Saturday, July 12, 2008

Clinton touts Bishop's 'The Big Sort' to governors

Former President Bill Clinton really likes The Big Sort, the new book by our friend Bill Bishop. He riffed on it last week at the Aspen Ideas Festival, and used it as the basis of a speech today to the National Governors Association.

Clinton "warned Saturday that the country is becoming increasingly polarized despite the historic nature of the Democratic primary," in which a woman and an African-American man were the surviving candidates, reports Andrew Welsh-Huggins of The Associated Press. Clinton said, "Underneath this apparent accommodation to our diversity, we are in fact hunkering down in communities of like-mindedness, and it affects our ability to manage difference." (AP photo)

"Clinton developed his 44-minute speech from themes he said he drew from a new book, The Big Sort, by Bill Bishop," Huggins reports, noting one of the book's seminal statistics, the growing number of counties in which presidential candidates win or lose by more than 20 percent of the county's vote. "We were sorting ourselves out by choosing to live with people that we agree with," Clinton said. The rest of the book's title is Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart.

"Clinton has often meshed big-picture admonitions with new books whose ideas he admires," AP notes. "He drew similar conclusions in 2000 following the publication of Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone, on the decline of civic engagement in the United States." (Read more)

Bishop, a Louisville native and member of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues advisory board, will speak and sign books at 4 p.m. Sunday at Carmichael's bookstore in Louisville and at 7 p.m. Monday at Joseph-Beth Boksellers in Lexington.

Ky. expands coal-ed program beyond coal industry

John Cheves of the Lexington Herald-Leader wrote a story about two months ago revealing that Kentucky state tax money was going to a coal-industry foundation for commercial messages favorable to the industry, even calling the controversial practice of mountaintop-removal coal mining "simply the right thing to do, both for the environment and the local economy." That story prompted the state to have that Web page revised and open up the program to other messages. Today, Cheves alerts readers of the paper's PolWatchers blog:
"Do you have strong feelings about coal mining that you want to share with your fellow Kentuckians?
Good news! Gov. Steve Beshear has a bucket of tax money for you.
The Governor's Office of Energy Policy this week issued a request for nonprofit groups with proposals to educate the public on "coal-related issues." . . .
Although the coal industry has controlled this program to date, there is nothing in state law that prevents anyone else -- including environmentalist nonprofit groups -- from applying for a grant to offer the public their own take on "coal-related issues."
To apply for the Kentucky Coal Education Project, get a copy of the Request For Proposals here. Deadline for applications is July 21 at 4:30 p.m.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Community supported agriculture, often organic, growing in popularity

Community supported agriculture, defined as "a mutual commitment and partnership between a farm and supportive members of the community," got big play this week in The New York Times. "The concept was imported from Europe and Asia in the 1980s as an alternative marketing and financing arrangement to help combat the often prohibitive costs of small-scale farming," Susan Saulny writes. "But until recently, it was slow to take root. There were fewer than 100 such farms in the early 1990s, but in the last several years the numbers have grown to close to 1,500, according to academic experts who have followed the trend."

In a typical CSA program, people agree to buy at certain prices products delivered regularly from a farm, or make a direct investment in a farm and get products as dividends. "Some shareholders said they found the arrangement a bargain compared to grocery shopping, while others considered it a worthwhile indulgence," Saulny writes. "Most agreed that the urge to buy and spend locally — to avoid the costs and environmental degradation that come with shipping and storage — was behind the decision to join. Shareholders can pick up their goods at the farm or at a store across the street." (Read more)

Many CSA farmers, like Henry Brockman of Illinois, left, raise organic produce. Increasing costs of herbicides and fertilizers are pushing more farmers toward organic farming, which allows them to charge more for their products, Michele Deluca reports for the Niagara Gazette. Martin Yoder tells her that he made his farm organic after experiencing some health changes. "To me, (organic farming's) a way of life," he said. "I'm not exposed to any chemical sprays, chemical fertilizers. It's all bad. It's all poisonous. If you work with nature, you'll be rewarded."

Katie Porter, whose father started an organic CSA 14 years ago, told Deluca that investors share in the farm's success and misfortune. "We emphasize this is not a grocery store," she says. "You share in the farm’s bounty. A bad storm can wipe out a whole field. People learn about the trials and tribulations of farmers.” (Read more) For more information on CSA, see The Robyn Van En Center at Wilson College, Local Harvest or the publication Community Supported Agriculture, from the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service (from which we got the photo).

