Saturday, November 01, 2008

Northern New York newspapers run McCain endorsement by parent firm in West Virginia

Brian Mann of North Country Public Radio reports that the Adirondack Daily Enterprise of Saranac Lake, N.Y., "faces a controversy" over the endorsement of John McCain that appeared on its editorial page yesterday.

The endorsement bore the byline of Ogden Newspapers Inc. of Wheeling, W.Va., which owns the paper. Despite that, Mann notes, the editorial urges "residents of our area" to vote for McCain, and a "nearly identical" editorial ran in The Leader-Herald of Gloversville, one of three other dailies Ogden owns in and around Adirondack Park. The Observer of Dunkirk ran an editorial supporting McCain's tax policies and questioning Obama's. Ogden also has three weeklies in the region, which had no endorsement editorials, at least online.

The two endorsements "triggered angry reactions from some local readers," Mann reports. One Enterprise reader wrote, "For the love of GOD! The Enterprise is endorsing McCain! WTF is going on? Have you people actually lost ALL sense of sanity and reason?" The next commenter wrote, "It's not the Enterprise, it's the parent co. - and I can almost guarantee that the knucklehead who wrote this illustrative piece is making more than 250K." Obama says that is the income level at which Americans would pay more income taxes under his plan.

Mann questions whether local readers will understand that the endorsement was not from the local editorial board. The board said the day before that it was not endorsing candidates in Tuesday's election because it could not reach unanimous agreement: "Our election endorsements, when we make them, are based on consensus; we only take stances all our editorial board members agree on. That process improves our reasoning and makes us more careful about giving advice than we might be otherwise, which helps the credibility of the opinions we do express. We couldn't reach consensus on endorsing a candidate in any of the races this election cycle." (Read more)

Friday, October 31, 2008

Latest set of studies on ethanol are in conflict

"New studies this week on the efficiency and food supply effects of corn-based ethanol came to completely different conclusions," reports Janie Gabbett of, a journal for the meat industry. The industry has grown to dislike ethanol for raising the price of corn, which is also fed to animals.

The Illinois Corn Growers Association released two studies concluding that "corn-based ethanol production leaves a smaller carbon footprint than gasoline and has substantial room for growth without affecting the corn supply to the food and feed sectors," Gabbett writes. The other study "predicted corn yields would increase to 289 bushels per acre over the next two decades from the current 155 bushels per acre, which would provide sufficient corn to increase ethanol production to 33 billion gallons annually by 2030 from the 7.1 billion gallons produced last year." To read those studies, click here.

The other study, by Dennis Avery of the Center for Global Food Issues at the generally conservative Hudson Institute, "said ethanol has made the world use more corn than it can sustainably produce, creating massive food-price hikes," Gabbett reports. Avery writes, "Were we to double corn yields, we still would not have enough room for corn ethanol, because global food and feed demand will double again by 2040." For the study, click here.

Despite Medicaid, rural kids often lack dental care

One of the greatest threats to the health of rural children is the lack of attention to their teeth and gums. Judy J. Owens of Kentucky writes for the Daily Yonder, "Lack of dental care, common among low-income and Medicaid-eligible adults and children, often results in severe or persistent pain, inability to eat, swollen faces, and increased susceptibility to other medical conditions." (New York Times photo by Stephen Crowley: A student in Barbourville, Ky., gets ready for a free exam through Kids First Dental, a mobile clinic.)

Poor dental health is a problem that plagues much of rural America. "In a rural state such as Kentucky, for example, dental decay is the No. 1 infectious disease in children. Dental pain is the number one excuse for public school absences." Medicaid provides dental insurance to all children who are eligible for the program, but many rural children grow up without dental care because adults don't take advantage of the benefit and many if not most rural dentists don't accept Medicaid patients, citing low reimbursement rates. (Sometimes we wonder if there are other reasons.)

