Saturday, October 27, 2007

Candidates discuss rural issues at interactive forum

Four candidates for president, including the three Democratic front-runners, took questions from rural voters young and old today at a forum at the 2007 National Summit on Agriculture and Rural Life at Iowa State University in Ames.

Sen. Hillary Clinton joined the forum by video link from New York, giving the forum four venues linked by Apple Computer's iChat technology. In addition to the audience in Ames, young voters at Google headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., and at a community college in Raleigh, N.C., were able to ask questions of the candidates, who appeared individually.

Clinton took the opportunity to release her rural platform, something done previously by the other Democratic candidates at the forum, former Sen. John Edwards and Sen. Barack Obama. She told the forum that she would "advocate policies to keep rural America and agriculture globally competitive," including creation of a $50 billion fund for renewable energy, to be financed by eliminating tax breaks for oil companies and cozy treatment of those that pump oil from federal land.

The "digitial divide" between rural and urban America was a major theme of the summit, and Edwards told the forum, "It's the responsibility of the president to close this digital divide," illustrated by the fact that less than a third of rural Americans have high-speed Internet access in their homes. Edwards said closing the gap is "absolutely critical" for rural economic development and stanching the out-migration of young people from rural areas. He also repeated his call for a moratorium on confined animal feeding operations. (Photos by Tim Marema, Center for Rural Strategies)

Obama gave a 14-minute, prepared address to open his 35-minute segment. "We need to show that small farming is a big part of the next generation," he said, proposing incentives for young people to get into farming and tax breaks for selling land to first-time farmers. He also said corn may not be the best resource for making ethanol, and "wood chips, switch grass or pond algae" should be explored. "He says the country needs to figure out how to make money off of food crops," reports the Daily Yonder. For more Yonder coverage of the forum, click here. For an agriculture-oriented report from Peter Shinn of Brownfield Network, click here.

Chicago businessman John Cox was the only Republican to attend, though five other GOP candidates were at the Iowa Republican Party's annual Ronald Reagan Dinner tonight. Cox told the dinner crowd that he said at the forum that rural America won't get the investment it needs without changes in the tax system. He told the forum that Democrats' plans to finance rural programs with capital-gains and other taxes would be counterproductive.

The forum was sponsored by the League of Rural Voters and the Main Street Project with the support of the Media Democracy Fund and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Al Cross of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues was master of ceremonies and Jeanene Beck of Iowa Public Radio moderated. Other sponsors included the Center for Rural Strategies and GenerationEngage, a nonpartisan initiative that connects young Americans with political and civic leaders.

The summit was preceded by a National Rural Youth Summit, and Ben Adler of wrote about the event as an illustration of college-aged voters who aren't in college as "a potentially untapped source of energetic support." For the story, click here. For a report on a Saturday morning panel discussion about rural issues, from Daily Yonder blogger Richard Oswald, who was among the questioners at the forum, click here.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Candidates headed for interactive forum on rural issues in Iowa Saturday stump at closed plant

On the eve of a presidential campaign forum at Iowa State University on rural issues, former Sen. John Edwards today became the latest hopeful to play off the closure of the Maytag plant in Newton (see item below).

Just hours after the lights went out in the plant, Edwards "released a plan he said would increase corporate responsibility, including limits on executive compensation packages and requirements that big businesses operate more openly," writes Amy Lorentzen of The Associated Press. Edwards was introduced by Doug Bishop, a former worker at the plant. Bishop said executives like former Maytag CEO Ralph Hake leave companies with riches, while longtime workers who walk away "with their arms and hands worn out, backs tired" are left with a severance check. (Read more)

Sen. Barack Obama of the adjoining state of Illinois came to the town of 16,000 two weeks ago for a stump speech in which he said he would "fight for Newton" by creating and protecting American jobs, reported Jessica Lowe of The Newton Daily News. It was Obama's second trip to Newton, and he drew about 150 people.

Edwards and Obama are scheduled to attend tomorrow afternoon's forum, and Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York plans to participate by interactive video link. Republican John Cox will also attend. The forum is part of the National Summit on Agriculture and Rural Life, sponsored by the League of Rural Voters with the support of the Media Democracy Fund, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, the Center for Rural Strategies and GenerationEngage, a nonpartisan initiative that connects young Americans with political and civic leaders. With help from Google and Apple Computer's iChat technology, the forum will also involve crowds in San Jose, Calif., and Raleigh, N.C. Check today's Daily Yonder for an advance story, and tomorrow for live blogging and other coverage from Ames.

