Saturday, June 30, 2007

Ag Committee chair says House likely to put caps on farm subsidy payments

The U.S. House is likely to put a cap on subsidy payments to individual farmers, the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee tells the Brownfield agriculture-news service. “I think there is a sense within the Committee that probably something has to be done otherwise we could end up with something on the floor that’s not workable,” said Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn.

“Peterson says the pressure is coming from urban members of Congress who have been hearing questions from constituents about big payments made to a few producers,” reports Brownfield's Bob Meyer. “Peterson says they went through a similar situation in 2002 and some changes were made. . . . If people are realistic, they’re going to realize there’s probably going to have to be some changes made this time as well.”

Members of the Agriculture Committee are discussing ideas for caps with farmers in their states, Meyer reports. “Some have suggested no program payments to anyone with an adjusted gross income exceeding $200,000. ... Peterson says he will mark up the Farm Bill on July 17, with floor action scheduled for July 24.” (Read more)

Farm Bill should invest more in renewable energy, rural folks say in poll

Rural Americans in a national poll said the top priority for the new Farm Bill "should be more investment in renewable energy, which could expand the ethanol boom that has brought jobs and cash to the countryside," Reuters reports on questions posed on behalf of the Center for Rural Strategies.

"Environmentalists, antihunger groups, specialty crop growers, fiscal hawks and small-farm advocates say major changes are needed in the farm program. They want more money for land stewardship and public nutrition programs and stricter limits on subsidies to big farmers," Reuters reports. "More investment in renewable fuels was backed by 37 percent of poll participants, out of seven choices of how "to improve the farm bill. In fourth place, backed by 25 percent, was 'place caps on federal government subsidies to farms worth more than $3 million.' Fifth place went to protecting farms from urban development." (Read more)

N. Y. Times writes about a chronic rural problem: animal control (but needs geography lesson)

"Midnight dumping of unwanted dogs is common here on the southern tail of the Appalachian Mountains, where large numbers of poor people are attached to multiple pets but cannot afford to sterilize or vaccinate them, and where impoverished county governments do not maintain animal shelters, require licensing or enforce requirements for rabies shots," Erik Eckholm writes for The New York Times from Selmer, Tenn.

Eckholm and his editors need a geography lesson -- the Cumberland Plateau that forms the western edge of geological Appalachia is more than 100 miles east of Selmer -- and many of the county governments are not impoverished but irresponsible. But the story is the latest evidence that the paper in America's quintessential metropolis does care about the problems of rural America. Eckholm's point of departure is Phillip Swetman and his family, who keep 13 dogs, some pictured in photo by John Anderson.

Eckholm writes, "The combination of pets and poverty, veterinary experts say, brings similar results to many rural areas: unhealthy conditions for oversized animal populations, desperate efforts by often-overwhelmed individuals to help and a lurking threat to human health. Dr. Bob Sumrall, a veterinarian in nearby Henderson, in Chester County, estimated that more than 75 percent of the thousands of dogs in the county alone have not had rabies shots." (Chester is the northern neighbor to McNairy County, of which Selmer is the county seat.) For Echkolm's story and a slide show, click here.

California police bully legislators into killing bill to open discipline cases

Here's a scary lede from the Los Angeles Times: "The slow death of a worthy bill being discussed in Sacramento offers powerful evidence of what happens to a state when it comes under the control of its police." The Times editorial lamented the likely death of a bill that would allow local governments to open police disciplinary hearings "in the wake of a badly reasoned state Supreme Court decision last year."
The editorial goes on: "Police unions have fought dirty and disingenuously to defeat it, throwing around their political weight in order to protect their members from legitimate scrutiny. . . . The union thuggery continued this week as representatives testified that Romero's bill would embolden criminals and undermine safety. Nonsense. In a final insult, the Assembly's Public Safety Committee, host to that testimony, turned off the TV camera, preventing the public even from watching a debate over public access." (Read more)