"Many children grow up in homes where the adults do not have regular dental treatment, and so the children are not taken to the dentist," writes Owens. "A survey in North Carolina found that on average, only 20 percent of Medicaid recipients visited the dentist in 1998." There are signs of progress, however. This year Kentucky passed a law requiring children to have their teeth examined before beginning school. Early care is seen as the best form of prevention of poor dental health. While the law hasn't taken effect, other efforts have failed to make a dent in the rural dental health problem. "Despite years of advancement, including the establishment of two colleges of dentistry and an impressive water fluoridation program," Owens writes, "Kentucky is a national leader in toothlessness." (Read more)

California facing prospect of worst drought ever

California farmers are facing the prospect of receiving only 15 percent of the requested water next year. "A persistent dry spell and depleted reservoirs could sharply limit deliveries," reports Michael Gardner of the San Diego Union-Tribune. The amount delivered will depend on future snow and rainfall.

Unless California experiences an extremely dry early winter, voluntary conservation is viewed as the best option. If precipitation remains scarce the state may have to start considering mandatory water conservation. The state faced a similar water scare in 1993, but ultimately precipitation increased and 100 percent of requested water was delivered.

Lester Snow, director of the state Department of Water Resources, told Gardner, "We have the potential in a third year to have the worst drought in California history." The drought has forced California farmers to leave land unplanted for fear of not having necessary water for crops. Gardner writes, "In Kern County alone, 50,000 acres may be left unplanted because there is no water for irrigation."(Read more)

Economic pressures can strengthen community and family connections, writer opines

Rural Americans may worry about what the current economic crisis will mean for their communities, but Joel Kotkin of says there is one upside to the uncertainty: "Forced into belt-tightening, Americans are likely to strengthen our family and community ties and to center our lives more closely on the places where we live," whether in rural or metropolitan areas.

Kotkin notes the rise of younger adults who are relying on older generations for financial and lifestyle help: living with parents, relying on family members for child care, or getting help with loans. He says all of these trends help shape the way the community is viewed: "The longer people stay in their homes and communities, the more they identify with and care for those places."

The trend, which Kotkin calls "the new localism," is also strengthened by rising gas prices, which are encouraging travel closer to home and a greater emphasis on locally grown produce, and better technology, which allows for higher rates of telecommuting and the ability to set up businesses away from urban centers. (Read more)

Landmark suspends efforts to sell its holdings, including community newspaper group

Landmark Communications Inc. has suspended efforts to sell most of its holdings, including Landmark Community Newspapers Inc., "because potential buyers can't get credit and values have declined with falling advertising volume," reports Cody Lowe of The Roanoke Times, one of the family-owned company's three major dailies.

Frank Batten Jr., Landmark's chairman and CEO, said in a news release, "The credit crisis has made it virtually impossible for companies to obtain bank commitments to help finance acquisitions, and Landmark "will operate its businesses for several years before re-instituting the sales process, although it will consider offers during the interim."

Meanwhile, however, Landmark Community Newspapers, based in Shelbyville, Ky., will be sharing its president with Landmark Publishing Group, which operates the dailies in Roanoke, Greensboro and the firm's headquarters city of Norfolk. Bruce Bradley, president of that subsidary, will retire by the end of the year. Mike Abernathy, president of LCNI, "will succeed Bradley while continuing in his current job," the Times reports. (Read more)

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Swings in corn prices hit ethanol producers hard

Volatile corn prices have hit the ethanol industry hard and may bankrupt a leading producer, reports Scott Carlson of the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, S.D.: "Shares of VeraSun Energy Corp. dropped below $1 a share Wednesday on a published report that the Sioux Falls-based ethanol producer is on the verge of filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection." The report came from the subscription-only newsletter Debtwire, which cited anonymous sources, and the Argus Leader was unable to confirm it.

"Whatever the veracity of the Debtwire story, the report is a vivid example of what is happening to the ethanol industry and, more specifically, publicly traded VeraSun, which has been jockeying with Poet for supremacy as the nation's biggest ethanol producer," Carlson writes.

Earlier this year, "Escalating corn prices began cutting into ethanol producers' profits, and many turned to hedging in a bid to control costs. Under hedging, ethanol producers banked on meeting their future corn production needs by buying the product now and locking in prices to avoid volatile price swings in the market. Securities analysts said that for many ethanol producers, hedging turned out to be a bad move because corn prices began falling in August. For VeraSun, however, the gambit has proven especially disastrous. After VeraSun locked into prices for its feed-stock for the third quarter, corn prices dropped from almost $8 a bushel to a low of less than $5 per bushel in mid-August." (Read more)

