Saturday, November 10, 2007

Wind-power stations are targets for copper thieves

The advent of wind-energy farms in remote rural areas, combined with the rising cost of copper, is leading to damaging thefts, reports KELO-TV in Sioux Falls, S.D.: "Thieves broke into a wind tower at the Tatonka Wind energy site along the North and South Dakota border and made off with about $500 worth of copper. The damage wasn't serious, but it highlights some real challenges for rural law enforcement," such as McPherson County Sheriff David Ackerman.

Eric Schaffhauser reports, "There's a lot of land in McPherson County, not a lot of traffic, not a lot of people, but a lot of land and just one sheriff to cover it. Adding to the difficulty in his county is a major project involving 60 wind turbines going up across some of that vast, open land. He'd heard about other projects like this and the theft it can invite, but until a call he got this past week, there hadn't been much of a problem." Ackerman told Schaffhauser, "Quite honestly, it was a surprise that we didn't get called earlier." (Read more)

Friday, November 09, 2007

Paxton Media slashes staff at its newly purchased Ind. paper, which will now be printed in Mich.

"A discreet round of recent cutbacks" has reduced the staff of the Herald-Argus in LaPorte, Ind., by almost half, and some employees are upset at the new owner, Paxton Media Group of Paducah, Ky., reports Tom Wyatt of the Gary Post-Tribune.

Most of the cuts are related to Paxton's plan to print the daily, 12,488-circulation paper at its Herald-Palladium in nearby St. Joseph, Mich., starting Dec. 3. "Also on Oct. 31, four sales assistants, a staff photographer and the newspaper's wire editor were let go," Wyatt reports. "One former employee put the number of jobs lost at about 30 while another employee said it could affect as many as 40, or about half the newspaper's current staff." Paxton owns the 10,702-circulation News Dispatch of Michigan City, in the same county as LaPorte.

Fired Wire Editor Julie Kessler, who was on sick leave from back surgery, told Wyatt she was terminated by certified mail. "Kessler said employees at the paper had falsely been given assurances the sale would affect little regarding the Herald-Argus' production and staff," Wyatt reports. "She also said both the Herald-Argus and News-Dispatch editorial staffs are being told by Paxton officials to keep details of the cutbacks out of print." Paxton officials referred Wyatt to Herald-Argus Publisher Patrick Kellar, who did not return Wyatt's call. Neither did News-Dispatch Publisher Rick Welch. (Read more) The Rural Blog reported on the sale Sept. 9. For that item, and comments appended to it, click here.

Harkin promises a Farm Bill before Thanksgiving

Even with Senate debate on the Farm Bill delayed until next week, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, says voting on the bill will begin soon and that it will be finished before the Thanksgiving break, reports Agriculture Online. While Harkin was delivering that promise on Thursday, Democrats were responding to the Bush administration's threat to veto the legislation, writes Dan Looker.

Harkin and other Democrats said the move was just an attempt by the administration to influence the Farm Bill, Looker reports. "No Republicans are paying attention to them on what they want to do on the farm bill," Harkin said. Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., said the Bush administration wanted "leverage" and is using the veto threat to get it. "Conrad said that the Bush administration's own farm bill proposal put out last January actually costs more than the Senate bill," writes Looker. "The independent, nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that the Senate bill will cost $285.8 billion over the next five years. The Bush proposal would cost $287.2 billion, he said."

Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., who is the House Agriculture Committee Chairman, issued an "opinion editorial" on Thursday in which he challenged reports of non-farmers getting commodity payments. (Read more)

On Thursday night in St. Paul, Minn., acting Agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner laid out his complaints about the Senate version of the Farm Bill, but he said there is still hope for a compromise in 2007, reports The Bemidji Pioneer. Conner said the bill included "accounting gimmicks" and did not do enough to fix farm subsidy payments, reports Scott Wente. (Read more)

Construction begins on Georgia cellulosic ethanol plant that will use pine waste as feedstock

Construction has begun in Georgia on the nation's first commercial plant to make cellulosic ethanol from pine-tree waste. On Tuesday in Soperton, Ga., about 100 miles west of Savannah, construction on the Range Fuels' plant officially started, reports Vicky Eckenrode of the Morris News Service.

While most of the research in cellulosic ethanol has focused on corn-based production, this plant will use
"stubby pine trees and branches not used by Georgia's forestry industry to provide the feedstock," Eckenrode writes.

