Saturday, February 07, 2009

Web business consultant says rural people need entrepreneurial training to gain from broadband

The new Senate stimulus package has money to expand broadbamd Internet access in rural areas, but that "is just half the battle -- maybe less than half," the Daily Yonder says, introducing an article by rural Web business consultant Frank Odasz, right. "Broadband doesn't produce jobs, people do, and they need training in best practices and entrepreneurship and trusted networks of support."

Odasz writes, "Once access is achieved, the telephone and cable companies will have met their goal, but the challenge for citizens and communities to produce jobs and income will have just begun. With broadband in place, how will new jobs be created? Can we identify replicable broadband training best practices in a world of booming bottom-up entrepreneurial innovations, in time to produce jobs on a massive scale? Yes, we can. In fact, it is already happening."

Odasz's main example is Ten Sleep, Wyo., where more than 20 percent of the 350 people "work via the Internet as professionals, having moved here seeking a rural lifestyle; they brought with them Internet know-how and the capability to use it." The key employer is Eleutian, which is "training English speakers to be English teachers via fiber optics," for the $100 billion-a-year market in English instruction in Asia.

There are also numerous cases of "community technology centers and community networking," Odasz writes, referring readers to Community Technology Review, the Community Technology Centers Network, the Association for Community Networking; and the Community Networking Clearinghouse. He also cites several examples of entrepreneurs based in rural areas and selling mainly over the Internet. "The immediate need, and opportunity," he says, "is for fast-track broadband entrepreneurship training with an ongoing emphasis on emerging best practices." (Read more)

Friday, February 06, 2009

Weekly newspaper goes 24/7 to keep its readers informed amid aftermath of record ice storm

As the deadline of The Crittenden Press coincided with a massive ice storm in Western Kentucky in the last week of January, Editor and Publisher Chris Evans knew the edition would be overtaken by events. Recalling an ice storm the previous winter, a one-column headline on the front page announced "Deja vu". But as all of Crittenden County, including the Marion radio station WMJL, lost power, last winter's experience helped the newspaper become the sole source of local information at a critical time.

Evans, left, got a generator and enough power to publish an 8½-by-11-inch handbill that was inserted into the paper, and distributed around town even before the paper arrived. It gave critical updates on a host of critical subjects. Because there was no Internet access to update the paper's Web site, Evans called reports to Matthew T. Patton, a local native who lives in Philadelphia and writes a column for the paper. "People were sending him pictures and he would post them online," Evans said. "He was running our Web site ... and you would never know he wasn’t right in the middle of it."

Readers appreciated the efforts. "We got tremendous feedback" about the Web site and handbill, Evans said. "I had people drive by the office, honk their horn and give thumbs up. It's times like this that really give me a charge and makes me love my job." That showed in this week's paper, which you can download here. And what about next week's paper? Evans said he is planning a special section with "the Git-er-done Awards for individuals and entities who need a slap on the back or a tip of the hat." He probably won't include himself, but we will, right here. For a full story, click here.

New gas-drilling methods may pollute rural water

New drilling techniques for natural gas are being used in rural areas in Appalachia and the Western U.S., but the health and environmental issues surrounding them are a cause for concern.

Hydraulic fracturing, known commonly as "fracking," involves injecting "water, sand, and a cocktail of chemicals at high pressure into rock formations thousands of feet below the surface, opening existing fractures in the rock and allowing gas to rise through the wells," Josh McDaniel writes for The Christian Science Monitor. Fracking and horizontal drilling mean areas once deemed unsuitable for natural gas extraction are now at the forefront of the energy industry.

The "cocktail" that is forced into rock formations under the ground has been kept under wraps by energy companies and their drilling contractors. McDaniel reports that the confidentiality has become even more cemented since the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which " exempted hydraulic fracturing from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act." Bills have been introduced to repeal the exemption.

Geologist Geoffrey Thyne of the University of Wyoming and Theo Colborn, a leading researcher on the effects of toxins on the human endocrine system, have been trying to learn what and how the components of the solution affect human health. Dr. Colburn has identified several risky chemicals, including at least one known carcinogen, in the mixtures being used. “They are injecting fluid that may or may not be hazardous into thousands of wells and not recovering all of it,” Thyne told McDaniel. “We have to ask, what is in those fluids and where does the fluid go?” Read more here.

Columnist corrects rural senators: All spending is stimulus. But not all spending is good.

Amid the increasingly partisan potshots in the debate over the economic stimulus, we recommend that journalists read this morning's column by Steven Pearlstein, The Washington Post's Pulitzer Prize-winning business and economics columnist. He debunks some of the simplistic arguments being made about it. Some of his more pointed remarks are are aimed at Republican senators from rural states, but he also accepts some Republican arguments.

His first target is Mike Johnanns, former governor of Nebraska and most recently secretary of agriculture, who said in his first floor speech, "This is not a stimulus plan, it's a spending plan [that] won't create the promised jobs. It won't activate our economy." Pearlstein says the address was "full of budget-balancing orthodoxy that would have made Herbert Hoover proud. ... Where does the senator think the $800 billion will go? Down a rabbit hole? Even if the entire sum were to be stolen by federal employees and spent entirely on fast cars, fancy homes, gambling junkets and fancy clothes, it would still be an $800 billion increase in the demand for goods and services -- a pretty good working definition for economic stimulus. The only question is whether spending it on other things would create more long-term value, which it almost certainly would."

Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn wrote in The Wall Street Journal Wednesday that one in five of the 3 million jobs that the stimulus might create or save will be government jobs. "As if there is something inherently inferior or unsatisfactory about that," Pearlstein writes. "Note to Coburn's political director: One in five workers in Oklahoma is employed by government. ... What's striking is that supposedly intelligent people are horrified at the thought that, during a deep recession, government might try to help the economy by buying up-to-date equipment for the people who protect us from epidemics and infectious diseases, by hiring people to repair environmental damage on federal lands and by contracting with private companies to make federal buildings more energy-efficient."

(Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer writes in the Post that the bill includes "hundreds of billions that have nothing to do with stimulus, that Congress's own budget office says won't be spent until 2011 and beyond, and that are little more than the back-scratching, special-interest, lobby-driven parochialism that Obama came to Washington to abolish. He said." Example: "$150 million for livestock (and honeybee and farm-raised fish) insurance.")

Pearlstein agrees with Republican criticism that some parts of the stimulus would raise budgets for government agencies and become recurring. Here's his bottom line: "Spending is stimulus, no matter what it's for and who does it. The best spending is that which creates jobs and economic activity now, has big payoffs later and disappears from future budgets." But he says, perhaps tongue in cheek, that it might be a good long-term investment to hire "personal economic trainers" for senators and House members. (Read more) Pearlstein is co-moderator, with former Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee, of a new Web site, On Leadership, which aims to get "experts and readers with varying backgrounds and perspectives to address the same topics at the same time and at the same place."

Alaska police blotter gains an international following, describing madcap village crime

Dutch Harbor, in Alaska's Aleutian Islands, has gained notoriety as the site of "Deadliest Catch," the Discovery Channel show which chronicles the areas dangerous crabbing industry. But lately, Unalaska, the island jurisdiction that includes Dutch Harbor, has an international following for another reason -- its police blotter.

The report of calls to police, posted on a town Web site, documents “the sea of chaos that invariably exists wherever three fishermen have plenty of money and no imminent deadline for getting on a boat," writes Kim Murphy for the Los Angeles Times. Blotter reports by Sgt. Jennifer Shockley, an 11-year veteran of the police force, often sound like something from a slapstick comedy. Take one report written last summer: "Three juvenile boys phoned police and reported they had taken refuge inside a piece of playground equipment because they were in fear of imminent attack by a bald eagle. The suspect eagle hissed and puffed his chest feathers at the responding officer before flying from the area." (Read more)

In an interview with Victoria Barber of the Dutch Harbor Fisherman last month, Shockley said that she depends on her fellow police officers' sense of the absurd to capture the humor in many of the "Some calls are amusing from the moment our dispatcher gets the request for service, and others simply become silly as they progress." (Read more)

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Students in Virginia mountain county will study their own watershed with the help of a new book

Students in one of the more mountainous counties of southwest Virginia will get to see how conservation directly affects their community through the use of a new supplemental science resource. A new book, The Virginia Headwaters of the Big Sandy River: A Story of Revitalization and Nature’s Resilience, will be used to teach high school students in Dickenson County how to protect their local watershed.

The book, by Lu Ellsworth and Kari Kilgore, "includes a historical perspective that should attract young and old readers alike," writes Paula Tate in The Dickenson Star. "It focuses not only on protecting the remaining natural resources within the watershed, but also on the challenges ahead to restore many damaged and threatened areas." Every current high schooler will receive a copy of the book. As long as funds are available, it will be given to every subsequent freshman class. (Read more; subscription required)

Energy secretary fears end of agriculture in Calif., water shortages as results of climate change

Energy Secretary Steven Chu told the Los Angeles Times yesterday that "We're looking at a scenario where there's no more agriculture in California," and disaster for the state's cities as the Sierra Nevada snowpack succumbs to global warming. He also warned of water shortages in other parts of the West, and even in the Midwest.

"Chu is not a climate scientist," notes reporter Jim Tankersley, but "Recent studies raise similar warnings. One, published in January in the journal Science, raised the specter of worldwide crop shortages as temperatures rise. Another, penned by UC Berkeley researchers last year, estimated California has about $2.5 trillion in real estate assets -- including agriculture -- endangered by warming."

To fight climate change, Chu, a Californian, "sees public education as a key part of the administration's strategy ... along with billions of dollars for alternative energy research and infrastructure, a national standard for electricity from renewable sources and cap-and-trade legislation to limit greenhouse gas emissions. He said the threat of warming is keeping policymakers focused on alternatives to fossil fuel, even though gasoline prices have fallen over the last six months from historic highs. But he said public awareness needs to catch up. He compared the situation to a family buying an old house and being told by an inspector that it must pay a hefty sum to rewire it or risk an electrical fire that could burn everything down." He said, "I'm hoping the Amercian people will wake up." (Read more)

Va.'s spending of $1 billion in tobacco-settlement funds on tobacco-dependent counties questioned

Facing budget cuts and possible tax increases, Virginia lawmakers are "asking pointed questions about whether the state ... properly spent more than $1 billion" from the national tobacco settlement in the counties that once depended on the crop, Anita Kumar of The Washington Post reports from Richmond.

Settlement money has funded "more than 1,000 projects," Kumar reports. "It paid for high-speed Internet access in rural areas, upgrades to sewer lines, a scenic trail to honor Virginia's musical heritage and a railroad museum." But Nelson Link, chief of farm programs for the federal Farm Service Agency, told her, "Some of the stuff it has gone to is very controversial. You've heard the expression: If you build it, they will come? It hasn't happened like they hoped." Link's family has a tobacco farm on the North Carolina border.

Last year, a study headed by former Gov. Gerald L. Baliles "faulted the commission for not tracking its results and suggested an audit. The group ... noted that despite the influx of money, the region suffers from declining population, low pay and high unemployment." (Read more)

Virginia was one of three states to allocate half its settlement money for the economies of rural counties. North Carolina invested its money and spends only the earnings; Kentucky, with more farmers and thus more pressure to dole out funds, spends the money more or less as it comes in. Most of it has gone to improve the cattle industry in the state, which is the largest cattle state east of the Mississippi. For a report on Kentucky and North Carolina, click here.