UPDATE, Oct. 27: In today's Washington Post, Libby Copeland profiles Edwards' campaign in Iowa and its struggle to overcome the notion that Clinton has a choke-hold on the nomination: "Edwards is scheduled to visit his 99th of the 99 counties in Iowa today. In his visits across the state, many to small towns in rural areas, he emphasizes his ability to capture both Democratic and Republican votes." She writes that one of Edwards' "favorite new lines" to crowds is, "Did I miss somethin'? Did we already have the Iowa caucus and I wasn't there?" (Read more)

Senate's Farm Bill moves through committee, but it will face challenges on the floor

The Senate Agriculture Committee approved its draft of the Farm Bill yesterday, after Chairman Tom Harkin of Iowa compromised on changes to a new subsidy program. The $288 billion measure "would authorize farm, conservation, food stamps and other programs for five years, replacing the 2002 farm bill, which expired in September," reports Philip Brasher from the Washington, D.C., bureau of the Des Moines Register.

Committee members fought over an optional subsidy program designed to pay farmers when crop revenues fall below statewide average. The existing program lets farmers collect when prices fall below certain levels. "Plains-state senators, led by Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and Kent Conrad, D-N.D., forced Harkin to agree to changes in the revenue-protection program," Brasher writes. "The changes would make it more appealing to wheat growers - and less so to corn growers - and protect crop insurance companies and their agents from a cut in premiums."

Subsidies will be part of the debate on the Senate floor, especially since Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, wants to impose a $250,000 cap on the payments any one farm can collect in one year. The $5 billion fund created to help farmers during disasters also will face challenges.

Accompanying Brasher's report is an excellent chart that explains the key differences between the Senate's version of the Farm Bill and the one passed by the House in July. (Read more) Here are other reports on the Farm Bill from The Washington Post, the Omaha World-Herald and The Chicago Tribune, and a nice roundup from the Iowa Independent, with links to a wide range of reports and press releases. Good weekend reading!

Connecticut paper describes ethanol's 'ripple effect' on organic farmers

Ethanol has changed the way America farms, including the nation's organic farmers. The Hartford Courant explains that the explosion of ethanol has sent feed-grain prices soaring, and that has impacted the organic sector more than any other, especially in the Northeast. Some farmers who raise non-caged turkeys, such as George Purtill (in Courant photo by Bob MacDonnell), have seen their feed mixtures double in costs, reports Rinker Buck:
"America is in the middle of a transition from traditional to organic farming, and the ethanol boom has walked right into that and interrupted progress," Purtill said last week, leaning against the fence of his outdoor turkey range.

"The price I paid last year to feed these birds with specialized organic corn was $200 a ton," he said. "This year I'm paying $400 a ton, a 100 percent increase. My cost of production has just about doubled, and this year the price of my turkeys will have to go up at least $1 per pound."
In addition to the increase in production costs, the demand for corn sent Purtill to add more acreage at the expense of his other valuable vegetable crops. Across the country, farmers planted 90.5 million acres in 2007, a 15 percent jump from the 78.6 million acres planted last year. Organic food production had been growing at an annual rate of 20 percent in New England, but the rise in grain prices could change that. (Read more)

Small Kentucky daily starts online pages dedicated to environmental reporting

The Daily Independent in Ashland, Ky., has expanded its Web site to include a new section dedicated to environmental issues, including local content such as the story and audio-enhanced slide show about a Russell, Ky., teacher, Doug Keaton, (in a Daily Independent photo by John Flavell) whose class built a wind turbine.

Flavell, the 18,000-circulation paper's chief photographer, and Mark Maynard, the managing editor, are the main editors of the site. It includes a collection of stories and agency reports about climate change, renewable energy and conservation. In an e-mail announcing the section, Flavell wrote that the paper hopes the section will be "a resource for world wide research on the climate crisis and possible solutions."

The section is worth a look, and it is another sign that community journalists can do great work on the Web, too. The Independent is the largest Kentucky paper owned by Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. (Read more)

Last Maytag plant closes, so its Iowa town tries to find a new identity

A year after Whirlpool Corp. bought rival appliance maker Maytag for $2.6 billion, the final Maytag plant closed in Newton, Iowa, yesterday. The last washers and dryers rolled off the assembly line around midday, and the final worker shut off the lights for the last time at 2:15 p.m., reports the Des Moines Register. The town of about 16,000 had been making Maytag products for the last 114 years, writes Ken Fuson. Outside the plant, workers had hung signs such as this "R.I.P. Maytag" at left in an Associated Press photo by Steve Pope.

"Some workers expressed anger Thursday," Fuson writes. "About a dozen people left their work boots in front of the west employee entrance at Plant No. 2, either on the ground or dangling from the fence. One man took off his shoes, left them on the sidewalk, and walked to his vehicle in his white socks. Mostly, though, there was sadness." (Read more, including a video report about the final day)

At one time, Maytag employed 4,000 people in Newton (which is about 30 miles east of Des Moines), but recent lay-offs had reduced the number to 1,800, reports AP. "The machines once made by Maytag — founder Fred Maytag lies in a family mausoleum in Newton Union Cemetery — will be redesigned to fit on a Whirlpool chassis and built by workers in Mexico and a nonunion factory in Clyde, Ohio. The employees in Ohio earn significantly less than the union-represented workers in Newton."