When the first phase of construction is finished in about a year, the plant expects to produce about 20 million gallons of ethanol annually, with hopes to increase that total to 100 million gallons annually eventually. The Colorad0-based Range Fuels received a $76 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy for the plant, with $50 million going toward the initial construction and the rest for expansions in the future. (Read more)

N.C. schools cook up biodiesel to fuel buses

Inside some pots discarded by school cafeterias, schools in Gaston County, N.C., are making biodiesel fuel — and enough of it to keep their school buses running all year. The idea came from Grady Truett, the schools' assistant transportation director, who wanted to cut down on the fumes inside his school buses, reports The Charlotte Observer. Two years later, his operation is churning out thousands of gallons of biodiesel, a renewable fuel made from fat and oil, and drawing plenty of visiting engineers, reports Rebecca Sulock.

"With used grease suctioned from the Lance Cracker factory, school cafeterias and the Shrimp Boat, Truett expects to brew 100,000 gallons of biodiesel this school year," writes Sulock."Gaston is the first school district in the state to make its own fuel, and officials say that will save at least $125,000 in fuel costs."

Using old parts and plans from the Internet, Truett and other school workers built the facility for about about $100,000. They needed help with the electrical system, but they saved more almost $1 million by using their own labor and old parts. The school system has not had to hire any additional staff for the facility — which sits in a bay where workers used to paint the school buses — but it might add another staffer to increase production. The Gaston fuel is a blend of regular diesel and biodiesel, because pure biodiesel would be too hard on the buses. (Read more)

'Star Car' puts newsroom on wheels in Shelby, N.C.

Inside an ordinary looking SUV, The Shelby (N.C.) Star has created a state-of-the-art mobile newsroom that allows reporters to connect to the Internet wherever it goes. Called the Star Car, right, it is a joint project of The Star, Ifra (an international newspaper trade association) and the University of South Carolina Newsplex, reports the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association.

Some of features of the Star Car:
  • A GPS tracking system that lets readers see where the car is right now.
  • Dash-mounted video camera that can transmit live video and still pictures.
  • Wireless laptop, wireless camera and a high-definition video camera.
  • Ability to create a rolling Wi-fi hotspot for reporters to go online.
Ifra and Newsplex chose The Star as the test site for the project. The Star Car will be sent to schools, businesses and events to teach people about the technology and its role for journalism. To take a tour of the Star Car, go here. (When we posted this item, the top Star Car story was the coverage of the return of the Gardner-Webb men's basketball to campus after its upset win at the University of Kentucky on Wednesday night.)

Meth production in decline, but the drug remains a priority for law enforcement

New laws appear to have curtailed methamphetamine production, but no one is declaring victory, especially as police officers and others struggle to stay on top of the problem.

According to a Drug Enforcement Administration report, the price of meth has risen 84 percent in the last year, which shows lab production has been slowed, reports USA Today. "A gram of pure methamphetamine cost $245 in September, up from $133 in October 2006," writes Donna Leinwand. "New state and federal restrictions on ingredients used to make meth have contributed to a decline in homegrown drugs produced in small labs, [Office of National Drug Control Policy spokesman Scott] Burns says." (Read more)

The Austin American-Statesman reports that in Texas, however, police often do not check the logs created to chart who is buying drugs that contain the ingredients for meth. Two years ago, the Texas Legislature mandated pharmacies record purchases of Sudafed and other over-the-counter medicines with ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, but most law enforcement officers say they do not have time to check the paper logs, writes Mary Ann Roser. "Several Central Texas law enforcement officials said the lack of a centralized database, for which the Legislature did not provide the funding, means they can't just punch in a name and see how often an individual is buying the cold medications in stores around Texas."

Still, that law — coupled with a 2006 federal law limiting the amount of such drugs any one person can buy — has helped cut down on the number of meth labs in the state. At the same time, meth use remains high, and officials worry that the rising price of meth may encourage others to start making it. (Read more) Also, imports of the drug form Mexico appear to have increased.

In a related story, Utah has begun funding a controversial program to treat officers who have been exposed to meth, reports the Salt Lake Tribune. Currently, eight officers are undergoing the detoxification treatment, which is based on the teachings of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, write Nate Carlisle and Lisa Rosetta. Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff is paying the $50,000 price tag for the program, which has not been medically proven to work, and wants Gov. John Huntsman Jr. to put up another $140,000 treat 20 more officers. The officers in the program, however, say the program has done wonders for them. (Read more)

Rural campus tries new marketing techniques to bring in new students

Like many small towns in the Midwest, the community of Morris, Minn., is shrinking. And that means the University of Minnesota Morris needs to look elsewhere to find new students, reports The Star Tribune in Minneapolis. With the number of high school graduates in Minnesota expected to decrease 3 percent over the next decade, the search might be getting even tougher, reports Jeff Shelman. (In Strib photo by Elizabeth Flores, a UMM admissions representative visits a Minneapolis high school.)

