Saturday, June 07, 2008

In New Hampshire, a death touches and teaches

New Hampshire is a small state, where it's easy to get known -- and admired, if you do good work. It's also a state where the agriculture commissioner is a former journalist who knows how to tell the stories of the people and issues in the state's diverse agricultural community. The latest "From Your Commissioner" column by Lorraine Merrill, left, in her department's Weekly Market Bulletin is titled "A Time to Reap and A Time To Sow." It begins:
Just two weeks ago we wrote of the joy Arthur and Cathy Scruton were experiencing with the birth of healthy triplet heifer calves at Scruton’s Dairy in Farmington. Over Memorial Day weekend Arthur Scruton was killed in a farm equipment accident. He was 58. The response of the state’s agricultural community demonstrated how deeply this quiet man had touched many individuals and whole families. He and his family have operated one of the state’s top dairy farms, known for their fine herd of
Holsteins. Local farmers and ag service providers offered help to the Scruton family at this peak cropping season. An estimated 500-600 people from every corner of New Hampshire, and at least four other states, lined up for hours to pay their respects to the family and exchange stories and remembrances. A similar- sized crowd turned out the next day for services honoring Art’s memory.
Merrill reminds her readers that farming is among the most dangerous occupations, especially once farmers pass the age of 55. That was the average age for an American farmer the last time it was calculated, in 2002, and it's probably higher now. To read the June 4 issue of the Weekly Market Bulletin, click here. It's long had good journalism; Merrill's predecessor was Steve Taylor, another journalist.

Tennessee center will help food entrepreneurs

The name Cumberland Culinary Center "may conjure Iron Chef-esque images," reports The Lebanon Democrat, but the Tennessee center "will be geared more towards farmers and entrepreneurs." (Encarta map)

The center, for which Cumberland University broke ground Thursday, "will house a commercial kitchen and storage facility intended to assist area entrepreneurs in prepping their products for market," CU Public Relations Director Brian Harville told reporter Hilary Trenda. "The culinary center is intended to educate area entrepreneurs on the production, promotion and packaging of products and to provide small businesses with access to commercial kitchen facilities." It will also link farmers with entrepreneurs to promote their products.

The 2,400-square-foot center is to be completed in time for the fall semester. Its $300,000 cost is being covered by the university, a state grant and a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant. It will be available to entrepreneurs from Middle Tennessee, Southern Kentucky and Northern Alabama. It will not handle meat and dairy products because of federal inspection requirements. (Read more; registration required)

Friday, June 06, 2008

Obama sets stake in Va.; outside media mess up

Seeking rural votes in a swing state, Sen. Barack Obama went to Bristol, Va., yesterday and drew a crowd of 2,500. He made no news, other than making clear he will contest a state that has become a lots less rural since 1964, the last time it voted Democratic for president. But some of the out-of-town news organizations covering Obama made some gaffes worth noting.

"While Virginia was among the states that Mr. Obama won in the primary season, he had trouble here in the southwest," Jeff Zeleny and Adam Nagourney write in The New York Times. "Clinton carried the city of Bristol, as well as the surrounding county, by 67 percent to 32 percent. Four years ago, President Bush won 64 percent of the vote. So the visit by Mr. Obama, which he declared his first official campaign stop of the general-election campaign, was intended to be as rich with symbolism as political strategy." (Read more)

In The Roanoke Times, this was the lead quote in Mason Adams' story: ""Southwest Virginia is an example of so much that is good about this country, but so many people have been forgotten," Obama said. "There are good hardworking decent generous people in beautiful towns all throughout this region, but Washington hasn't been listening to you. It hasn't been paying attention to you. I'm here to let you know I'm going to be paying attention and I'm going to be listening."

Lauren Linn concludes in the Daily Yonder, which has a good map of Virginia's primary results: "As I left I pondered if Obama could win over white, rural, blue-collar Americans. He clearly is not the same as these men and women, even if he attempted to look like them: that was evident throughout the Democratic primary. The response yesterday at Virginia High School was strong and positive, and must have been encouraging to the Obama camp. Maybe, just maybe, there were enough college-educated wealthier voters in that gym to make it work out that way." (Read more)

In the Bristol Herald Courier, David McGee followed Obama's focus: health care. "In his first public appearance since securing the Democratic presidential nomination, Barack Obama promised here Thursday that every American would receive affordable health care by the end of his first term," McGree writes. "Battling self-admitted sleep deprivation since claiming the nomination Tuesday night, Obama spent more than an hour detailing much of his health care plan." (Read more) The paper's coverage was extensive. Nicki Mayo, the content coordinator for, the Herald Courier's Web site, talked with Virginia Tech Professor Robert E. Denton Jr. about Obama’s chances of carrying Virginia and posted this video.