The Newton Daily News has focused some of its recent reports on the future of the Maytag site. In Thursday's edition (Friday's is not yet online), the top story discussed Iowa Telecom's purchase of part of Maytag's former downtown headquarters. Iowa Telecom bought the site for $1.5 million earlier this year, but Iowa Telecom, Jasper County and the City of Newton are awaiting a state ruling on the property's value, reports Andy Karr. Maytag's downtown campus had been valued at $12.7 million in 2005; the closing of the Maytag plant will lower that figure.Other stories have focused on other new tenants, such as Caleris, an information technology company that employs 90 people and hopes to add more. (Read more)

UPDATE: The Friday edition of the Newton Daily News is online now, including a set of first-hand accounts from the "Maytagers" themselves, as well as report on the news conference held by local leaders outside the plant.

Rural Utah eyed for new nuclear power plants

Last week, The Rural Blog reported an increase in the number of proposals for new nuclear power plants. Now it seems that list might be growing.

The Salt Lake Tribune reports that a Utah state representative and others are looking to build two new reactors in the state, possibly near the town of Green River, population 949. The choice is all about the Green River, from which the plants could draw the nearly 10 billion gallons of water each would need every year, report Patty Henetz and Robert Gehrke. They write that Rep. Aaron Tilton, a Springville Republican and CEO of Transition Power Development LLC, signed a contract last month with the adjacent Kane County Water Conservancy District to secure water rights.

"Transition Power was set up with the goal of finding a good site, acquiring the land and water rights and doing the geotechnical and environmental studies needed to get an Early Site Permit from the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission," the Tribune explains. "Transition Power would then sell its permit or partner with a power company or consortium of utilities that would build the plant."

Securing the water won't be easy because recent congressional efforts to protect parts of the Green River, as well as concerns about current drought conditions, might complicate the process.
(Read more)

Smaller newspapers win Online News Awards

Last week, the Online News Awards were handed out in Toronto, with some smaller newspapers taking home top prizes for their Web sites.

The Ventura County Star in California won the General Excellence Award for small newspapers for its site,, above. The Roanoke Times took first place in the breaking news category for reporting done on its site, Florida Today won for its "Space Beat" page on its site, All three newspapers have circulations of about 90,000 daily. (Read more)

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Hundreds voice opposition to proposed strip-mining rule change at four public hearings

When the Bush administration announced in August a proposal that could ease mountaintop-removal strip mining for coal, opinions were not lacking. Last night, hundreds of people showed up to oppose the proposal at four public hearings held by the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement in Charleston, W.Va., Hazard, Ky., Knoxville, Tenn., and Washington, Pa. Environmentalists staged protests outside the meetings, with people holding signs or even acting out skits in some locations.

OSM scheduled the hearings to allow public comment about its proposal to reduce the 100-foot buffer around streams that for the last 25 years had generally prohibited mining or the dumping of mining materials in that zone, reports Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette. OSM contends that the rule change would have little impact on streams, but environmentalists and others fear it will speed mountaintop removal and cause damage to waterways and water quality.

In Charleston, more than 250 people created a standing-room-only crowd at a local hotel, and more than 100 were mining supporters, Ward reports. Before the meeting, about two dozen protesters (above, in Gazette photo by Kenny Kemp) stood outside holding signs that read, "Pull the rule -- protect our water." Coal supporters argued that the rule change would end "wasteful litigation" that has slowed energy production, Ward writes. (Read more)

In Hazard, about two dozen people from around Kentucky spoke, with "nearly all" speakers opposing the proposal, reports Cassandra Kirby of the Lexington Herald-Leader. There were also many who wore "Friends of Coal" stickers or heir mining uniforms to show their support of the proposal. (Read more)

In Knoxville, University of Tennessee students, environmental groups and an Oak Ridge scientist turned out to opposed the rule, reports Brad Williams of the Knoxville News-Sentinel. Almost 200 people came to the event in an auditorium designed to hold 140. Outside, more than 200 members of the group Save Our Cumberland Mountains handed out pamphlets and pins, and other groups staged a skit with a vampire sucking life from an area mountain. (Read more)

In Pennsylvania, all but one of the 25 speakers opposed the rule change, reports Don Hopey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "Our streams were never intended to become landfills," said Lisa Smith, a consulting ecologist and president of the Mountain Watershed Association board of directors. The one speaker supporting the proposed rule was Larry Emerson of Pennsylvania Services Corp., which operates two mines in the area. He said the change would end the uncertainty caused by recent court decisions about such mining which has occurred despite the existing rule. (Read more)

The public comment period for the rule change continues until Nov. 23. So far, OSM has received about 2,300 comments. To submit a comment online, Identify the comments by including docket number 1029-AC04 in the subject line.