"It's a question of survival," writes Shelman. "Because of the shrinking rural population in Minnesota and elsewhere in the Midwest, Morris and other rural campuses need to recruit more students from the heavily populated corridor that stretches from St. Cloud to the Twin Cities and Rochester. The campuses have slashed their tuition for nonresidents, hired image consultants and started to recruit students as far away as Alaska."

The town of Morris has a population of 5,000, and it is about 150 miles west of Minneapolis, Shelman reports. And it is 45 miles from the nearest Target store. To entice students to this rural setting, the school will pay up to $500 for the visits of prospective students who live more than 350 miles from campus. The school also dropped the out-of-state tuition to the same price as in-state tuition. The school hopes the measures will help it meet its goal of adding 400 students by 2013. (Read more)

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Arkansas press group latest to challenge limits on sales of high-school sports photos

High school sports are an essential part of any community newspaper, and some papers are using the Web to create a new source of revenue -- photographs that they can't fit into the printed product. But that has run afoul of some state high school athletic associations and their private photo contractors.

The Arkansas Activities Association, which governs high school sports in the state, has enacted a policy to limit secondary use of photo and video images captured at its post-season events, reports Arkansas Publisher Weekly. As in previous cases, this has sparked a sharp conflict between two influential associations -- the AAA and the Arkansas Press Association, publisher of the Weekly. APA has begun legal action against the AAA over the policy, which requires media outlets to pay a fee if they want to get credentials for events and sell photo images online.

In a column in the Weekly, APA Executive Director Tom Larimer says AAA wants "control over the professional photographers who get a credential solely to take photos for re-sale on the Internet" and get a piece of that profit, but the cure is worse than the disease. "Even if everyone who takes a photo at a post-season event sanctioned by the AAA pays the fee the revenue raised will be totally insignificant to the loss of good will with media outlets around the state, including newspapers," he writes. The football playoffs begin this weekend in Arkansas, so the policy goes into effect this Friday. To download copy of Arkansas Publisher Weekly, go here.

In similar dust-ups in Iowa and Louisiana earlier this year, the school officials backed down after newspapers argued that most of the schools involved are public, and all the events are -- and that such limits are unconstitutional prior restraint on publication. (For a Rural Blog item on that, click here.) But the Illinois Press Association, the largest state press group, has filed suit against the prep sports governing body in that state about a similar policy, saying it amounts to prior restraint.

Farm Bill provision would keep secret data relating to animal ID and diseases; journalists object

As debate heats up about commodity payments and other financial aspects of the Farm Bill, other provisions have drawn the opposition of journalists. The Society of Professional Journalists and 28 other journalism advocacy groups sent a letter to senators opposing provisions in the bill that would keep information about sick livestock from consumers and the media.

The outbreak of mad-cow disease among American livestock in 2003-04 prompted the creation of the National Animal Identification Service, which tracks an animal throughout its life. The Senate version of the bill would exempt the disclosure of this information to the public and would make reporters and publishers subject to fines for distributing NAIS information. SPJ and others contend that the provision violates the Open Government Act.

"The status and safety of the nation's agricultural infrastructure and ultimately our food supply is of vital public interest," SPJ President Clint Brewer said in a statement today. "Closing access to this information and even criminalizing the publication of it in certain instances is not in the best interest of a free press or the American people." (Read more)

Farm Bill may have to wait until 2008; Iowa Republican senator says veto would be overridden

The Farm Bill has been before the Senate for four days with no work being done on it, and disputes threaten to defer it to 2008. Today, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the bill would be delayed unless a compromise can be made on the amendment process, reports Reuters. Reid "left open the possibility he would ask a vote next week to shut off debate on the bill and that debate might be deferred to next year," writes Charles Abbott. "Reid says he does not want the war in Iraq, immigration, estate taxes or other issues to be debated as part of the farm bill," reports Bob Meyer of Brownfield Network. "Republicans object to the limits saying that some of those issues do pertain to agriculture."

A staffer to Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the minority leader would be open to a compromise on the amendment process that would allow Reid and McConnell to meet in private to decide which amendments reach the floor. Earlier, McConnell had opposed limits on amendments, but on Wednesday Reid said the two were working to create a list of acceptable amendments, reports Agriculture Online. Before the bill reached the Senate, McConnell indicated that he wouldn't mind letting it wait until 2008 because his constituents who had an interest in it seemed happy with continuing farm programs as they are.