Gas prices keep rural shoppers local, help stores

Here's the first upside we've seen to high fuel prices in rural areas: Rural residents, who often travel great distances to shop, are staying closer to home and thus helping local stores, Anne D'Innocenzio and Kate Brumback report for the Associated Press. "Many stores in rural towns — from small independent shops to local chains — are starting to enjoy a little life after years of seeing customers bypass them for distant malls," they write. "While it may not reverse the decades-long decline of small-town shopping, it could lead national mall developers and merchants to rethink where to build and challenge a basic tenet of retailing: Build, and shoppers will come from miles away." (AP photo by Dave Martin)

The surge in shoppers has increased traffic in Thomasville, Ala., which is 100 miles from Mobile or Montgomery, which is home to the nearest malls. Thomasville, population 5,500, small shop owners report more customers who instigate local options prior to heading further away. "If you are looking to buy the basics, then you do most of your shopping at home," said Thomasville Mayor Sheldon Day. Tax revenues are up 5 percent in Thomasville for the fiscal year that ends Sept. 30, and Brewton, Ala., 80 miles southeast of Thomasville, population approximately 5,000, reports an increase in sales tax revenue of 6 percent in recent months. While many rural retailers are benefiting from increasing fuel costs, city officials in Mobile and Montgomery report shortfalls, which is due partly to out-of-town shoppers staying close to home.

Experts say applying sales tax data nationwide is difficult because individual states define sales tax in various ways. Family Dollar, Inc., a discount chain that operates 30 percent of its retailers in rural areas, reports its rural locations are outperforming the chain as a whole. The Piggly Wiggly Carolina Co. franchise, which manages 113 supermarkets in South Carolina and Georgia, reports some rural stores have experienced recent sales increases despite recent struggles. "Rural retail centers are likely to see a lot more traffic as consumers are not willing to make the long commute to the big city," said Michael Hicks, an associate economics professor at Ball State University.

The demise of rural communities has been influenced by closing manufacturing plants, young adults fleeing in search of better job opportunities and the expansion of discounters such as Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., which often force small businesses to close, including grocery and hardware stores, reducing the diversity of shopping options. "But gas prices could be playing a bigger role in changing people's habits," D'Innocenzio and Brumback write. "The high cost of gas takes a tole, especially on rural Americans, who are already struggling with lower average incomes than the overall U.S. population, fewer employment options and a heavy reliance on gas-guzzling vehicles... Higher traffic in rural town centers like Thomasvile may be a sign of what's to come."

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Oregon counties, losing forest funds, make cuts; program's end will affect 700 counties in 39 states

Oregon counties are making major cuts in road and bridge maintenance, emergency services, sheriffs' departments and administration because they are no longer getting money to compensate them for national-forest land that is off the tax rolls, the Portland Business Journal reports. The cuts are a result of the loss of federal forest payments received through Secure Rural Schools funding. "More than one in five counties will cut those services by at least 10 percent during the fiscal year that began July 1," Oregon State University said in a news release.

OSU's Rural Studies Program conducted the study, which found that many counties started making cuts three years ago in anticipation of the Secure Rural Schools program's expiration. "These impacts are most pronounced in the eastern and southwestern parts of the state, where federal forest payments have comprised a greater percentage of the counties’ budgets,” said Brent Steel, a professor of political science at OSU and a co-author of the study. Approximately half the counties are considering tax or fee increases to offset part of the shortage. Click here to view the report.

"In response to the loss of revenues from reduced timber sales, Congress enacted the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self Determination Act in 2000 to stabilize county payments from national-forest lands," writes Elizabeth Stevens for The Paradise Post. "However, that legislation has expired and Congress has yet to take action to reauthorize the program. Rural school districts are now faced with losing millions of dollars in funding that they have relied upon for years."

Oregon, Idaho, California, Washington, Montana and Alaska receive most of the money, but Mississippi, Arkansas and other Southern states also receive considerable payments. The program "helps pay for schools, roads and public safety in 700 rural counties in 39 states," Matthew Daly writes for The Associated Press.

Colo. will pay loans for new doctors who go rural

The Colorado Health Foundation has created a new program that will pay off medical-school-student loans for doctors who agree to practice in rural communities, Mark Hadren reports for the Denver Business Journal. According to state officials, 57 of Colorado's 64 counties, most of which are rural, suffer from an insufficient number of primary-care physicians to serve the local population. The Physician Loan Repayment Program hopes to combat this problem that is partly created because many young doctors flock to big cities because they offer higher salaries and fees, which are necessary to pay off student loans.

The program is partnered with the Colorado Community Health Network and the Colorado Rural Health Center and will pay up to $150,000 in three years to 18 physicians. "There are many parts of Colorado that are in desperate need of primary care physicians," says Dr. Jack Westfall, director of the Colorado Area Health Education Center. "Often the communities that are in most need of a physician have the fewest resources to recruit a doctor, leaving individuals to suffer worse health and making it difficult for communities to attract others to live and work there, which can impact the economy," he said.