Friday, June 29, 2007

Small-town and rural opposition helped kill immigration bill, Post says

Alarm over burgeoning immigration in rural areas and small towns "helped seal defeat" for the immigration-reform bill in the Senate yesterday, The Washington Post reports, using as its object example the state of Georgia and the city of Gainesville, self-proclaimed "Poultry Capital of the World," where chicken-processing plants have come to depend on Latino immigrants for production-line work. Reporter N.C. Aizenman notes that Republican Sens. Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia helped write the bill, then voted against it after being overwhelmed by objections from opponents.
"Analysts say the unprecedented passion over immigration is largely the result of the seismic shift in settlement patterns since the mid-1990s," when "the foreign-born population of 25 states doubled" and the Latino population more than tripled "in six other states with almost no prior experience of Latino immigration."
William H. Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, told the Post,"Before, people outside the seven gateway states didn't care much one way or the other about immigration. Now, you suddenly have all these people across Middle America seeing immigrants in their neighborhoods." (Read more)
Bill Bishop of the Daily Yonder writes, "The Post’s notion of a 'small town' is typically myopic. Gainesville is a metropolitan area with over 100,000 people. It’s urban all the way. But Gainesville is smaller than many cities, and we here at the Yonder can see the immigration issue driving the presidential debate in truly small-town Iowa. The pages of the Iowa Independent tell us daily that the biggest applause lines come when candidates talk about defending borders — and defeating the Senate bill." (Read more)

Coal-mine safety agency lax on enforcement, Labor Department review says

"Federal mine safety officials overlooked obvious violations, declined to take serious enforcement actions, and wrote regulations that were far too weak at three mines where 19 miners died last year, according to three new internal Labor Department reviews," reports Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette.

The review blamed staff cuts, reorganizations and an emphasis on “compliance assistance” to coal operators, a hallmark of the Bush administration's approach for the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Richard Stickler, the assistant labor secretary for MSHA, called the findings “deeply disturbing” and said the administration would create a new MSHA Office of Accountability to correct the problems. (Read more)

Hillary Clinton likes idea of making USDA the Department of Rural Affairs

U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, who is leading in polls for the Democratic nomination for president, all but endorsed changing the name and the mission of the Department of Agriculture to the Department of Rural Affairs, in a live, video linkup with the first National Rural Assembly this week.

“That is a great idea. I really like that idea. You are the first people who have ever asked me that. I wish I had thought of that, Clinton said, replying to the first question delivered by Ali Webb of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which was a major sponsor of the event. “I'm excited by the idea of it and I will get to work on thinking about that right away.”

“Clinton seemed genuinely started and intrigued,” the Daily Yonder reported. “The crowd loved it — because the crowd was not made up of corn, cotton, sugar, rice or wheat producers. Changing the name of the Department of Agriculture is meaningless, of course. It’s just a couple of words. But Sen. Clinton was talking in code. She was saying, yes, the emphasis on the support payments for crops (like corn, wheat and rice) needs to be lessened and more time (and money) should be spent on rural development. . . . This is the key fight in Congress, between those who would put a cap on commodity payments and steer more money to rural development and those who would keep payments as they are.” (Read more)
Clinton didn't speak entirely in code. She said of rural development, “For too long it has been the only part that has gotten all the attention and all of the money.” (Photo from the Daily Yonder)

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Most presidential candidates decline invitations to speak to first National Rural Assembly

Organizers of the first National Rural Assembly, which concluded yesterday with a visit to a congressional hearing on rural issues, invited all 15 major presidential candidates to address the gathering of almost 300 rural advocates, from state Farm Bureau officials to the Children's Defense Fund's Southern regional office.

None of the candidates appeared live at the gathering in Chantilly, Va., though Democrats John Edwards and Dennis Kucinich sent videotaped messages. The only one with a live, interactive satellite feed was Hillary Clinton. She won applause by saying "I know you’re working hard in Chantilly, developing a much-needed rural strategy. But when I become president you’ll be doing it in the White House. We need to move rural issues right into decision-making in America."

Howard Berkes of National Public Radio reported, "The crowd loved that, but the respondents to the rural poll released two weeks ago rated Clinton as the candidate they liked least. She was as unpopular in the poll as illegal immigrants. It’ll take more than promises of attention to win a significant number of rural votes."

Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies, which commissioned the poll of rural voters, told Berkes that rural voters aren’t well-organized, perhaps because they’re spread far and wide. "They don’t see themselves as a political constituency, so politicians don’t either," Berkes reported. "Polling indicates they don’t hinge their votes on issues that are unique to rural life." To listen to Berkes' report, click here.

Bill Bishop, co-editor of the Daily Yonder, a new, rural news Web site with a political bent, told Berkes, "The votes that count now are signed at the bottom of a check. And there just aren’t many checks coming out of rural areas." Bishop and geographer Tim Murphy recently reported that only 5 percent of contributions to presidential candidates came from rural areas. "So if now is the time of the campaign when candidates are raising money," Berkes said, "in a way it makes sense to not show up at a rural event."

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Bloomington, Ind. newspaper columnist mixes it up with Bill O'Reilly

Mike Leonard of the Herald-Times in Bloomington, Ind., circulation 28,000, said he didn't win any awards at the National Society of Newspaper Columnists conference last weekend in Philadelphia, “but I can brag that no one at the annual columnists’ conference received more pats on the back, hearty handshakes and 'Way to go!' congratulations. I got slimed by Fox News program host Bill O’Reilly. It was a little like having a skunk tell you that you smell bad. Many of my colleagues expressed envy.”

At issue was a column Leonard had written about an Indiana University study of “The O’Reilly Factor,” which found that O'Reilly “is a propagandist whose techniques are "heavier" and "less nuanced" than the notorious 1930s radio commentator Father Charles Coughlin,” as Leonard put it. The column was included in the program booklet, and O'Reilly told Leonard from the podium, “Sorry, Mike, but you’re a dishonest guy in this column.” Leonard wrote that he shouted, “Right back at you, Bill.” For the latest column, which debunks assertions O'Reilly made in the speech, click here.

Institute founder one of six Rural Heroes at National Rural Assembly

Al Smith walked down Main Street in Russellville, Ky., one Sunday morning in the late 1950s, past the Logan County Courthouse, where the county singing convention was in full sing. He thought for a moment that he belonged there, but kept walking, down the street to the bootlegger -- and, perhaps, to oblivion.

It was a small piece of a life's journey that he recounted for the first National Rural Assembly last night, as he accepted one of its six Rural Hero awards for his work in journalism -- most recently the establishment of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based at the University of Kentucky.

Smith never joined the singers, but he did kick liquor, with the help of the people in Logan County, and his journalism career began looking up. He began writing articles for big-city papers, and "It was soon evident I could go back to the city," he said. But then he realized: "These people took me in when I didn't have a friend . . . and I decided I'd stay with them."

His decision was confirmed by the woman he soon married. Martha Helen Smith told him that living in a rural town was OK "as long as that city-limit sign doesn't obscure your vision of what lies beyond the border." And after he built a small chain of rural newspapers and sold it, that outlook helped inspire the Institute, which helps rural journalists define the public agenda in their communities -- including reporting and commentary on state, regional and national issues that have a local impact on such things as education, health care, the economy and the environment.

The idea was planted by Smith's friend Rudy Abramson, a former Washington correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, and found support in 2001 from Dr. Lee Todd, who had just become president of UK. "Without Todd's acceptance of our vision, it never would have worked," Smith told the National Rural Assembly. The Institute operated on an ad hoc basis until 2004, when grants enabled UK to hire Al Cross as its director. It recently held a National Summit on Journalism in Rural America and presented programs in Iowa and Tennessee, but its work remains grounded in Kentucky and Central Appalachia. It works with policy experts like those at the Rural Assembly to illuminate issues for rural journalists. Smith saluted the work of the advocates for rural America and said, "I'm just happy to be part of the choir."

Other rural heroes recognized at the Assembly were Bill Bynum of Jackson, Miss., founder of the Enterprise Corp. of the Delta, for leadership in investment and entrepreneurship; Dr. Forrest Calico of Stanford, Ky., former director of the Appalachian Regional Health Corp., for health care; Elouise Cobell of the Blackfeet Nation in South Dakota, for advocacy; Sharon King of New York City, president of the F.B. Heron Foundation, for philanthropy; and U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., for government.

