Homelessness is an increasing problem in rural areas but it's not often discussed or addressed.

On Oct. 14, city workers forced a number of homeless people to abandon encampments along the Snake River because of a cleanup procedure near the local water plant. "The cleanup was prompted by a break-in at one of the wells that pertains to the city’s water treatment plant, causing concern that water could be contaminated," Joe Siess reports for the Enterprise.

City Manager Adam Brown said there was also concern about homemade toilets in the encampments that could leak into the river and contaminate it. He estimated that as many as 60 people live in the woods near the river, Siess reports.

City employees gave the campers several days' notice and passed out a tip sheet listing services available to those being evicted. But, Brown acknowledged, "The folks down there have lots of needs . . . And there’s not a single answer right now to address it."

Stunning American entries among winners of annual wildlife photography contest

The Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition has been showcasing outstanding nature photography from all over the world since 1965. Among this year's 15 winners are several from the United States, Alan Taylor reports for The Atlantic. Here are the American winning photos (though you should look through the whole list—there are some stunners in there).

Snow Exposure, above, won in the Black and White category. Photographer Max Waugh shot the stark, black-and-white image of a bison weathering a snowstorm in Yellowstone National Park.

Tapestry of Life, by Zorica Kovacevic, won in the Plants and Fungi division. It shows a Monterey cypress covered in orange algae and gray lichen in Point Lobos State Natural Reserve in California.

In Creation, winner of the Earth's Environments category, huge plumes of noxious steam and fine glass rise as lava from Hawaii's Mount Kilauea hits the ocean. Photographer Luis VilariƄo Lopez had to hire a helicopter to get the shot.

Some Iowa farmers and academics see a need for more efforts to make agriculture environmentally sustainable

Politicians pay much attention to Iowa because comes first in the presidential nominating process, but the state's agricultural issues still don't get the attention they deserve, Lisa Schulte Moore, an Iowa State University natural-resource ecology and management professor, writes for The Conversation.

Schulte says Iowa is well-placed to tackle the environmental and economic issues associated with monoculture farming. "Iowa is a leading global producer of corn, soy, pork, beef, eggs, ethanol, biodiesel, biochemicals and agricultural technology," she writes. "Iowa farmers export the vast majority of what they produce. Most multinational agricultural businesses have Iowa offices, and the state also has considerable influence on U.S. Farm Bill legislation."

Iowa farmers are well aware of issues in modern farming (including soil degradation, water contamination, flooding) and many are trying to reduce them as much as "operational, financial and social conditions allow," Schulte writes. Plenty of groups are pitching in to help, including Iowa State University scientists, Practical Farmers of Iowa, and the state chapter of The Nature Conservancy.

A growing number of Iowa farmers are adopting more environmentally sustainable practices in hopes of preserving the state's water and soil resources, Mark Bittman reports for PBS NewsHour Weekend. For instance, sixth-generation corn and soybean farmer Sam Bennett has begun adding small grains like oats and rye into his crop rotation. Such rotations are a longstandign practice among many farmers, but "Bennett says he plants them closer together, so there are more of them. That means more roots in the soil, which improves soil and water quality," Bittman reports.

Schulte predicts that market demand, federal policies and new technologies will keep moving agriculture toward more economically and environmentally sustainable methods, but a more unified and widespread effort could yield impressive results, she writes: "Such an effort could usher in a new era of economic and environmental wealth in Farm Belt states. It would start with investing in regenerative systems – farming methods that produce agricultural goods and services while also improving soil and water resources, unique habitats and pastoral countrysides. And it would require simultaneous investments in rural infrastructure, new businesses and local and regional markets."

Sam Bennett thinks it's time for a shake-up in agriculture. "I think my dad comes from a generation that [believed] if you work harder you'll be more successful," he told Bittman. "And I think what I'd like to say in my generation is that if you work smarter, you'll be more successful, and taking on some of these newer practices some of these sustainable practices is working smarter."

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Nov. 1 is deadline to seek four-month, $15,000 fellowship for in-depth accountability reporting project in Appalachia

The GroundTruth Project is seeking a reporter for its new four-month, $15,000 Galloway Fellowship for Reporting in Appalachia. Journalists in all media are invited to apply to work on an in-depth accountability reporting project in the region that aligns with at least one of GroundTructh's focal areas: environment, health, politics, rights, religion "or any place these issues collide," the fellowship page says. The application deadline is Nov. 1 and the project must be done by June 30.