The Herald Courier's editorial board lit into NBC News' Andrea Mitchell for her characterization of the region. As reported by the paper, she said, "This is real [chuckle] redneck ... sort of ... uhm ... bordering on Appalachia ... country." The editorial said, "Bristol doesn’t border 'Appalachia ... country.' It is part of the Appalachian Mountain region. While the region faces challenges, it doesn’t deserve to be the butt of jokes. ... Mocking Appalachia is no different than making racial jokes or ethnic slurs. It isn’t acceptable or professional. Mitchell should be reprimanded by her bosses. A sincere, public apology also is in order." (Read more) UPDATE, June 10: Mitchell apologized for her remarks, Christine Riser of WJHL-TV reports. The Herald Courier's editorial board said the apology "seemed reasonably sincere and gracious. We note that it came relatively quickly, too. However, it’s up to Southwest Virginians to decide whether to accept it or not. We lean toward accepting it, and again extend an invitation to Mitchell to come visit the region. She might be surprised by what she discovers." (Read more) UPDATE, June 23: Foster shares with readers some of the 100-plus comments he received on his "smackdown."

The Washington Post needs a geography and geology lesson on one of the states it covers most. Kristen Mack of the Post reports that Obama "spent the morning courting voters in coal country at a town hall meeting in southwest Virginia," and Tim Craig writes that Obama was "in Bristol in southwestern Virginia's coal country." Wrong. The Appalachian coalfield is north and west of Bristol. It's not far, but they're still not right. Here's a map.

Obama's schedule has him in Raleigh and St. Louis on Monday and one or more unspecified locations in Missouri on Tuesday.

What is rural? The federal government's different definitions serve many different purposes

The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues is often asked how we define "rural." The easy answer, and the easy way, is "non-metropolitan." But that is a very blunt instrument, because standard metropolitan statistical areas are defined by commuting patterns. So many rural people commute to cities, many counties that are essentially rural are included in metropolitan areas. In fact, those counties have many rural residents -- so many that about half the rural population of the U.S. is in metro areas. There are many other ways to define "rural," ranging so widely that "The share of the U.S. population considered rural ranges from 17 to 49 percent depending on the definition used," the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture explains in the latest edition of its electronic magazine, Amber Waves.

"The use of multiple definitions reflects the reality that rural and urban are multidimensional concepts, making clear-cut distinctions between the two difficult," John Cromartie and Shawn Bucholtz write. "Is population density the defining concern, or is it geographic isolation? Is it small population size that makes it necessary to distinguish rural from urban? If so, how small is rural? Because the U.S. is a nation in which so many people live in areas that are not clearly rural or urban, seemingly small changes in the way rural areas are defined can have large impacts on who and what are considered rural." (Read more)

R.W. Johnson Foundation commits $300 million to improve heath in 14 areas, many with rural folks

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation committed $300 million this week to help improve the quality of health care in 14 states and regions across the U.S., many of which have large rural populations. The commitment, which RWJF said in a news release is the largest effort of its kind undertaken by a U.S. philanthropy, aims to improve health care in communities that cover 11 percent of the U.S. population. The community-focused program, known as Aligning Forces for Quality, "will list the overall quality of health care, reduce racial and ethnic disparities and provide models for national reform."

The program will work in Maine (the nation's most rural state except Vermont), Minnesota, Wisconsin, Humboldt County, Calif., the Willamette Valley of Oregon, south-central Pennsylvania, western Michigan, western New York state, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, Kansas City, Mo., Memphis and Seattle. "They were selected as part of a highly competitive process to find communities that were positioned to make fundamental and cutting-edge changes to rebuild their health care systems," the release explained.

RWJF President Risa Lavizzo-Mourey said, “Despite having the most expensive health care system in the world, patients are subject to too many mistakes, too much miscommunication and too much inequity. As a result, too many Americans aren’t receiving the care they need and deserve. This unprecedented commitment of resources, expertise and training will turn proven practices for improving quality into real results in communities across America.”