Ken Anderson of Brownfield Network reports, "Another South Dakota-based ethanol producer — Glacial Lakes Corn Processors cooperative — is asking its members to contribute additional working capital for the company’s operations. CFO Jim Seurer says the cash is needed to maintain and improve the company’s operating position and resume normal operations. . . . Todd Sneller, administrator of the Nebraska Ethanol Board, says access to capital is a critical issue for many ethanol plants—as it is for many industries these days. He says ultimately some plants may fail, but that doesn’t mean they will cease operations." (Read more)

The basic structure of the ethanol industry remains sound, Bruce Rastetter of Hawkeye Renewables, a larger producers, told Gary Truitt of Hoosier Ag Today (which ran the photo above). “I think the industry will recover because the fundamentals of the industry are so strong,” Rastetter said, adding that he expects energy costs to be high in the long term, spurring demand for biofuels. (Read more)

Alaskans seek ways to stay in their rural homes in the face of skyrocketing energy costs

The theme at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention last week was “Reaching for the Stars,” but “Our Endangered Villages” might have been more fitting, given the discussions and resolutions at the gathering, reports Alex DeMarban of Alaska Newspapers.

"Variations of that grim phrase were heard repeatedly," DeMarban writes, "as delegates sought ways to lower living costs that have forced many to leave rural Alaska for urban areas. Near the end of the annual meeting on Saturday, Alaska’s largest Native organization asked the state and federal government to declare an emergency in the Bush because of the high cost of heating oil and gas. . . . The cost of gas and heating fuel soared past $10 a gallon in some villages this year, creating a ripple effect that forced all prices higher and burdened rural residents with incredible hardship, delegates said. Some village schools are in danger of closing for lack of students. Many families have apparently fled to Anchorage ..."

AFN board member Ralph Angasan told DeMarban, “The situation is catastrophic. There’s no money in rural Alaska. The economy is dead.” (Read more)

Wildlife watching a major boon to U.S. economy

Some pastimes are quintessentially American: watching sports, going to amusement parks, bowling. But a new federal study shows that one of the most lucrative leisure activities might be found in an unexpected source: watching wildlife.

"Wildlife Watching in the U.S.: The Economic Impacts on National and State Economies in 2006" estimates that "expenditures from wildlife watching equal the revenues generated from all spectator sports, amusement parks and arcades, casinos without hotels, bowling alleys and ski resorts combined," reports Wes Smalling of the Casper Star-Tribune in Wyoming. Almost one-third of the U.S. population participated in wildlife watching activity in that year.

Jessica Lynn, community naturalist at the Murie Audubon Society, expressed surprise, not at the activity's popularity, but at the amount of money brought in by the activity. Then she started thinking about the gear she owned for her own birdwatching activities: "binoculars, backpacks, birding guides and maps, clothing for all four seasons."

According to the report, Smalling writes, expenditures on travel, gear and other expenses "had a ripple effect across local, state and national economies generating $122.6 billion in industrial output and resulting in more than a million jobs and billions of dollars in tax revenues." (Read more; to read the full report, click here)

As overall circulation drops, some newspapers gain

Smaller newspapers remained the bright spots in the latest six-month circulation figures reported by 507 daily newspapers via the Audit Bureau of Circulations this month.

Among the papers that have large rural audiences and gained circulation were the Citizen Tribune of Morristown, Tenn., up 5.3 percent to 18,589 (congratulations to our friends the Fishmans); The Forum of Fargo, N.D., up 4.7 percent to 49,834; the Daily News of Bowling Green, Ky., up 4 percent to 20,804; The New Mexican of Santa Fe, up 3.7 percent to 25,616; the Iron Mountain Daily News of Michigan, up 3.7 percent to 9,303; The Inter-Mountain of Elkins, W.Va., up 3.7 percent to 10,583; and The News-Gazette of Champaign, Ill., up 3.2 percent to 41,578. For more, from Jennifer Saba of Editor & Publisher, click here.

Total daily circulation for the 507 papers was down 4.6 percent; Sunday papers were down 4.8 percent. However, newspapers continue to increase their online audience. The 190 dailies participating in the ABC study of total audience were divided into two tiers; E&P reported only the first tier, approximately the 80 larget markets. We've asked them for second-tier data.