The National Rural Assembly is designed to " strengthen rural America by giving its leaders a platform to be heard, raising the visibility of rural issues, organizing a national network of rural interests, and developing specific rural policy initiatives," says the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the chief co-convener, with the Ford Foundation. It continues today, then tomorrow with a congressional hearing on rural issues. (Read more)

Monday, June 25, 2007

McCain unaware of disproportionate casualties of rural soldiers in Iraq; Obama up to speed

Iowa journalist Douglas Burns writes in the Iowa Independent, an online news forum, that Arizona Sen. John McCain was unaware that rural America is bearing a disproportionate burden of the fighting and casualties in Iraq. “Most of us in western Iowa, regardless of position on the war or political affiliation, just know this,” Burns, a reporter and columnist for the Daily Times Herald in Carroll, Iowa, wrote June 3. “We see it in our small towns, anecdotally — and The Associated Press and other reliable sources have documented it. . . . Barack Obama gets this. John McCain doesn’t. I asked them both the same question, and was stunned with the response from McCain, a U.S. senator from Arizona an GOP candidate for the presidency.”

In an interview, McCain, a Republican senator from Arizona, told Burns, “I don’t think the numbers bear out that assertion. I think they’re from all over America. They’re not from the wealthiest Americans. I will admit that. I have no statistic that indicates they’re mostly from rural America.” Burns notes, “The premise of the question was not that rural kids are doing "most" of the fighting but rather a "disproportionate" amount of it. McCain should be angry about this gulf in sacrifice, which has some roots in a socio-economic status.”

In contrast, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama showed familiarity with the subject when Burns asked him about it. “One of the things I’ve been distressed about is the way folks in southern Illinois and rural western Iowa, that those are the folks that are disproportionately affected,” Obama told Burns in an interview in Denison, Iowa, above, in photo from the Daily Yonder. Burns interviewed McCain in LeMars. (Read more) For background on the casualty pattern, click here. For the conservative Heritage Foundation's take on the issue, courtesy of the Daily Yonder, click here.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Rural giving to presidential candidates scarce, but mostly Democratic

Only five percent of contributions presidential candidates got in the first quarter of the year came from people who listed addresses in counties outside metropolitan areas, but "surprisingly, most of those donations have gone to Democrats," reports the Daily Yonder, a new rural news site with a political bent.

In the first quarter, 17 candidates raised $114.3 million. "Of this sum, only $6 million came from people living in rural communities," write geographer Tim Murphy and Daily Yonder co-editor Bill Bishop. "Democratic candidates took in 55 percent of the $6 million raised from rural residents in the first quarter of 2007; 45 percent of the total went to Republicans. The Democrats' lead in rural fundraising is the mirror opposite of the presidential vote outcomes of 2000 and in 2004; in both elections, Republican George W. Bush won nearly 60 percent of the rural vote, support that was crucial to his victory."

The leading rural money-raisers were former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a Republican, followed by former U.S. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, Democrats. "Romney, who headed the 2002 Winter Olympics in Utah, raised just over $214,000 in the first reporting period of 2007 from Summit County, where many of the athletic events took place," the Daily Yonder reports. Romney's total rural cash in the quarter was just under $1.15 million, 5.47 percent of his $20.98 million total.

Edwards' figure was $1.07 million, 7.61 percent of his total. Richardsdon's $895,699 was 14.3 percent of his $6.246 million total. Richardson got "hefty contributions in the southeastern counties of his home state. Members of the oil and gas business have been active in raising money for Richardson in the area around Hobbs, Roswell and Carlsbad, according to New Mexico press reports." Richardson recently resigned from the board of Valero Energy, the nation's leading refiner.

The Daily Yonder says it will report the states and rural counties that gave the most to presidential candidates later this week. Fund-raising reports for the second quarter are due in mid-July, though most campaigns will give their total fund-raising numbers on or soon after July 1. (Read more)

Obama's shift on issue undercuts push for coal-to-liquid subsidies

"After co-sponsoring legislation earlier this year for billions of dollars in subsidies for liquefied coal," which would help his home state of Illinois but could cause trouble for his presidential campaign, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama "began qualifying his support in ways that have left both environmentalists and coal industry officials unsure where he stands," The Washington Post reports. "His shift has helped shape this month's Senate debate over how to reduce both dependence on foreign oil and carbon dioxide emissions; on Tuesday, he voted against one proposal to boost liquefied coal and for a more narrowly worded one. Both failed." (Associated Press photo from 2004, via Post, shows Obama touring a pilot plant in Illinois.)