RWJF examined Medicare claims to illustrate vast variations in health care quality across the country. Five different measures of care were examined by researchers in the 14 area. According the the RWJF news release, "Most strikingly, researchers found significant differences by race and by region in whether patients lost a leg to amputation, a complication of peripheral vascular disease and diabetes. ... The report also demonstrates significant differences in whether people get basic recommended care, such as women getting regular mammography tests or patients with diabetes getting essential blood tests." You may examine the study here.

Alaska conference on dealing with climate change focuses on rural solutions

Residents in rural Alaska are familiar with virtually all aspects of climate change. The Alaska Municipal League Communities Conference on Climate Change met in Anchorage May 28-30. According to the AML's Web site, the conference allowed participants to "learn more about anticipated challenges and policy options to address climate change" and "obtain tools and resources to help (them) develop a response to climate change that is most effective for (their) community and region."

Scrammon Bay City Manager James Akerelrea "was searching for solutions from among the pack of climate-change experts and fellow officials. In addition, he wanted to share Scammon Bay's efforts to thrive in changing environmental and economic conditions," Mary Lochner writes for The Arctic Sounder.

Energy conservation is being promoted, with advice to pick projects that are most efficient. “A lot of people want to have their renewable energy project that’s visible and exciting, but that’s not always the best thing to do with your money,” said Kathy Prentki, Denali Commission energy project manager. Wind farms, tides, river dams and methane from garbage waste were all discussed as alternative energy sources that could counter threats posed by increasing fuel costs. In addition to cost related issues, each alternative presents a variety of obstacles or disadvantages.

"Margit Hentschel, director of climate protection services for Walsh Environmental in Denver, said investing in climate change preparation makes sense even if current models turn out to be less than spot on in predicting the future," Lochner writes. “It’s really just good planning and business,” Hentschel said. “A lot of the emergency preparedness — and that’s a big element — reinforces the things (local governments) should be doing anyway.”

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Data on stream flow, water quality available online

Wondering if last night's rain was a gully-wusher upstream? "The U.S. Geological Survey now offers real-time maps and data on surface water quality across the U.S.," Mark Schaver, computer-assisted reporting director for The Courier-Journal of Louisville writes on his blog,

Schaver cites ResourceShelf, which says, "WaterQualityWatch is a new USGS Web site that provides access to real-time water-quality monitor data collected in surface waters throughout the United States as part of the USGS mission to describe water sources. Measurements include stream flow, water temperature, specific conductance, acidity and alkalinity, dissolves oxygen and turbidity. These measurements are available at more than 1,300 sites in streams with watersheds as small as a few square miles to more than 1 million square miles in the Mississippi River as it enters the Gulf of Mexico. Continuous real-time water-quality data are used for decisions regarding drinking water, water treatment, regulatory programs, recreation, and public safety."

This map shows the array of stream gauges, showing flow; the redder the dot, the lower the flow. To view data from a particular monitoring site, click here.

Food and gas price hikes hit rural, poor hardest

Paralegal Peggy Trump fills up her tank in Charleston, W.Va., before heading home to Beckley, the beginning and end of her five-day-a-week round trip. She says Charleston law firms offer better pay and benefits, but increases in fuel and food prices are squeezing her pocketbook and those of all Americans, especially those who commute from rural areas. The topic is getting more coverage, and it should. (Charleston Gazette photo by Chris Dorst)

"When the economy takes a tumble, the poor are often the first to feel the pain," Karla Ward writes for the Herald-Leader in Lexington, Ky. "Representatives of several local social service agencies said they're seeing more clients seeking help in an environment in which gas and grocery prices are soaring." Problems resulting from increases in food and gas prices are compounded in rural areas. "The rural areas are going to suffer more in the current environment," said James Siliak, director of the University of Kentucky's Center for Poverty Research. "He said people in rural areas have to commute farther to work, which means they have higher fuel costs, and there is some evidence suggesting that groceries cost more in rural areas as well," Ward writes.

