Saturday, March 08, 2008

Latest chapter in case of black farmers vs. USDA: Agency keeps GAO from interviewing employees

"Last week, auditors from the Government Accountability Office arrived at the U.S. Department of Agriculture to begin a review of how the agency has complied with a court settlement between the government and black farmers," reports the Daily Yonder. "The farmers had sued ... claiming the USDA had discriminated against African-Americans in granting loans and subsidies. The Agriculture Department had settled with the farmers in 1999, but many claims had been rejected in subsequent years. The GAO auditors had arrived to begin to sort out this ongoing dispute. The USDA kicked the auditors out."

Agriculture's deputy general counsel told The Associated Press that investigators called the department to say they were coming to interview USDA employees, and refused to say what they were investigating or let department attorneys be present for the interviews. Illinois Sen. Barack Obama and five other Democrats in the Congressional Black Caucus protested in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer, citing "troubling pattern of obstructing congressional efforts to understand and remedy decades of discrimination against African-American farmers." (Read more)

"The story is an old, but interesting one — and may be particularly relevant because Obama has been consistent in his backing of the claims of black farmers," the Yonder reports. Its story includes a dispatch from contributor Rick Cohen about the sad history of the case and a link to a story in The Hill, a Capitol Hill newspaper, about the political implications should Obama be the Democratic nominee. The implications might be greatest in North Carolina, where Obama is leading Hillary Clinton in polls for the state's May 6 primary and running neck-and-neck with Republican John McCain in a general-election matchup.

Small-town mayor fights to talk straight to Congress

A newly elected, small-town mayor has been rebuffed in her attempt to testify at the House Budget Committee on how unfunded mandates from the federal government affect her town.

Gloucester, Mass., Mayor Carolyn Kirk wants to turn the situation into a grassroots revolution. The chairman of the House Budget Committee, Rep. John Spratt. D-S.C., has decided that non-federal officials will not testify before his committee on budget matters. Local governments have lobbying groups, such as the National League of Cities and the National Association of Counties, but that can "lead to a watered-down message," Kirk told
Richard Gaines of the Gloucester Daily Times.

Gloucester's representative in Congress, John Tierney, has been no help. "It was considered doable by U.S. Sen. John Kerry, who has charged his staff with engineering a setting and a time for Kirk to explain how a near-perfect storm of federal policies has helped lay low the nation's oldest fishing port," population 30,000, Gaines reports. "Environmental mandates are forcing the city to spend more than $100 million on infrastructure upgrades," mainly the sewer system. (Read more)

In an editorial The Times acknowledged that Congress can't accommodate testimony from a host of local officials, but "
to say that they can't hear from one or two as representatives of others — especially those who reach out to participate — is an outrage. Considering that one congressional committee recently spent an entire day listening to Roger Clemens and company spout off about an issue as relatively trivial as steroids in baseball, the Budget Committee's turning thumbs down on Kirk's proposed testimony seems nothing short of absurd." (Read more)

Friday, March 07, 2008

Rural Pennsylvania blocks efforts by Philadelphia to limit handgun puchases, reduce murders

In 2006, Philadelphia averaged "one gunshot murder a day," and local officials wanted to limit handgun purchases to one per month and require reporting of lost or stolen guns, reports Emma Schwartz of U.S. News and World Report. But Pennsylvania "is among a majority of states that forbid cities to pass gun laws stricter than those enacted by the state," and rural legislators have blocked efforts to repeal or weaken the law.

"Undeterred, Philadelphia passed laws in May targeting handguns and illegal purchases. The city can't implement them, of course. So the council has filed a lawsuit to challenge the pre-emption law. Even if they fail again, council members say they hope a court case will change legislators' minds," Schwartz writes. She also notes that some Pennsylvania school districts "mark the opening of hunting season with a holiday," and the state constitution "explicitly gives citizens a right to defend themselves."

"Guns aren't the problem," Rocco Ali, president of the Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs, told Schwartz. "The problem is the criminal element." Schwartz says Pennsylvania is "a largely rural state" but that's true only of its landscape; its population is 21 percent rural. (Read more)

Brazilian firm buying up U.S. beef processors, would rank No. 1; anti-trust concerns are raised

"Brazilian meatpacking giant JBS SA is eating the U.S. beef industry alive," reports the Daily Yonder. "Last year, JBS bought Colorado-based Swift & Co. Earlier this week, JBS announced that it would buy National Beef in Kansas City . . . then the acquisitive giant said it was in advanced talks to buy Smithfield Food Inc.'s beef business."

The deal "will certainly raise questions with the Department of Justice," which enforces anti-trust laws, Jim Robb, an economist with the Livestock Marketing Information Center, told the Reuters news service. If the deal clears anti-trust review, "JBS would control 32 percent of the U.S. beef market and ten percent of the world market," the Yonder reports.

Members of Congress are "concerned about anti-trust issues raised by JBS's acquisition plans," reports Lisa Keefe of MeatingPlace, which covers the red-meat industry. "Rep. Leonard Boswell (D-Ia.), chairman of the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Livestock, Dairy and Poultry, sent a letter to Thomas O. Barnett, the Justice Department's assistant attorney general for anti-trust, urging him to review the proposed combinations closely," Keefe reports.

"He noted that a merger of JBS's U.S. operations with Smithfield's beef packing operations, National Beef and the Five Rivers Ranch system of feedlots," would make the company the nation's largest beef processor -- a title now held by Tyson Foods, 25 percent at last count. "That may have slipped last month when it ended cattle slaughter at its 4,000-head-a-day plant in Emporia, Kan.," Reuters notes. (Read more)

Earlier, Iowa Sens. Charles Grassley (R) and Tom Harkin (D) voiced similar concerns. "Still, most economists and industry observers expect the deals to be approved as planned," Keefe reports. (Read more; subscription may be required)

Editor, cartoonist at small papers in S. Appalachia among finalists in National Journalism Awards

An editorial writer from a 35,000-circulation newspaper and an editorial cartoonist from a paper with only 18,000 circulation, both in Southern Appalachia, were among the finalists in the National Journalism Awards announced today by the Scripps Howard Foundation.