Iowa fines meat plant big over wage violations; beef slaughtering stops; former CEO charged

The state of Iowa is imposing fines totaling almost $10 million on the Postville plant that was the site of a record-breaking immigration raid in May. The Iowa Department of Labor is imposing penalties for Agriprocessors' violation of wage laws.

Deductions for "sales tax/miscellaneous" items and frocks were made from employees' paychecks, and the company failed to pay final paychecks to 42 employees after the May raid. The total fines for these violations total $9,988,200. That total does not include the $264,786.45 owed in back wages. Agriprocessors has 30 days to contest the fines, and reports that the Labor Department says a separate investigation of the company could lead to further fines.

Greg Schulte and Philip Brasher of The Des Moines Register say the fines only add to the uncertainty over whether Agriprocessors will survive, already called into question by a shortage of workers willing to work at the plant. A company spokesman said its beef-slaughtering operation has been shut down this week due to financial constraints. (Read more)

Meanwhile, Agriprocessors' former vice-president and CEO, Sholom Rubashkin, has been charged with "conspiring to harbor one or more illegal aliens at his place of business, knowingly accepted fraudulent identification documents and aided and abetted identity theft," reports Bob Meyer of Brownfield Network.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Did McCain misfire by not using gun issues more? NRA wants Election Day papers to go in its ad bag

One of John McCain's biggest mistakes has been failing "to exploit issues that Republicans usually do well with," such as guns, Roger Simon writes on Politico: "Considering that the McCain/Palin ticket is now battling for its life in small town and rural America, you would think the McCain campaign would be out there talking about guns every day."

Sarah Palin, in her speech at the Republican convention, referred to Obama's comment about "bitter" small-town voters clinging to guns or religion and "widened the issue to one of elitism and trust," Simon writes, quoting her: "In small towns, we don’t quite know what to make of a candidate who lavishes praise on working people when they are listening, and then talks about how bitterly they cling to their religion and guns when those people aren’t listening."

Obama's choice of Joe Biden for vice president also played into the GOP's hands, because "Biden is despised by the gun lobby," wrote the assault-weapons ban and said in July, “We should be working with law enforcement, right now, to make sure that we protect people against people who are not capable of knowing what to do with a gun because they’re either mentally imbalanced and/or because they have a criminal record.” Simon notes, "Some gun owners get scared when they hear talk like that."

The National Rifle Association is running its own ads agains Obama, but Simon asks, "Where are the McCain ads, lending his voice to this issue?" He argues that guns "had a lot to do" with Al Gore losing West Virginia, Arkansas and his home state of Tennessee in 2000. "Gun owners simply didn’t believe Gore when he said he was not going to take their guns away," Simon writes. "They did believe Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996 when he said the same thing, but Clinton sold his 'Bubba' image effectively and was far more trusted in small-town and rural America." (Read more)

Meanwhile, the NRA is trying to pay newspapers to put their Election Day print editions in a plastic bag that reads "Vote for Freedom ... Defeat Obama." Four Kentucky dailies and three in Indiana have accepted the ads, which will also promote U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana, both Republicans. But only one of the seven papers, the Times of Northwest Indiana, will use the bags on Election Day, Nov. 4, reports Jack Brammer of the Lexington Herald-Leader. His paper will use the bags on Nov. 3 because it limits specialty political advertising on election days, Publisher Tim Kelly said. Teresa Revlett, sales director for the Kentucky Press Association, which sold the ads, said some papers refused them but she declined to say how many.

The two largest newspapers in Virginia, the Richmond Times-Dispatch and the Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk, rejected the ads, reports the latter paper's Julian Walker. The Pilot's business development manager, Alan Levenstein, said it takes several weeks to print the bags, so allowing one advertiser that format "could deny a group with an opposing view a chance to buy the same space before the election," Walker writes. Levenstein added, "We want to make sure that we don't look, as a newspaper, that we're endorsing one viewpoint or another." (Read more)

Colo. chain says notice about cutting off political coverage in last pre-election paper went too far

This notice appeared in 13 weekly newspapers in the Denver-Colorado Springs region last week, and today on the Romenesko media-news blog from The Poynter Institute: "Per the policy of Colorado Community Newspapers, all coverage of a political nature will cease following the Oct. 23 and 24 editions. Any news coverage, letters to the editor or any other content discussing the Nov. 4 elections will not be printed to allow readers an opportunity to develop their stance without media interference. Coverage will resume with Election Day."