Community colleges help drive economic growth in rural Arkansas and Minnesota

Of the many obstacles rural areas face in economic development, the biggest is often a lack of skilled workers. As recent studies have shown (such as this one we highlighted), rural areas tend to retain and attract people with less education. Some community colleges in Arkansas and Minnesota are trying to change that, and in doing so, they are helping to spark growth in the local economies, reports the Daily Yonder.

In Arkansas, the Southern Good Faith Fund (a non-profit subsidiary of some Arkansas banks) has partnered with community colleges to educate adults who lack a high school education, writes Bill Bishop. The special curriculum works, since eight of 10 adults are able to go through four years' of high school material in a couple semesters. In a similar way, community colleges in northeastern Minnesota have come together as part of True North, a regional economic development effort. These schools also are working to improve the skills of residents, and in this case they even are going to high schools to offer technical education.

These are not isolated occurrences, Bishop explains: "What was interesting in the stories was how important community colleges have become to rural areas. That’s a switch that’s taken place slowly over the last few decades. Today, there are nearly 600 community colleges serving rural areas. Enrollment at these schools increased 42 percent between 2000 and 2006. Community colleges are far more important to rural communities than they are to the cities."

Georgia newspaper's series highlights prescription drug abuse, a rural scourge

The Columbus Ledger-Enquirer in Georgia is running an impressive series on the issue of prescription drug abuse, a scourge in many parts of rural America. It ranges from additiction to teenagers (illustrated by the photo of a "trail mix" party bowl of drugs) to that of pharmacists and physicians.

The 44,000-circulation daily began the series on Sunday with a story called "Shackled" that offers both local and national perspective. Reporters Larry Geirer and Brad Barnes write that three in 100 Americans are addicted to prescription drugs and that "48 million people in the United States -- some 20 percent of the population -- have used prescription drugs for non-medical reasons, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse." This well-reported story goes on to explore responses to the issue in Columbus and elsewhere.

In an accompanying story, Gierer writes that the addiction is a problem among those who prescribe the drugs: "The American Medical Association estimates that 10-15 percent of doctors and pharmacists suffer from prescription drug addiction. By comparison, less than 5 percent of U.S. residents use a painkiller nonmedically in a year, according to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration."

In another story, Gierer examines drug abuse by teenagers, some of whom throw "trail mix parties" during which they dump pills into bowls and then take whatever they fish out. The series is definitely worth a look, because it is a great example of blending statistics with anecdotal examples.

GateHouse Media purchases 14 dailies, three non-dailies from Morris Publishing Group

A deal between two community newspaper chains will make 17 newspapers in eight states change hands. GateHouse Media Inc. announced late Tuesday its purchase of 14 dailies, three non-dailies and a commercial printing operation from Morris Publishing Group. The sale totals $115 million, reports Editor & Publisher.

The 14 daily newspapers, mainly in the rural Midwest, range in size from the 4,700-circulation York (Neb.) News-Times to the 21,000-circulation of The Grand Island (Neb.) Independent. Here is the complete list of the dailies and their circulations:
  • Dodge City (Kan.) Daily Globe, 9,700
  • The Newton Kansan, 7,647
  • The Morning Sun, Pittsburg, Kan., 10,312
  • Hillsdale (Mich.) Daily News, 7,285
  • The Holland (Mich.) Sentinel, 18,345
  • Hannibal (Mo.) Courier-Post, 8,171
  • The Examiner, Independence, Mo., 14,022
  • The Grand Island (Neb.) Independent, 21,204
  • York (Neb.) News-Times, 4,695
  • The Daily Ardmoreite, Oklahoma, 9,753
  • The Shawnee (Okla.) News-Star, 8,830
  • Yankton (S.D.) Daily Press & Dakotan, 7,855
  • The Oak Ridger in Tennessee, 7,554
  • News Chief in Winter Haven, Fla., 9,817
The deal also includes three non-dailies:
  • La Estrella (Spanish counterpart of Dodge City Daily Globe)
  • The Girard (Kan.) City Press, 1,300
  • Vermillion (S.D.) Plain Talk, 1,630
Morris Publishing CEO William S. Morris IV said the sale is "in line with our strategic plan to focus on our larger markets and will enable us to pay down our existing bank debt." Before the sale, the Augusta, Ga.-based Morris Publishing owned and operated 27 daily newspapers, while the Fairport, N.Y.-based GateHouse, one of the nation's largest community newspaper chains, owned and operated 86 dailies. "This is an excellent acquisition opportunity for GateHouse," GateHouse CEO Mike Reed said in a statement. "These are strong local media franchises in small markets, many of which are near existing GateHouse properties and offer compelling synergy opportunities." (Read more)

Compromise in Senate's Farm Bill could allow small meat processors to ship across state lines

Consumer groups have long argued against allowing state-inspected meat to be sold in other states — arguing instead for federal regulation — but a new compromise would allow just that for small meat-processing operations. The compromise, part of the Farm Bill now in the Senate Agricultural Committee, would let state-inspected meat be sold across state lines as long as that inspection meets federal standards, the Des Moines Register reports.