Las Vegas to get more water from rural Nevada

Nevada's state water engineer approved the pumping of 6 billion gallons of groundwater a year from three rural Nevada valleys to Las Vegas Wednesday, Brendan Riley reports for The Associated Press. "The ruling by state Engineer Tracy Taylor follows a hearing that ended in February with the Southern Nevada Water Authority saying it's entitled to the water from Delamar, Dry Lake and Cave Valleys and opponents warning that the pumping could have a catastrophic impact," Riley writes.

The authority originally sought 11 billion gallons per year but is "very pleased" with the ruling, said Scott Huntley, an authority spokesman. "In his ruling, Taylor retained the authority to halt any pumping if there are impacts to existing water rights or conflicts with existing domestic wells. He said if the pumping threatens to prove detrimental to the public interest or is found not to be environmentally sound, he will also stop the pumping," Mary Manning and Cy Ryan write for the Las Vegas Sun. Taylor also wants more biological and hydrlogic studies conducted before any water is pumped.

Casino executives, developers, union representatives and others who cite water -conservation efforts in the Las Vegas area support the project and warn that without enough water an economic downturn will emerge, affecting the entire state. Ranchers, farmers, local irrigation companies, the Great Basin Water Network, the Sierra Club, Nevada's Cattlemen's Association and White Pine County, which boarders Lincoln County, oppose the project. Launce Rake, spokesman for the Progressive Leadership Alliance, another group that opposes the water shift, called the decision a "mixed bag" and said his organization does not trust the water authority. "These valleys are in extreme drought and need more protection for wildlife and to sustain their communities," he said.

Nevada, the nation's most arid state, continues to be affected by an eight-year drought that continues on the Colorado River and has reduced Lake Mead's level more than 100 feet. The SNWA plans to begin rural groundwater delivery to Las Vegas by 2015. The valleys, which are located between 75 and 125 miles from Las Vegas, "will be the first tapped for the agency's massive pipeline project," Riley reports. "(SNWA's) eventual goal is to import enough water to serve more than 230,000 homes, in addition to about 4000,000 households already getting its water. Cost of its 200-mile pipeline project has been estimated at anywhere from $2 billion to $3.5 billion." (Las Vegas Sun map) Click here to read the Rural Blog's initial story on this from June 12, 2007.

Voters in South Dakota county OK new oil refinery

Voters in Union County, S.D., in the southeast tip of the state, voted last month to create a new zoning district comprising 3,300 acres in the Missouri River bottomlands between Spink and Elk Point for a new oil refinery, reportedly the first to be built in the U.S. in more than 30 years. (Encarta map)

The Hyperion Energy Center includes a $10 billion refinery that would require 4,500 workers and five years to construct. Once completed, it would require more than 1,800 employees to operate, while processing approximately 400,000 barrels of gooey oil from Canadaian tar sands each day. It will also have a hydrogen-producing Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle power plant to generate hydrogen, power and steam, the Hyperion Web site says. The refinery will produce ultra-low-sulfur gasoline and diesel fuel, and "will incorporate green principles in its everyday functions and integrate only the most advanced commercially feasible emission control technologies in its operations."

Voters supported the creation of a Energy Center Planned Development District by 57 percent to 42 percent in a heavy-turnout election, but the debate continues. "Emotions ran high on both sides of the issue," entrepreneur Jack Schultz writes on his BoomtownUSA blog. "On one side were people like Dennis Hultgren, who's lived on the same farm for 78 years and about eight miles from the proposed site. He commented, 'I've got 10 adult grandchildren and not one of them has stayed in South Dakota. I think that this is a great opportunity that will impact the entire area. Not just jobs but an immense grown in other related industries.'" Local resident Doug Maurstad writes in The Argus Leader of Sioux Falls, "We in Union County are fighting this refinery every step of the way." Ed Cable led opposition to the proposed refinery and is concerned about the cost of improving roads and meeting the needs of construction workers. Construction for the plant is projected to begin in 2010.

Schultz, a pro-development kind of guy, notes that the county can use more jobs, because 44 percent of its residents drive outside the county to work. Many drive 20 miles to Sioux City, Iowa or 65 miles to Sioux Falls because Union County jobs have declined from 10,290 to 8,416 in the past 10 years. (Read more) However, the Census Bureau's American FactFinder site tells us that folks in Union County, pop. 12,584, drove an average of 17.9 minutes to work in 2000 -- well under the national average of 25.5 minutes. For that and other data on the county, click here.

In Appalachian Ohio, McCain says he will return; Obama gets to know the country he wants to lead

Presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain brought his town-hall campaign to Appalachian Ohio yesterday, "the first in what he said would be repeated visits to southern and rural Ohio between now and the November election," writes Mike James of The Independent in nearby Ashland, Ky. "Ohio’s rural counties are shaping up to be a deciding factor in who wins the state’s electoral votes." (Photo is from The Ironton Tribune, which had no credit online. For a nicely done slide show of McCain's visit, by Independent photographer John Flavell, click here.)