Jeremy Bangs, managing editor of the newspapers, told The Rural Blog in an interview that the notice went too far. He said it was intended to simply restate a longstanding policy that prohibits letters and last-minute charges (including charges in advertising) in the last weekly edition before an election. Asked who wrote the notice, he said, "One of our other editors put that together." Asked if he read it before publication, "I saw the gist of it. I don't think I read it word for word."

As for the notice's reference to "media interference," Bangs said, "If we were to do it over again, we would probably make a clearer reference that we're dealing with letters to the editor and last-minute charges." Many weekly newspapers have such policies, which guarantee candidates and other interested parties an opportunity to respond before the election. Some, including Colorado Community Newspapers, soft-pedal political coverage in the last pre-election edition. "We're not going to get into a lot stories about the specific issues" in this week's papers, Bangs said.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

TV stations sell millions in ads for Ky. Senate race but provide rural voters little news coverage of it

Television stations in Lexington, Ky., sold almost $3 million worth of advertising to candidates and interest groups in Kentucky’s general election for the U.S. Senate through Oct. 20, but ran relatively few news stories on the nationally important race. Most were horse-race stories about campaign tactics and support, and most of the stories that touched on issues did so only superficially.

Those are the major, preliminary findings of a study being conducted by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, part of the School of Journalism and Telecommunications at the University of Kentucky. The Institute launched the study because many rural Kentuckians do not read daily newspapers, and their local, weekly papers generally do not cover statewide elections or subscribe to The Associated Press.

Thus, for many rural voters, television is the major source of information about candidates in statewide races. The four television stations in Lexington are better situated to cover Kentucky elections than most other stations in the state, because the Lexington TV market is the only major market that lies entirely within Kentucky. But from Sept. 1 through Oct. 20, they ran more than 92 hours of ads about the race and only 44 minutes of news about it. For details, click here.

Doctors becoming dentists in dentist-short Maine

As a shortage of dentists continues to affect Maine, the state has taken a new initiative to combat the problem: training family doctors to act as dentists. Among the skills being taught are pulling teeth, lancing abscesses and applying flouride.

"Expanded access to dental care is important because oral health has been linked to overall health, but not all dentists are thrilled with the new program," Dr. James Schmidt, president of the Maine Dental Association, told the Boston Globe.

The training program was begun in 2003 by Dr. William Alto and two other doctors from the Maine Dartmouth Family Medicine Institute in response to the dentist shortage in the state. Currently, Maine has fewer than 600 dentists, about one for every 2,200 people, compared to the national average of one for every 1,600. Among the reasons, Alto said, atre that "MaineCare reimbursements are too low, Maine is a rural state and there's no dental school in the state."

The Globe reports that nearly 40 family practice residents have already undergone the training program at Maine Dartmouth. "The goal isn't to transform them into dentists, but simply to make them aware of oral health issues," said Schmidt. "My passion is for all of our citizens to have access to good care ... I don't really care who provides the service, as long as the service is appropriate, done well and the follow up is good." Read the whole story here.

Vermont plays 'matchmaker' for farmers, buyers

In an attempt to find buyers for their produce, some Vermont farmers are turning to an unlikely source for inspiration: speed-dating. A "matchmaker" event sponsored by the state's Agency of Agriculture, scheduled for tomorrow, hopes to help expand the market for locally grown produce by helping producers connect with buyers based on mutual need and scope of project.

"The farmers will get 10 minutes each with individual buyers, to pitch what they grow and hear the needs of vendors like Shaw's and Hannaford Bros. supermarkets, food cooperatives and colleges," writes Lisa Rathke of The Associated Press. Farmers will learn what type of produce is needed, and how much, while buyers who use a limited number of suppliers will get a chance to see what others are available.

Participants hope the event will provide opportunities for new business partnerships. "I thought it was just going to be produce companies," said Joe Buley, owner of Screamin' Ridge Farm, looking at the buyers participating in the program. "Instead what I'm seeing is it's an awful of direct vending straight to the actual customers, which is excellent." (Read more)

Are 'white spaces' key to rural broadband access?

The changeover from analog to digital television will be complete in early 2009, and some rural groups say it will provide a prime opportunity for the Federal Communications Commission to help rural areas get more access to high-speed Internet service, or broadband.