"Under current law, a processor must be regulated by the U.S. Agriculture Department to sell meat out of state, a 40-year-old requirement that would be abolished under the House-passed version of the farm bill," writes Philip Brasher from the paper's Washington, D.C., bureau. "Under the compromise, processors that are now state inspected would have to comply with federal inspection regulations to ship out of state. The products would be allowed to bear a USDA seal."

The provision applies only to plants with 25 employees or fewer; larger plants would have to join federal inspection to have interstate sales. Currently, 27 states have their own inspection plans. (Read more)

Strange allies unite to oppose coal plants

Whenever a coal-fired power plant is proposed, there are always the usual suspects who come to oppose it. But in many places now, especially in the West, environmentalists are getting some unusual allies in farmers, ranchers and others, reports The New York Times. The movement has grown as power companies seek more plants to meet rising energy demands. The U.S. Department of Energy recently "projected that 151 coal-fired plants could be built by 2030 to meet a 40 percent rise in demand for electricity, largely from soaring populations in Western states," writes Susan Moran.

That effort to expand has helped grow the alliance she calls "an increasingly vocal, potent and widespread anti-coal movement" made up diverse groups such as "ranchers, farmers, retired homeowners, ski resort operators and even religious groups." (At left, a group of builders in Great Falls, Mont., look over a proposed site for a coal plant in a photo by Robin Loznak of The Great Falls Tribune.) Farmers and ranchers — who often have little common ideological ground with environmentalists — are opposing the proposed plants since their fears of global warming have been heightened by recent severe droughts and storms. As a result, they are taking on the power companies, Moran writes:
Ranchers and farmers have featured prominently in several recent battles over power plants. In Jerome County, Idaho, for instance, Sempra Energy of San Diego had planned to build a large plant to burn pulverized coal. A coalition that included the Jerome County Farm Bureau, a dairy association, ski resort owners, other landowners, local politicians and environmental activists defeated Sempra. They also prompted a two-year statewide moratorium on such coal plants.
Moran considers this largely a Western phenomenon, but recent opposition to an expansion of a Duke Energy plant in Cliffside, N.C., shows some of that same diversity. Bruce Henderson of The Charlotte Observer reports that about 200 people showed up at an Oct. 16 gathering of opponents of the expansion. The event took place at a church and gathered far more than just typical environmentalists. (Read more)

Rural school enrollment up 15 percent last year, with a 55 percent jump in minority students

Enrollment in rural schools is up 15 percent since last year, and minority enrollment is up 55 percent, says the latest report from the Rural School and Community Trust. The jump in enrollment reverses year-by-year trends, yet rural schools, specifically in the South, continue to receive less funding per pupil.

The report also highlights what it calls the "priority states where rural schools produce the worst student achievement outcomes." The report, called "Why Rural Matters 2007: The Realities of Rural Education Growth," was written by Jerry Johnson, the trust's policy research and analysis manager, and Marty Strange, the trust's policy director.

The report ranked states according to 23 factors in five gauges: importance of rural education, socioeconomic challenges, student diversity, policy context and educational outcomes. Based on that, the report found 13 priority states that rank low across these factors: Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas. These states "serve student populations with the severest socio-economic challenges — especially high poverty levels — and they operate with less money than rural schools in other states," the report says.

The lack of funding and a rise in English Language Learner students, who require more teaching resources, have made difficult situations worse. The report concludes that in those priority states, "poverty, fiscal incapacity, low levels of adult education, and low levels of student achievement run in the same mutually reinforcing circles in states in these regions, many of which are as fiscally challenged as their citizens and schools."

Not surprisingly, one of the report's policy recommendations is a priority for the trust: "Keep schools small. Research shows there are academic benefits for students attending small schools in small districts." Other recommendations:
  • Keep schools small. Concentrate resources in high poverty areas. The cost of teaching low-income children rises disproportionately as the poverty rate increases; more student support per pupil in schools with high poverty rates is needed.
  • Maximize rural school effectiveness and efficiency with technology. Distance learning has been proven to be effective in meeting needs of rural communities.
To download the full report, go here. (Free subscription required.) To read the report overview, see summaries and compare state-by-state results on a clickable map, go here.

