A digest of events, trends, issues, ideas and journalism from and about rural America, by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based at the University of Kentucky. Links may expire, require subscription or go behind pay walls. Please send news and knowledge you think would be useful to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Twitter @RuralJournalism
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
A Thanksgiving prayer for all
God, we thank You for this food
for the hands that planted it
for the hands that tended it
for the hands that harvested it
for the hands that prepared it
for the hands that provided it
and for the hands that served it.
And we pray for those without enough food
in Your world and in our land of plenty.
Are top two ethanol firms talking merger? Maybe
Hours after the nation's largest ethanol maker, Poet LLC, said it is "talking with other companies about buyouts," bankrupt Vera Sun Energy said it had received an unsolicited takeover bid. "Neither Poet nor VeraSun will say if the two are negotiating a deal." The companies control about one-third of America's ethanol capacity.
The story is a good, up-to-date summary of the ethanol business. To read it, click here.
Concern spreads about effect on water supplies of natural-gas drilling using hydraulic fracturing
"New York City and state officials have expressed concerns in recent months about how plans to drill for gas in the formation called the Marcellus Shale might affect the rivers and upstate reservoirs that feed drinking water to nine million New Yorkers," writes Lustgarten. "The drilling process involves the use of potentially hazardous chemicals and raises issues about how those fluids would be disposed of and how the environment would be protected against spills."
The New York Department of Environmental Conservation has hired a consultant to evaluate the impact of gas drilling. The city water system functions without a filtration plant because its water sources are so clean. The influx of harmful chemicals from gas drilling could require the construction of such a system at an estimated cost of $20 billion, exceeding any potential natural-gas profits, Lustgarten writes. (Read more)
Similar concerns have been raised in New Mexico with the Bureau of Land Management. "New Mexico officials say a gas drilling proposal on federal lands threatens a pristine aquifer that could someday provide drinking water to 15 million households, but the state's protests have met with resistance from the federal office administering the project," Lustgarten reports. "Because the BLM relied on decade-old data in a four-year-old environmental review, neither the Environmental Protection Agency nor the state's environment departments were involved in the decision."
Many environmental concerns with gas drilling are linked to the tremendous amount of deregulation the industry has been granted by the federal government. "The drilling industry is exempted from many major federal environmental statutes, including the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Superfund law and the Toxic Release Inventory, which requires disclosure of hazardous waste," writes Lustgarten. (Read more)
Ohio bill would take away EPA oversight of water pollution from coal mines
EPA denied Murray Energy Corp. permits to build a large coal slurry pond in Belmont County because of threats to a nearby creek that houses an endangered species of salamander. But officials say the bill is aimed at speeding up the approval process for mining projects. The bill's sponsor "said the EPA and Natural Resources officials often take years to review coal companies' plans," writes Spencer Hunt of The Columbus Dispatch. "That puts Ohio at risk of losing new mines and jobs to coal states such as West Virginia and Pennsylvania." (Read more)
Struggling Miss. catfish farmers may raise algae
Arizona-based PetroSun is hoping to lease the unused ponds from farmers, The Associated Press reports. Proponents say that algae-based fuel is an attractive alternative to other biofuels because, unlike ethanol, it does not rely on food sources. Neither would it decrease the number of catfish ponds. Algae farming "is not problematic because the ponds they are looking at are out of production," said Andy Whittington, president of the Mississippi Biomass Council. "The catfish market hasn't been what it needs to be, and there are a lot of ponds going out of production now." (Read more)
Rural educators must address globalization, environmental threats, expert writes
Timothy Collins, the assistant director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb, reported on his experiences as the National Community Education Association meeting in Dallas, for an article in The Daily Yonder: "Community-based rural schools are engaging their students in learning experiences that deal with significant local issues such as small-business start ups; implementing agricultural and alternative energy projects; and environmental studies and restoration."
Part of the challenge facing rural communities is the environmental threat to the land-community bonds that often typify rural experience. "Rural communities face a shared problem: they tend to be simultaneously exploited by and disconnected from the global economy," Collins writes. "Even when these places seem forgotten, they remain sources for low-cost labor and natural resources." This means that rural education must also include an emphasis on stewardship, with "a curriculum that preserves and enhances the community’s assets, while recognizing the importance of global citizenship." (Read more)
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
New tobacco product coming under fire in W. Va.