In an letter filed last week, a group of rural organizations asked the FCC to keep "white spaces," the large number of frequencies that will be left vacant by the digital switch, unlicensed. They say this would allow the frequencies to be used to for broadband access to areas where it has not been cost-effective. "Should the Commission adopt a licensed model," the letter reads, "the overwhelming majority of existing rural providers, local governments, and individuals, would be unable to compete against giant wireless or landline carriers, the only entities who can afford the high cost-of-entry for exclusive, licensed spectrum." The group also asks that the FCC leave white space devices mobile, so that people in rural areas have the freedom to install their own white space devices. (Read the letter)

A FCC vote on white spaces is scheduled for Nov. 4, but many supporting deregulation of those channels say the vote could be delayed by competing lobbying groups, such as the National Association of Broadcasters, which prefers licensing. (Read more)

Monday, October 27, 2008

Big banks using bailout money to buy small banks

The Treasury Department has allocated more than $150 billion of the financial bailout plan to about 30 banks. But instead of making loans, "It appears that the $700 billion will be used for Wall Street banks to take over small banks, in small towns. Like the one I live in," writes columnist Don McNay of Richmond, Ky.

"Unlike other countries, such as England, the United States did not require that banks taking government bailout money lend it out! " McNay exclaims. "If I was a running a bank, my primary “encouragement” is to make money for my shareholders. If I can take government money and use it for something more profitable, I am going to do it. Like any businessperson would. The most profitable thing banks can do is take government money and buy up another bank." (Read more)

The story was broken by McNay's friend, Joe Nocera of The New York Times, after listening to a conference call held by JPMorgan Chase, seemingly the only financial giant still standing tall: "The dirty little secret of the banking industry is that it has no intention of using the money to make new loans." The Wall Street Journal reports on other banks that are taking federal money.

Paul Kiel of ProPublica says one major exception is Ohio-based Huntington Bancshares. However, he writes, "The evidence suggests many of those banks will use the cash to buy up weaker banks. That’s not how the program was sold. Banks were going to use the money to lend, Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson announced earlier this month. . . . But the banks, both privately and publicly, aren’t talking about helping the economy. They’re talking about helping themselves. . . . The weaker banks will use the money to plug their holes, while the stronger banks have the option of using the money to fund takeovers of weaker banks or simply holding on to the money as a cushion in tough times." (Read more)

What is ProPublica? Its Web site calls it "an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest. We strive to foster change through exposing exploitation of the weak by the strong and the failures of those with power to vindicate the trust placed in them."

UPDATES, Oct. 28: ProPublica lists the banks getting federal money. The Los Angeles Times reports Treasury policy is dividing regional banks into haves and have-nots. "Banks that fail to get federal money by Nov. 14, when officials plan to finish investing $250 billion in financial institutions, may find that their best option is to be taken over by a bank that receives Treasury funding," Scott Reckard writes. (Read more)

Forest Service turns to manure for energy source

The U.S. Forest Service is turning to an unusual energy source in an effort to lessen its environmental impact: cow manure. CVPS Cow Power is the first manure-based energy program in the nation, and will fuel the Forest Service's Rutland, Vt., office.

"The air emissions impact will be equivalent to removing 30 vehicles from the roads for a year," USAgNet reports. "Put another way, it would take a 114-acre pine forest to capture and store carbon dioxide to have the same environmental impact."

While this energy is more expensive, costing the Forest Service an extra $2,100 per year, those funds will go to farmers contributing to the project, in order to encourage more farmers to enter the business. "The environmental effects from our enrollment are dramatic, but equally important, we want to set an example for our employees and the general public," said Forest Supervisor Meg Mitchell.

Sheep being employed against invasive species

Sheep are being used as a new, environmentally friendly weapon to slow the spread of invasive species. Pamela J. Podger of The New York Times writes, "Nationwide, sheep grazing is gaining popularity as a low-cost, nontoxic tool in the battle to control leafy spurge, knapweed, dalmatian toadflax and other invasive weed species."(Times photo by Janie Osborne)

Invasive species are taking over public lands throughout the U.S. The Cornell University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences found that "nonnative weeds had invaded 40 percent to 50 percent of America’s croplands, pasture and public lands and were spreading at a rate of 1.75 million acres per year," Podger notes. Grazing is seen as a way to combat this trend without using fossil fuels but gaining the added benefits of producing wool and meat.