West Virginia may be the state where rural commuters burn up the most time, relatively speaking. It ranked 11th in average commuting time in 2006, led entirely by states with large metropolitan areas, and 13th in "the percentage of workers who work outside their county of residence, according to the 2006 American Community Survey by the U.S. Census Bureau," Allison Knezevich writes for the Gazette. In "a largely rural state, mass transit isn't available to most people." (Read more)

Increasing fuel costs also affect health care, especially those who are homebound or disabled. "Rural residents are often hit the hardest," writes Clare Ansberry for The Wall Street Journal. "Doctors, dentists and grocery stores may be miles away and there is often little, if any, public transportation. Agencies such as Easter Seals provide rides for those with disabilities, but with high gasoline costs, such serviced are often limited largely to medical appointments." Dozens homebound individuals in rural Minnesota were sent letters informing them their local Meals on Wheels program is closing at the end of the month.

Higher food and fuel costs are effecting food distribution to the nation's less fortunate too. The Mississippi Food Network and similar organizations "are finding it increasingly difficult to provide food to the poor," Becky Gillette reports for The Mississippi Business Journal.
"While food banks across the country are facing a strain of increased demand at a time of inflation for purchasing and distributing food, the need can be particular acute in areas where there is a low per capita income." According to information recently released by the USDA, a family of four paid $197 on average per week for groceries, compared to $211 per week in February 2008. The USDA considers it the worst food inflation in 20 years.

The Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma provides food for nearly 64,000 hungry Oklahomans every week and since their beginning in 1980 has distributed over 283 million pounds of food to nearly 500 charitable programs in central and western Oklahoma. Growing needs in rural communities has led to an increase in distributions in additional areas increasing food and transportation costs," Amy Klinge writes for The Oklahoman. The agency recently received a grant from the Communities Foundation of Oklahoma to help offset costs associated with servicing these outlying areas.

Diesel-dependent utility in Alaska seeks state aid

"The largest utility in rural Alaska can’t afford to buy next year’s fuel and is asking the state for millions of dollars in help," reports Alex DeMarban of Alaska Newspapers in the chain's Bristol Bay Times. "Board members with Alaska Village Electric Cooperative, which provides power in 53 Interior and Western Alaska villages, declared a “financial emergency” on May 23 because of runaway diesel fuel prices."

The co-op spent $14 million on fuel last year and is expecting to spend $26 million this year, DeMarban reports. According to its top executive, "The cooperative has some money on hand but needs help to prevent a crippling rate increase for customers who can barely pay current bills." It offered an alternative to the plan proposed by Republican Gov. Sarah Palin for the state's utilities, all of which are cooperatives. (Read more)

Big investors broadening stakes in agribusiness

On the heels of increased speculation in grain markets, "A few big private investors are starting to make bolder and longer-term bets that the world’s need for food will greatly increase — by buying farmland, fertilizer, grain elevators and shipping equipment," The New York Times reports.

Brad Cole, president of Cole Partners Asset Management in Chicago, which manages hedge funds focused on natural resources, told Diana Henriques, “There is considerable interest in what we call ‘owning structure’ — like United States farmland, Argentine farmland, English farmland — wherever the profit picture is improving.”

The new investment could raise food production at a time when many countries need it. "But the long-term implications are less clear," Henriques writes. "Some traditional players in the farm economy, and others who study and shape agriculture policy, say they are concerned these newcomers will focus on profits above all else, and not share the industry’s commitment to farming through good times and bad." (Read more) For more stories in the Times' series on the food system, click here.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Rural tourism shows off agriculture, natural beauty

Summer is nearly upon us, making the air ripe for tourism, but what will drive tourists to your rural community? Tourism has the potential to stimulate rural economies, create additional jobs, and showcase the wonders, diversity and beauty of rural communities. (Tourists walk in a rural landscape in a photo by Turismo Rural)

"One travel trend in tourism these days is outdoor activities and going to rural areas," Keystone Heights, Fla., Mayor Mary Lou Hildreth told the Bradford County Telegraph. "People want to ride in the country and find quaint, out-of-the-way places." Hildreth recently attended the Enterprise Florida conference where she participated in several segments on rural tourism. "Along with a miniature canoe paddle, some plastic alligator beads and mounds of printed materials, the mayor also brought back ideas for making Keystone Heights more attractive to a potential tourist dollar," James Williams writes for the Telegraph. "Areas designated as 'rural areas of critical economic concern' qualify for more funds such as grants and other public investments through the Rural Economic Development Initiative. That would include funds for rural and eco-tourism."