Tuesday, the Bush administration released a seven-page statement outlining its objections to the bill which added to the threat of a possible veto, reports the Des Moines Register. Late Wednesday, a spokesman for Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said senators will not do any more work on the bill until next week, reports the Register. The Senate has just one more week of work before taking its Thanksgiving break. Grassley told the Register's Philip Brasher the bill would get enough votes to overcome a veto. "Sen. Tom Harkin, the Iowa Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said that the administration found fault with 'virtually every part of the bill' and that a veto would only delay spending that is 'needed now more than ever,'" writes Brasher.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Texas public TV station refuses to release financial data unless newspaper reveals unnamed sources

An ordinary request from the Valley Morning Star in Harlingen, Texas, has turned into a showdown between the the newspaper and the local Public Broadcasting System affiliate, KMBH.

Last week, reporter Bruce Lee Smith requested financial information about the station, which is run by RGV Educational Broadcasting Inc. and receives funding from the Center for Public Broadcasting, reports Allen Essex of the Valley Morning Star. As a result of KMBH's agreement with the CPB, the station's financial statements and audits must be available to the public. On Nov. 2, the station manager agreed to turn over the documents, but when Smith arrived at the station there was a catch. Smith "learned KMBH officials had conditioned the release of the financial documents on Smith’s disclosure of confidential sources who provided background information to him about the station’s finances and operations," Essex writes. "A receptionist told Smith that he must sign a letter agreeing to turn over the names of his sources before the station would release the documents."

Smith refused, and later he learned that the station filed a complaint with the police saying he had engaged in disorderly conduct at the station's office. Earlier in the week, Smith and another reporter had attended a public meeting held by the station but had to identify themselves and their reporters — actions not allowed by the Texas Open Government Act. The Web site of KMBH currently features the headline "Financial Transparency Now Online," but the linked files are illegible. (Read more)

MSHA's 'Great Escape' concrete pipelines aim to give miners fresh air and way out during disasters

In an effort to save coal miners from explosions or fires, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration has turned to a new plan for concrete pipelines as escape routes. The project has been dubbed "The Great Escape" after the 1963 Steve McQueen movie about a breakout from German POW camp, and it was to be unveiled today at the agency's Approval and Certification Center in Triadelphia, W.Va., The Charleston Gazette reported this morning.

"In the MSHA plan, mine operators would install 30- or 42-inch-diameter concrete pipes inside underground mine tunnels," writes Ken Ward Jr. "Pipes would provide miners with uncontaminated, breathable air, and with a protected escape path. Also, mine operators could install communications and tracking systems inside the pipes."

Many in the mining community had not heard of the project which MSHA had kept largely under wraps, Ward reports. While some have questions about where such pipelines would go as well as their ability to withstand explosions, Davitt McAteer, who ran MSHA under President Clinton, told Ward he was impressed when he saw the project. (Read more)

Cause of animal welfare finds new champions in religious communities

Animal rights activism has been identified as a liberal, secular cause, thanks to groups such as the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), but is now finding supporters in various religious communities, reports the Los Angeles Times. "They're lecturing in Quaker meetinghouses and Episcopal churches, setting up Web sites that post Scripture alongside recipes for vegan soup -- and using biblical language to promote political initiatives, such as laws mandating bigger cages for pregnant pigs," writes Stephanie Simon.

The Best Friends Animal Society has been a key force behind the effort. On Wednesday it is bringing together clergy from 20 different faiths (including Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Pentecostal and Roman Catholic) to sign "A Religious Proclamation for Animal Compassion" that "will call on all people of faith to stop wearing fur, reduce meat consumption, and buy only from farms with humane practices," Simon adds. The Best Friends Animal Society also plans to distribute that message to 2,000 congregations nationwide. (Read more)

Simon explains that there have been efforts by evangelicals to expand their values to include concerns for poverty and the environment. Recently, Dr. Dr. Richard Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals, gave a lecture called, “For the Health of a Nation – An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility” at Campbellsville University in Campbellsville, Ky. A portion of the lecture, in which he discussed using “moral vision” and “moral courage” to respond to issues such as global warming, can be seen here.

Rural Americans still make up disproportionate share of war casualties, detailed data show

A Daily Yonder analysis of American casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq shows rural areas continue to account for a disproportionate share. Statisticians Robert Cushing and William O’Hare found that through Oct. 30, the death rate for rural counties is 51 percent higher than for urban counties, reflecting a higher rate of enlistments in rural areas. This is a follow-up to a May report on state-by-state death rates for the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, but this time, the authors have calculated separate rural and urban rates.