Aboard McCain's "Straight Talk Express" bus, Frank Lewis of the Portsmouth Daily Times interviewed the candidate and Ohio Sen. Mike DeWine, who said, "What we find is, when a Democrat wins as president in Ohio, they do well in southeast Ohio." DeWine noted that in the primary election, Obama lost some counties in the region to Hillary Clinton by 6 to 1. "McCain said he still was attempting to get Obama to join him in a series of town hall meetings, but told the audience, so far, Obama had declined. But McCain said he is holding out hope Obama will change his mind," Lewis reports. (Read more)

James, reporting on the Portsmouth town-hall meeting, writes, "One questioner asked McCain why he didn’t distance himself from the increasingly unpopular President George W. Bush." McCain replied, “I respect President Bush, but I believe it is time for a change in America … We’ve got to stop the out-of-control pork-barrel spending … It corrupted us … We forgot that it’s your money, not our money.” (Read more)

Benita Heath of the Tribune found an emblematic observer in the crowd: "Was he a sign of things to come? That young teen with a crew cut and deep blue Hillary T-shirt sitting in the bleachers at Portsmouth High School. Not only did this anonymous supporter of the Democrat who lost show up at John McCain’s town hall meeting Wednesday, he applauded over and over as McCain took pot shots at his Democratic opponent, Sen. Barack Obama." Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland said last month that he would not be Obama's running mate, but he showed up to marshal Obama forces "across the street from the McCain event at the Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 577 Hall in his own rally where he denounced the Republican nominee’s platform," Heath reports. (Read more)

Meanwhile, The New York Times reports that the presumptive Democratic nominee's campaign "has not only given the country a chance to meet Mr. Obama. It has also given Mr. Obama a chance to meet the country, taking him to large swaths of the United States that he has never seen before. Since his political rise began less than four years ago, he has visited New Orleans, toured parts of the Great Plains and traveled across the South — all for the first time."

The story is written by Jeff Zeleny, an Iowa native who covered Obama in small-town Iowa. He writes, “One of his most pressing challenges is to assure voters that he is one of them, that his background and upbringing are not so different from theirs. . . . Many of the regional distinctions in the United States, he said, 'in terms of culture, politics, attitudes, people,' have been muted. After 18 months of traveling extensively across the country, he said, 'the biggest differences have more to do with rural, suburban, urban, as opposed to north, south, east or west.'”

Zeleny writes, "Having grown up in Hawaii and Indonesia and spending much of his adult life in large cities, Mr. Obama, 46, is now acquainting himself more deeply with his country and finds himself unusually surprised by some of his findings. he told Zeleny, “A place that I’ve come to love, which I did not expect until this campaign, is Texas. I ended up loving Texas!” As we have noted before, Zeleny has a sharp eye for local coverage of Obama, and reports that "Local newspapers have picked up on a handful of his on-location gaffes," such as calling Sioux Falls, S.D., Sioux City, which is in Iowa. (Read more)

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

High metal prices help clean up Eastern Kentucky

"Skyrocketing costs of scrap metal have created a silver — or should we say steel — lining to economic and environmental woes. Collecting scrap not only brings in extra money, but also encourages citizens to clean up unsightly refuse," Anna Tong writes for the Lexington Herald-Leader. "The effects are magnified in Eastern Kentucky, a region with a chronic problem of improper disposal — or no disposal at all — of junk cars and appliances. Now, the prospect of getting fast cash is motivating a mass clean-up of litter, traditionally the work of prison inmates and environmentalists."

Gerald Hines, solid waste coordinator in Pulaski County, on the edge of the rugged Cumberland Plateau in Southern Kentucky, said the county is “50 percent cleaner” in recent months. “In our lifetime, scrap may not be as high again as it is now.” The Institute of Scrap Recycling says iron and steel sorted by processors fetched $520 a ton in May, way up from $100 five years ago, mainly because of demand from fast-growing China and India. One dealer with three yards in Eastern Kentucky is paying initial sellers $180 a ton. He pays $2 to $4 a pound for copper.

There's a downside, of course. "There have been numerous cases of individuals who've been arrested for stealing everything from manhole covers to copper wiring to sell," Tong notes. (Read more) Herald-Leader photo by Brad Luttrell: Levi Chaffins, right, waited for Junior Watkins, on top of truck, and Larry Spencher to finish unloading at Mister Metal Recycling in Salyersville, Ky., on June 25.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Farmers pay developer prices for Mich. cropland

Land in rural southwestern Michigan is selling for $10,000 an acre -- not for real estate development, but for farming, Rosemary Parker writes for the Kalamazoo Gazette. "Everybody wants land to farm right now," said Larry "Cassey" Jones, Allegan County Board of Commissioners vice chairman. "It's just skyrocketing." (Encarta map)

Five to ten years ago speculators and developers were buying land at similar rates, said Bob Boehm, manager of the Michigan Farm Bureau commodity department. "Softening of the general economy and strengthening of the agricultural economy has lessened the pressure for diversion of farmland" into residential and commercial development, he said.