Post reporters Alec McGillis and Steven Mufson observe: "Obama's contortions on coal point to the limits of the role he likes to assume, that of a unifier who can appeal across traditional lines and employ a "new kind of politics" to solve problems. In reaching out to the coal industry, some observers say, he may have been trying to show that he is a different sort of Democrat, but the gesture had the look of old-style politicking and put him in a corner, where he wound up alienating some on both sides of the issue."

Obama's change of position, first reported June 13 by the Los Angeles Times and mentioned in The Rural Blog on June 15, calls for new coal field to "emit at least 20 percent less life-cycle carbon than conventional fuels," he said in a statement. "The statement dismayed those pushing coal-to-liquid, who noted this would require technological leaps even beyond perfecting carbon storage," Mufson and McGillis report. They trace what they call "Obama's winding path on coal," starting in his days as a state legislator. (Read more)

Black lung not only persists in coal mines, in places it's getting worse, The Courier-Journal reports

"Efforts to end black-lung disease stretch back decades. But in Eastern Kentucky, the disease persists — and is far worse than federal health officials anticipated it would be by now," reports The Courier-Journal, in the latest example of the Louisville newspaper's continuing commitment to covering an issue important to a region that the paper has mostly abandoned. It offers a six-story package by R.G. Dunlop, former chief of the paper's now-closed Hazard bureau, and medical reporter Laura Ungar, who has written about rural health issues in Kentucky and elsewhere.

The black-lung pattern extends into southern West Virginia and southwest Virginia, where Dunlop began the package's main story with the story of Mark McCowan of Pounding Mill, Va. At a relatively young age, McCowan (in C-J photo by Matt Stone) has black lung, though he began mining in 1984, 15 years a federal law imposed limits on the coal dust that causes the disease. "He never should have been exposed to dust levels sufficient to scar his lungs, end his career and perhaps consign him to a premature death," Dunlop writes. "Now 43 and with two grown sons, McCowan is plagued by shortness of breath and fatigue."

Dunlop offers possible reasons that black-lung rates remain high in the region: "A federal advisory committee's key recommendations on how to stamp out the disease still haven't been implemented almost a decade after they were issued — partly because of a change in focus when President Bush took office, some say. Also, some researchers say the operators of small mines common in Eastern Kentucky may not have the resources or the will to bring dust down to levels that won't sicken workers." To read this valuable package, click here.

Farmers, environmentalists testing idea of converting farmlands into wetlands

Peter Slevin and Kari Lydersen of The Washington Post write from Hennepin, Ill.: "As steam rises from flat fingers of water reflecting an iron-gray sky, Donald Hey climbs to the top of an observation tower to watch a flock of American white pelicans huddled among the reeds. These reclaimed wetlands along the Illinois River, a man-made vista of corn and soybeans a few years ago, are now home to marsh grass, rare butterflies and 70,000 waterfowl. But Hey and his green-minded colleagues have a greater hope for their 2,600-acre pilot project. They aim to prove the existence of a market lucrative enough to inspire landowners to surrender their fields for payments from agencies and companies that are required to comply with clean-water rules. The untested theory, endorsed by a coterie of environmental groups and supporters, holds that restoring wetlands in the Midwest would be a cost-effective way to filter harmful nitrogen and phosphorous that damage ecosystems all the way down the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico. If it works as intended, the system will also expand habitats for animals and waterfowl by returning farmland to its wilder roots, benefiting nature lovers and hunters. The organizers, led by the Chicago-based Wetlands Initiative, call it nutrient farming." (Photo by Gary Sullivan of the Wetlands Initiative, via Post, shows an endangered yellow-headed blackbird at a waterfowl refuge.) (Read more)