Thursday, October 23, 2008

First-time homeowners in USDA housing program have a very low foreclosure rate

First-time homeowners in rural America are not part of the wave of foreclosures sweeping the country. Russ Davis, administrator of the Department of Agriculture's housing programs, says foreclosure rates among rural dwellers are much lower than their metropolitan counterparts.

"This summer we posted our lowest foreclosure rates that I’ve seen in the 40 years where I’ve seen statistics," Davis told the Agri-Pulse newsletter. "Delinquencies were much lower than the private sector." Davis says his program's low foreclosure rates can be explained by a number of factors, including the department's recognition of the nature of rural work. "There’s a lot of seasonal work, shift work -- a lot of income patterns that are different from other parts of the country," he says, and lending policies reflect those patterns. At the same time, rural houses were not part of the "bubble," where overvaluation led to a housing market crash. (Read more; paid subscription required)

GAO says USDA ignored minorities' complaints

The Government Accountability Office says the Department of Agrigulture has failed to process hundreds of discrimination complaints from minority farmers. Lauren Etter of The Wall Street Journal writes, "The report touches on a sensitive topic that has plagued the USDA for decades: Efforts by black, minority and women farmers to receive loans and other services from the USDA in the face of alleged discriminatory behavior within the USDA."

The report goes on to say that the USDA's civil rights department has, in recent years, been in a "persistent state of chaos." The USDA keeps shoddy data on minority discrimination or none at all. "The USDA civil rights office didn't keep an accurate count of the number of discrimination complaints outstanding," adds Etter. "Also, much of the data reported by the USDA to the public about participation of minority farmers in USDA programs are unreliable, partly because the agency's data on racial identity and gender are based on visual observation." Ascertaining race through visual observation can prove inaccurate.

This is not the first time the USDA has been accused of ignoring minority farmers. "Years ago, the USDA became the target of a large class-action civil rights lawsuit alleging discriminatory behavior against African-American farmers," writes Etter. "The case, Pigford v. Glickman, was settled in 1999, after the court found that the USDA had discriminated against black farmers by denying or delaying their applications for farm loans and other benefits." The federal government has since paid out $1 billion to black farmers. (Read more)

Asian beetle threatens 3 New England industries

"A wood-devouring beetle has gained a foothold in New England, and authorities plan to cut down large numbers of infested trees and grind them up to stop the pest from spreading to the region's celebrated forests and ravaging the timber, tourism and maple-syrup industries," writes Rodrique Ngowi of The Associated Press. The infested trees make up a 62-square-mile area around Worcester, Mass., and roughly 1,800 trees have been marked for destruction. (AP photo)

The federal government plans to spend tens of millions of dollars, considering the matter a national emergency. Adds Ngowi, "They have sent in smokejumpers, tree climbers and other experts to identify infested trees." Once the first frost has killed the adult beetles, authorities will begin to cut down trees that have been identified as infected.

The arrival of the beetles marks the fourth time that the pest has arrived in the U.S. "The beetles lay their eggs in small depressions they chew in tree bark," writes Ngowi. "The larvae and pupae consume the tree from the inside, leaving a trail of tunnels. They eventually chew their way out as adults. The tunneling slowly kills the tree." Regular pesticides are useless once the beetle's eggs have hatched. (Read more)

In 13 battleground states Oct. 1-21, rural voters were almost evenly split between McCain, Obama

An Oct. 1-21 poll of rural voters in 13 battleground states showed the presidential race to be a virtual dead heat, with Barack Obama leading John McCain 46 percent to 45 percent.

The poll was sponsored by the Center for Rural Strategies, a nonpartisan group that tries to attract attention to rural issues. It was conducted by the Democratic polling firm of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research in collaboration with Republican consultant Bill Greener of Greener and Hook. It surveyed 841 likely voters in rural counties in New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Florida, Virginia, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada.

"What the survey indicates is that there was defection among rural voters largely on economic issues," Greener told Howard Berkes of National Public Radio. "And if that [continues] to be the case, then Sen. McCain would face a tremendous challenge to prevail on Election Day." But Greener noted that the poll spanned a three-week period and more recent nationwide polls show a tightening of the race. The latest NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll, Oct. 17-20, showed McCain leading among "small-town and rural" voters 46 to 42, and 47-45 when leaners were included. The error margin for that subsample is plus or minus 6.95 percentage points.