And maybe even reversed the trend? Parker's story begins, "The developers weren't laughing when Vicksburg village trustee Ray Vliek, 87, quipped at a recent meeting: 'By golly, I believe I'd tear those houses down and put in corn.' Developers paid $10,000 an acre for the land to build houses, the same price now being commanded for irrigated farmland, Vliek said."

Land prices began to rise when the ethanol boom hit in 2006, nearly doubling corn prices, Parker writes. "In southwestern Michigan that year, prices went from $1.85 per bushel in August to about $3.50 per bushel in October. Since then, corn prices have doubled again, to more than $8 a bushel this spring. Wheat and soybeans have seen similar gains."

Roger Betz, a Michigan State University extension district farm educator, cautions that farms must deal with with increasing fuel, fertilizer and equipment prices. A recent study by MSU showed agriculture and food generate an economic impact of $63.7 billion, making it the state's second-largest industry behind manufacturing. Michigan agriculture has become more important this year because of the devastating floods in other parts of the Corn Belt. (Read more)

Missouri offers loan waivers to veterinary students

Livestock producers and others in related industries continue to be affected by a national shortage of large-animal veterinarians, Julie Harker writes for Brownfield Network, but some states are using financial incentives to lure students to the trade. The Missouri legislature recently appropriated half a million dollars for the Large Animal Veterinary Student Loan Program, which waives loans for new vets who work in Missouri's areas of need. Click here to read a summary of the bill. (Photo by Alex Witkowicz, Worcester, Mass., Telegram and Gazette)

College educations of six University of Missouri students will be paid for by the money appropriated this year. Dr. Taylor Woods, Missouri's acting state veterinarian, "says it will take about 10 years of steady funding to ease the critical shortage of farm veterinarians in Missouri and he hopes legislature commits each year to do that," because the shortage is critical, Harker writes. "Last summer I had a person who went out and bought a group of registered heifers," Woods told her. "They were getting (probably) pneumonia and were dying but the problem was, the veterinarians in the area were tied up and couldn’t get there for a day or so. And that cost the producer a lot of money." (Read more)

The Rural Blog reported on the shortage of large-animal veterinarians May 22 and Oct. 4.

Bright spots in the economy: Energy and ag states

Many rural states that rely on energy and agriculture are benefiting from the spikes in fuel and food prices, insulating them from the economic slowdown,'s Stephen Fehr reports. They include Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, Louisiana, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming.

Fehr's object example is North Dakota, where "Timely, soil-soaking rains have helped produce two years of bumper crops at a time of record high prices paid to farmers. . . . The state is also blessed with an oil deposit estimated at 400 billion barrels that is producing at record levels. With the price of oil over $140 a barrel, it’s no wonder North Dakota led the nation in personal income growth in first three months of the year. . . . The number of millionaires has risen 46 percent in the most recent two-year period. . . . The state also has other relatively stable employers in two Air Force bases and over 20 colleges and universities. Its jobless rate is close to 3 percent, compared to 5.5 percent nationally," it has not been hit by the mortgage crisis, and the weak dollar has boosted exports to Canada.

The story's most astounding statistic about North Dakota is its budget surplus of $740 million, about 60 percent of its $1.2 billion annual budget, which has started a lively debate over what to do with it. "Other energy and agriculture states are escaping the national economic downturn for the most part, although budget officials are not at all certain their states will be completely immune from the impacts of a sustained slump in the housing market, high fuel prices and the rise in unemployment," Fehr writes. (Read more)

Monday, July 07, 2008

Take a number, take a ride: A road tells stories

Most numbered highways have a certain artifice; they are stretches of town-to-town roads linked together by politicians and traffic engineers to help motorists navigate rural America. But many of them also have character, the best known being U.S. Route 66 (which was never much artifice and is now mostly artifact). Some evocative roads never break the boundary of a state, but trace its story. Such is California 33, as described by Peter H. King of the Los Angeles Times:

"To travel this two-lane from top to bottom -- a 300-mile drive that begins just below the San Francisco Bay delta, passes through the San Joaquin Valley's west side, crosses steep coastal mountains and ends at Ventura, where Highway 33 disappears into the 101 -- is to tour what might be called the real California. Through a bug-splattered windshield, it's all there to see: Improbably far-flung subdivisions, their outward march stalled only by the mortgage mess; rolling croplands crisscrossed by irrigation canals; a young patriot's grave, the four flags at his tombstone fluttering in a hot valley wind; a hulking new federal prison, rising from cantaloupe fields; West Hills oil rigs, pumping furiously in a new boom; panoramic views of unspoiled high country; and, finally, the Pacific at sunset, 5,000 feet below. ... It is a good road for someone seeking to reacquaint himself with a vexing old friend: California. Sometimes, the best way to make sense of this state is simply to get out into it, to take a look around and refresh the eyes. And, here and there, to make some stops along the way."