Report shows poultry industry had its best year for worker safety in 2006

According to new data from the U.S. Department of Labor, the rate at which injuries and illnesses occurred among the nation's poultry processing workers reached its lowest level ever in 2006, reports The 2006 rate of injury and illness was 6.6 per 100 poultry workers, down from 7.4 in 2005 and 14.2 in 2000. Still, the rate trails the overall rate for manufacturing, which was 6.0. The rate for all of the nation's food manufacturing workers was 7.4.

The United Food and Commercial Workers Union has not commented on the new report, but on its Web site, it has a page dedicated to poultry processing workers. The UFCW calls the job "one of the most dangerous" in the country. It also says that worker productivity has risen to an all-time high, as have rates for repetitive stress injuries. (At right, workers on a processing line in a UFCW photo.) The full Labor Department statistics are available here.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Senate Agriculture Committee takes up Farm Bill with subsidy programs mostly unchanged

The wait is almost over. This morning, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa (at right in a New York Times photo), the chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, presented his version of the five-year Farm Bill to the committee so it can work on the legislation and get it to the full Senate.

In his opening remarks, which can be found (along with those from ranking committee member, Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga.) at Agriculture Online, Harkin said, "Overall, this new farm bill will be good for farmers, good for rural communities and good for the environment. It will promote the health as well as the energy security of the American people. And, as I said, it does all this within a strict budget allocation and pay-as-you-go budget rules." He highlighted the bill's expansion of Food Stamp benefits, its $1.1 billion investment in farm-based energy and its rural development title that provides almost half a billion dollars for economic development.

In an interview with The New York Times yesterday, however, Harkin said he had hoped for more from the bill, specifically changes to farm subsidies. Harkin had said for months that an overhaul of subsidies was needed, especially when it comes to commodity payments to large farm operations. Those changes did not materialize in this draft of the five-year, $288 billion Farm Bill. Reporter David M. Herszenhorn explains:

Mr. Harkin had proposed a $4.5 billion cut in the so-called direct payments to farmers of corn, soybeans, cotton and other major crops. These payments, totaling more than $5 billion a year, are made even when farmers are earning sizable profits. But the farm bill contains no such cut. Instead, Mr. Harkin succeeded in writing into the bill an optional revenue-protection program that he said could save roughly $3.5 billion a year if farmers now receiving relatively small benefits choose longer-term protection instead.

Harkin told Herszenhorn, "Everything is a compromise. In agriculture you don’t make sharp turns, but I do try to bend the rails a bit.” To read the bill, amendments and other information on the committee Web site, click here.

The bill should pass through committee with few changes, but that might not be the case when it comes before the entire Senate, according to Sen. Richard G. Lugar, R-Ind., who has proposed an alternative that would end subsidies altogether. Most say that plan, which is co-sponsored by Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., has little chance of passing. (Read more)

Southwest Virginia activists denied a hearing of their own on proposed mining rule changes

The U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement has scheduled four public hearings on proposed rule changes that would help protect mountaintop-removal strip mining for coal. All the hearings will be held at 6 p.m. today, in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and West Virginia, for residents of the Appalachian coalfield to share their opinions. Some in Virginia, however, are feeling left out, reports The Coalfield Progress of Norton.

News Editor Jeff Lester reports that one opponent of the rule change sought an additional hearing in southwestern Virginia to discuss the change to the 100-foot stream buffer rule, but that request was denied. Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards vice president Kathy Selvage spoke out against the change at an Oct. 18 quarterly meeting of the Upper Tennessee River Roundtable, held at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. She cited figures from the Environmental Protection Agency that showed the number of valley fills and buried stream beds in Appalachia. Lester writes:
Selvage said that between 1985 and 2001, 500 valley fills were approved as part of strip mining in Virginia, and more than 67 miles of stream bed were buried ... According to the same statement, Kentucky approved 4,995 valley fills and buried more than 436 miles of streams during the same 16-year period, while West Virginia approved 1,147 valley fills and buried roughly 214 miles of streams. The same EPA statement also notes that during the same period, the number of valley fills approved in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia peaked in 1985 at 729, and had dropped to 221 in 2001.
Selvage said those numbers show the issue means more to Virginia than Tennessee (which had fewer instances), so OSM should have held a public hearing in southwest Virginia. OSM reclamation specialist Ronnie Vicars said at the roundtable that while mountaintop removal can look "ugly" in the short term, new regulations have led to better reclamation as well as safer mining practices in general. (Read more; subscription required)

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Rural summit Saturday in Iowa attracts candidates

At least four presidential candidates are scheduled to address the 2007 National Summit on Agriculture and Rural Life at Iowa State University in Ames this Saturday. Democrats John Edwards and Barack Obama are scheduled to attend, along with Republican John Cox. Democrat Hillary Clinton is scheduled to join via an interactive video link. The candidates will appear separately, with questions from the audience following their speeches.