Bonnie Williams, editorial page editor of the Anderson Independent- Mail, an E.W. Scripps Co. paper in South Carolina, was a finalist in the editorial-writing competition, won by Sonni Efron of the Los Angeles Times. The other finalist was Tom Condon of The Hartford Courant. "Williams' moving voice resonates with her region's readers," the judges said. "She gets the tone right time after time." Most of the editorials she entered were in local or state issues, the paper reported.

A cartooning finalist was Mike Lester, left, of northwest Georgia's independently owned Rome News-Tribune, who won last year's Sigma Delta Chi Award for cartoons. The winner was Steve Kelley of The Times-Picayune in New Orleans; the other finalist was Michael Ramirez of Investor’s Business Daily. "The judges praised Lester's modern humor, calling his work 'more cultural than political' and 'personable and accessible'," his paper reports.

The awards, which include cash prizes, will be presented April 18 during a dinner at the National Press Club in Washington. Congratulations to all the winners, especially those who proved you don't have to be at a big paper to do big work.

Anniston Star's 'Compressed Air' series explores decline of small-market broadcast news

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 brought major changes to TV and radio, and to broadcast journalism. Investigating the legislation's impact in northeastern Alabama, The Anniston Star finds that local broadcast news has lost its local flavor, thanks to sharp reductions in the number of reporters since 1996. The Star examines the state of local broadcasting in a series called "Compressed Air," and it is a story that could be told almost anywhere in America.

"The northeast Alabama picture before 1996 was different," John Fleming writes. "Anniston was awash in local news media. As recently as the mid-1990s, the public could find local news across the spectrum, from this daily newspaper to radio stations staffed with journalists to locally produced television newscasts." Since then, things have changed because the law opened the door to the consolidation of broadcast outlets. "Thanks to the 1996 act, some communities saw local media coverage continue and salaries and benefits for local journalists improve, according to media observers," Fleming writes. "Numerous scholars and broadcasting insiders insist, however, that for many other communities the changes have meant that less local news goes on the air and that they now may be served by media interests that are headquartered outside the community." (Read more)

The rest of the four-part series highlights just how much the loss of local news means:

What's on TV?

Fleming explores the changes in local TV news since 1996. Just months after the act became law, Anniston's Channel 40 merged with Tuscaloosa's TV 33 and created ABC 33/40, which is based in Birmingham and has viewers all across northern Alabama, from state line to state line. The station has a small Anniston office and one full-time photographer/reporter who focuses on three east Alabama counties. The shift has meant fewer stories about Anniston, and Fleming's review of the 16 stories filed from January to July found "nearly all of these stories to be negative."

"In our opinion, media consolidation has been a disaster," Jen Howard, of the public-interest group Free Press, a non-partisan organization dedicated to media reform, told Fleming. "In the market we've seen a depletion of news by 25 percent. Communities have less local news and hear fewer local voices." (Read more)

Local radio news a dying art

In radio, the loss of reporters has been even greater. "A local newsman with intimate knowledge of the area often has been replaced by canned programs that never touch on local concerns," Fleming writes, noting that in Calhoun County, there is only one radio station, Alabama 810, with a journalist who reports from outside the studio.

Eric Klinenberg, a professor of sociology at New York University and author of "Fighting for Air," told Fleming that Alabama 810 is delivering what audience members want: local coverage. "Ironically," Klinenberg said, "media executives everywhere now recognize that their audience demands local content, because they can get national and international news and entertainment online. The trouble is that original content is expensive to produce, and too often chains and conglomerates skimp on staff and hope that no one will notice."

When local media aren't there for the public

Consolidation has meant more computers deliver canned programming, and one consequence has been a change in the way stations deliver information in times of emergency. The reality is that many won't, unless the Emergency Alert System takes over, Fleming reports. He notes that on a recent night in Anniston, when sirens sounded weather warnings, listeners of WDNG-AM/1450 got a syndicated talk show but no weather information.

"The storm blew over, causing only heartburn," he writes. "But the incident again raises the question: "If local media no longer is local, how does it fulfill one of its most essential roles: informing the community in times of peril?" (Read more)

This series addresses plenty of important questions for local news media in small markets and rural areas. We challenge other newspapers to do similar stories.

W.Va. PSC approves $2.23 billion 'clean coal' plant

West Virginia utility regulators have signed off on American Electric Power's plan to build a $2.23 billion clean-coal plant near New Haven, W. Va., on the Ohio River, reports The Associated Press. The plant will be next to an existing AEP plant. The Public Service Commission approved the plan, saying the company needed to produce more energy to meet consumers' demands in the coming years.