"To travel this two-lane from top to bottom -- a 300-mile drive that begins just below the San Francisco Bay delta, passes through the San Joaquin Valley's west side, crosses steep coastal mountains and ends at Ventura, where Highway 33 disappears into the 101 -- is to tour what might be called the real California. Through a bug-splattered windshield, it's all there to see: Improbably far-flung subdivisions, their outward march stalled only by the mortgage mess; rolling croplands crisscrossed by irrigation canals; a young patriot's grave, the four flags at his tombstone fluttering in a hot valley wind; a hulking new federal prison, rising from cantaloupe fields; West Hills oil rigs, pumping furiously in a new boom; panoramic views of unspoiled high country; and, finally, the Pacific at sunset, 5,000 feet below. ... It is a good road for someone seeking to reacquaint himself with a vexing old friend: California. Sometimes, the best way to make sense of this state is simply to get out into it, to take a look around and refresh the eyes. And, here and there, to make some stops along the way."

The stops provide several vingettes, told by a fine observer and storyteller. Near the end of his sojourn, in a place you have ever heard of, King begins to climb the Coast Range and writes of "a stunning landscape and a reminder of California's enduring capacity to surprise: No matter how much of it you believe you've seen, there's always more." For a photo gallery, click here. (Times map by Lucia Parker; sources: ESRI, TeleAtlas. Times photo by Michael Robinson Chavez.)

Military enlistment remains strong in rural areas; database has recruiting rates for every county

Recruitment for the military remains strong despite decreased support for the war in Iraq. Many recruits come from small towns and rural areas, where economic opportunities are limited and military service has "always been a ticket up and out," Dee Davis of the Kentucky-based Center for Rural Strategies told Gloria Hilliard of National Public Radio, who visited Hemet, Calif., at the foot of the San Jacinto Mountains 80 miles east-southeast of Los Angeles, for her story.

Hilliard reports that military service presents rural recruits with opportunities, job security, careers and adventure. A female recruit told her, "I want to make something of my life, and (military service) gives nice opportunities and just sets me up for a great future." A male recruit said, "Hemet is such a small town that there's just nothing out here, and (military service) is my window to the world." Hemet's population is 44,000, small compared to L.A. Read more and listen here.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch "reviewed Department of Defense data for every active-duty, Reserve and National Guard recruit, who by far represent the majority of forces serving in Iraq and Afghanistan," reporters Phillip O'Connor and Kevin Crowe write. "The analysis found that rural America continues to be fertile ground for recruiters." It showed that per capita, "Four of the top 10 counties [in recruiting] were home to large Army posts, led by Geary County, Kan., home of Fort Riley. "Residents of such areas tend to have more familiarity and interaction with the military and are more receptive to the idea of military service, the Army says. Installations host activities open to the public and are active in civic life. In addition, many military retirees and families congregate in such areas."

The analysis excluded counties with populations of less than 1,000. Including them, the top two counties were Grant and Arthur in Nebraska, which together had nine recruits. No. 2 in recruitment was Menominee County, Wis., where 90 percent of residents are members of the Menominee tribe, which has a "warrior tradition." (Read more) The Post-Dispatch has placed the data on its Web site, in a searchable database, so you can check recruiting rates for any county or state. In Kentucky, for example, the counties with the top five enlistment rates are Hardin (home of Fort Knox), Wolfe, Union, Whitley and Edmonson.

Because of higher enlistment rates, Davis told Alex Cohen of NPR, servicemen and women from rural areas have a 60 percent higher death rate than their non-rural peers, but they keep enlisting. "There's a real tradition of military service in rural areas, and, I think, for a lot of folks who come from marginal economic backgrounds, military's been great in terms of giving training, getting jobs," Davis said. "Often times it's hard for people from rural communities to break into the job market or to be accepted. The military's always been a great equalizer."

Polling done for Davis's center show Iraq second only to fule prices as a topic of voter concern. "For people in rural areas, the war's not an abstraction," he said. "You feel it viscerally. You know somebody who's there. You know of families who have troops there. it's a real issue, and often these small towns have sent their first responders: the med techs, the volunteer fireman, the policeman, have gone over there so (rural communities) have to bear some of the burden of dealing with the issues." Read more and listen here.