Generation Engage, a leader in innovative youth civic engagement strategies, will bring remote audiences from Raleigh, N.C. and San Jose, Calif., directly into the forum with a video link. The forum is co-sponsored by Iowa Public Radio; the moderators will be IPR's Jeanene Beck and Al Cross of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. An additional media sponsor is the Center for Rural Strategies.

The summit will begin at 9 a.m. at ISU's Scheman Education Center with opening remarks from Iowa Agriculture Secretary Bill Northey. Panel discussions among national rural policy experts and leaders will range from energy, food, and rural development policy to immigration and globalization. The presidential forum will begin at 1:15. Only registered attendees will be admitted to the forum. For a registration form, click here. The registration fee is $30 in advance, $40 on site.

It's a good time to start a newspaper, at least for two veteran news types in Carrboro, N.C.

With all the dire news about newspapers these days, some might think it's a bad time to start one. Maybe not, if you're in the right place at the right time with the right concept. Kirk Ross and Robert "Bubba" Dickson, left, started The Carrboro Citizen last March in an upscale town of about 17,000 that adjoins Chapel Hill, N.C., population 50,000 or so.

Dixon, from a publishing family, is the publisher of the weekly paper. Ross, a longtime local journalist, is the editor. He told Leonard Witt of the Public Journalism Network (PJNet) that they are already making money. "We've had a lot of great responses," he said. "A lot of people are getting behind the paper. Our advertising is jumping up, and I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that we're just going back to basics; we’re not trying to do the unusual; we’re trying to do the usual, well -- or what used to be the usual."

Ross said he and Dickson "started it, in a way, to begin to experiment with what would a newspaper -- a weekly, community newspaper -- look like in the 21st Century." he said the business model for metropolitan daily papers "is going the way of the buffalo" while smaller, community papers are doing well because "They're taking care of their community, they're focusing on their community and they're not trying to be all things to all people."

Ross said building the paper's Web site was relatively easy: "I lived through the transition of molten lead to offset [printing], and if you went through that you learn not to fear technology." For the story and video interview by Witt, Robert D. Fowler Distinguished Chair in Communication at Kennesaw State University in Georgia, click here.

The idea for the paper developed from lectures that Dickson and Ross gave to the journalism classes of Jock Lauterer, director of the Carolina Community Media Project at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The students developed an online paper, Carrboro Commons, and Dickson produced a printed edition of the paper on the press of his family paper, The News-Journal in Raeford, about 80 miles to the south. Students decided they wanted to focus on the online product, but a survey showed overwhelming support in Carrboro for a printed paper, Ross said in an interview with The Rural Blog, so he and Dickson took the plunge. Stories from the student site are made available to the paper. For the student site's announcement of the Citizen, click here. For Lauterer's story about helping with the first issue of the new paper, click here. (Commons photo by Justin Smith)

Monday, October 22, 2007

Medicare cuts would hit rural nursing homes hardest, lobbying group tells Congress

Medicare cuts being considered by Congress would have a disproportionate effect on rural nursing homes and jobs in their rural communities, according to an analysis of Congressional Budget Office data by the American Health Care Association.

The study concluded that rural seniors would pay 25 percent of the $2.7 billion in cuts to nursing home benefits over the next five years, and the costs would be especially high in states with high rural populations. Currently, nursing homes get an average of $13.15 less from Medicare than the reimbursement provided by Medicaid, the federally supported state program for the poor and disabled, AHCA said.

"America's rural communities depend upon the strength and vitality of local long term care facilities for jobs and economic development, and the negative ramifications resulting from federal Medicare cuts would quickly ripple through the local economic base from the standpoint of lost jobs, less hiring and marginally higher unemployment," said Allen Rosenbloom, the president and CEO of the lobbying group Alliance for Quality Nursing Home Care. (Read more)

As drought strains water systems in Southeast, private supplies are in danger too

Each day, another alarming report of the record drought in the Southeast highlights the growing strain on public water systems throughout the region. (This Associated Press photo of Lake Lanier in Georgia says it all.) At the same time, the drought has other victims: rural residents who rely on private supplies of water such as ponds, springs and wells. These sources are drying up, too, and at just as fast.

In Putnam County, Tennessee, "city water" does not reach many households, and so these families are struggling to cope, reports the Herald-Citizen in Cookeville. Liz Engel writes that a 2005 Tennessee Valley Authority report found 110,000 households in Tennessee were without water service, and about 1,000 of those were in Putnam County. The drought conditions have drained the ponds, springs and wells that many of those residents relied upon for water; now many must haul water from neighboring towns to meet their needs.