The 629-megawatt Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle plant "is believed to be cleaner than conventional coal-fired plants because it burns gas made from coal to produce electricity," AP reports. A company spokeswoman said the plant still needs approval from the Virginia State Corporation Commission because customers of AEP subsidiary Appalachian Power would help pay for the plant. The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection also must issue an air permit before construction can begin. (Read more)

From the time construction begins, it will require approximately 48 to 54 months to complete the IGCC unit, according to the news release from AEP, which has proposed a similar plant in Ohio. "IGCC technology converts coal into a synthetic gas that moves through pollutant-removal equipment before the gas is burned in a combined-cycle gas turbine to produce electricity," the release said. "The process allows for more efficient and effective reduction and removal of sulfur dioxides, particulates and mercury from plant emissions than conventional pulverized coal technology. IGCC plants also offer the opportunity for more efficient, less costly carbon capture for permanent storage in deep geologic formations." (Read more)

Senate panel report blames company, mine-safety agency for Crandall Canyon mine disaster

A congressional committee investigating last year's cave-ins at Utah's Crandall Canyon mine issued its report yesterday, and blame the nine deaths federal officials and Murray Energy, owned by Robert Murray, left.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee report said the coal operator "ignored substantial warning signs, may have been conducting unauthorized mining and had an illegal agreement with federal regulators on reporting standards," reports Thomas Burr of The Salt Lake Tribune. The panel's report also blamed the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration "for missing 'significant flaws' in engineering analysis of the mine and ignoring several red flags, including an earlier cave-in that the report says should have been more thoroughly probed."

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., said the report should lead to a criminal investigation by the Department of Justice. MSHA said such speculation should wait until after the agency's Accident Investigation Team has delivered its report. Michael O. McKown, general counsel of UtahAmerican Energy, Inc., the subsidiary of Murray Energy that operated the mine, fired back at Kennedy's report in his statement. "This report is politically motivated, irresponsible and unjustified," McKown said. The report is available here.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

50 state polls show rural battlegrounds, tight race in fall; Pennsylvania will continue to get attention

What states will be the big battlegrounds for rural voters in the election for president this fall? It depends on whether Democrats choose Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, but the outlines of the battle with Republican John McCain became clearer today, with the release of the first poll to take statistically solid samples from every state.

Survey USA is able to do that because it uses automated calling with recorded voices, usually of anchors at the television stations that sponsor the polling. Traditional pollsters and many political observers discount such polling, which may over-estimate turnout and under-estimate undecided voters, but Survey USA has established a decent track record and deserves consideration.

The polls indicate that the biggest rural battleground, in terms of population, is likely to be the current Democratic primary battleground: Pennsylvania. The Keystone State has 2.8 million rural residents, third behind No. 1 Texas (3.6 million) and No. 2 North Carolina (3.2 million), both of which could be big rural battlegrounds if Obama is nominated, the polls there indicate. Each state poll sampled 600 registered voters, for an error margin of plus or minus 4 percentage points for each candidate's figure.

The Pennsylvania poll showed McCain beating Obama, 47 percent to 42 percent, but losing to Clinton, 47 to 46. That reflects polling for the critical April 22 primary in the state, which has Clinton leading Obama. In North Carolina, which has a primary May 6, McCain beat Obama 47-45 and Clinton 49-41. In Texas, McCain beat Obama 47-46 and Clinton 49-42. Both states have voted Republican in presidential elections for three decades; the Texas result may reflect more interest in Obama as a result of Tuesday's primary there. The same may be true in Ohio, which voted Tuesday. It is widely forecast to be a tossup state in the fall, but the poll there had McCain losing to either Democrat, 50-40. Ohio has the fourth largest rural population, 2.6 million.

One of the more interesting states in the poll was Virginia, a long-reliable Republican state that has been trending Democratic. The poll there showed McCain beating Clinton 50-40 but losing to Obama by less than 1 percent of the vote, rounded to 47-47. Virgina had 1.9 million rural residents, 27 percent of its population, in the 2000 census. In Missouri (31 percent, 1.7 million rural), McCain beat Clinton 48-44 and Obama 48-42.

In Iowa (39 percent, 1.1 million rural), which started Obama's rise, the poll showed McCain losing to him 50-41 but beating Clinton 46-41. Other states going Democratic only with Obama as the nominee were North Dakota, Nevada, Oregon, Colorado and New Hampshire. States going Democratic with only Clinton as the nominee were Florida, New Jersey, Arkansas (where she was first lady) and West Virginia. In the polls' electoral-vote projection, McCain lost to Obama 280-258 and to Clinton 276-262.

The difference between the potential Democratic nominees in West Virginia, the third most rural state at 54 percent, was marked: McCain beat Obama 53-35 but lost to Clinton 47-42. The Mountain State was the heart of an anti-Obama pattern in Eastern states with mountains, running from Pennsylvania to Arkansas. In Kentucky, McCain beat Obama 54-33 and Clinton 50-41; in Tennessee, he beat Obama 54-38 but was less than 1 percent ahead of Clinton, rounded to 46-46. Clinton won Tennessee's primary by a big margin. Kentucky votes May 20.

For the poll results, click here.

Ky. budget crisis imperils environmental programs, including rural trash cleanup; cig tax hike proposed

Kentucky is facing a state budget crisis that "could mean more litter along roadsides, slower cleanup of dumps and less successful reclamation of strip-mined land. And there could be fewer people to maintain the state's network of nature preserves and keep track of rare plants and animals," reports The Courier-Journal.

The economic slowdown, combined with irresponsible budgeting by past governors and legislatures, prompted Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear to propose a budget that would cut the state's two main environmental agencies "20 percent and 25 percent next year. That's significantly more than some other state operations," writes Jim Bruggers, the Louisville newspaper's environmental reporter.

Kentucky has many small, poor counties, and the cuts would exacerbate a litter problem in their rural areas. (Bruggers photo shows a roadside dump.) "For many counties in Kentucky, especially rural ones, the only funding for litter pickup comes from the state," he writes. "Without it, there will be more dumping left unattended, said Wade Johnson, director of solid waste management for Woodford County and chairman of the Solid Waste Coordinators of Kentucky."

Beshear has proposed casinos as an alternative to tax increases, but the prospects for that idea are cloudy at best. Tonight he reversed himself and endorsed raising the state cigarette tax to $1 a pack from 30 cents. (Read more)

Bone up on foreign policy in media call tomorrow

Foreign policy may seem foreign to some rural journalists, but it shouldn't, with our military relying heavily on rural recruits and a shaky economy that is often affected, even at the farm and small-town level, by events overseas.