"The reporter may be a freelancer or staff reporter. A successful proposal will be one that pursues reporting as a public service and that seeks to hold power accountable," the page says. "We would also welcome local editorial partnerships and fellows may submit their application with a commitment from an affiliated publishing or broadcast outlet."

The fellowship honors the late Tom Galloway, a Kentucky-born lawyer who appreciated in-depth, investigative reporting who died this summer. He was a public-interest lawyer in Appalachia, "taking on big coal companies to protect the environment and the people who lived there," the page says. "He always believed investigative reporting provided a critical watchdog role that led to many of his biggest court cases."

Climate shift may force some state birds out of their states

The common loon, the state bird of Minnesota (Alamy photo)
The brown thrasher, the state bird of Georgia,
has a repertoire of more than 1,000 songs.
(Alamy photo by Dan Johnston)
"Each state in America has an official state bird, usually an iconic species that helps define the landscape," Brad Plumer reports for The New York Times. "But as the planet warms and birds across the country relocate to escape the heat, at least eight states could see their state birds largely or entirely disappear from within their borders during the summer, according to a new study."

Nearly 400 North American bird species—about two-thirds—will likely make a drastic shift in their ranges in the coming decades because of climate change, the National Audubon Society study predicts. Many will struggle to survive the shift to unfamiliar or shrinking habitats.

"If global temperatures rise a plausible 3 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels this century, Minnesota will no longer enjoy the local climate conditions that loons are accustomed to as they arrive each summer to breed and hunt for food, the study found," Plumer reports. "As a result, the birds may bypass the state altogether and head farther north."

Goldfinch, New Jersey (Alamy photo)
Audubon President David Yarnold said this is "one way we’ll see the effects of climate change right in our own backyards . . . If you’ve ever been around a lake in the upper United States, you can probably hear the sound of a loon in your head. It’s hard to imagine a Minnesota summer without them. It’s hard to imagine a New Jersey summer without goldfinches."

The study has a neat interactive map that shows you how birds in your state and even your ZIP code could be affected by the shift, as well as a map showing how some common bird species could be affected. Click here for more.

Small-time hemp farmers forming cooperatives, fear new industry will consolidate like rest of agriculture

Tony Silvernail, left, and Shawn Lucas with hemp that is drying. (Ohio Valley ReSource photo by Liam Niemeyer)
Hundreds of Ohio Valley farmers have begun growing hemp after the 2018 Farm Bill made it legal on a nationwide scale; some of them are banding together to help figure out the business.

Long-time organic farmer Tony Silvernail in Frankfort, Kentucky, and business partner Shawn Lucas, a Kentucky State University professor, founded a cooperative for organic hemp farmers with smaller operations. "The cooperative purchases hemp seed and other supplies in bulk to get a better deal," Liam Niemeyer reports for Ohio Valley ReSource, a public-radio consortium. "It sells the members’ collective hemp harvest to processors, using the strength in numbers to bargain for better prices. And the cooperative helps farmers figure out how to even grow the crop in the first place."

The co-op has only 15 farmers so far, with about 30 acres among them. They've run into difficulties with buying the right seed, and thwarting thieves (who likely thought the hemp was marijuana) stealing plants from fields. "Silvernail said it’s all part of the learning process," Niemeyer reports.

The small-time farmer co-op is also an effort to stay standing in an industry where larger corporations have already been trying to corner the hemp and cannabidiol market by lobbying for legislation that would have favored them. "Regional agriculture leaders are championing hemp’s potential for farms of all sizes," Niemeyer reports. "But these hemp farmers worry that the sort of corporate consolidation they’ve seen in other agriculture sectors will soon come to the new hemp industry."

State House Minority Leader Rocky Adkins applauds as the Hemp
Hawk is unveiled. (Morehead News photo by Stephanie Ockerman)
Meanwhile, two companies in Morehead, Ky., have invented a hemp cultivator that can also be used on other crops, reports Stephanie Ockerman of The Morehead News. "The tractor-powered Hemp Hawk was loaded to a truck that day headed for the CBD Expo in Denver."