Some in the area had waited for a pipeline to reach
their property, but the project — which required $1 million in grants for 16 miles of pipe — stopped less than a mile short of their homes in 1999. (Read more)

In Georgia, the thirst for water has prompted homeowners and small businesses to shell out thousands of dollars to dig their own wells, reports the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Mary MacDonald writes that since water usage has been restricted, many are eager to pay drillers $10 to $14 per foot — and since wells around Atlanta need to be at least 400 feet deep, that equals a price tag of more than $4,000. Some Georgia communities, such as Lawren
ceville and Rockdale County, are exploring digging new wells or reopening old ones. The trend largely is beyond the regulation of state's Environmental Protection Division, which only regulates wells that draw 100,00 gallons or more daily. (Read more)

The battle for water also has reignited some rural-urban conflicts across the South, especially in Georgia where metro Atlanta has sought more water to fill its needs. The Valdosta Daily Times editorialised, "Atlanta is a greedy, poorly designed behomoth (sic) of a city incapable of hearing the word 'no' and dealing with it." The editorial argued that while rural Georgians faced the drought, Atlanta did nothing and thus now needs to tap into South Georgia's water.

L.A. Times highlights role of livestock and their "killer emissions" in global warming

Just days after Al Gore took home a share of the Nobel Peace Prize for his work related to climate change, the Los Angeles Times weighed in on global warming with a lengthy editorial. This was not the usual call for cleaner cars or reduced energy use; instead, this focused on another key factor contributing to greenhouse gases — livestock emissions.

Feel free to insert your own cow flatulence joke — or one about how we at The Rural Blog seemed obsessed with animal odor today — but this editorial is serious about the impact of livestock emissions. Each day, one cow can produce 25 to 130 gallons of methane, which has 21 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide, the Times points out:
All told, livestock are responsible for 18 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions worldwide, according to the U.N. -- more than all the planes, trains and automobiles on the planet. And it's going to get a lot worse. As living standards rise in the developing world, so does its fondness for meat and dairy. Annual per-capita meat consumption in developing countries doubled from 31 pounds in 1980 to 62 pounds in 2002, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization, which expects global meat production to more than double by 2050. That means the environmental damage of ranching would have to be cut in half just to keep emissions at their current, dangerous level.
After describing the efforts being made to convert animal wastes into energy, the lengthy editorial calls for Americans to reduce slightly their intake of meat, and it urges lawmakers to recognize the role of livestock in climate change. It's an interesting read, and it does make you think. (Read more)

Iowans seek relief from stench of hog farms

In farming communities, the occasional whiff of manure is just part of life. In some Iowa communities, however, the smell is more than a sometime nuisance — it's a constant problem. Across Iowa, huge "factory farms" concentrate thousands of hogs in small areas, and that means there is a concentrated odor, too, reports Henry C. Jackson of The Associated Press: "A steady proliferation of huge hog confinements - many with upward of 5,000 hogs - has drawn complaints from longtime Iowans and concerns that the odor could hinder efforts to attract businesses. And all residents can do is stay indoors." (In photo by AP's Charlie Neibergall, an inspector checks odor levels in an Iowa hoghouse.)

In Lorimor, Iowa, a town which boasts just one gas station, the smell stalls any economic development. Even the town's annual garage sale was ruined this year when hog farmers spread manure. Critics complain the state has too few limits on the hog farms, which cannot be sued under the Clean Air Act as long as they pay a fee to the Environmental Protection Agency. State legislators have formed a livestock odor study committee, but many, such as those in Lorimor want relief soon. (Read more)

Clinton's tactics, potential to get rural votes is questioned by Edwards and folks in upstate N.Y.

In recent days, leading Democratic candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., has seen her rural strategy draw criticism from rival John Edwards and others who question whether she really can court and win rural votes, which President Bush rode to victory twice.

Last week, Jake Tapper of ABC News reported that the Clinton campaign would be holding a "Rural Americans for Hillary" lunch in a place far from the rural voters Clinton is seeking — the office of a lobbying firm in Washington, D.C. The event will be held at the offices of Troutman Sanders Public Affairs, which lobbies on behalf of Monsanto, the multinational agri-biotech conglomerate that has plenty of critics of its own. Edwards' communications director charged that Clinton was "tailoring her rural policy to reflect the needs of big agribusiness." The Clinton campaign pointed out Edwards' own ties to Monsanto, reports The Boston Globe. An aide to Edwards during the 2004 presidential election was a registered lobbyist for Monsanto, Scott Helman writes.

In Sunday's edition of The Washington Post, Alec MacGillis examined whether Clinton's success with voters in upstate New York in her Senate races will translate to other rural areas in this presidential election. For many in those parts of New York, and for some analysts, the answer tends toward no. "Clinton is invoking the inroads she has made Upstate as a kind of talisman against worries in her own party that she is too polarizing to win next fall," MacGillis writes. "But seen from ground level in this swath of rolling farmland and small towns between Buffalo and Rochester, it is unclear whether that argument holds up." (Read more)