The Council on Foreign Relations is making a special effort to bring foreign-policy issues to rural voters during this year's race for president. Tomorrow, it is hosting a listen-only media call with the foreign-policy advisers to the Clinton, Obama and McCain campaigns, moderated by Jim Hoagland of The Washington Post.

The call will take place from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. Eastern time. The call-in number is 1-866-710-0179 and the passcode is C2008. The representatives will be Susan Rice for Obama, Mara Rudman for Clinton and Randy Scheunemann for McCain.

Jury says chain illegally undercut weekly, must pay

This isn't a rural story, but it's about a victory for community-based journalism. A jury decided yesterday that a chain-owned alternative newspaper, SF Weekly, must pay millions of dollars to the locally owned, award-winning San Francisco Bay Guardian for undercutting it with bargain advertising rates and subsidies from the 16-paper chain, Village Voice Media of Phoenix.

The verdict of $6.39 million could grow to as much as $15.6 million because the state-court judge in the case can triple the award, reports Meredith May of the San Francisco Chronicle. Guardian Publisher Bruce Brugmann, in photo, "said the battle was a classic case of a national chain trying to squeeze out the little guy, and the competition was so unfair it could have pushed his paper, which he founded with his wife in 1966, out of business," May writes. "Although offering a lower price is the golden rule of good business, it can be illegal in California if a company purposely undercuts a rival with the specific intention of bankrupting the competition." Other states have similar laws.

Guardian Executive Editor Tim Redmond told May, "It's a victory not just for the Guardian, but for small business and independent publishers in California and everywhere because it shows that a small business has a right to a level playing field when competing with a big national chain." SF Weekly's attorney lawyer said the paper would appeal. "I do not think the evidence supports the verdict," H. Sinclair Kerr Jr. said, "and I'm confident we'll prevail in the California Court of Appeals." Village Voice Media has owned SF Weekly since 1995.

May reports, "In court, Kerr argued that outbidding your competitor is not illegal, and that Brugmann had failed to see his paper's decline was part of a national newspaper revenue slide brought on by the Internet, the dot-com bust and Sept. 11. All those factors make the competition for readers more intense for everybody, not just the Guardian, he said. Since 2000, the Guardian's annual revenue has dropped from $11 million to $6 million. The Weekly has dropped from $9 million to $6 million over the same period." (Read more)

For the Guardian's edgy coverage of the verdict, click here. For the Weekly's corporate press release, presented as a blog item, click here.

Federal cuts in police funding have some worried that gains in anti-meth enforcement will be lost

Rural areas know better than most what methamphetamine can do to a community, but law- enforcement officials and legislatures across the country have targeted the drug and started making progress. Federal cuts in police funding could make those efforts harder and perhaps reverse the tide, reports

"In Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas and Nebraska, the story is the same," Scharnberg writes. "Just as statistics show that anti-meth task forces may be beginning to gain an upper hand on those who manufacture, deal and use the highly addictive and destructive drug, the source of the majority of these states' drug-enforcement funding is slated to disappear overnight."

The Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant had been the prime source of funding for drug enforcement in nearly every state, but the Bush administration has proposed a $170 million from the program. State legislatures are scrambling to find replacement funds, and officials paint a grim picture of what could happen if those efforts fail.

"Without the work of our task forces, Missouri could find itself in the position where everything that's been done in the last 5 to 10 years is virtually undone," Capt. Tim Forney, the operating chief for the Northeast Missouri Narcotics Task Force, told Scharnberg. (Read more)

New study suggests ordinary cars could handle gasoline blend with 20 percent ethanol

The highest ethanol blend of gasoline now allowed for use in ordinary cars has 10 percent ethanol and 90 percent gasoline. A new study suggests those same cars could operate on "higher blends than now allowed without damaging auto parts," reports Philip Brasher of the Washington bureau of The Des Moines Register.

Commissioned by the ethanol industry and the state of Minnesota, the study investigated how 80 cars driven by University of Minnesota employees handled different blends of ethanol. "Cars running on a mix of 80 percent gasoline and 20 percent ethanol, a blend known as E20, also showed 'similar and performance' to autos running on a traditional blend of 10 percent ethanol, researchers said," Brasher writes.

Minnesota has mandated that all gasoline sold in the state contain 20 percent ethanol by 2013, but "automakers have resisted allowing the higher ethanol blends, warning that they could damage car parts, and there also are concerns that the additional ethanol could increase air pollution and harm the small engines used in boats, lawnmowers and snowmobiles," Brasher adds. (Read more)

Another Federal Reserve survey shows cropland prices rising in another region of the Midwest

Last week, we noted a survey by the Tenth District of the Federal Reserve Bank that showed cropland prices had jumped significantly in its service area from the year before. This week, a survey from the adjoining Seventh District (map) found cropland prices were on the rise there as well.

Farmland prices in the area rose 16 percent, the largest annual jump since the grain-boom days of the late 1970s. "David Oppedahl, business economist for the Chicago Fed . . . said the farmland price increase mirrored higher net farm income that was boosted by higher prices for crops at the end of 2007," , reports Jerry Perkins of the Des Moines Register. A record use of land for corn — prompted by ethanol needs — also helped the surge. (Read more)

Artisanal dairy products offer fresh tastes and economic development in some small towns

Small dairy farmers can't compete with the commodity prices of large processors, but some are succeeding by producing artisanal dairy products that cater to high-end consumers, reports Marian Burros of The New York Times. "These artisanal operations are turning cow, goat or sheep milk into simple, straightforward foods like crème fraîche, butter, buttermilk, ice cream, puddings, custards, yogurt, yogurt-based sauces and yogurt drinks," Burros writes. (Times photo by Tony Cenicola shows some such products.)