Max Hammond, CEO of A-1 Implements, told thereisafuture.org, “We are creating a new economy for Eastern Kentucky. We will revitalize our hillside farms. We will have other developments come to Eastern Kentucky because of this agri-tech industry and because of the hemp that will be coming to Eastern Kentucky.” The Hemp Hawk was manufactured at 4-C Innovations.

Wildlife officials recommend you kill this air-breathing, invasive fish on sight. We say: 'Cook 'em up!'

Northern snakehead fish (Getty Images photo by William Cain)
Georgia wildlife officials are trying to figure out how to prevent an invasive species of fish, the northern snakehead, from spreading to other rivers and lakes in the state. The problem is, it can breathe air. That allows it to travel over small stretches of land to other bodies of water, Lateshia Beachum reports for The Washington Post.

A northern snakehead was caught earlier this month in a pond in Gwinnett County, near Atlanta; it's the first time the species has been found in the state, but it has been reported in 14 other states and is abundant near the Chesapeake Bay. It's native to eastern Asia and was sold in American pet stores and live-food fish markets before the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service banned it in 2002. "Invasive fish like the northern snakehead are often introduced through unauthorized release, according to Georgia wildlife authorities. In Georgia, it’s illegal to import, transport, sell, transfer and have any species of snakehead without a valid wildlife license," Beachum reports.

The northern snakehead can grow to three feet and weigh up to 18 pounds. Because it's a voracious predator with a varied diet, it's well-placed to crowd out native species, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. "Should the species succeed in establishing more populations of predatory offspring, it could alter food webs and ecological systems that could leave a permanent change to other species in water bodies," Beachum reports.

"Wildlife officials in Georgia are asking anglers to learn how to identify, kill and photograph the fish and reporting their catch to the Georgia Department of Natural ResourcesWildlife Resources Division Fisheries office," Beachum reports. Bonus: since northern snakeheads are pretty nutritious, fishermen can help the local ecosystem and take care of dinner in one shot. We suggest a nice cornmeal dredge.

Republican columnist says some Democratic presidential candidates 'disdain' rural Americans and their values

Scott Jennings
We recently wrote about an op-ed from an Arkansas woman who was frustrated with the conservative bent of rural America. As a bookend to that, here's an op-ed from a Republican political adviser who says Democratic presidential candidates are killing their party's chances in rural areas. (Here's a recap of what the candidates had to say about rural America in last night's debate.)

"I’m not sure what’s more jaw-dropping — the disdain Democratic presidential candidates have for rural Americans and their values, or their willingness to make it a centerpiece of their campaign to unseat Donald Trump," Scott Jennings writes in his regular column for the Louisville Courier Journal.

Democrats' blindness to rural values cost them the 2016 election, Jennings writes, saying that this year's candidates are doubling down on the sentiment: "Beto O’Rourke’s plans to confiscate guns from law-abiding citizens and to put churches out of business, combined with Elizabeth Warren’s stinging insult that conservative religious people are too ugly to find a suitable mate, are good reminders that the national Democratic Party has simply abandoned rural and Middle America."

Democratic candidates' failure to respect rural values will mean religious African Americans won't show up for them on Election Day, Jennings writes.

Recap on rural issues in last night's Democratic debate

Twelve of the top Democratic presidential candidates met last night at Otterbein University in central Ohio for a fourth major debate, moderated by CNN's Anderson Cooper and Erin Burnett and New York Times National Editor Mark Lacey. Here's a run-down of what they had to say about issues with rural resonance, taken from The Washington Post's transcript.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said she supports impeaching President Trump because she believes Trump "has not been standing up for the workers of Ohio. He’s not been standing up for the farmers in Iowa."

On her Medicare-for-all plan, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts was pressed to say whether it would result in higher taxes for the middle class. She did not directly answer the question, but said overall out of pocket expenses for middle-class families would not increase. 

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont said his Medicare-for-all plan would cause tax increases, but, like Warren, stressed that almost everyone would be paying less out of pocket because they would no longer be paying for insurance.

Klobuchar noted that Baby Boomers are hitting retirement age and said health insurance must better cover long-term care. She also advocated further expansion of Medicaid and going after drug companies responsible for the opioid epidemic, which has harmed many rural areas.

Entrepreneur Andrew Yang said he wanted to decriminalize the possession and use of small amounts of opioids, including heroin, as a way of combating the epidemic. That would help keep addicts out of jail and instead encourage them to seek treatment, he said. 