The practice has its detractors. "Giles Thelen, a plant ecologist at the University of Montana in Missoula, said that results of the sheep grazing program were anecdotal and that plots should be used to measure how effective the sheep were," writes Podger. "Thelen also worries about the sheep worsening the problem by picking up invasive seeds in their wool and dropping them in new areas, as well as causing erosion with their hooves."

The city of Missoula pays a rancher $1,300 a month to graze his flock of sheep on public lands. Those lands are 75 to 100 percent invaded by noxious weeds according to Morgan Valliant, Missoula’s conservation lands manager. While many argue that herbicides are more effective in dealing with the invasive species, many resist using poisons on public lands. (Read more)

Alabamans testing sugarcane as potential biofuel

Biofuel production in the U.S. is usually done with corn, but new initiative in Alabama is attempting to test the viability of sugarcane, which the major feedstock for ethanol in Brazil. The hope is that it can be used as a substitute for jet fuel. Garry Mitchell of The Associated Press writes, "Amyris Biotechnologies of Emeryville, Calif., plans to use tons of sugar cane in its biofuels project, with a goal of selling jet fuel to the U.S. Air Force."

The project is taking place in Atmore, Ala., on land rented from an Alabama penitentiary. It is a collaborative effort between Eric Hall, a farmer from Bay Minette, and Auburn University crop specialists. The first stage of the project involves planting 100 acres of sugarcane. Writes Mitchell, "If the Alabama crop succeeds, the company could build a plant to process it nearby, but it could take several years and thousands of planted acres to measure its success."

However, there are obstacles. "While small plots of sugar cane are scattered across south Alabama producing molasses," Mitchell writes, "it's unclear if the land is suitable for the project." Another problem could be convincing farmers to sell sugarcane to companies making biofuels since, according to the American Sugar Alliance, currently it is more lucrative to sell it in the food market. (Read more)

Company invests time, cash in rural entrepreneurs

As a general rule, small entrepreneurs have to fight to stay afloat, but the challenge of starting a successful company is even more difficult in areas where economic hardship is a way of life. But one company makes such companies its business.

Kentucky Highlands Investment Corp. is working to strengthen entrepreneurship and create jobs in Southern and Eastern Kentucky by investing in and training small business owners. "Kentucky Highlands has succeeded by doing things differently and by playing to its region's strengths," writes Tom Eblen in the Lexington Herald-Leader. "The agency invests relatively small amounts of money in local people and businesses that can gradually create sustainable jobs."

"We're a catalyst," said Jerry Rickett, president of Kentucky Highlands since 1989. "We're trying to find ways to facilitate the creation and retention of jobs." In forty years of operation, the company says it has created 10,000 jobs in 22 Appalachian counties. (Read more)

Many communities unprepared for ethanol fires

The growth of ethanol means that it is being transported through an increasing number of communities, many of which are unprepared to fight ethanol-related fires. Is yours one of them?

"By and large, fire departments have not been able to get the resources in place to address this particular hazard, which really is spreading," said Alexandria, Va., Fire Chief Adam Thiel. Fighting fires from fuels blended with alcohol require a special foam treatment that is not typically found on fire trucks.

But while gasoline in most of the country is now blended with alcohol and transported on rail lines through much of the country, many areas are not even aware that ethanol fires require different equipment. "I don't think they really understand the whole issue of the blended fuels and how they have to be ready to deal with it," said Timothy Butters, chairman of the International Association of Fire Chiefs' Hazardous Materials Committee and an assistant fire chief in Fairfax, Va.

"A 2006 derailment of 23 Norfolk Southern Co. tank cars in New Brighton, Pa., sparked a fire that burned for 48 hours and forced the evacuation of seven blocks, according to federal safety officials," writes Michael Laris of The Washington Post. "Last year, a tanker traveling from Baltimore to a processing facility in Virginia flipped in Maryland and spilled 6,800 gallons of flaming ethanol, killing the truck's driver and torching a half-dozen cars. The Baltimore City Fire Department did not have the right foam and struggled to put out the fire, which burned for hours." (Read more)