These products and their producers are succeeding because "there is an increasingly sophisticated public that appreciates the difference between mass-produced dumbed-down food and the handiwork of a small dairy that has learned to produce exceptional butter or yogurt or ice cream by doing it the way it was done before World War II, when there was a creamery in every town," Burros adds. (Read more)

While the trend has made for some interesting menu items in the restaurants of New York, it also offers a great opportunity for economic development for small towns and rural areas, writes Jack Schulz at Boomtown USA. He writes that artisanal cheese production is "one of the fastest growing niche ag businesses that I’m witnessing," and he wonders if the industry could grow like the wine industry has over the past few decades.

"A Cornell University dairy science professor, Frank Kosikowski, first started the movement in 1983 when he founded the American Cheese Society," Shulz writes. "In the first year that someone bothered to count these cheese producers in 1990 there were 75. In the count in 2006 there were over 400." Schulz notes that at this year's Society taste off, one winner was an aged Raclette made by Leelanau Cheese Company of Suttons Bay, Mich., (pop. 589), a small town just north of Traverse City. (Read more)

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Surgeon and doctor shortages worst in rural areas

The nation is facing a shortage of doctors, especially surgeons, due to limits on medical-school enrollment of medical schools and the aging of Baby Boomers, reports Robert Davis of USA Today. The shortage is of greatest concern in rural America, "where only 9,334 of 211,908 physicians are general surgeons, according to American Medical Association data," Davis writes. "The Census Bureau defines 'rural' as open country or small towns with fewer than 2,500 residents." (USA Today photo by H. Darr Beiser shows David Lingle, one of two surgeons at Shore Memorial Hospital in Nassawadox, Va., which had seven a decade ago.)

The shortage began when U.S. medical schools capped enrollment in the 1980s and 1990s to avoid a surplus of doctors. Now the schools are boosting enrollment to catch up, but that will take time and other factors exacerbate the shortage in rural areas. Most medical-school graduates leave school more than $150,000 in debt, and want to pay it off sooner rather than later. It's harder to do that by going into general surgery, and even harde as a rural general surgeon, Davis reports:

"After an industry-wide review of allegations that surgeons were charging too much, Medicare lowered the amounts that the U.S. government pays doctors during the 1990s. For some common procedures, general surgeons now get about half the money they received 20 years ago," according to Josef Fischer, chairman of surgery at Boston's Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

To solve the shortage, some suggest that "medical schools need to hunt for a slightly different type of student — those who want to practice medicine in rural areas — and focus less on attributes such as an applicant's previous clinical research," Davis writes. In addition, they reimbursement policies need to be changed to compensate doctors for treating rural patients "where they live." (Read more)

Citing climate change and costs, feds suspend loans for rural electric cooperatives' coal-fired plants

Concerns over climate change, and the prospect of limits on greenhouse gases, recently prompted major banks to add to stricter emissions standards to any financing for coal-fired power plants. Now those same worries are complicating public financing for rural electric cooperatives, which get 80 percent of their power from coal.

"The federal government is suspending a major loan program for coal-fired power plants in rural communities, saying the uncertainties of climate change and rising construction costs make the loans too risky," reports Matthew Brown of The Associated Press.

Since 2001, $1.3 billion in loans had been issued for new plant construction, but "none will be issued this year and likely none in 2009, James Newby, assistant administrator for the Rural Utilities Service, a branch of the Department of Agriculture, said Tuesday," Brown writes. Projects in Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky and Missouri had been seeking a total of $1.3 billion in loans at the time of the suspension. (Read more) We reported on cancellation of the Missouri plant yesterday.

UPDATE, March 13: Steven Mufson of The Washington Post catches up, and expands, on the story. To read his report, click here.

Walla Walla Union-Bulletin package explores rural reality for gay and lesbian teens

Growing up as a gay or lesbian teen in a rural area can be a tough challenge. In seven stories for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, Sheila Hagar explores how some teens and activists are facing those challenges in the Inland Northwest. (A youth group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender teens meets in U-B photo by Joe Tierney)

Hagar's package highlight various aspects of the rural reality for gay and lesbian teens, especially the lack of resources in many small towns. Hagar highlights one of the few places offering such resources, the Vista Youth Center in the Tri-Cities — the towns of Kennewick, Pasco and Richland, which have a combined population of about 80,000 and are about an hour northwest of Walla Walla. Executive Director Mark Lee told Hagar that after moving to the area from Portland he realized teens had few places to feel safe.

Hagar wrote: "What he found when he visited a Spokane center with the same mission spoke volumes, he said: teens willing to travel by bus more than an hour one way to be somewhere they felt safe, kids who had come from Idaho, kids who couldn't tell anyone they knew about being queer, Lee said." His direct quote: "The tone I got was being in a rural area and being 'out' was not safe. Expressing themselves was not safe."

Hagar added, "Those are children perhaps most in need of help. Nearly half of that demographic reports using drugs and alcohol, and a quarter say they are currently being sexually or physically abused, he said, citing figures from internal surveys done at Vista." (Read more)

In the rest of the series, Hagar addresses how some local schools are trying to curb harassment and she speaks with local teens about what they think. Here are the other stories in the series:
This is serious reporting, and it is worth a look. The series also includes some key statistics about gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender teens, which could be a good place to start similar reporting.

Ky. journalists keep drawing attention to diabetes

In January, the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues hosted the Kentucky Diabetes Summit to bring together newspaper representatives from the state's 20 most diabetic counties. Some of those newspapers have been highlighting diabetes and offering advice about preventing and treating the disease.