Noting that a recent study predicted about a quarter of U.S. jobs could be lost to automation in the next 10 years, Burnett asked Sanders if he could think of a way to employ those who lose them. He said they could be put to work rebuilding America's crumbling infrastructure and renewable-energy facilities, and noted the need for more teachers, childcare workers, tradesmen, and health workers.

Warren said bad trade policy is a bigger threat to American jobs than automation, and said corporations move factories to other countries to save money without considering the harm they're doing to the workers and their community. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey agreed that America must not make it so easy for companies to move jobs overseas.

Yang said automation is a major threat, and said self-driving vehicles will put long-haul truck drivers out of work: "What is that going to mean for the 3.5 million truckers or the 7 million Americans who work in truck stops, motels, and diners that rely upon the truckers getting out and having a meal?"

In the last debate, former Rep. Beto O'Rourke of Texas said "Hell yes, we're going to take your AR-15, your AK-47." Asked how he would do that, he said: "If someone does not turn in an AR-15 or an AK-47, one of these weapons of war, or brings it out in public and brandishes it in an attempt to intimidate . . . then that weapon will be taken from them. If they persist, they will be other consequences from law enforcement. But the expectation is that Americans will follow the law. I believe in this country. I believe in my fellow Americans. I believe that they will do the right thing." O'Rourke and several other candidates said they support buyback programs.

Sanders criticized fossil-fuel industries for making "huge profits" while hurting the environment. He also said agribusiness mergers are "resulting in the decline of family-based farming in this country."

Booker said state anti-abortion laws infringe on women's liberty and punish people for poverty: "This is disproportionately affecting low-income women in this country, people in rural areas."

Klobuchar said she could beat Trump in the election because she has won in rural districts that usually vote Republican.

O'Rourke, asked the same question, touted his record of improving mental-health-care access for veterans in El Paso and noted that he had done well in Texas, traditionally a red state, in his recent bid to claim Ted Cruz's Senate seat.

John Hudak of the Brookings Institution writes that the debates "have been imperfect," but "their absence would be devastating for the Democratic Party. That’s because criticism of ideas is essential to strengthening the policies of the candidates. Pushing candidates—of either party and for any office—to think about their proposals in terms of actual effect, viability, and detail is critical to improving American public policy. At the heart of many of the punches landed among the candidates was a genuine critique of ideas."

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Rural broadband poll finds farmers need more connectivity

United Soybean Board graphic
Most farmers say they don't have enough broadband connectivity to run their businesses, according to a recent survey by the United Soybean Board. It found:
  • 78% of farmers do not have a choice of internet service providers.
  • 60% of farmers say their service is slow, with most relying on cell signals or personal "hotspots" to connect.
  • 40% of farmers have a fixed internet connection, while others rely on satellite connections.
  • In the 18 months before being surveyed, nearly one-third of farmers said internet connectivity has affected their decisions on upgrading farm equipment.
  • 67% of farmers believe it is at least moderately important to be able to transfer data wirelessly from the field.
  • Only 32% of farmers consider their office internet reliable.
  • 59% of farmers want to incorporate more data in their operation, but lack the connectivity to do so.
The survey was conducted online and by mail, and got more than 2,000 responses. Among the respondents, 86% grow field or row crops such as corn and soybeans, 21% grow specialty crops like fruits and vegetables, and 55% raise livestock.

Georgia lawmakers now require most rural hospital CEOs to take financial management and planning classes

Georgia lawmakers are taking a novel approach to stem the tide of rural hospital closures in the state: They're "requiring executives and board members at almost all the state's rural hospitals to receive training on subjects like financial management and strategic planning to improve their decision making and avoid missteps that can precipitate their hospitals' decline," Sudhin Thanawala reports for The Associated Press. "Nearly 60 rural Georgia hospitals must ensure their board members, CEOs and chief financial officers complete at least eight hours of classes by the end of next year or risk being fined and losing a valuable state tax credit." Health care experts told Thanawala that Georgia is the only state they know of that requires such classes.

Dr. Skip McDannald, now retired, attested to how poor rural hospital management in Georgia can be. Having served as CEO of a hospital system, he was asked to help troubleshoot at Taylor Regional Hospital in Hawkinsville in 2015. "I don't want to run down previous management, but the hospital was struggling," McDannald told Thanawala. "They were not judicious in the way they were spending money nor were they knowledgeable about the things they were not collecting."