In the three-week poll of rural voters in the 13 battleground states, "49 percent of respondents favored Obama on the issue of the economy, compared with 40 percent for McCain," Berkes reports. "Obama was trusted by slightly more people on the issue of taxes and on the nation's financial crisis." Rural-vote expert Seth McKee of the University of South Florida "speculates that the nation's economic crisis, the war in Iraq and disappointment with the Bush presidency may be taking a long-term toll on the rural Republican base, especially beyond Southern states," Berkes reports. "I think it's very possible that these rural folks who live above the Mason-Dixon Line could be ripe to move … away from the Republican Party," McKee told NPR. (Read more)

Economic slowdown comes to farm country

"The Farm Belt, one of the hottest parts of the U.S. economy in recent years, is rapidly cooling," Scott Kilman reports in The Wall Street Journal this morning. Crop prices are down, production costs remain high and fertilizer and seed costs could rise as much as 40 percent by planting time next spring, and "Stock prices of agricultural companies have plummeted."

"Most economists figure the Farm Belt can weather a slowdown, partly because farmer balance sheets are strong, and partly because federal mandates will increase the amount of corn consumed to make ethanol fuel next year," Kilman writes. "Also, economists think global demand for U.S. crops will remain robust despite recent economic troubles. Still, U.S. growers clearly face a riskier, more volatile environment in which to make bets on what to grow and how much." (Read more)

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Rural N.J. towns won't have to pay for state police

The small towns in New Jersey that use state police for all or part of their law enforcement will not have to pay the state for the service, under a ruling today from the state Council on Local Mandates. The council, which handles complaints from local officials about state fees, voided the section of the state budget that calls for the payments from the 89 towns, reports Lisa Ryan of the statehouse bureau of Gannett Newspapers.

Gov. Jon Corzine had persuaded the legislature that "It was time for rural towns to help pay the cost because of the state's financial situation and because taxpayers in municipalities with their own police departments shouldn't have to fund police services in rural communities as well," Ryan reports. The state has funded the service for 87 years. This year it is estimated to cost $12.6 million. (Read more)

McCain strategy keys on Appalachian states

John McCain's increasingly limited strategy for victory calls for winning Appalachian states where the rural vote could be pivotal, such as Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, West Virginia and always pivotal Ohio. In Pennsylvania, McCain "trails in the polls by a wide margin and ... in the past year over a half-million new Democrats have been added to the voter registration rolls," Charles Mahtesian writes for Politico. However, "Nearly everyone in a position to know thinks the race for Pennsylvania’s 21 electoral votes is considerably tighter than what recent polls reveal." (Read more) UPDATE, Oct. 24: NBC News Political Director Chuck Todd writes on First Read that it is now "clear that Pennsylvania has become the campaign’s do-or-die state."

Reports suggest McCain "is writing off Colorado, Iowa, and New Mexico. If true, this means McCain is pinning his chances on pulling off an upset in Pennsylvania — a long shot, but probably the best strategy for desperate campaign," says the Evans-Novak Political Report.

In Virginia, the race "has gone country," reports Bob Lewis of The Associated Press. "McCain is looking to run up enormous margins in rural Republican strongholds. Obama is fighting just as hard to stay in play. ... At the same moment on Tuesday, current and former Mississippi governors toured opposite ends of the Virginia countryside for the campaigns, neither conceding a single city, town or crossroads."

Former Gov. Ray Mabus, a Democrat, said "One of the reasons I think Obama is going to be successful is he has not written off small-town, rural voters." Current Gov. Haley Barbour, campaigning in the Appalachian coalfield, told Lewis that crowds at rallies he attedned with former Attorney General Jerry Kilgore were larger than he expected and "stronger than an acre of garlic." Lewis notes, "Obama and McCain also are battling for rural voters and the 15 electoral votes at stake in neighboring North Carolina, another reliably Republican state also now in play." (Read more)

An earlier version of this item included some poll data that is being checked for accuracy.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Energy alternatives could boost economy, but face problems as old-fuel prices fall and credit tightens

Savings in energy spending translates to gains in other parts of the economy, according to a new study from the University of California. But the current financial landscape is making it less profitable for companies to invest in alternative fuels that could lower energy costs.