Coal company to pay big fine for water pollution

Federal officials announced this week that Patriot Coal Corp. will pay $6.5 million in fines for violating the Clean Water Act. The U.S. Justice Department announced today that the penalty is the third largest ever in a federal water-pollution case for discharge-permit violations.

"Federal officials alleged Patriot violated its water pollution permits more than 1,400 times -- representing more than 22,000 days of violations between January 2003 and December 2007 -- at its mining complexes in West Virginia," reports Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette. (Read more)

Vilsack: USDA's clientele includes eaters, too

"When former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack was nominated as secretary of agriculture, many food policy activists, noting his reputation as a friend to corporate agriculture and ethanol producers, rendered a verdict that was swift and harsh: agribusiness as usual," reports Jane Black of The Washington Post. "But Vilsack, newly installed in his regal but still-undecorated office on Independence Avenue, is out to redefine himself and his vision."

In an interview this week, Vilsack called for the Department of Agriculture to champion not only farmers but eaters as well. This approach is a significant departure from the traditional role of the USDA which traditionally focuses on programs that benefit commercial farming.

Food activists are encouraged by early Vilsack decisions, such as the reinstatement of $3.2 million in grant funding for fruit and vegetable growers, which was abandoned in the final days of the Bush administration, and his support for establishing school and urban gardens. David Murphy, director of Food Democracy Now, says, "The new secretary's reputation as a friend to agribusiness and ethanol producers may have been overstated."

Even with President Obama's full support, Vilsack is under pressure to protect agribuisness interests. Black writes, "At Vilsack's confirmation hearing Jan. 14, Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., warned that he should not lose sight of the farmers who produce 'the food and fiber for America and a troubled and hungry world'." (Read more)

Salazar scraps plan to drill on federal land in Utah

Efforts continued this week to undo last-minute Bush Administration decisions, as Interior Secretary Ken Salazar canceled oil and gas drilling leases on 77 parcels of federal land in Utah. "Salazar's decision -- which reverses the Bush administration's move to allow drilling on about 130,000 acres near pristine areas such as Nine Mile Canyon, Arches National Park and Dinosaur National Monument -- is one of a series of steps that the new administration and congressional Democrats are planning to reshape federal regulation of drilling, mining, lumbering and other resource-tapping activities, both on U.S. soil and offshore," reports Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post. (Read more)

"But the oil and gas industry warned that a policy shift could cost consumers more in the long run," writes Patty Henetz of The Salt Lake Tribune. Critics of the decision insist that it will lead to job losses, a decrease in government revenue and higher energy costs. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, also blasted Salazar's decision. "The argument that these leases have been canceled to protect our national parks is a fairy tale conjured up to win public support for what is actually a very dangerous anti-oil agenda."(Read more)

Knoxville photojournalist Clay Owen dies at 47

Clay Owen, a photojournalist for the Knoxville News-Sentinel who photographed Appalachia, passed away at home Tuesday following a heart attack. He was 47.

Owen worked for the News-Sentinel for 17 years. A 1988 graduate of the University of Kentucky's journalism school, he freelanced at the Lexington Herald-Leader before joining the Knoxville paper in 1991. He won a number of professional awards, including a regional award last fall from the National Press Photographers Association.

"Mr. Owen also was the regular partner of now-retired senior writer Fred Brown in the Appalachian Journal series, in which they roamed East Tennessee to bring readers a peek into life off the beaten path," the News-Sentinel wrote in a tribute. Brown wrote, "It was Clay Owen's kind smile and gentle way that was the key to our success." (Read more)

Eagle's comeback spurs tourism in Dubuque

Once endangered as a result of pesticide use, bald eagles are off the federal endangered species list, but are still rare enough that areas where they congregate attract a number of tourists hoping to spot the national bird in the wild. The Environment Report's Shawn Allee went to Dubuque, Iowa's Eagle Watch to witness eagle tourism firsthand.

Dubuque's convention center hosts booths selling eagle-related items, from photographs to bobble-heads. The main attraction is not inside, but at the Mississippi River, where the town's dam provides easy food for the birds, stunning the fish as they pass through. Locals say they can tell that today's eagle population is much healthier than it has been. “Twenty years ago, we read about eagles, we heard about eagles but we never ever saw one," photographer Robert Eichman told Allee. But, now, during the winter, "there may be 400 to 500 eagles roosting on the bluffs on either side of the river.” (Listen to the story; read the transcript)

Census of Agriculture finds more, smaller farms; 30 percent increase in female farmers in 5 years

A lot gets written about large-scale farming operations becoming more common, but the latest Census of Agriculture says that not only are the number of farms rising, but they're getting smaller. The years between 2002 and 2007 have seen the start of 300,000 new farms, pushing the number just above 2.2 million. The increase is the first in 60 years of the quintennial counts, notes Jeff Caldwell of Agriculture Online.

"60 percent of all farms report less than $10,000 in sales of agricultural products," writes Tom Steever for Brownfield Ag News, and "of the 2.2 million farms nationwide, only 1 million show positive net cash income from the farm operation." The census also found that farmers are getting older, the average age rising from 55.3 to 57.1, with farmers retiring later or continuing to work on a part-time basis. (Read more)

Caldwell quotes Stu Ellis of University of Illinois Extension: "One of the most significant changes ... is the increase in female farm operators, both in terms of the absolute number and the percentage of all principal operators. There were 306,209 female principal operators counted in 2007, up from 237,819 in 2002 -- an increase of almost 30 percent." For Caldwell's detailed story, click here.