A busload of diverse individuals toured northeast Solano County, Calif., allowing participants to enjoy the sights, smells and tastes of local agriculture. The Solano County Agriculture Advisory Committee sponsored the Savor Solano field trip, which "took riders on a tour of rural Vacaville, Dixon and Winters, and showed off some of the region's most relied-upon ag industrial processing plants," writes Danny Bernardini for The Reporter. "After meandering through the back roads, the tour stopped at two of the area's processing plants. Superior Farms, the sole lamb processing plant on the west coast, and Campbell's Soup Co. both had short presentations for the group."

Solano County is not the only community taking steps toward enhancing rural tourism opportunities. "Chambers County [Texas] has the potential to grow into a nature- and agri-tourism powerhouse if it takes steps to protect its natural resources today, according to a national nonprofit conservation organization," Amy Condon writes for The Progress. "Organized by The Trust for Public Land (TPL), experts - in farmers markets, wildlife and nature tourism, corporate habitat conservation, and conservation funding - spent last week meeting with Chambers residents, businesses, and farmers and ranchers in workshops to explore strategies to address a series of questions raised through TPL's Chambers County Greenprint for Growth process."

Chambers is the first Rural County Demonstration Project in Texas undertaken by TPL. The Chambers County Greenprint goals include: maintaining rural character and creating more public access for nature-based recreation. "Part of the Greenprint process involved last week's Strategy Exchange to answer questions that cannot be addressed through mapping but help achieve the Greenprint's overall goals." The Strategy Exchange generated a series of recommended actions, including "diversifying agricultural and tourism activities for sustainable economic development, constructing an inventory of existing nature-based tourism opportunities" and "providing resources to landowners interests in creating nature-based experiences." A grant from the Coastal Coordination Council primarily funded the Chambers County Greenprint for Growth and Conservation Project. To learn more about it, contact Linda Shead. For more information on promoting tourism in rural America visit the National Agricultural Library Rural Information Center.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Filmmaker lives a miner's life in '30 Days' on FX

Morgan Spurlock, the writer, producer and director of the Academy Award-nominated film "Super Size Me", returns to his native West Virginia to work as an apprentice coal miner to kick off FX's "30 Days," a reality television show that starts tonight at 10 p.m. (Photo of Spurlock by Ray Mickshaw for FX)

In "30 Days," an individual or group is immersed in a lifestyle for that time period while discussing related social issues. The first episode of the show's third season features Spurlock living with Dale Lusk, who has mined coal for 35 years, and his wife in Bolt, W. Va. Lusk, the supervisor of the mine in which Spurlock works, "introduced Morgan to a miner's way of life, gaining an understanding of the financial benefits that draw miners and the dangers they face daily," Dave Lavender writes for The Herald-Dispatch in Huntington, W. Va.

Spurlock trained for 80 hours to become a "red hat," the term for a rookie apprentice, and enter the mine. "As a new miner, Spurlock was assigned much of the grunt work, including plastering, building wooden roof supports, shoveling coal and hauling heavy equipment,' Lavender writes. "On his days off, Spurlock put a face on the other problems with coal as energy -- from the aftermath of families dealing with mining deaths, as well as witnessing the mountains being permanently destroyed to get at the coal seams through mountaintop removal" in surface mines much different from the underground workplace.

"It makes you realize how many people are affected by coal," Spurlock said. "Coal has one foot in the past and one foot in the future. We can't wait 'till it disappears to do something. We can only chose progress." Read more about "30 Days" here.

Free-roaming dogs bite 5 million people a year, kill 10-15; inflict serious damage to livestock, pets

Dogs are often called "man's best friend," but not all dogs fit this description. Feral and free-roaming canines, or wild dogs, can terrorize wildlife, livestock, humans and their pets. (Feral dogs harass two bighorn sheep in a photo by Jeff Crouse Hinojosa of JJ Restoration Service)

"Wildlife Services, the federal agency responsible for predator control estimates that more than 33 million feral and free-roaming dogs run loose in the United States, biting 5 million people each year and killing about 10 to 15, usually small children," Troy Anderson writes in the High Country News, which focuses on the rural West. "In rural areas, feral and loose pet dogs often form packs that chase down and kill deer, elk, chickens, goats and even cattle." Jeff Villepique, a biologist with the California Department of Fish and Game, told Anderson most incidents go unreported. "There is no reason for me to think we know the full extent of the problem."