Last week, the Casey County News in Liberty wrapped up a four-part series called "Unite in the fight against diabetes." In the third part of the series, editor Donna Carman profiled a three-year-old coping with juvenile diabetes. A sidebar addressed myths surrounding diabetes
In the fourth part, Carman profiled a woman who went from Type 2 diabetes to Type 1 and in doing so presents the symptoms and treatment of diabetes, the importance of screening, and educational classes and support groups available. (The first and second parts, by Brittany Emerson, are available here and here.)

The Middlesboro Daily News also has started a series. In its second installment last week, Tabitha Webb answered common questions about diabetes. "Knowing about diabetes is one of the first steps in understanding what can be done to fight this chronic disease that is so prevalent in Bell County," Webb writes. "The Daily News cares about its readers. Visit your healthcare professional and ask the important questions. Listen to what they have to say, follow their recommendations. Diabetes is a serious disease but it is controllable." (Read more)

Ohio will be a battleground again in the fall, especially for the rural vote

Hillary Clinton said in her Ohio victory speech last night that no one had ever become president after losing the Ohio primary. She was looking ahead to the general election, when Ohio is again expected to be a pivotal state. So was Kevin Merida of The Washington Post, who went to Darke County in west-central Ohio to size up the feelings of rural voters, who provided President Bush's margins of victory in Ohio and the nation.

"In Rural Ohio, It's No Country for Democrats," read the headline, playing off a hit movie. The first quote was from elected County Engineer James Surber: "It's very challenging in an area like this. Thirty years ago, when I came to this county, it wasn't that way at all. It was nip and tuck. But the 1980s have effected some changes that are almost impossible to deal with. Two issues that have worked against us are abortion and gun owners' rights."

Bush got 70 percent of Darke County's vote in 2004. "His margins in rural Ohio swung the state for him and thus swung the election," Merida notes, citing data from the Center for Rural Strategies. "Recent polling done by the center, however, has shown some erosion in the GOP's grip on rural voters, driven by the Iraq war, the economy and negative views overall of the Bush administration's stewardship of the nation. Democrats see an opportunity. . . . The fall strategy: Win southeastern Ohio, compete in the small towns of the north and cut the losses in the exurban and rural counties." (Read more)

For the Daily Yonder's analysis of yesterday's rural vote in Texas, click here.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Clinton wins the rural vote in Texas and Ohio

Hillary Clinton racked up big margins among rural voters in today's presidential primaries in Ohio and Texas, while Barack Obama did likewise in the very rural state of Vermont, said exit polls conducted by the National Election Pool for major news organizations. (Photo: Clinton and daughter Chelsea at victory party by Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles Times)

In the precincts that the pollsters defined as rural, Clinton won 67 percent of the vote in Ohio and 60 percent in Texas. She won Ohio, "restoring her viability as the potential Democratic presidential nominee," Wolf Blitzer said on CNN at 10:55 p.m., when the Texas result was still very much in doubt.

Obama won 60 percent of the rural vote and the overall vote in Vermont, which accounted for three-fourths of the exit poll sample there. Vermont is the nation's most rural state by population. In Rhode Island, one of the least rural (9 percent by the census, 12 percent of the poll sample), Clinton got 60 percent of the overall vote but the rural race was close: Obama 51, Clinton 49. That was well within the margin of error for that small sample, plus or minus about 7 percentage points.

Rural precincts accounted for only 10 percent of the exit-poll sample in Ohio, though the state's population was 23 percent rural in the 2000 census. In Texas, the rural vote was 20 percent of the sample; the last census had the state 17.5 percent rural. Clinton carried West Texas, the Rio Grande Valley and East Texas, while Obama won the Dallas and Houston areas and the south-central part of the state.

In Ohio's suburbs, which were 64 percent of that state's sample, Clinton ran ahead of Barack Obama, 54 to 46 percent. In Ohio's urban areas, Obama got 60 percent of the vote. In the Texas suburbs, 30 percent of that state's sample, Obama led 50-49, a statistical tie. He led 52-47 in urban precincts, which made up half the poll's sample of 2,009 voters.

For the Vermont exit-poll results, click here. For the Ohio results, click here. For those in Texas, click here. Just over a third of Texas' delegates will be chosen as a result of precinct caucuses, which were open only to Democratic primary voters. Obama appears to have a 10 percent margin among delegates tied to caucuses, reports Mike Ward of the Austin American-Statesman.

So how rural is Pennsylvania? About 21 percent, the same as the nation.

Southeastern Kentucky has become less favorable for marijuana growers

By some estimates, Kentucky is still No. 2 in marijuana production, exceeded only by much larger California, but the legal and cultural climate for the crop in the state's most popular growing area has become less favorable, Bill Estep reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Estep's chief example is southeastern Kentucky pot grower J.C. Lawson, who bragged to the newspaper almost 20 years ago that he made $1 million in a few months and employed 20 people, bringing jobs and money to impoverished Clay County. "Lawson is still a symbol, but of a world and a war that is much different than 20 years ago," Estep writes. "The drug problem is worse in some ways, the war against it has escalated, and Lawson is headed to federal prison."

When pot became big business, some local officials took payoffs to protect the trade, and "The acceptance of marijuana growing colored local justice systems, according to some authorities who thought they couldn't get a meaningful conviction in some counties," Estep reports. But for the last 10 years, the region has been part of the Appalachia High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a federal designation that brings money and other resources to bear on the growers. Map shows that the HIDTA was recently expanded to include Hamilton and Washington counties in Tennessee and Letcher County, Ky., where The Mountain Eagle reported the move "should help local law enforcement agencies to secure more federal funding for the efforts to disrupt and dismantle drug trafficking organizations." Also, for the last five years, southeastern Kentucky has had a special, federally funded anti-drug program, Operation UNITE, courtesy of Rep. Hal Rogers, a subcommittee chairman on the House Appropriations Committee.