. “The more rural the state, the higher the rates of death in the two Middle East conflicts,” the Yonder writes. While only 19 percent of Americans live in counties outside metropolitan areas, they account for 26 percent of the 4,197 American casualties as of Oct. 30. Vermont, North Dakota, Nebraska, Montana, South Dakota, Wyoming, Alaska, Maine, Idaho and Arkansas have the highest death rates. All but North Dakota, Wyoming and Arkansas suffered more deaths of rural residents than urban residents. The Yonder reiterates that rural residents are disproportionately represented in the military, thanks to fewer economic and educational opportunities in their hometowns. (Read more)

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

After public criticism, Texas commissioner delays plan to sell state-owned mountains

In 1991, the Christmas Mountains Ranch was donated to the state of Texas, in hopes of preserving the 9,270-acre tract that abuts Big Bend National Park near the Rio Grande. The state pledged to keep the property (at left in a New York Times graphic) unless or until it could be transferred to the National Park Service or the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

Recently, however, Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson has sought to sell the property to private owners. Patterson and his plan have received attention from many newspapers ,including a story in the Times and a profile in the Dallas Morning News. At a news conference yesterday, Patterson said he would delay the sale for 90 days to allow the Park Service to make an offer, reports R.A. Dyer of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. That offer would have to include permission for hunting, Patterson added.

Hunting is not allowed in national parks, except in very limited, special circumstances. "Conservationists called Patterson's insistence on hunting a 'poison pill' that would likely keep the park service from making a competitive offer," Dyer writes. "A Park Service spokesman welcomed the delay but agreed that any offer almost certainly would not allow hunting."

A deed provision gave the original owners the right to veto any transfer of the property to an owner other than the Park Service or Texas parks department, but Patterson said that provision is unenforceable. Regardless of who winds up owning the land, other restrictions would prevent much development. (Read more)

Smaller dailies buck trend of circulation decline

The 538 U.S. daily newspapers that are clients of the Audit Bureau of Circulations lost 2.5 percent of their circulation from April through September, Editor and Publisher reports, but several small dailies, some of them serving rural areas, gained circulation (expressed as a Monday-to-Friday daily average). They included:
  • The Dothan (Ala.) Eagle -- up 6.03% to 33,546
  • The Bulletin, Bend, Ore. -- up 7.21% to 32,369
  • News Herald, Panama City, Fla. -- up 2.44% to 28,526
  • The Banner-Herald, Athens, Ga. -- up 2.39% to 26,569
  • Citrus County Chronicle, Crystal River, Fla. –- up 2.57% to 26,303
  • The Leader-Telegram, Eau Claire, Wis. -- up 4.45% to 26,024
  • The Daily Item, Sunbury, Pa. -- up 3.16% to 24,929
  • The Montana Standard, Butte -- up 3.42% to 14,732
  • Redlands (Cal.) Daily Facts -- up 5.14% to 6,852
  • The Shawano (Wis.) Leader -- up 6.01% to 6,505
  • The Times, Weirton, W. Va. -- up 2.43% to 5,310
  • The Journal-Register, Medina, N.Y. -- up 4.07% to 2,787

Bush administration threatens Farm Bill veto and Republican leader objects to limit on amendments

It took a while for the Farm Bill to reach the floor of the Senate, and now there might be another hurdle in store for the legislation — a presidential veto. The Senate began debate on the bill yesterday, and Bush administration officials signaled the president might veto the legislation, saying the five-year, $288 billion bill was too costly, reports the Los Angeles Times. Acting Agriculture Secretary Chuck Connor said he would recommend a veto, and told reporters the bill makes "a mockery of the budget process," Nicole Gaouette writes from Washington.

"Though lawmakers have no more money to spend than they did in the 2002 farm bill, they have continued crop and farm subsidies, and added a $5-billion permanent disaster-aid fund that has drawn fire from advocates and the administration," Gaouette reports. Those subsidies remains at the forefront of the debate, and they are opposed by a "broad coalition of taxpayer advocates, medical organizations, environmentalists and religious groups," she adds.

Sens. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, and Byron L. Dorgan, D-N.D., plan to offer an amendment to limit payments to farmers who earn less than $250,000 a year. Sens. Richard G. Lugar, R-Ind., and Frank R. Lautenberg, D-N.J., want to replace subsidies for cotton, wheat, corn, soybean and rice with a free insurance program for all farmers. (Read more)

This afternoon, after learning that Democratic leaders would use parliamentary procedures to limit amendments on the bill, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., issued a press release and gave a floor speech saying that was “not consistent with previous statements by the majority. For example, just yesterday, [Agriculture Committee] Chairman [Tom] Harkin [R-Ia.] reported the farm bill debate would be ‘wide open, as is usual in the Senate’ and the majority leader’s spokesman expected an open debate when he said, ‘The farm bill is the last truly amendable vehicle moving through the Senate this calendar year.’”