According to the study, "energy-efficiency policies created nearly 1.5 million jobs from 1977 to 2007, while eliminating fewer than 25,000," writes Felicity Barringer of The New York Times. Since most U.S. energy production comes from burning fossil fuels, most studies have concentrated on the cost of adapting existing infrastructure to handle energy from cleaner sources. This study looks at how energy technologies have affected the state since it adopted green policies in 1978. Researchers found that the new technologies lowered payrolls in the energy sector but increased overall payroll in California's economy. As "consumers were able to reduce energy spending, these savings were diverted to other demand," Barringer reports. (Read more)

However, the capital required to build new energy infrastructure is threatened by the credit crisis, the Times' Clifford Krauss reports today. Another challenge to alternative fuels is that more researchers will be competing for less federal grant money. At the same time, falling price for traditional fuel sources like oil and gas have made the need for alternative fuels seem less imperative. Clifford Krauss writes that the same thing "happened in the 1980s when a decade of advances for alternative energy collapsed amid falling prices for conventional fuels."

The general consensus on Wall Street is that wind-energy stations are more profitable to build than natural-gas plants when gas prices are higher than $8 per thousand cubic feet. Prices have recently fallen from $13.58 at the beginning of July to $6.79. "Natural gas at $6 makes wind look like a questionable idea and solar power unfathomably expensive," said Kevin Book, a senior vice president at FBR Capital Markets. (Read more)

Both candidates would cap greenhouse gases; what would be the rural impact?

Regardless of who is elected president this year, both candidates have promised to put caps on greenhouse gas emissions from utilities and industries. This means that rural residents will be paying "more to fill their cars and more for natural gas and electricity to heat their homes," writes Phillip Brasher of The Des Moines Register. "Farmers may pay more for fertilizer." But the emerging renewable-energy industries could benefit from the caps.

John McCain and Barack Obama favor the cap-and-trade system to help curb greenhouse gases. Under the system, "The government would set limits on the amount of carbon a utility or company could emit," writes Brasher. "Firms that exceed their cap would have to find a way to reduce their emissions -- by switching power sources, for example -- or else obtain emission allowances. Companies that come in under the limits could earn credits they'd sell to firms that need them."

Jerald Schnoor, a University of Iowa researcher who chairs the Iowa Climate Change Advisory Council, told Brasher, "Iowa is going to benefit from these things." Rising prices of coal, gasoline, and natural gas will make biofuel, wind, and solar power more economically competitive. But it is unclear however how the cap-and-trade system would impact farmers. Farms produce greenhouse gases from both cattle and the use of fertilizers, which make up 20 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions in Iowa. What is also unclear is how the next president will implement caps on greenhouse gases during a time of such economic distress. (Read more)

California ballot proposition that would regulate animal confinement draws varied opposition

On Nov. 4 Californians will vote on Proposition 2, the proposed Standards for Confining Farm Animals Act, which would regulate how animals are kept in cages. But there are concerns by some animal rights groups who feel that the animals could be worse off under Proposition 2 and by farm groups that say it could greatly reduce egg production in California.

Proposition 2 is targeted mainly at the egg industry, since the state does not have a veal industry to speak of and the use of pig gestation crates is not widespread. Under current law hens can be kept in battery cages which "typically house five to 10 birds a cage, with cages stacked up to six levels high," writes Emily Charrier-Botts of The Sonoma Index-Tribune.

Proposition 2 would require poultry to "be housed in indoor cage-free confinement systems where tens of thousands of birds are kept together within divided areas inside immense barns," adds Charrier-Botts. This prospect has set off some alarms. "Some animal welfare groups have said cage-free environments are actually more dangerous to the health of birds than battery cages, which are intended to make egg collection more efficient and prevent the birds from cannibalizing each other," writes Charrier-Botts. "In a cage-free system, the birds must sleep, walk and, to some extent, lay eggs in their own fecal matter, which can breed disease." There is also a fear that Proposition 2 would cause an exodus of large egg producers to states without similar laws.