"Attitudes about drugs have evolved as well, in large part because of abuse of powerful prescription pills, unavailable in the late 1980s, that have brought misery and death to many families," writes Estep. "People who said little or nothing about marijuana cultivation in 1987 now work to promote awareness of drug abuse and keep track of how cases are handled." (Read more)

Rural co-op cancels coal-fired power plant in Mo.

Yet another coal-fired power plant, this one planned for western Missouri and serving the great majority of the state's rural electric customers, has been scratched because of "rising costs and an uncertain regulatory climate," The Associated Press reports.

"A member of the board of Associated Electric Cooperative Inc. says it has voted to delay the project indefinitely," AP reports. "Growing concern over global warming has led to speculation that the federal government will soon regulate greenhouse gases." Several other electric utilities have canceled or postponed plants for the same reason. (Read more)
The large rural utility serves 850,000 customers of six regional and 51 local electric cooperatives in Missouri, northeast Oklahoma and southeast Iowa. It wanted to build a 780-megawatt plant near Norborne, a town of 779 about an hour east of Kansas City. (Encarta map) Its Web site says it is the only Missouri utility with wind power on its system.

Iowa journalist examines potential impact of a Wal-Mart Supercenter; it's not all bad, experts say

A Wal-Mart Supercenter changes a community, and Carroll, Iowa, surely will not be the same after one opens there tomorrow. Economic experts, however, say life can go on for local businesses who face tougher competition with the retailing giant, reports Douglas Burns of the Iowa Independent. Burns' report takes a common event — the opening of a Wal-Mart in rural America — and investigates just what it may mean for the local economy, beyond the usual dire forecasts for local, small businesses. (Encarta map)

Iowa State University professor Kenneth Stone, who has researched the impact of large retail stores, said the Supercenter will hurt local stores, but they are strong enough to handle the competition. "Stone said that retail trade centers such as Carroll generally have Supercenters. Without one, the business community loses traffic to nearby Supercenter communities like Atlantic and Fort Dodge," Burns writes. Carroll has 10,000 people, the county 21,000. Carroll's old Wal-Mart is in an unusual location, downtown. The new one isn't.

Jack Schultz, author of Boomtown USA, writes on his blog of the same name that the Supercenter could generate more business in Carroll. "There is a life with Wal-Mart ... I see it over and over as I travel around the country," he writes. "Generally, small towns appreciate their Wal-Marts and the most complaints are from towns that don't have one or that didn't allow one to build in their town years ago and today regret having let the big fish swim to a neighboring town."

Stone said the competition brought by Wal-Mart can be good for local business. "Wal-Mart's really made a lot of merchants a lot better than they had previously been just simply because they upped the competition to the point where you have to get better or you don't make it." He added, "Anybody that's selling something different from what Wal-Mart's selling is subject to benefit from the additional traffic that Wal-Mart will draw." (Read more)

Va. lawmakers kill study of proposed uranium mine

The prospect of a uranium mine in Southern Virginia's Pittsylvania County has divided the area for months. This week, a Virginia legislative panel tabled a proposal for a study on uranium mining at the site site, which owners think is one of the richest uranium concentrations in the country, reports Mason Adams of The Roanoke Times. "The procedural move by the House Rules Committee effectively kills the bill, which many of its opponents saw as the first step to lift Virginia's 25-year-old moratorium on uranium mining," Adams writes.

Virginia Uranium Inc. pushed for the study in hopes of starting to tap the deposit it says is worth $10 billion. Opponents, however, said they are concerned about the safety of such extraction, specifically the radioactive "tailings" left behind when uranium is mined. "We can probably mine it safely," Del. Watkins Abbitt, I-Appomattox County, who helped create the uranium mining moratorium in 1983. "But we cannot handle the tailings safely. That's the problem, that was the problem then." (Read more)

Pay gap between rural and urban workers is larger among those who have more education

The pay gap between rural and urban workers has often been explained by differences in education, but new research shows that is an incomplete explanation. In fact, the gap is greatest for rural residents with college and advanced degrees, says the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture In 2006,the average non-metro worker earned $602 per week, while the average urban worker earned $753 per week. That 23 percent difference is about more than education.

"Yes, average educational attainment in rural counties is lower than in the cities," reports the Daily Yonder. "But even if those differences were leveled, that would not get rid of the rural/urban disparity. At best, it would narrow the 2006 gap about $31 a week — only about a quarter of the rural/urban gap."

The gap is illustrated in the Yonder chart above, which shows that rural workers with high-school diplomas earn 13 percent less than their urban counterparts, while rural college graduates and those with advanced degrees (law, medicine, etc.) earn 23 and 25 percent less, respectively.

"It's easy to see all kinds of incentives in the current system that put rural counties at a disadvantage," the Yonder says in its non-bylined story. "It makes sense for college graduates to move from rural areas to urban counties so that they can make more money. Those with high school diplomas or less might find it advantageous to move to rural areas, where the cost of living is lower and the pay cut is less dramatic. Further, for young people growing up in rural areas who want to remain, there is less of an economic incentive to earn college degrees."