"Only about a third of rural hospital CEOs and board chairs surveyed in a 2010 study strongly agreed that their board members understood financial reports or had the ability to spot poor financial performance early," Thanawala reports.

Poor decision-making isn't the only reason rural hospitals close, noted Jimmy Lewis, CEO of rural hospital network HomeTown Health. The seven rural hospitals that have closed in Georgia since 2010 shuttered because "they simply ran out of money, and the system got too complex for small community hospitals like that," Lewis told Thanawala.

Grocery makers' lobby changes name, reflecting fractured food industry often at cross purposes on Capitol Hill

The Grocery Manufacturers Association announced recently that it's changing its name to the Consumer Brands Association, reflecting a shift in focus and a new landscape in which there is no unified group representing foodmakers on Capitol Hill.

The move "comes nearly two years after about a dozen major food companies left the group amid deep disagreements over how to handle thorny food policy issues like GMO labeling," Helena Bottemiller Evich reports for Politico. "The association is now pivoting to focus on representing companies that produce consumer packaged goods — a broad sector that extends well beyond food to personal care products like shaving cream and even over-the-counter drugs."

Changes in consumer tastes drove the splintering of the once-powerful lobby, as people increasingly question ingredients, country of origin, farm and processor labor laws, and environmental impact of the food they buy. “The intense pace of change has left major food companies unable to agree on all sorts of issues, from mandatory labeling of genetically modified ingredients to whether the federal government should nudge foodmakers to reduce salt in their products," Evich reports. Among food companies, "consensus on pressing policy issues is nearly impossible to achieve, and things are likely to stay that way, according to interviews with more than a dozen industry leaders."

Some specialized food-industry groups have been unable to agree on policies. Dairy behemoth Dean Foods, which is struggling with declining sales, said last week it's leaving the International Dairy Foods Association because the lobby hasn't fought to keep plant-based products from being marketed with dairy terms like "milk" on the label.

Dean left GMA a few years ago, Evich notes. She writes, "Today, GMA is half the size it once was, in terms of revenue — an almost unheard of level of decline for a major trade association — and none of the companies that quit the group have rejoined, even after a complete leadership shake-up last year. The group’s new strategy is to seize on more unifying, less controversial issues like supply-chain logistics, sustainable packaging and recycling."

'One of the most powerless places' in the U.S. bears many burdens, but shows it has the moxie to stand up for itself

Lisman's float rolls down the streets at the parade in Butler, Alabama. (Washington Post photo by Michael S. Williamson)
The Washington Post's Stephanie McCrummen, chronicler of rural places, offers an evocative, in-depth portrait of Lisman, Alabama, an increasingly marginalized Black Belt community of about 500 people, struggling with the burdens of their circumstances: "At a moment when American politics has become a raw and racially polarized struggle for power, Lisman is one of the most powerless places of all. It is small. It is rural. It is mostly poor and mostly African American, and it exists in Alabama, where those characteristics remain the very things that still make people forgotten."

Washington Post map
Democrats have been gaining steam in some parts of the South, "but that is not the case in Alabama, where the state’s Democratic Party — the traditional means to power for black voters — has become so dysfunctional that the only Democrat elected statewide, U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, recently said the party was being 'destroyed from within,'" McCrummen reports. "Alabama is where an electorate that remains solidly white, conservative and evangelical delivered President Trump one of his most resounding victories, and gave the GOP near-total control of the state legislature, every statewide office and every congressional seat except one."

Lisman has a history of pushing back, though. "In 1962, Lisman residents had put their names to a federal lawsuit challenging the white Choctaw County registrars who were rejecting 95 percent of black voters’ applications," McCrummen reports. "In the summer of 1971, people from Lisman had joined the demonstrations at the courthouse square to demand access to county jobs that blacks had been denied." The community incorporated in 1979 in an attempt to gain some local control over how their tax dollars were being spent, since most was going to other communities in the county.

McCrummen's story is structured around the mayor, Jason Ward, planning and making a float for a parade at the county seat. Ward told her that many of the most powerful people in the county and the state would be in attendance, so he knew it was important to enter a float; for residents of Lisman, showing up "was the only way they had ever gotten anything." And so they did.