Camel Snus, a pouch placed between the gum and the lip, is under scrutiny from West Virginia University’s Translational Tobacco Reduction Research Program, which has issues with the perceived manipulation on the part of tobacco companies in the region.
“It would appear that tobacco companies are trying to strategically market new smokeless, spitless tobacco products in these areas of high use, such as West Virginia, and also promoting their use as a way to get nicotine in places where you can’t smoke,” Cindy Tworek, Ph.D., said in a release. First spotted in a convenience store in Morgantown, W. Va., Camel Snus are advertised as a cleaner alternative to smoking or chew tobacco. Low levels of salt and moisture content mean users don’t have to spit and the packaging and design of the product appears to be clearly aimed at the younger consumer. “Packaging, colors, and advertising have potential appeal to a younger audience, including product pamphlets on where you can use Camel Snus,” said Tworek.
Further analysis showed the nicotine levels in Camel Snus were much higher than other snuff products sold in the U.S. Newswise, a research-reporting service, reports that “ the version of Camel Snus currently being sold in West Virginia has double the nicotine compared to an earlier analysis of a test-market version of the same product.” The level is much higher than the Liggett Group’s comparable Tourney product line. “With nicotine levels this high, these products are going to be highly addicting,” said Bruce Adkins of the state Division of Tobacco Prevention. “The public needs this awareness, especially to remind them that there’s no tobacco product that can be used without significant potential health risks.” Read the release from Newsiwse here.
Obama cites 'millionaire farmers' as one example of where to cut the federal budget
"Millionaire farmers received $49 million in crop subsidies even though they were earning more than the $2.5 million cutoff for such subsidies," Obama said at a press conference, citing a Government Accountability Office report. "If it's true it is a prime example of the kind of waste I intend to end when I am president." During his campaign, Obama voted for the new Farm Bill but said he would like subsidy programs to do more for smaller farmers and less for large ones, including corporations. Today, he said he would target "special interest tax breaks and corporate subsidies." UPDATE, Nov. 26: In an editorial, The Washington Post noted Obama's vote and said of the GAO figures, "The supposed amount involved -- $49 million over four years -- is puny in the context of a $3 trillion annual budget."
Part of Obama's language at the press conference appeared to come from Michael Doyle of McClatchy Newspapers, who wrote in his story about the GAO report, "At least 2,702 farmers nationwide received subsidies between 2003 and 2006 even though they were making more than the $2.5 million gross income cutoff [which the new Farm Bill lowers to $750,000]. The unwarranted payments totaled $49 million and exposed enduring Agriculture Department management problems, investigators concluded."
The report says 1.8 million farmers get subsidies. It cites several specific examples of abuse and said the Department of Agriculture "cannot be assured that millions of dollars in farm program payments it made are proper" because it doesn't have enough access to Internal Revenue Service data. USDA's Farm Service Agency replied that it "made the best use of the resources available" and "the reported improper payments amounted to less than 1 percent of total crop subsidy payments," which total $16 billion a year, Doyle writes.
"USDA said it doesn’t have the legal authority to cross-check its program payments with IRS income tax data," notes Agri-Pulse. "GAO wasn’t impressed by the response, pointing out that not only could USDA seek the needed authority but that even without IRS data, there are ways to sample individuals receiving farm payments to test for income eligibility – something GAO says USDA hasn’t tried."
For a summary of the study, click here. For a PDF of the full report, click here.
Getting broadband is 'like having a sewer system'
Lira once found her business capabilities stifled due to sole reliance on dial-up Internet service, but now runs a successful online business, thanks to WI-VOD, a company that provides inexpensive wireless broadband access in rural communities. Superior residents pay about $30 each month.
"Superior got its broadband through grants from public and private groups totaling $340,000, according to Heather Murphy, a Pinal County spokeswoman," writes Kelly McGrath of The Arizona Republic. "Of that, $270,000 came from USDA Rural Development, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Superior provided a $25,000 grant, and the business community provided $10,000 in matching funds."
Candi Nillies, support-services coordinator for the Hayden Police Department, notes that wireless access helps with public safety efforts, allowing police officers to carry mobile data terminals in their cars. "We want to give them every piece of technology possible to ensure they go home to their families safe and sound after a shift."(Read more)
As appointment of agriculture secretary remains up in the air, some have policy advice for Obama
"He proposed refocusing federal policy on creating opportunity for family farms by capping payments to mega farms and enforcing rules against unfair pricing practices by meat packers," Chuck Hassebrook, executive director of the Nebraska-based Center for Rural Affairs, writes in the Des Moines Register. "To revitalize rural communities, he proposed investing in small business, microenterprise development and value-added agriculture, including local foods and sustainable agriculture."