In Iowa, the census suggests that small farm operations in Iowa are on the rise but the data also shows that in Iowa and nationwide the majority of food is coming from large farms. "The number of farms reporting sales of $10,000 or less was up significantly, although the biggest increase was in farms with less than $1,000 in sales, according to the count released Wednesday," reports Philip Brasher of The Des Moines Register.

What may be a real concern is the shrinking number of middle sized farms over the last five years. 23,698 farms in Iowa counted in 2007 reported sales of $1,000 or less. That is up from 19,668 in 2002. But over the same time period the number of farms earning at least $1 million in sales increased to 4,213 in 2007 up from 1,518 in 2002. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, while saying he was encouraged by the growth of small farms, voiced concern that middle-sized farms continue to disappear. Vilsack said, "The health of rural communities depends on us maintaining those small and mid-sized farms." (Read more)

Kentucky mayor's Facebook page keeps residents informed in aftermath of devastating ice storm

When Madisonville, Ky., population 19,000, got slammed with a huge ice storm last week, Mayor Will Cox, left, turned to Facebook to help get information to people in his community. With much of the town without power or phone service, Cox used the social networking site to inform residents about where and when power had been restored, government responses to the crisis, and basic information about community resources.

“Because of my position, the information is good and people know its good. It’s not like I’m Joe Blow blogger,” Cox told Beth Musgrave of the Lexington Herald-Leader. “People know that it’s reliable information.” Cox also used the one local radio station with a generator to communicate with residents, but found Facebook offered a tangible way to measure who received his information. He very quickly added 250 friends to his account. He says that, long after the ice has melted, he will keep using the site for communication: “I’d be crazy not to." (Read more)

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Bill to delay transition to digital TV until June 12 goes from Congress to Obama, who favors it

Congress has passed a bill delaying the mandatory switch to digital television to June 12, from Feb. 17. President Obama favors the bill, which passed the House tonight 264-158. Last week, under expedited procedures requiring a two-thirds vote, the bill fell short. The Senate passed it without dissent.

"The Obama administration and many Democrats asked for the delay, saying millions of people are not ready for the switch," notes Suzanne Choney of MSNBC. "Still to be resolved is the funding needed for more coupons to help consumers offset the cost of converter boxes. That issue will likely be considered as part of the economic stimulus legislation." (Read more)

No matter when analog signals disappear, millions of rural Americans will no longer be able to watch some local television stations when all stations switch to digital-only programming. (Read more) For a market-by-market list, click here.

Rural health advocates mourn Daschle withdrawal

Tom Daschle's withdrawal of his nomination to be secretary of health and human services, and head Presudent Obama's health-care reform efforts, was bemoaned by rural health advocates who said he understood the health needs of rural areas because of his long tenure as a senator from South Dakota.

The president of the South Dakota Association of Healthcare Organizations told Dennis Gale of The Associated Press that Daschle has much expertise in rural health care and his leadership will be missed. Former Gov. Bill Janklow told The Daily Republic of Mitchell, "I like him. I'd love to live next door to him. I'd trust him with the key to my house. He's just a good human being."

Many commended Daschle's apology for failing to pay taxes on some employment benefits as evidence of his integrity and character. Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson said in a release that Daschle has a "long, distinguished career of public service and that he would have been a powerful voice for rural America and rural health care in the Cabinet job." Read more here.

Details of stimulus for rural broadband getting closer scrutiny, raising questions

One way in which both the House and Senate versions of the economic stimulus bill look to improve rural America is by extending broadband access to areas that don't have it. But that plan has begun to attract criticism. "Some officials question the emphasis on expanding high-speed Internet access when many Americans cannot afford the service that is already available to them," reports Philip Brasher of The Des Moines Register.

According to Jim Harper, who follows telecommunications policy for the Cato Institute, "Equipment manufacturers will pocket a lot of the broadband money simply by raising their prices, and money is likely to be wasted because of the speed with which the grants and loans must be dispensed."

In Iowa there is evidence that access to broadband in rural areas will be underutilized. In that state rural areas have better access to broadband than more populate areas. Brasher adds, "Industry officials say the high-speed service often goes unused because elderly or low-income people don't pay for it." (Read more)

David Herszenhorn of The New York Times writes that the bill's "proponents say it will create jobs, build crucial infrastructure and fulfill a campaign promise of President Obama's: to expand the information superhighway to every corner of the land, giving local businesses an electronic edge and offering residents a dazzling array of services like online health care and virtual college courses. But experts warn that the $9 billion effort could become a cyberbridge to nowhere, representing mistakes lawmakers could make in rushing to approve one of the largest spending bills in history."

Herszenhorn adds, "Supporters simply cannot wave away the potential pitfalls, including the fact that it would take at least until 2015 to spend all the money on infrastructure to deliver the service — vastly limiting the stimulating punch. Already there has been sharp criticism of provisions in the Senate version that seem intended to benefit large Internet service providers, particularly Verizon, which could potentially claim hundreds of millions of dollars in tax credits. ... Supporters of the measure say the potential benefits of broadband access outweigh any risks." (Read more)

"When broadband is available, rural communities put it to use — often in ways unimaginable to those in the cities (or in some offices in Congress)," says the Daily Yonder. "Broadband Internet service is being used for vital commercial purposes in rural America," Douglas Burns reports.

Saturday is new deadline to register for economic-development conference for journalists, others

Saturday, Feb. 7 is the new earlybird registration deadline for "REWRITE$: Main Street, Media and the Recovery," an economic-development conference for journalists and developers from the public and private sectors at Jacksonville State University in Alabama March 5-6.