McConnell noted that the current bill passed under an open process in 2002 after Democrats tried to limit amendments by limiting debate. “Let’s not beat our head against a wall again this time,” he said, noting that the bill “totals almost 1,600 pages. Is the other side of the aisle suggesting that this behemoth of a bill could not be improved by an open amendments process? I am surprised and disappointed by the assertion. The United States Senate does not work this way; legislation is not just rubber-stamped by fiat.” (Read more)

Also today, Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., lambasted the Washington news media for unfavorable coverage of Farm Bill issues. Dien Judge of the Iowa Independent writes that Conrad "singled out The Washington Post," which did a series of articles about the foibles of farm subsidies and rural-development programs. (Read more)

Bill with more money for Amtrak may spell the end of more money-losing rural routes

New money for Amtrak will breathe new life into the Chicago-to-Washington passenger train that runs through rural southern Ohio, northeast Kentucky and West Virginia, but the bill may lead to the end of The Cardinal and other rural routes that will never make money. "The Cardinal has operated with stunning inefficiency and waning demand from West Virginians," reports Joe Morris of The Charleston Gazette.

"It arrived on time just 22 percent of the time in August, the most recent month for which data are available. Each trip on the Cardinal (in Gazette photo) was more than four hours late, on average. Even when the Cardinal is on time, it takes far longer than driving. Traveling by rail from Charleston to Washington takes nine hours and 40 minutes when there are no delays; driving tends to be about three hours shorter."

The news peg for Morris's story was Senate passage of $11.4 billion in new money for Amtrak over the next six years, which West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd, The Cardinal's chief patron, called "a great day for rail passengers in West Virginia." Morris notes, however, that "Much of the new proposed funding would come only after states start spending on Amtrak improvements," and ridership is "down significantly in West Virginia — and the new legislation hints that sparsely traveled, money-losing routes will be held to account before long." The House is expected to act on the legislation next year. (Read more)

Monday, November 05, 2007

University of Louisville sends robots to link doctors with hospital patients in rural areas of Kentucky

The lack of doctors in rural areas is a common problem, but the University of Louisville has an unusual answer to it — robots. U of L Health Care announced Monay that it will be rolling out models of the RP-7 Robot to allow doctors in Louisville to treat patients in hospitals in Central and Western Kentucky. It may sound like science fiction, but the Owensboro-Mercy Health System already has the 5-foot-6 robot roaming its halls (U of L photo).

The robot, first invented five years ago by I
nTouch Health in Santa Barbara, Calif., uses a secure wireless connection to share information instantly between doctor and patient. Through live, two-way audio and video, the doctor can speak to the patient and the patient's family in real time. A joystick, camera and 360-degree sensors allow the doctor to guide the robot through the hospital. "The physician drives the robot through remote access, and the robot is almost self sufficient; the only thing it needs assistance with is plugging in to recharge the robot’s battery," the news release said.

While the program is limited to OMHS for now, U of L Health Care "
expects to expand it to other rural areas where the expertise of specialists and sub-specialists might not be available during an emergency, according to Ellen de Graffenreid, a spokeswoman for U of L's Health Sciences Center," reports Business First of Louisville.

Judge says Utah TV reporter can get out of contempt by doing a story that doesn't have to air

Two weeks ago, a federal judge in Utah found KUTV reporter Katie Baker, left, in contempt of court for her on-air interview of a jury candidate in a highly publicized rape trial last month in rural St. George. A few days ago, the Society of Professional Journalists sent a letter to District Judge James Shumate asking him to drop the charges, since Baker had no knowledge of his decorum order that reporters avoid potential jurors during the selection process.

Instead of sending Baker to jail, Shumate put the ruling on hold for 90 days and ordered her to produce a public service story, reports the Salt Lake Tribune. A court spokeswoman said the story didn't have to be aired, but by producing it Baker would erase the charges. SPJ leaders said the ruling was troubling both for the punishment and the fact it targeted someone who did not know about the decorum order in the first place.

"The Court’s contempt order creates a worrisome precedent for other news reporters covering Utah courts," wrote, Clint Brewer, SPJ national president, and David Cuillier, national FOI chairman. "The precedent could make all reporters subject to contempt violations for unknowingly failing to comply with the provisions of court decorum orders. Furthermore, we believe it is unconstitutional to punish Ms. Baker by ordering her to create a public service story ... The First Amendment protects against compelled speech and government interference in the editorial process."

Hobby farms boost rural population as urbanites seek rural retreats or retirement

A weekend away from the city is taking on new meaning for many who have chosen to spend their free time — and money — on small hobby farms of less than 30 acres. The trend is growing, and it could reverse the reduction in the number of farms in the United States, reports Time magazine. These rural retreats have become prime retirement spots, and thanks to the popularity of organic food — which these small farms produce — the trend should continue.

"The number of farms in the U.S. has been shrinking for seven decades," writes Dan Kadlec. "But the rise of 'lifestyle' or hobby farms — typically about 30 acres (12 hectares) that produce little or no income — promises to halt the decline, say officials at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Largely because of hobby farms, whose numbers are growing 2 percent a year and now account for about half of all farms, the population of rural counties is up 12 percent since 1990 — the first gain in such areas since the Depression."