Hassebrook suggests that farm and rural policy have come to exemplify the broken politics of Washington. He adds, "The federal government spends billions subsidizing mega farms to drive smaller farms off the land and often penalizes the best environmental stewards with lower payments." It is the support of these smaller farms that he sees as the best farm policy, and he says current policy largely ignores many rural people. "In 2005 the Department of Agriculture spent nearly twice as much to subsidize the 260 biggest farms across 13 leading farm states than on rural development initiatives to create economic opportunity for the 3 million people living in those states' 260 most struggling rural counties," he writes. (Read more)
Since the election several names have been mentioned as possible candidates for the agriculture secretary position. Former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack had been the odds-on favorite, but told Philip Brasher of the Register that he does not expect to get the post. (Read more)
Reps. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., and Stephanie Sandlin, D-S.D., are two other names Obama is rumored to be considering.(Read more)
Bankruptcy of big ethanol producer may mean less money for farmers
As reported here the bankruptcy of VeraSun, the purchaser of roughly 8 percent of Iowa's annual corn crop, came about because the company locked into contracts with corn growers at prices above the current market value. Bankruptcy may solve this problem. "VeraSun has said that under the terms of bankruptcy law, it may exercise its right to void or change the terms of futures contracts," Pillar notes.
The Iowa Department of Agriculture's Grain Indemnity Fund would provide support for farmers who lose money when they are not paid for grain that was delivered to a licensed warehouse but it can do nothing in cases where companies like VeraSun do not honor previously negotiated contracts. (Read more)
Turkey cost key in Thanksgiving dinner inflation
Other items that have increased in cost are a 12-oz. package of brown-and-serve rolls, $2.20; a 12-oz. package of fresh cranberries, $2.46; a 30-oz. can of pumpkin pie mix, $2.34; two 9-inch pie shells, $2.26; a 14-oz. package of cubed bread stuffing, $2.57; a relish tray of carrots and celery, 82 cents; a half-pint of whipping cream, $1.70; a pound of green peas, $1.58; and three pounds of sweet potatoes, $3.12 according to AFBF's Web site. Items that decreased in price included several basics: milk, coffee, onions, eggs, flour, sugar, and butter. (Read more)
Contrary to the national parent and its findings, the Indiana Farm Bureau says a Thanksgiving dinner for Hoosiers will cost 4.3 percent less than last year: $45.58, down $2.05. "White potato prices are up 35 percent this fall because potato acres were down 8 percent from last year," Purdue agricultural economist Corrine Alexander told Dave Russell of Brownfield Network. "In contrast, sweet potato prices are down because of a record crop of sweet potatoes." IFB said in its release, "Neither the national nor Indiana surveys is scientific They are instead snapshots of prices on basic items during a given time period." (Read more)
The National Farmers Union reminds us that "off-farm costs including marketing, processing, wholesaling, distribution and retailing account for 80 cents of every food dollar spent in the United States." For details and examples from NFU, click here.
Monday, November 24, 2008
Tom Gish, buried today, taught rural journalists there's almost no such thing as a strictly local story
"The Mountain Eagle’s reach to legislators and the national and international press corps shaped legislation ranging from food stamps, Head Start, Title I of the education act, Black Lung compensation, mine safety legislation, strip-mining legislation, housing assistance, to name only a few – all incubated in a weekly newspaper," wrote former Eagle reporter Jim Brancsome. His remarks were read at today's funeral by David Hawpe, editorial director of The (Louisville) Courier-Journal, who said Tom and Pat Gish "gave me the foundation for much of the work I've done as a journalist." For an Associated Press story on the funeral, click here.
Another former Eagle reporter, Bill Bishop, wrote on his Daily Yonder yesterday: "Tom and Pat wrote some of the first stories about the poverty that came with the post-war depression in the coalfields. Other reporters followed the Eagle’s reporting. They would read a story in the Whitesburg paper and then trek down to Eastern Kentucky to see things for themselves. Invariably they’d wind up in Whitesburg and following Tom on a personally guided tour of the region. The War on Poverty began with stories coming from Eastern Kentucky. In reality, Lyndon Johnson’s attention to the nation’s poorest people was directed by reporting done by Tom and Pat Gish."