The conference will feature an outstanding lineup of speakers, including three keynoters with ties to both journalism and economic development: David Bronner, CEO of the Retirement Systems of Alabama, which owns Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. and Raycom Media, a group of television stations; Edgar Blatchford, a former mayor and state commissioner of commerce who founded a chain of rural newspapers, ran an Alaska Native Corporation, and now teaches journalism at the University of Alaska; and Jack Schultz of Agracel Inc. and Boomtown USA, a venture capitalist who writes and speaks regularly all over the U.S. about rural development.

Other speakers will include Brian Dabson, president and CEO of the Rural Policy Research Institute, who will discuss the rural economy, its prospects and key strategies for rural development; Will Lambe of the University of North Carolina, who will present real examples of successful small-town development; Vaughn Grisham of the McLean Institute for Community Development at the University of Mississippi and Lionel “Bo” Beaulieu of the Southern Rural Development Institute at Mississippi State University, who will discuss community-based economic development; Brian Mefford of Connected Nation, who will discuss the importance of broadband, which can spur rural development but poses challenges for traditional media; and several journalists, researchers, government officials and development financiers. The conference is supported by Jacksonville State, the Appalachian Regional Commission and the Delta Regional Authority.

Full descriptions of the program and logistics are available, on the Web site of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which is programming it by clicking here.

Reformer Hassebrook won't be Vilsack's deputy

According to sources close to him, Chuck Hassebrook, left, executive director of the Nebraska-based Center for Rural Affairs will not be appointed deputy agriculture secretary. Hassebrook was pushed by individuals and groups that want the USDA to shift its support from agribuisnesses to smaller farms.

"Hassebrook was a favorite of those who favored deep reforms of farm payment and subsidy programs," reports Bill Bishop of the Daily Yonder. Supporters of Hassebrook's appointment included the group Food Democracy Now, headed by writer Michael Pollan, and sustainable-agriculture advocate, author, essayist and poet Wendell Berry. Other suppoters inculded New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and Daily Yonder correspondent Richard Oswald. In his blog Kristof writes, "The Obama administration needs to figure out how to make the Agriculture Department serve the interests of the entire country, not just the agribusiness tycoons, and Hassebrook would have been a way to turn the department into a bigger tent."

Some see this view as naive. Bishop adds, "Other writers see Hassebrook as a rural romantic who hasn't caught up with the current state of agriculture — big farms on large acreages operating very expensive equipment."

Hassebrook seems to be a casualty of the debate over the future of the USDA. With Secretary Tom Vilsack seen as neither a reformer or keeper of the status quo, the appointment of his deputy is at the center of the debate over the future farm policy. (Read more)

Farm Foundation Forum in D.C. Tuesday on wind energy; make reservations by Friday at 1 p.m.

Issues and challenges in the wind-energy industry will be the subject of the Farm Foundation Forum on Tuesday, Feb. 10, at the National Press Club in Washington, from 9 to 11 a.m. There is no charge to participate, but please RSVP by 1 p.m. EST Friday, Feb. 6, to Communications Director Mary Thompson at

Presenters at the forum will represent research and technology, local governments, energy producers and the energy industry: Ian Baring-Gould, National Renewable Energy Laboratory; Peggy Beltrone, commissioner, Cascade County, Montana; Mark Willers, Minwind, Luverne, Minn.; and John Holt, National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. Coffee will be available at 8:30 a.m. The press club is located at 529 14th St. NW.

U. of Minnesota study says corn ethanol takes heavier toll on environment, health than gasoline

A University of Minnesota study has found that corn ethanol can be worse than gasoline for health and the environment. "The study, released Monday, is the first one to estimate the economic costs to human health and well-being from three different fuels -- gasoline, corn-based ethanol and cellulosic (plant-based) ethanol," reports Tom Meersman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "Scientists and economists looked at life-cycle emissions of growing, harvesting, producing and burning different fuels, and concluded that ethanol made from switchgrass and other plant materials is far better than either corn ethanol or gasoline.

The environmental impact of the three fuels is measured by the amount of greenhouse gases that are emitted in the production of the fuel. The health impact is measure by the amount of fine particulate matter released through the burning of fossil fuels. The study determined that the environmental and health cost of making gasoline is about 71 cents per gallon. Corn ethanol's final costs is said to be within a range of 72 cents to $1.45 per gallon. Cellulosic ethanol is the cheapest option, at 19 to 32 cents per gallon, depending on the technology and type of plants used in the process.

According to the study, "Much of the variance is because of a lack of consensus on the economic values of both climate stabilization and human health. While this affects the dollar value of cost estimates, it does not change the relative ranking among fuel alternatives." The environmental impact of corn ethanol varies because of the different biorefinery heat sources. When natural gas is used, the level of greenhouse gas released from corn-ethanol manufacturing drops. Inversely, the use of coal as a heat source increases the amount of greenhouse-gas emissions and fine particulate matter. The study notes, "Corn ethanol fares poorly relative to alternatives because it requires, per unit of fuel produced, more fossil fuel and fertilizer inputs."

The results of the study are not good news for the corn-ethanol industry, which has faced setbacks from fluctuation in demand as well as unstable corn prices. But Mark Hamerlinck, communications director for the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, told the STrib, "I'm stifling a yawn. It would be news if the university had anything positive to say about corn ethanol. It's how they make a living over there." There is hope for the industry. The study adds that, "Environmental costs per unit of ethanol decline with higher biomass yield, lower fertilizer and fuel inputs into biomass production, and improvements in biomass to biofuel conversion efficiency." (Read more)

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Meth makers, using new methods, are on the rise

The latest evidence that methamphetamine is making a comeback comes from Indiana, where police found a third more meth labs last year than in 2007, some of them as small as soft-drink bottles, reports Angela Mapes Turner of The Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne.