Such attacks are not limited to big game animals. "Many ranchers are quick to blame wolves, coyotes and grizzly bears for harassing or killing their livestock, but wildlife officials say dogs are often the culprits," Anderson writes. In 2004, dogs killed approximately 30,000 sheep nationwide, second only to coyotes who butchered more than 135,000. "Each year Wildlife Services receives hundreds of requests to trap, poison and shoot feral dogs. Still, the agency devotes most of its resources to killing wild predators. In 2006, the agency killed more than 87,000 coyotes but only 512 dogs. Hundreds more were taken to animal shelters."Wild dogs also inflict mayhem on humans and their pets and neighborhoods. A pack is suspected of nearly killing a family dog in Tell City, Ind., Stefanie Silvey reports for WIFE-TV. Residents in Aiken, S.C., notified police after sighting about five wild dogs roaming together who officials believe could carry rabies or other diseases," Joy Howe reports for WJBF-TV. Authorities in Upper Arlington, Ohio are offering a $1000 reward for the return of Curley, a feral dog who escaped while being transported from Utah to New York state, writes Bill Bush of The Columbus Dispatch. "In California’s San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains, officials have removed 350 feral and free-roaming dogs over the past 15 years," Anderson writes. "The dogs are difficult to catch, and trapping has been sporadic at best. Recent U.S. Forest Service budget cuts will further hamper efforts to address the problem."

Wildlife Services is a division of the Animal and Plant Inspection Service of the Department of Agriculture, the parent agency of the Forest Service. It should not be confused with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is part of the Interior Department.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Utah mine collapse began where miners were removing pillars, seismologists conclude

The Utah mine collapse that claimed nine lives last summer was larger than first thought and started near where miners had been removing pillars of coal in the weeks before the disaster, University of Utah seismologists say in a report that also debunks the mine operator's notion that the collapse could have been caused by an earthquake.

The researchers "estimated the size of the collapse is about four times larger than was thought shortly after the time of the Aug. 6, 2007, disaster that resulted in the deaths of six miners and, 10 days later, three rescuers," a university press release said. "The seismologists’ 53-page report has been submitted to the journal Seismological Research Letters and to federal Mine Safety and Health Administration investigators." MSHA's report on the Crandall Canyon mine is due out this month. "Scientists usually don’t release studies until they are published in journals," the release said. "But in this case, there have been numerous requests for the information, which is a matter of public interest, so researchers released the report now. They delayed the release a couple of weeks at MSHA’s request to give the agency time to inform disaster victims’ families."

Some experts have blamed the collapse on the mine's practice of "robbing pillars," the vertical columns of coal that support the mine roof, and the report lends more credence to that view. It notes that the MSHA-approved mining plan called for "leaving behind pillars about 110 feet long and 60 feet wide. The next phase of the plan was to mine coal in some of these pillars and allowing the roof around the pillars. "The last known working location of the six miners was just east of where those pillars were removed," the release said. The study shows the hypocenter of the collapse, the underground point at which it began, “was right at the edge of where miners were removing pillars in July and early August,” said seismologist Jim Pechmann, the study's lead author and research associate professor of geology and geophysics.

The report also said the scientists are certain that the 3.9-magnitude earthquake recorded at the time of the collapse was the collapse itself, not the cause of the collapse, as contended by Robert Murray of Murray Energy Corp., owner of the mine.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Ethanol and biodiesel appear to play only a minor role in recent global food-price increases

The Grocery Manufacturers Association and ethanol producers are in a public-relations and lobbying battle over the role of ethanol in rising food prices. The best available evidence -- and we remain open to other evidence -- is that ethanol has had a very minor role.

Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer said at a May 19 press conference that the administration estimates that corn based ethanol accounts for only about 3 percent of the recent increases in global food prices. "Schafer, a longtime proponent of biofuels, vehemently disputed efforts by the leaders of the World Bank and the U.N. World Food Program to blame ethanol for rising world food prices," David Sands and Stephen Dinan write in The Washington Times.

Schafer didn't give the source of his 3 percent figure, but USDA told us that it came from the President's Council of Economic Advisers. Jane Ihrig, a Federal Reserve Board economist on leave to the council, told us that it's important to consider the time period covered by statistics. In this case, the 3 percent figure is for the past 12 months. "Most of the quotes out there, when we look at them, we believe are very similar to what estimates we're giving," she said.