Bishop writes that the Gishes "taught rural America ... that you can work locally and have a national impact. He quotes another former reporter and Gish friend, Thomas N. Bethell: “One of the many reasons why Tom and Pat are great journalists is that they have always understood that there is almost no such thing as a strictly local story, and they have been willing to follow the story wherever it takes them. That, surely, should be a model and a mantra for rural journalists wherever they are.” (Read more)
Taking on the coal industry, bad schools, corrupt officials and bad police sometimes had a high price. In 1974, the Eagle office was firebombed by a city policeman supposedly upset about stories on police harassment of young people. (Tom Gish told a TV interviewer that state police had evidence that the cop was paid by a coal operator.) The Gishes' front porch became the newspaper office, and the paper's motto, "It Screams," became "It Still Screams."
“It expresses a determination to scream out from the local level to Frankfort to Washington to the people of the country that this is something that needs to be addressed and this is something we’re not going to stop shouting about,” lawyer and former state representative Steve Cawood of Pineville, Ky., told Howard Berkes of National Public Radio today. For the NPR story, click here. For a story from Editor & Publisher, go here. For more on the Gishes, go to http://www.ruraljournalism.org/ or click here.
Most-viewed stories on The Rural Blog last week
Tom Gish, inspirational rural editor-publisher, dies
Kentucky governor objects to proposed rule that would make mountaintop-removal mining easier
Klan loses in rural lawsuit, draws ABC-TV spotlight
Broadband access creates unusual employment opportunities for rural Wyoming
Eleutian Technology employs teachers in Ten Sleep to teach English to Koreans via the Web. "The company has 300 teachers hooked up to more than 15,000 students," writes Mead Gruver of The Associated Press. Eleutian Technology CEO Kent Holiday initially had planned on building the business in Utah but changed his mind because of the fiber-optic cable installed by the the telecom cooperative that serves Ten Sleep. The upgrade was made in 2006.
Jon Benson, CEO of the Wyoming Technology Business Center at the University of Wyoming told Gruver, "Broadband connectivity really has allowed people to do high-tech businesses from remote areas. It allows companies to locate in a place like Wyoming and do business across the world."(Read more)
There has been some debate about the economic impact of broadband access in rural areas. But the Ten Sleep example shows the potential benefits.
Turkey's good for you, but is turkey farming? Scientists debate effects of antibiotics
"In 2001, the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for a healthy environment, estimated that every year in this country 3 million pounds of antimicrobials are used in human medicine," writes Ravn. "By contrast, the organization estimated that 24.6 million pounds are used in food animals for nontherapeutic purposes." Francine Bradley, extension poultry specialist in the Animal Science Department at University of California-Davis, isn't worried. She told Ravn that antibiotics "cost a lot of money, so no one gives them indiscriminately. Besides if they've overused them previously, they won't get a good response when they really need them."
Another concern, that antibiotics will be transferred from turkeys to humans, has been largely dispelled. "Even critics of antibiotic use see this danger as minimal, at least in turkeys," Ravn writes. "A withdrawal time has been established for every antibiotic, based on testing how long it remains in the bird after usage has stopped. So if the withdrawal time is, say, two weeks, the antibiotic cannot be given for at least two weeks before the turkey goes to market."
The Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture routinely test turkeys for antibiotic residue and the results show the birds to be 99 percent residue-free, according to a spokesperson for the National Turkey Federation. Who wants to carve? (Read more)
Rural children now less likely than urban children to live in homes with married couples
"The poverty rate for children in married-couple families is 9 percent compared to 21 percent for those in male-headed and 43 percent for those in female-headed families," note William P. O’Hare and Allison Churilla in a Carsey Institute report from the University of New Hampshire. "Consequently, the decline in the share of rural children living in married-couple families since 2000 may help explain the 3 percentage point rise in child poverty in rural America between 2000 and 2006." (Read more)
Southwest Virginia has a shortage of psychiatrists, a problem in rural areas, especially for veterans
Sarah Bruyn Jones reports that the New River Valley has only 17 licensed psychiatrists, fewer than 1 for every 10,000 residents. The Roanoke area has a better ratio, but almost 25 percent are at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Salem. In Virginia as a whole, the average is 2.9 per 10,000 residents. (Read more)
This is a story that is increasingly important to write, as veterans continue to return from combat overseas. Returning war veterans have psychological problems and are disproportionately rural. As we have noted, a recent study in West Virginia found rural veterans there returning from Iraq or Afghanistan with high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder or depression compared to their urban counterparts. This discrepancy was blamed on a lack of mental-health care providers in rural areas.