"The state police’s Fort Wayne district found the most labs in the state, more than double the previous year’s total," Turner writes, in a comprehensive story that is a good example of how to localize state statistics. "Noble County – historically one of the most active counties for meth production – led the state with 80 labs discovered."

Meth makers, constrained by laws and precautions limiting their access to ingredients, and increasing awareness of what meth labs smell like, have discovered a new way to make it, often in 2-liter drink bottles. The "one pot" or "shake and bake" method "produces less of the drug and doesn’t create as many noxious fumes as a typical meth lab," Turner reports. "The new production method is different but still dangerous. Vapors must be let out of the bottles or they can explode, and the chemicals can cause burns." (Read more)

UPDATE, Feb. 5: A study finds meth cost the nation $23.4 billion in 2005 and may have "an economic toll nearly as great as heroin and possibly more," Erik Eckholm reports for The New York Times. "Federal surveys suggest that the share of Americans using the drug in a given year has stabilized, at about 1 percent of the population over age 12, which is far higher than the rate for heroin but half the rate for cocaine." (Read more)

Kentucky Commission on Philanthropy organizes

Rural areas don't get their share of philanthropy, but one of the more rural states is taking steps to align public and private interests and pursue public-private partnerships to focus on big issues. That's how Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear put it in his order creating the Kentucky Commission on Philanthropy. The woman he named chair, Judith Clabes, president emeritus of the Scripps Howard Foundation, says she knows of no other state with such a group. It has 29 members, all private philanthropists or representatives of private philanthropic organizations from around the state.

At its first meeting in January, Clabes and nine members were elected to an executive committee that will conduct business between meetings. The other members are Scott David, executive director of the Ray B. Preston Family Foundation in Henderson; Laura Douglas, E.on-US Foundation in Louisville; William Engle III, trustee of the E.O. Robinson Mountain Fund in Hazard and a trustee of the new Hazard-Perry County Community Foundation; Tim Maloney, president and CEO of the Haile/USBank Foundation; Mike Philipps, Clabes' successor as president and CEO of the Scripps Howard Foundation; and Susan Zepeda, executive director of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.

The commission's first work will be in the areas of early childhood education and child health. Beshear's executive order said the group should put its first focus on "our youngest citizens." Among other things, the order calls for the commission to "develop relationships and seek assistance from national foundations," and conduct studies and seminars, including a Summit on Philanthropy in June 2009. For Beshear's press release, which lists all the members, click here.

73 arrested in cockfighting ring in North Carolina

Officials in a rural community in central North Carolina cracked down on a large cockfighting operation last weekend. The Randolph County Sheriff's Office arrested 73 people at a tournament Saturday near Coleridge, a raid so big that The Associated Press wrote about it.

Kathi Keys of The Courier-Tribune in Asheboro writes that officials are hoping the arrest will send a message to others who think that small towns will let such activities slide. “When they picked rural Randolph County to conduct this criminal activity, they thought it wouldn’t matter in a rural area,” said Sheriff Maynard Reid. “They can’t do that in Randolph County.” (Read more)

Mostly dry Kentucky county supports two wineries

Pulaski County, Kentucky, in Kentucky's Appalachian foothills, has been historically been a "dry" county, with no alcohol sold legally. But the county is now home to two wineries, granted special exemptions to sell their product through countywide votes in 2003 and 2007. A recent article in The Commonwealth Journal of Somerset highlights the steady growth the two have enjoyed since being allowed to sell their wine by the glass, bottle or case. They have benefited from winery tourism, which has brought in out-of-state and international visitors, but say local support still accounts for about half their trade.

“Really the first three years has been a little better than our business plan expected,” said Zane Burton, who owns Sinking Valley Winery with his wife, Amy. “However, we didn’t get the growth last year that we expected.” They and Jeff Wiles, owner of Cedar Creek Vineyard and Winery, say they're just happy to have a chance to farm. “Opening Cedar Creek Vineyards is the combination of two of my life-long dreams, owning my own business and making a living off the land,” Wiles told reporter Susan Wheeldon. (Read more)

Pulaski County has gone "moist" in another way, with legalization of alcohol at restaurants in Burnside, on Lake Cumberland. After the city voted, it annexed eight miles of the lake to take in another boat dock on the big creek west of still-dry Somerset, which lies between Burnside and its little satellite. (Encarta map)

Rural schools group looks at corporal punishment

January's Rural Policy Matters, the newsletter of The Rural School and Community Trust, focused on issues of discipline in rural schools. Corporal punishment is allowed in 21 states, most of which have significant rural populations. The map shows those in peach and red, the latter group those reporting with more than 1,000 students experiencing corporal punishment during the 2006-2007 school year.

The newsletter highlights a recent study from Human Rights Watch called "A Violent Education: Corporal Punishment of Children in U.S. Public Schools," to illustrate the prevalence of paddlings in rural schools: "This is one of the few reports on education you will read where the word 'rural' appears 83 times in 125 pages, nearly five times as often as the words 'urban' and 'suburban' combined." The study also noted that corporal punishment affected a disproportionate number of African-American students, who received almost 36 percent of corporal punishment but are only 17 percent of the nation's students.

Rural Policy Matters also includes an explanation of how records required by the No Child Left Behind Act can be studied to determine disciplinary patterns, and a discussion of the legal guidelines that govern all school discipline in the U.S. (Read more)

Monday, February 02, 2009

Digital TV vote delayed; Republicans question flexibility on switch, warning of interference

The U.S. House of Representatives will vote Wednesday on the bill to delay the transition to digital TV, not Tuesday, House Democratic leadership aides told TV Week.