States relax, repeal Prohibition-era alcohol laws

"Seventy-five years after the repeal of Prohibition, state lawmakers across the country are marking the anniversary by relaxing or eliminating some laws that have restricted alcohol sales since as long ago as the 1930s," John Gramlich writes for "Colorado this week became the 35th state — and 13th since 2002 — to allow residents to buy alcohol on Sundays when a measure that won the approval of the General Assembly and Gov. Bill Ritter (D) in April formally took effect." Previously, only reduced-strength 3.2 beer was available on Sundays.

"Among the most obscure Prohibition-era statutes to be revised this year was a 1933 Wisconsin law prohibiting municipal officials from selling products or services to bars or other establishments with liquor licenses," Gramlich reports. "The law, originally intended to prevent conflicts of interest in the days when municipal officials — not the state — approved liquor licenses, drew attention when a local elected official in the city of Stevens Point was forced to resign a year ago after it became known that he ran a business that sold vacuum cleaners to pubs and restaurants. Several other municipal officials around Wisconsin also were forced to step down."

Gramlich writes, "Politicians, alcohol industry lobbyists and others who helped usher in the recent revisions in the states say the new laws reflect the public’s evolving views toward liquor and beer regulation." (Read more) We would add this speculation: The increasing suburbanization of America, and the decline of rural influences in state legislatures, probably has something to do with it.

Obama visits places abnormal, for a Democratic nominee, to prove he's normal; will he return?

One writer called it a "values tour." One news outlet dubbed it an "apple pie campaign." Whatever it was, or is, Sen. Barack Obama has been going some abnormal places, for a Democratic nominee, to prove he's a normal guy. Only July 3 and 4, he visited North Dakota and Montana, and today he's in North Carolina, all states that were not on the list of Bush states his campaign manager said they are targeting: Virginia, *Missouri, Colorado, *Ohio, Iowa and New Mexico. (*He visited these states last week, too.)

"Some Republicans have dismissed Obama's "values" tour as more of a 'head fake' than a real foray into GOP territories he thinks he can win in November," wrote Jonathan Weisman of The Washington Post. Teri Finneman of The Forum in Fargo (which ran the photo above) asked him the right question: Will he return to North Dakota? "It’s hard to anticipate what my schedule’s going to look like in October," he said. "That’s a pretty long ways off. But we have committed resources here. I’ve got some of my best staff people who are here. They’re going to be organizing at a grassroots level. I think there’s a lot of excitement here in North Dakota around this campaign, and in the fall, I think we may surprise a lot of people. This thing, is, I believe, going to stay very close." (Read more) In Montana, he said, "I'm a firm believer that 90 percent of success is showing up, and Democrats haven't been showing up in these states."

But how many of "these states" are there? Charles Peters, West Virginia native and founding editor of The Washington Monthly, recalls how Obama nearly ignored the largely rural, overwhelmingly white and entirely Appalachian state in the primary season: "Why didn't he show respect for the people of Kentucky and West Virginia by doing more than token campaigning there? These are troubling questions for an Obama supporter like me. I hate to contemplate the reaction of those less sympathetic to his cause. His San Francisco side could still cost him the election." (Column not available online)

Obama's future schedule will be determined partly by the political winds, which are currently at his back. "There's a hurricane force out there in this country of people who say, 'We want change,' " John Weaver, a former top adviser to Republican Sen. John McCain, told Weisman. "And if we're not careful, the Democrats might have the kind of year we had in 1980," when a Republican wave swept out Democratic Senate mainstays in the West." (Read more)

Whatever Obama's future schedule, last week's stops were part of "the core of his campaign’s goal this summer: To establish his American cultural normalcy," Jonathan Martin and Ben Smith write for Politico. They note that the "apple pie campaign" took Obama to overwhelmingly white places, and they quote former Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder and another Southern black political figure on the race angle. “He has got to make Americans understand that he comes from the same place that most of them come from,” said Harvey Gantt, who was the first black mayor of Charlotte and almost unseated Sen. Jesse Helms. “He has to bend over backwards to show that he is like them. Unfortunately, we’re not yet at a time in our country’s history that he can afford not to.” (Read more)

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Bill Clinton says Bill Bishop's 'Big Sort' proves 'Some of us are gonna have to cross the street'

The Rural Blog doesn't make a habit of promoting books, because we tend to focus on events that illustrate trends, but when Bill Clinton recommends a book by one of our friends, we must make an exception. The book is The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart. It's written by Bill Bishop, who inspired The Rural Blog, helped start the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and is on our national advisory board. Here's what Clinton, speaking at this year's Aspen Ideas Festival, above, said about the book and Bishop:

"We can maximize our impact if we reach out to people who are different from ourselves . . . I want to recommend a book . . . He says . . . we are growing more isolated in our communities because we are living more and more only with people we agree with, and we are growing more isolated in our political debates because . . . we look at the television news and we read the Web sites of people who confirm what we think already. This is not good in a democracy. And so I urge you to read it.