City takes meatpacker out of city limits so it can qualify for a rural business loan from USDA
Sam Kane Beef Processors has been in the city limits for many years, but said it needed federal help to stay in business because of the credit crunch, reports Beth Wilson of the Corpus Christi Caller-Times: "A loan guarantee from the U.S. Department of Agriculture was the company's only option, President Jerry Kane said. Without the refinancing that this loan guarantee will allow, Kane said, the company likely would be forced to close." The company has 850 employees. (Read more)
The loan will come from USDA's Business and Industry Guaranteed Loan Program, which is for "properties are rural in character and adjacent to rural properties," writes Tom Johnston of MeatingPlace. (Read more) Johnston reports that city economic-development director Irma Caballero told him the plant is surrounded by large tracts of agricultural land, but that does not appear to be the case. Put the plant's address, 9001 Leopard St., into an interactive map service and you will see it's less than half a mile from Interstate 37 and less than a mile from an oil refinery. The MapQuest map shows that the nearest city limit is almost two miles from the plant; the stories don't make clear whether the plant is now in a "doughnut hole" in the city limits or if a corridor leading to the plant was de-annexed.
'Partial capture' of carbon dioxide cleans coal, costs less, say researchers at MIT
Nancy Stauffer of the MIT Energy Initiative writes, "Depending on the type of plant, carbon capture alone can increase the initial capital cost by 30 to 60 percent and decrease plant efficiency so that the cost per kilowatt-hour rises. That high cost would reduce — or possibly eliminate — the hours the plant will be called on to run." Plus, no one knows exactly how full capture programs work for a large-scale power plant.
"Our approach — 'partial capture' — can get CO2 emissions from coal-burning plants down to emissions levels of natural gas power plants," said Ashleigh Hildebrand, a graduate student in chemical engineering and the Technology and Policy Program. This step would still capture a significant portion of carbon emissions, but would reduce the initial cost of implementing the program, provide higher plant efficiency than full capture programs, and allow power plants to test carbon capture programs on a smaller scale before moving to a full capture program. (Read more)
Sunday, November 23, 2008
Rescue, restructuring of automakers could cost rural areas a big civic, economic engine: dealers
Paul Ingrassia, former Detroit bureau chief for The Wall Street Journal, said on NBC's "Meet the Press" this morning that General Motors needs to have about 1,500 dealers instead of 7,000. He wrote in the Journal Friday, "Far too many valid contractual claims remain on the car companies' revenue streams from dealers, employees, retirees and others for these companies to survive -- even if we get a modest economic recovery soon." (Read more)
"Meet" host Tom Brokaw, who grew up in small towns in South Dakota, pointed out the key role that auto dealers play in small towns: "a part of the heartbeat of their local economy," as he put it. Dealers also play a major civic role, and are in some cases are local newspapers' and broadcast stations' biggest advertisers. But Ingrassia insisted, "It's going to take someone who can really invalidate contracts with dealers."
Ingrassia wrote in the Journal on Nov. 10 that abrogation of dealer and labor contracts is an essential part of a federally supported restructuring plan. "In return for any direct government aid, the board and the management should go," he wrote. "Shareholders should lose their paltry remaining equity. And a government-appointed receiver -- someone hard-nosed and nonpolitical -- should have broad power to revamp GM with a viable business plan and return it to a private operation as soon as possible. That will mean tearing up existing contracts with unions, dealers and suppliers, closing some operations and selling others, and downsizing the company." (Read more)
On today's program, Ingrassia called for a law for a "hybrid bankruptcy" of GM, creating a job held by "someone who has the power to invalidate the union contracts and the dealer franchise laws," which "make it virtually impossible" for the companies to slash their dealer rolls. Sounds like a big lobbying challenge for the National Automobile Dealers Association, and something for small-town media to follow.
Many small towns have lost dealerships in the last decade, and the economic downturn has forced may to close. Kevin Tibbles of NBC News reported tonight that 700 of the nation's 20,700 dealers have close this year, and "a further 1,000 are expected to disappear in 2009 as dealerships fall like dominoes." (View story)