The rural lifestyle has brought many to the countryside, such as Ann and Walker Miller (in a photo for Time by Carrie Shell) who own a pick-your-own farm called Happy Berry in South Carolina. They generate half their income from their farm, but many other hobby farms do far less business and may have some unexpected consequences. "Hobby farmers drive up land prices in hot areas," Kadlec writes. "They also raise big-picture concerns about total farm output. Hobbyists get far less yield per acre than the lifetime pros, and in times of food shortage they would further crimp the supply, USDA officials warn." (Read more)

Insurgent West Virginia publisher becomes target of established newspaper's investigation

A few months ago, a fight began between two newspapers in Lincoln County, West Virginia, when a start-up called the Lincoln Standard challenged the established newspaper, the Lincoln Journal. We posted an item when Dan Butcher, the publisher of the Standard, alleged that the Journal was charging too much for print public legal notices. Now, Butcher says the Journal is investigating him and his landscaping company — and going too far.

In a recent issue, Butcher penned a column called "Journal investigation crosses the line," in which he details his discovery of the competitor's probe. "These events were uncovered as they involved tapping into personal credit records, inquiries to the business credit agency Dunn and Bradstreet, and a Lincoln Journal employee posing with an alias in an attempt to obtain personal financial information," Butcher writes. "Documentation that reveals the involvement of The Lincoln Journal, including [owner] Lyle Stowers spearheading this effort, is partially contained within this story."

Butcher goes on to describe how his business, Custom Surroundings, received calls from someone asking personal questions about him. According to Butcher, the call came "from a promotional company that either employs Lincoln Journal reporter Ron Gregory, or of which he is a part owner." Butcher said he and his wife also received e-mails saying a credit check had been run on them. Also, an official business credit-reporting agency called to say someone from company called The Lincoln Journal had asked for financial information about Custom Surroundings. On top of that, Butcher found an e-mail sent from a former employee to the Journal "that indicated he had information on Dan Butcher about hiring illegal immigrants, smuggling illegal immigrants into the country, and a host of other offensives."

From there, the Journal contacted the former employee and had him answer a lengthy questionnaire about the business and the Butchers. The three-page questionnaire is Exhibit D presented by Butcher on the Standard's Web site; the list goes to Exhibit F, which is a letter from the former employee retracting his answers to that questionnaire. The paper trail presented by Butcher also includes an e-mail from Sowers to his Journal employees that says, "I want to personally thank everyone for hanging in and working so hard battling the Standard..."

Even though it was published Oct. 26, the column remains the top story on the front page of the Standard's Web site. (Read more)

Mostly gone from East Coast cities, potentially deadly West Nile virus thrives in rural West

The West Nile virus was big news when it struck in major cities on the East Coast a few years ago. West Nile has almost disappeared from the news and the East Coast, but now it has a strong presence in the rural West, reports The Boston Globe.

"Specifically, specialists blame the complex interplay between the types of mosquitoes and birds that predominate in the West, the way people make a living in the region, and how water and land are used," writes Stephen Smith. "And, as much as anything, the story of West Nile in the United States may be the quintessential tale of an urban ill that ultimately invaded -- and prospered -- in rural swaths of the nation."

Smith reports that 85 percent of the 3,195 human cases of West Nile reported this year were west of the Mississippi River. Colorado had the most cases, with 544 people becoming ill. Along with presence of certain birds and mosquitoes, the agricultural lifestyle of many in the West helps explain the number of cases. Working outside brings many into contact with mosquitoes, especially farmers or others who work in fields irrigated by flood water, which are ideal breeding grounds for mosquitoes. (Read more)

The Oklahoman in Oklahoma City continued its series, "Faces of West Nile," on Sunday with a profile of one of the seven Oklahomans to die from the virus this year. (Read more)

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Farm Bill hits the Senate floor -- for reformers, the last, best hope for change in the next five years

The Farm Bill, which we capitalize partly because it's such a big deal, hits the Senate floor this week. That's a big deal, too, because it means the bill is open to unlimited debate and amendment, the hallmarks of the Senate. In the House and in the Senate Agriculture Committee, a wide range of folks who wanted big changes in the five-year plan for American agriculture and nutrition were largely disappointed. On the Senate floor, they have their last, best shot, so it's time for all of us to pay attention.

Michael Pollan, left, author of books about our food system, is one of those folks who wants change, and is one of the clearest and most compelling advocates for it. But he is also a professor of journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, so we believe he generally gets his facts right about the players and the policies, including the lobbying powerhouses and farm-state politicians who have been writing farm bills for decades. And we've been following the bill, too, so this item includes our own analysis.