"I’ll just give you one little factoid about it: In 1976 when President Carter and President Ford had a very close race for president. It was close in America. There were only 32 percent of our counties that voted for either one of them by more than 20 percent. Everywhere else in America there was a raging ongoing debate among friends and neighbors and people who went to church or synagogue or mosque or wherever together; they were all sitting there talking about this, and they were trying to build a sense of national unity out of their genuine concerns and debates. By 2004 ... it was also very close, but 48 1/2 percent of our counties voted for one or the other of them by more than 20 points.

"And Bishop [right] has got a story in here, unbelievable story, about a brilliant developer in Southern California who did a market survey, and he found that in the area where he had the property, so he had to do the development, conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats were almost evenly divided, so, and he had one gated community he had to build, so on the left side he built houses that suited conservative Republicans, and on the right side he built places where you could have yoga and meditation and everything (laughter) that suited liberal Democrats, and he actually sold it out immediately, divided exactly as he had predicted, from his market surveys. Now, we’re laughing about this, but some of us are gonna have to cross the street, folks. That’s the last thing I want to say to you. I, we gotta --- (applause)

"It was an amazing thing. So that’s the other thing I would say to young people: Do public service, not just with somebody who looks different that you do, but who thinks differently than you do. The way to --- we don’t need a phony unity in this country. The founding fathers understood that debate and differences were healthy, but you have to have them in a way that allows you to see the person who disagrees with you as a human being. Once we start doing big things together, we’ll figure out how to do it and we’ll do just fine. . . . "

For the full video clip, click here. For our own review of the book, in The Courier-Journal, click here. To hear Bishop discuss America’s political divide on National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation, click here. The Big Sort's Web page is here. Bishop will speak and sign books at Carmichael's bookstore in Louisville at 4 p.m. Sunday, July 13, at at Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Lexington at 7 p.m. Monday, July 14.

Cockfighting increasingly illegal and underground

Next month, cockfighting will no longer be legal anywhere in the United States, when a ban takes effect in Louisiana. Circulation of the sport's magazine, the Gamecock, has declined to 8,000 from 14,000, but the bloody sport lives on in lower profile in many rural areas, Adam Ellick reports for The New York Times from New Mexico, which last year became the 49th state to ban it. (NYT photo of New Mexico cockfighter Ed Lowry by Brian Berman)

"Light penalties — a first offense is a petty misdemeanor — have not only failed to stop the fights, they continue to attract cockfighters from four of New Mexico’s five neighboring states, where the sport is a felony," Ellick writes. Cockfighters have gone to court, "claiming tribal, religious and cultural sovereignty," but been unsuccessful, and law-enforcement officials are conducting raids — and causing some grumbling. "Some police officers in this state say the pressure for stepped-up enforcement from the animal rights lobby has become so intense that resources are being diverted from more serious crimes, like drunken driving and amphetamine abuse." (Read more)

Obama says he reads Cow-Calf Weekly, replies

Agriculture is "so far down the list of priorities of either candidate that we aren’t even on their radar screens," Troy Marshall wrote in the June 6 edition of Beef magazine's Cow-Calf Weekly. Sen. Barack Obama begs to differ.

"Agriculture is a very high priority for me," Obama said in a letter published in the June 27 edition. "I have held rural forums and meetings in most agriculture states and have released Rural Plans in states across the country. Unlike my opponent, I supported the recent Farm Bill though I had hoped it would have contained more reforms, including tighter payment limits. Senator McCain and I have established very different records on agriculture."

Obama added, "Beef producers are a key component in a healthy and vibrant rural America. By strengthening USDA and working to enhance food safety and meat processing, my administration will assist the industry in providing a wholesome and safe product to your customers." (Read more)

Obama did not respond to Marshall's contention that either candidate would raise taxes but "John McCain's top and overall rates will be lower than Barack Obama's, as will his exemption levels and rates for the death tax," the term opponents use for the estate or inheritance tax.

Mich. environmental agency rejects dairy permit application, saying it would lower wages in area

For the first time, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has denied a permit to a large-scale farming operation," The Associated Press reports. The DEQ rejected a permit application from Vreba-Hoff Dairy for a dairy in St. Joseph County's Leonidas Township that would have 2,260 cows. (Encarta map)

"Under state regulations, the company was required to show that a reduction in water quality from the farm operation was necessary to support social and economic development in the area," AP reports. "The DEQ says Vreba-Hoff failed that test. The agency says opponents provided evidence that any jobs created by the farm would lower the local median wage level and replace higher paying jobs at smaller farms." (Read more)