The proposition is supported by Democratic U.S. Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, and the city councils of San Francisco, Sacramento and Los Angeles, among others. Opponents include the Association of California Veterinarians, the National Animal Interest Alliance and the Agricultural Council of California."(Read more)

Essay points to a larger role for rural America

In his essay, "Nobody is Going to Bail Out Rural America," Dee Davis, founder and president of the Center for Rural Strategies, gives his take on how the next president needs to embrace the ways rural areas can help move the country toward a better future.

"When the credit crisis abates and the debts of all the profligates have been forgiven, the nation will still have some tough choices," writes Davis. "Will we rev up the same economic machine, built on the notion of cheap fossil fuel and limitless consumption, or will we shoot for something a little more sustainable? If it is the latter, rural communities have something to offer."

Davis suggests that rural America can play a crucial role in curing the ills that have led to many of the economic and environmental problems the country faces today. That potential has yet to be realized by the nation's policy makers. "The next president can choose to re-imagine rural policy in a way that prioritizes feeding and fueling a fragile planet," Davis writes on Anderson Cooper's 360 blog.

Davis suggest that the next president focus on reforming the agricultural system, saying the current one "has led to a spiraling decline in farmers and to an America -- once breadbasket to the world -- that is becoming a net food and agricultural products importer." Davis also suggests the next president move energy policy away from a system that "values riskier and riskier extraction and increasing consumption of fossil fuel,more than it values developing renewable energy and sustainable power."

While the essay is full of strong opinions, it does speak to the potential of rural communities. As the country looks to change and move forward when the next president comes into office it is clear that rural America can have a vital role to play. (Read more)

Monday, October 20, 2008

Well-financed lobbying campaign sells 'clean coal'

John McCain and Barack Obama "are competing over who will do more to support clean-coal initiatives" that would capture greehouse gases from coal-burning power plants, thanks in part to a well-financed lobbying campaign by companies that mine coal, railroads that haul it and utilities that burn it, Stephen Power reports in The Wall Street Journal.

The interests are allied under the banner of the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, which "has spent nearly $40 million on television and radio spots and other outreach efforts to bolster public support for coal, and to reinforce fears that limits on its use will raise living costs," Power writes. The group also spent $1.7 million to have a high profile at the national party conventions, and uses volunteers to encourage people to ask candidates about their stance toward coal.

When Obama running mate Joe Biden told an Ohio environmentalist last month that they wouldn't support clean-coal technology in the U.S., ACCCE President Steve Miller called Biden's office. The next day, the campaign said it was committed "to creating jobs and energy independence through clean coal" and announced creation of a "Clean Coal Jobs Task Force . . . composed of Democratic officeholders from coal-abundant states," Power reports. (Read more)

Miller is a Kentuckian who ran the campaign of Democratic Gov. Brereton Jones in 1991. He is from Owen County, on the lower reach of the Kentucky River. Across the river in Henry County is Wendell Berry, who joined other authors in criticizing the coal industry at the closing session of the Society of Environmental Journalists conference in Roanoke yesterday. Their focus was mountaintop-removal coal mining, which one said would increase if clean-coal technology is commercialized. "If we ever have clean coal, you can kiss the mountains goodbye," said Denise Giardina, who lives in McDowell County southern West Virginia, hotbed of mountaintop mining.

Official Appalachia goes farther beyond mountains

President Bush recently signed a law adding 10 counties in Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee and Virginia to the region served by the Appalachian Regional Commission, allowing them to share in the $87 million in federal money the commission offers annually "to pay for economic improvements," writes Roger Alford of The Associated Press bureau in Frankfort, Ky. Alford once had the AP bureau in Pikeville, Ky., in the heart of Central Appalachia, where the expansion of official Appalachia isn't seen favorably.

"Dee Davis, head of the Kentucky-based advocacy group Center for Rural Strategies, said the ailing national economy has spread financial misery beyond Appalachia, and political leaders are looking for help from the ARC," Alford writes, noting that has been par for the course since Congress created the agency in 1965. These are not the first counties added. Davis observes: "Given the current state of affairs, they may want to stretch Appalachia all the way to Chicago."