In a recent report, USDA did not use the 3 percent figure but explained the other factors at work in increasing food prices. "Some factors reflect trends of slower growth in production and more rapid demand that have contributed to a tightening of world balances of grains and oilseeds over the last decade," the report says. "Recent factors that have further tightened world markets include increased global demand for biofuel feedstocks and adverse weather conditions in 2006 and 2007 in some major grain- and oilseed-producing areas. Other factors ... include the declining value of the U.S. dollar, rising energy prices, increasing agricultural costs of production, growing foreign exchange holdings by major food-importing countries, and policies adopted recently by some exporting and importing countries to mitigate their own food price inflation."

According to the White House, "U.S. food prices have increased far less than global food prices and a similarly small percent of the increase is attributed to biofuels production. Without increased ethanol production, food price inflation in the United States would have been 4.25 percent over the past 12 months rather than 4.5 percent. One of the reasons U.S. food prices have increased less than global food prices is because Americans consume more processed and restaurant foods, while developing countries consume more basic commodities. The spike in commodity prices directly impacts the global food price." But it should be added, we think, that prices for U.S. pork and chicken have been driven up by the increased cost of corn, a major feed for those industries.

Robert Zubrin and Gal Luft write in the Chicago Tribune that "A flood of reports and statements has claimed that the world's biofuel programs — in particular the U.S. corn ethanol effort—is starving poor people around the globe. Even the UN's special rapporteur for the Right to Food decried biofuel production as 'a crime against humanity.' It seems so obvious: With so much corn being turned into fuel, food shortages must inevitably result, and biofuel programs must be the cause. However, that's completely untrue. Here are the facts. In the last five years, despite the nearly threefold growth of the corn ethanol industry (or actually because of it), the U.S. corn crop grew by 35 percent, the production of distillers grain (a high-value animal feed made from the protein saved from the corn used for ethanol) quadrupled and the net corn food and feed product of the U.S. increased 26 percent. "Contrary to claims that farmers have cut other crops to grow more corn, U.S. soybean plantings this year are expected to be up 18 percent and wheat plantings up 6 percent. U.S. farm exports are up 23 percent. America is clearly doing its share in feeding the world." Zubrin is the author of Energy Victory: Winning the War on Terror by Breaking Free of Oil; Luft is executive director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security. They are members of the Set America Free Coalition, an energy-independence group that former CIA Director James Woolsey calls "a coalition of tree huggers, do-gooders, sodbusters, cheap hawks and evangelicals."

These are international issues that stem from rural areas and also affect them. Food prices are often higher in some rural areas because they lack large supermarkets. How are these issues affecting your rural communities?

Federal policies, enrollment declines spur more closings and consolidations in rural school districts

Cheerleader Tiffany Keller, right, is only a sophomore at Pocahontas High School but has probably led her last high-school cheer. The school is closing, the latest in an accelerating trend, reports The Roanoke Times: "Since 2000, at least 22 schools have closed in rural Virginia. More closings are expected with dwindling enrollment, aging buildings and a declining economy." In Southwest Virginia, other reasons include "their region's lack of political clout and education policies that benefit more populated districts," David Harrison reports.

The latter point is a sore one for the Rural School and Community Trust, which touts the value of smaller schools. It is hammering away at changes in the federal Title I program for districts with many poor students, which doles out money "not only on the percentage of eligible children, but also on the total number of eligible children, which means that small cities or rural areas get less than other, more populated districts," Harrison writes, citing Marty Strange, the group's policy director, who figures "those inequities will cost the Tazewell County school system $49,079 this year."

The other big federal factor is the No Child Left Behind Act, "which requires failing schools to offer to pay for private tutoring or to bus students to better performing schools," Harrison explains. "Few private tutoring companies set up shop in isolated areas, and few students from struggling schools will volunteer to ride a bus 30 miles to a better one, Strange said. Then there's the requirement that teachers get more training, which has heightened competition among school districts for qualified teachers and driven up teacher salaries."

Larger schools offer more courses. "smaller schools give students more support, smaller classes and inspire a devoted following in their community," Harrison writes. "On the other, those small schools are becoming increasingly expensive to run. ... But school closings are not always successful. A 2004 West Virginia study found that school districts in that state spent more money per student than they did before closing schools. And West Virginia has not seen an improvement in student performance despite having fewer schools and spending more money, the report found."

One additional expense in Tazewell County will be longer bus rides for students who now attend Pocahontas High, in an old coal town hard by the West Virginia border. Tiffany Keller, 16, told Harrison she doesn't think expect to try out for cheerleader at Tazewell High. "It would feel disloyal to cheer for another school." (Read more)