In The New York Times today, Pollan writes, "Americans have begun to ask why the farm bill is subsidizing high-fructose corn syrup and hydrogenated oils at a time when rates of diabetes and obesity among children are soaring, or why the farm bill is underwriting factory farming (with subsidized grain) when feedlot wastes are polluting the countryside and, all too often, the meat supply. For the first time, the public health community has raised its voice in support of overturning farm policies that subsidize precisely the wrong kind of calories (added fat and added sugar), helping to make Twinkies cheaper than carrots and Coca-Cola competitive with water."

And here's one more rhetorical blast from the author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and the forthcoming In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto: "When you consider that farm income is at record levels (thanks to the ethanol boom, itself fueled by another set of federal subsidies); that the World Trade Organization has ruled that several of these subsidies are illegal; that the federal government is broke and the president is threatening a veto, bringing forth a $288 billion farm bill that guarantees billions in payments to commodity farmers seems impressively defiant."

Now for the politics: Pollan says those who wanted change failed to propose "alternative -- and politically appealing -- forms of farm support," and some were "bought off" with what he calls "crumbs" but others call historic progress: the first support for fruits and vegetables (which got the California delegation on board) and billions more for nutrition programs, environmental cleanups, conservation and protection of wetlands and grasslands. The Senate may well add a $250,000 annual limit on subsidies a single farmer can get.

What Pollan and others want, and will probably find hard to get in this bill, are fundamental changes in the bill's commodity title, which includes subsidies for wheat, corn, soybeans, rice and cotton. He promotes an amendment by Sens. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., to "scrap the current subsidy system and replace it with a form of free government revenue insurance for all American farmers and ranchers, including the ones who grow actual food. Commodity farmers would receive a payment only when their income dropped more than 15 percent as the result of bad weather or price collapse. The $20 billion saved . . . would go to conservation and nutrition programs, as well as to deficit reduction."

Those who want change are disappointed in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's defense of the bill passed by a House committee. "She claimed to be helping freshman Democrats from rural districts," Pollan writes. (Read more) As far as we can tell, that's more than a claim. And we think those rural Democrats were influenced by constituents who are accustomed to the status quo and by campaign contributions from lobbying interests that defend it. Some enterprising reporter needs to compare those contributions with Farm Bill votes, and otherwise help readers, viewers and listeners understand one of the most important pieces of work their elected leaders perform.

For more details on Farm Bill amendments, politics and procedure, from Steve Kopperud of Brownfield Network, click here. Another excellent source of information is Agri-Pulse, a Washington-based newsletter that is offering a four-week free trial, at the ideal time to monitor Farm Bill action. To read it, click here.

With first caucus less than 60 days away, presidential candidates focus on rural Iowa, N.H.

Rural influences in states key to nominating the next president are apparent today, with news reports on the first Republican candidate to visit Dixville Notch, N.H., the Iowa-heavy schedules of the three leading Democratic candidates this week, and an Iowa appearance by early-state front-runner Mitt Romney (photo from the Iowa Independent).

Several voters in Dixville Notch, which votes at 12:01 a.m. on primary day in New Hampshire, asked former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the national GOP front-runner, "about his position on rural issues and the loss of jobs," reports Michael Shear of The Washington Post. Shear offers few specifics, adding later, "Rick Tillotson, who helps run the hotel, was one of the registered voters who asked Giuliani about rural issues. Later, he said the mayor obviously had 'very little' experience with such matters but added that he appreciated Giuliani's answer that lower taxes and a stronger economy will help farmers and others as much as city dwellers." (Read more)

Yesterday, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton started a four-day swing through Iowa, where she has a slim lead over former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and Illinois Sen. Barack Obama. Edwards comes to Iowa today, and "will stop in many of the same towns. And as Clinton leaves Iowa ... Obama will start his own four-day trip through the state Tuesday night," the Post's Perry Bacon Jr. reports. (Read more) Clinton gave "a few hints about a rural policy plan she will unveil Monday in Cedar Rapids," reports Jason Clayworth of the Des Moines Register. (Read more)

Romney, who leads among Republicans in Iowa and New Hampshire, appeared ignorant of "the relatively high concentration of Hispanic people in Marshalltown" on Friday when he said "You probably don't have a lot of immigrants legally" in Iowa, Adam Burke reports in the Iowa Independent. Burke notes that Marshalltown has "a meatpacking plant operated by Swift and Co. [that] was at the epicenter of a nationwide string of immigration raids in December 2006. The 2000 census measured the percentage of Hispanics in Marshalltown at 12.5 percent, though that number has likely grown." (Read more, watch video)