The bill, which the Senate passed without dissent, would delay the mandatory switch to June 12 from Feb. 17. It gained a majority in the House last week, but not the two-thirds needed to pass it under expedited procedures.

Republicans, whose votes blocked the bill, "questioned reassurances given in the Senate that the legislation would allow TV stations the choice of switching early rather than waiting until June 12," reports TV Week's Ira Tenowitz. They suggested that few stations would switch early, out of fear of interference with their signals." (Read more)

Most-read items on The Rural Blog last week

Whitt, 'redneck journalist' who won Pulitzer, dies
Landmark papers to furlough staffers for five days
Appalled, an editor pleads with readers: Shape up!
Georgia governor gets $21 million loan from farm credit bank with relatively little collateral

Feb. 2 should be remembered for something besides a groundhog and his shadow

Today is known only as Groundhog Day, made famous by an animal and its shadow, but should also be remembered as the anniversary of a little-noticed event that was pivotal in the shaping of America.

"On Feb. 2, 1789, James Madison [right] was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from an eight-county district in central Virginia that Patrick Henry had designed to keep Madison out of the First Congress," writes Richard Labunski, a journalism professor at the University of Kentucky. "If Madison had lost, the Bill of Rights would not have been added to the Constitution then, or perhaps ever, and the nation’s history would have been very different." (Image from University of Connecticut)

Labunski is author of James Madison and the Struggle for the Bill of Rights, published by Oxford University Press and part of its “Pivotal Moments in American History” series, and is now in paperback. The book tells the fascinating story of how the shy and sickly Madison overcame one obstacle after another to see the Bill of Rights become part of the Constitution.

California carbon standard problematic for biofuels

As California moves ahead with plans to set auto-mileage standards that exceed the federal standard, it is the state's proposed carbon-fuel standard has the biofuel industry concerned. While the use of biofuels, such as corn ethanol, releases far less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the California standard would include the land used to raise biofuel crops.

"The problem for the biofuel industry is that California officials are including in their calculations the impact of biofuels on land use, on the assumption that using cropland for production of biofuels requires breaking new lands somewhere else to maintain food supplies," reports Philip Brasher of The Des Moines Register. "The theory is that for every additional acre of cropland that's devoted to biofuels in this nation, land must be cleared in Brazil or somewhere else to grow corn or soybeans."

Without land-use considerations, biofuels are an appealing option to burning gasoline. "Corn ethanol would be rated as having two-thirds the carbon emissions of gasoline," said Brooke Coleman, executive director of the New Fuels Alliance, which represents companies developing next-generation biofuels. "But with the land-use analysis included, ethanol comes out slightly worse than gasoline." (Read more)

Haggard back on concert trail after lung cancer

Merle Haggard is getting back to business after battling lung cancer, and the Los Angeles Times profiled the "Okie from Muskogee" as the country music legend prepares to get back to performing concerts. Haggard, diagnosed last year, says he's cancer-free after November surgery. "I got real lucky, I tell you," he says. "They got in there, they got it all, and there wasn't nothin' else in there . . . I didn't have to do no chemo, no radiation, I just had to heal up. How lucky can you get?"

With more than 100 singles to his name, "Haggard's good stuff has included resonant portraits of people struggling to make a living, to do the right thing, or to live with the consequences when they've failed," messages that resonate especially clearly in this economy, writes Randy Lewis. And the singer, who has covered a number of political issues over the years, says that while he didn't vote for President Obama he doesn't miss the significance of his election. "We're probably guilty of living up to the Constitution for the first time in the history of America, which is really something to say," Haggard said.

Haggard moved to California in the 1970s, in order to get away from Nashville life. He lives on a remote homestead with his wife, Teresa, and their two teenaged children. Lewis notes that while he was at the musician's home, Teresa was out on a tractor, plowing for a vegetable and fruit garden. Haggard's dream is to put solar energy panels on 100 acres of his land. "We could generate enough to power about 700 homes. What better thing could you do with your land than that?" (Read more)

Advocates call for a new Civil Conservation Corps to fix up the national parks

In 1933, when the U.S. was struggling through the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps. It was designed to put young men to work on infrastructure projects in the national park system. Now "some in Congress and elsewhere are reaching back to embrace Roosevelt's Depression-era strategy by calling for a similar parks restoration program to be included in President Obama's economic stimulus plan," reports Julie Cart of the Los Angeles Times. "The House version of the bill has $2.25 billion earmarked for projects in parks." The Senate version of the bill is being debated and a vote is expected soon. (Times photo)

There are a considerable number of "shovel-ready projects" in the nation's 391 parks. In fact, there is a maintenance backlog of more than $8.7 billion. Cart writes,"Investing stimulus funds in parks would create about 50,000 jobs." The National Parks Conservation Association studied the economic impact of parks, particularly in rural areas, finding that every dollar spent at a park generates $4 in benefit, Cart reports. (Read more)

Delta Queen will become a Chattanooga hotel as owners try to revive overnight-cruise exemption

Back in July, we reported the fight over the Delta Queen, the last remaining steam-powered sternwheeler providing overnight service in the U.S. Last week, it was announced that the floating landmark will find a new home and purpose as a Chattanooga hotel.

Service was discontinued on the Delta Queen after Congress declined to extend its U.S. Coast Guard exemption, which allowed overnight passengers despite the boat's wooden framework (mitigated by advanced safety features and a great safety record). "Ambassadors International Inc., its California-based owner, and a group of enthusiasts organized as Save the Delta Queen are continuing to pursue the exemption so that it can return to cruising the Mississippi and Ohio rivers," where it had several rural ports of call, writes Bartholomew Sullivan in The Commercial Appeal of Memphis.