One of the unintended consequences of improving schools, however, may be an increased "brain drain." ERS authors Lorin Kusmin, Robert Gibbs and Timothy Parker write, "Efforts to raise local education levels, including encouraging young people to attend college, may be blunted by the outmigration of many of those who do earn a college degree. (Read more)

Monday, March 03, 2008

In final push, Clinton seeks rural white men's votes

Having lost her advantage, or most of it, among women voters, Hillary Clinton has focused on Ohio's rural and blue-collar men -- "a crucial swing vote who could make the difference in tomorrow's primary here -- and a group that's proven implacably hostile to her over the years," reports Glenn Thrush of Newsday. (Associated Press photo by Mark Duncan)

Writing from Youngstown, Ohio, for the Long Island newspaper, Thrush sets the scene this way: "The Rebel anthem 'Sweet Home Alabama' -- which proclaims 'Watergate does not bother me' -- found its way onto Hillary Clinton's loudspeakers here yesterday. The music at Clinton's events is typically you-go-girl rock, but it's been given a testosterone boost in Ohio, with the addition of Lynyrd Skynyrd, John Mellencamp, Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Ray Vaughan.

"The switch reflects the Clinton campaign's focus . . . Clinton's aides believe that a substantial number of undecided voters, who now make up 8 to 10 percent of those eligible to vote in the Democratic primary, are working-class white men. . . . Her campaign sees a real opportunity to pick up undecided white male voters in the Appalachian eastern part of the state, rural western counties and rust belt towns in the north."

A big part of Clinton's pitch to this target group is the argument that she is more qualified than Barack Obama to be commander in chief. Her campaign "touted her endorsement by 25 high-ranking military officials," Thrush notes, adding, "Obama made his own pitch to rural voters in the Appalachian region yesterday during a small town hall in Nelsonville focusing on his plan to develop 'green jobs' to replace the region's vanishing smokestack industries." (Read more)

Authors protest Lexington paper's lack of story on Ky. rally to protest mountaintop-removal mining

For more than two weeks, foes of mountaintop-removal strip mining for coal have complained about the Lexington Herald-Leader's failure to cover (other than with a photograph) a big rally they had at the Kentucky state Capitol Feb. 14, featuring author Wendell Berry and many others. Today, the paper has an opinion piece by George Ella Lyon, another in a group of Kentucky authors who are fighting mountaintop removal.

She begins, "If John Updike spoke to a rally of 1,200 people on the icy steps of the Massachusetts state capitol, declaring himself ready, 'all other recourse having failed,' to get in the way of the legislature's refusal to save its own land and people from ruinous industrial practices, would The Boston Globe report it?"

Lyon notes that her local paper, the Harlan Daily Enterprise, covered the event "because Harlan countians Carl Shoupe, an underground miner, and Ronnie Banks, a 13-year-old student, spoke at the rally. I know Gov. Steve Beshear's plea for casinos was the big news that day, but there was room for a story about 1,200 Kentuckians at the Capitol to bet on the promise that their voice still counts." (Read more)

'Sawdust shock' hits farmers, manufacturers, others

With fewer houses being built and fewer trees being cut, there's less sawdust to go around, and its price has hit $100 a ton in some markets, from a going rate of $25 a ton. That's bad news for farmers, particle-board manufacturers and even the makers of auto parts, but good news for some folks, reports The Wall Street Journal.

"Sawdust may seem like a lowly commodity, but it is widely used in today's economy," Joel Millman writes. "Farms use sawdust and wood shavings as cozy and clean bedding for horses and chickens. Particle-board makers devour it by the boxcar to fashion a cheap building material. Auto-parts manufacturers blend a finely pulverized sawdust called 'wood flour' with plastic polymers to make a lightweight material to cover steering wheels and dashboards. . . . Wineries use oak sawdust as a flavoring agent for some wines. . . . Oil-rig operators in Wyoming and Colorado pour sawdust into the caverns they find deep inside rock formations as they hunt for pools of petroleum. Sawdust gives drill bits something to grind through."

Some farmers are "using processed cow manure as bedding instead of wood shavings," Millman reports. "Many dairy farms have a process to convert cattle waste into methane gas that they sell to electric generators. The byproduct is basically the hay the cows ate. Lee Jensen's Five Star Dairy in Elk Mound, Wis., uses an aerobic digester to render manure into stall bedding, and has so much on hand after the process that he's selling the excess to neighbors."

Also affected are homeowners with special stoves that burn sawdust pellets. "The pellets, made of blended bits of cedar, lodgepole pine and Douglas fir, require dry fiber, without impurities. Tree bark won't do, only sawdust," Millman writes. Ernie Johnson, left, of Johnson Brothers Contracting in Missoula, Mont., "now mines old houses that are being torn down for lumber that he can grind up and sell." (Photo by Joel Millman)

One upside of "sawdust shock" is more money for scavengers. "Boy Scout troops in Oregon fattened their coffers in January collecting discarded Christmas trees," Millman reports. "Troop 618 in Beaverton made $3,000 hauling trees to a lumber recycler. Troop 728 made $10,000." (Read more; subscription may be required)

Sunday, March 02, 2008

'Corn shock' could have new meaning if a drought in the Midwest drives up food and fuel prices

"Economists are cautioning that the nation's growing dependence on corn would make for a double jolt in the event of a drought across the Midwest: soaring prices not just for food but also for gasoline," reports the Los Angeles Times. "Analysts now warn that a 'corn shock' might not be far off -- and it could lead to $5 gas and $3.50 eggs as the effects reverberate across the economy."

The risk of a corn-withering drought next summer is greater than usual, because of the current La Niña, a cooling of the Pacific Ocean, Iowa State University agricultural economist Bruce Babcock told Times reporter Jerry Hirsch. Babcock and other said that if the corn crop falls short, its rising price "would prevent ethanol distillers from earning a profit, prompting them to slash production," Hirsch writes. "Oil companies would have to scramble to fill that sudden gap with conventional gasoline. Prices would soar for both fuels."

"Historically, we have had a food economy and an energy economy that were for the most part separate," Brown told the Times. "Now they are starting to fuse." (Read more)