Alford contrasts poverty rates in a Kentucky county in the center of Appalachia and one of those being added: "Annual jobless rates in Harlan County ranged from 13 percent in 1997 to 9.1 percent last year. In Nicholas County the range was 4.4 percent to 6.4 percent for the same periods." Nicholas lies partly in the Inner Bluegrass region and has some horse farms, but also has suffered from closing of a big textile plant. (Read more)

Other Kentucky counties added were Robertson, a tiny, more rugged county that borders Nicholas, and Metcalfe, which borders three longstanding ARC counties in Southern Kentucky's hilly Eastern Pennyroyal region (called the Highland Rim in Tennessee). Other counties added were Ashtabula, Mahoning and Trumbull in northest Ohio, Henry and Patrick in the Virginia Piedmont, and Lawrence and Lewis in Tennessee. (AP map; Atlanta and Roanoke are not in the region)

I-65 to become 'clean corridor' as four states will offer filling stations for enhanced biofuels

Interstate 65, which runs through Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama, has been named the nation's first "biofuels corridor," thanks to a project dedicated to providing E85 ethanol and B20 biodiesel fuel at 31 gas stations along the highway.

The stations will be spaced to make sure drivers on I-65 are never more than a quarter tank of gas away from a gas station providing alternative fuel. “In Alabama today, we have approximately 100,000 ‘Flex Fuel’ vehicles that can run on ethanol, but very few retail outlets where you can buy the fuel,” said Larry Fillmer, the executive director of Auburn University’s Natural Resources Management & Development Institute. “The opening of these refueling stations on I-65 is the first step to making ethanol more readily available for consumers who drive ‘Flex Fuel’ vehicles.”

The "Clean Corridor" project has been the result of a partnership of the four states, and seeks to "reduce the dependence on foreign oil, improve air quality and economic development," writes Abby Albright of The Auburn [Ala.] Plainsman. The U.S. Department of Energy gave $1.3 million in grant money to the Indiana Office of Energy and Defense Development, which is coordinating the project. (Read more)

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Obama calls remarks about 'bitter' small-town voters 'my biggest boneheaded move'

"Will gun-toting, churchgoing white guys pull the lever for Barack Obama?" So asks The New York Times in introducing Matt Bai's long story in today's Magazine. Bai begins by excerpting Obama's remarks to California donors about "bitter" small-town voters clinging to guns and religion and "antipathy toward people who aren't like them," and writes:

That comment . . . undercut one of the central premises of Obama’s campaign, an argument he first floated in his famous 2004 convention address — that he could somehow erode the tired distinctions between red states and blue ones and appeal to disaffected white men who had written off national Democrats as hopelessly elitist. Instead, in the weeks that followed, white working-class primary voters, not only in industrial states like Pennsylvania but also in rural states like Kentucky and West Virginia, rejected his candidacy by wide margins, and he staggered, wounded, toward the nomination.
“That was my biggest boneheaded move,” Obama told Bai in an interview for the story. Speaking of himself in the third person, he continued, “How it was interpreted in the press was Obama talking to a bunch of wine-sipping San Francisco liberals with an anthropological view toward white working-class voters. And I was actually making the reverse point, clumsily, which is that these voters have a right to be frustrated because they’ve been ignored. And because Democrats haven’t met them halfway on cultural issues, we’ve not been able to communicate to them effectively an economic agenda that would help broaden our coalition.” Obama added that he was also trying to argue to the Marin County crowd that "You guys need to stop thinking that issues like religion or guns are somehow wrong."

Despite polls showing John McCain with a double-digit lead among white men who haven't been to college, Obama is spending "far more time and money than either of the last two Democratic nominees on an effort to persuade working-class and rural white guys that he is not the elitist, alien figure they may be inclined to think he is," in order to build a broader governing coalition and leave behind the culture wars that began in the 1960s, Bai reports.

"Obama’s strategists accept that there will be some number of voters — particularly white men — who will reject Obama solely because he is black," Bai writes. "But they are betting, first, that most of these voters wouldn’t have voted for a Democrat in any event and, second, that the groundswell of black support for Obama will produce enough new African-American votes in a lot of states to offset them." (Read more)

UPDATE, Oct. 21: Rural Republicans continue to use Obama's April remarks against him. Click here to read Trey Pollard on about Kentucky state Senate President David Williams on the campaign trail with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.