The boat is being rented to Chattanooga Water Taxi and Fat Cat Ferry and will be moved from New Orleans to its new home early this month. The company's owner, Harry Phillips, has pledged his commitment to carefully preserving the boat, in hopes that the exemption will be eventually granted, saying "We're going to take good care of her." (Read more; for previous coverage of the Delta Queen, click here.)

UPDATE, Feb. 5: Sullivan reports that the Delta Queen "will take the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway through Mississippi until it reaches the Tennessee River. ... Mid-Southerners desiring a glimpse ... could see it Sunday at approximately 8:40 p.m. passing under the U.S. 72 bridge near Iuka in Tishomingo County[, Mississippi]. ... The time is a best estimate."

Expecting stimulus, some states plan to cut taxes to attract jobs; some plan rural spending cuts

"Rising unemployment has touched off a race among state governors to woo companies with tax breaks and financial incentives, even as budget shortfalls force cuts in education, health care and other services," Reports Stephanie Simon of The Wall Street Journal. This news has important implications for rural areas, which are often more dependent on state programs.

While states will get money from the economic stimulus plan being debated in the Senate, some governors think it won't be enough and are asking legislatures for new financial incentives to attract and retain jobs. "Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, calls for an expansive package of business tax cuts, including tax-free zones for companies that create 'green jobs,' Simon writes. "Other states are considering establishing multimillion-dollar loan funds for entrepreneurs, phasing out the corporate income tax, and pledging financial backing to banks willing to extend lines of credit to small businesses."

The stratgey has critics on the right and left, Simon notes. "For many years, wooing jobs with cash was viewed as a 'poor-state strategy,' deployed mostly by states in the deep South that couldn't offer corporations well-developed infrastructure or a well-educated work force. In the 1980s, more states began to test the waters. The 1990s saw a pell-mell rush by states to one-up one another. ... Analysts have tried to measure benefits of incentive programs -- with contradictory results. Nearly every state can point to impressive corporate investments brought in with the help of incentives. But it's tough to determine how much a given company's business strategy is shaped by the goody bags states dangle."

But most of the current debate is about spending cuts. Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, plans to cut 1,300 state jobs "and eliminate or trim dozens of programs," Simon writes, including "A $14.6 million cut for university extension courses, a $3.4 million cut for rural health care, and a $250,000 cut for early-childhood literacy programs." (Read more) In Michigan, Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm wants to cut funding for the state fair and turn over wetland regulation to the federal government, The Detroit News reports. (To read more, click here and here)

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Southwest Virginia county, partly zoned and partly not, considers countywide land-use planning

Only three of Virginia's 92 counties have no zoning, but zoning is countywide in 88 counties, not 89. The outlier is Franklin County, along the east side of the Blue Ridge south of Roanoke, where four of the districts are zoned and the other three are not, under a "gentlemen's agreement" that was "based at least in part on which politicians liked zoning and which ones saw it as governmental intrusion" when the county adopted land-use planning more than 20 years ago, reports Janelle Rucker of The Roanoke Times. Now, as increased development makes the seven county supervisors think about revamping their land-use plan, they are talking again about zoning the three "rural and more topographically challenging districts," Rucker writes.

"Re-examining the zoning ordinances is typical in many communities," Rucker writes after interviewing Neil Holthouser, the director of planning and community development. "It's a way of seeing if the ordinances are still working the way they're supposed to and if there are new needs that require changes, Holthouser said. But anytime the county wades back into a zoning discussion, it's hard to ignore the fact that some Franklin County residents must adhere to zoning regulations and others do not."

Leland Mitchell, whose Snow Creek District (dark green on map; click to enlarge) isn't zoned, told Rucker, "Before we get countywide zoning, we need to get what is zoned under control." The other non-zoned disricts are Blue Ridge and Blackwater, on the west side.

Zoning is one of the most controversial subjects local officials can handle. Rucker's story is a good glimpse of how one county is dealing with it, and with an unusual situation. To read it, click here.

Newspapers counter bad news to tell their story, share ideas for dealing with the digital revolution

Newspapers have been obliged to be the messengers of their own distress, because the industry's turmoil is news. But a small group of newspaper executives is trying to tell another story, that "Newspapers and their online offspring combined are more popular than ever imagined," writes Bill Ketter, right, chief news executive of Community Newspaper Holdings Inc.

"Media reports nearly always paint a portrait of an industry gasping for air in the digital age," Ketter writes. "This wrongheaded perception stems from the economic recession that’s affected all advertising-based businesses, and from the myth that newspapers no longer attract the public support they once enjoyed." In fact, the audience for newspaper Web sites rose 12 percent in 2008, the Newspaper Association of America said in a recent post on the new site

The site says it was created "to support a constructive exchange of information and ideas about the future of newspapers. While we acknowledge the challenges facing the newspaper industry in today’s rapidly changing media world, we reject the notion that newspapers — and the valuable content that newspaper journalists provide — have no future." Recent posters include several industry leaders, and the group is now inviting posts offering "perspective on what newspaper companies can do to survive and thrive in the years ahead." E-mail them at with questions, comments, articles or resource links.

"Monday, the group will launch a series of print and online ads telling, among other facts, the story of how American newspapers and their Web sites daily reach 100 million people, more than watched Sunday’s Super Bowl," Ketter reports. "The ads will appear in major newspapers, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, and also in scores of community dailies," including the 89 Ketter helps oversee at CNHI. For his detailed explanation of the project, click here.