Saturday, February 28, 2009

Acadiana banks turn up noses at U.S. cash, rules

A bank in Acadiana, the Cajun country of Louisiana, has become the first to give back federal bailout money, saying the strings attached by the Treasury put it at a competitive disadvantage. IberiaBank of Lafayette will buy back the $90 million in stock that the federal government added, it said in a press release.

While the bank declined to elaborate on its reasons, one of its Lafayette-based competitors suggested why last week. MidSouth Bank said in a release that it was considering returning the $20 million it got because of "potential changes to the Capital Purchase Program," which was related to the Troubled Asset Relief Program but "for healthy community banks." (Encarta map)

MidSouth said it held 14 meetings in Louisiana and Texas "to get the word out to the business community that it was lending money to help stimulate the economy," then President and CEO Rusty Cloutier concluded that "It's looking more and more like the federal government wants to treat this like it was a needs-based issue, and we didn't need the money."

Cloutier laid it out: ""They're talking about attaching all sorts of strings to the money, so banks have been sending it back," he added. "The Treasury needs to stop listening to the special interests of the 'too big to fail' banks that got us into this trouble and break them up. And at the same time it should back away from community banks and let us do what we're supposed to do with the TARP funds -- lend the money."

"Clearly the bailout isn’t popular, and the bankers are unhappy about the added compensation limits and public pressure to lend," writes Paul Kiel of ProPublica. "Under the new limits passed by Congress earlier this month, the five most highly compensated execs at IberiaBank would have seen their bonuses limited. ... About 162 banks have announced that they won’t be taking the Treasury’s cash, according to the investment firm Keefe, Bruyette, and Woods, but this is the first time that a bank has taken the money and then given it back. A sign of things to come?" (Read more)

Rural students responsible for big increase in enrollment in online college courses in Kentucky

In rural counties without a college, especially a public one, online courses are often the key to getting a higher education. Online enrollment is booming in Kentucky, which recorded "a nearly 25 percent increase in students taking online classes over the last year," reports the Lexington Herald-Leader.

"That's twice the rate of increase for colleges nationwide, according to survey figures from the Massachusetts-based Sloan Consortium, which tracks distance-learning trends," higher-education reporter Ryan Alessi writes. "The 10 counties with the highest percentage of their college students enrolled in online courses were all outside major urban areas."

"The stereotypical student in online courses is a 37-year old mom from a rural area," Allen Lind, vice president for information and technology at the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education, told Alessi. Online students tend to be "older than the fresh-out-of-high-school crowd and are balancing work, school and family," Alessi reports. (Read more)

'The war has started' over Obama ag-subsidy cuts

Philip Brasher, Washington correspondent for The Des Moines Register, suggests the economic and political impact of President Obama's plan to end direct payments to farmers with more than $500,000 in annual sales: "An estimated 81,000 farmers nationwide would lose their payments." What are direct payments? Click here.

"The cut would save the government about $9.8 billion over 10 years, roughly the amount the administration wants to increase nutrition spending," Brasher notes. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, right, says the savings would be used to boost nutirition programs and fight juvenile obesity. "If you had a dollar -- one dollar -- where would you put it?" Vilsack asked. "Would you give it to a child for more nutritious eating? Would you give it in a direct payment to a high-income (farm) operation?" (Gannett News Service photo)

Vilsack is a former governor of Iowa. The state's Democratic senator, Tom Harkin, said he had never liked the idea of direct payments, but his Republican seatmate, Charles Grassley, told Brasher that payment limits should not be based on sales. "I'm a farmer, and I know that gross income or sales revenue does not reflect your ability to pay," he said. "Just because I sell a lot of corn doesn't mean that my input costs to grow that corn weren't even higher." Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota said likewise. (Read more)

Other farm programs would be cut, as we first reported here yesterday. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., told Kara Rowland of The Washington Times that the programs set by last year's Farm Bill shouldn't be reopened now. Such comments were predictable, but the cuts in farm programs were "the most specific" mentioned in Obama's speech to a joint session of Congress Tuesday night, Rowland writes. That suggests he will fight for their adoption, and American Farm Bureau Federation President Bob Stallman seems to see it likewise, telling Brasher, "The war has started."

In his weekly video address today, Obama did not include the farm lobby among "the powerful and well-connected interests that have run Washington for far too long," but said, "I didn't come here to do the same thing we've been doing or to take small steps forward, I came to provide the sweeping change that this country demanded when it went to the polls in November. That is the change this budget starts to make, and that is the change I'll be fighting for in the weeks ahead." To read his text, click here. To watch the address, click here.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Pilgrim's Pride to shut three more plants, leaving hundreds more contract growers in financial lurch

The chicken-processing company Pilgrim's Pride, which is in bankruptcy protection, announced today that it would close its plants in Douglas, Ga., El Dorado, Ark., and Farmerville, La. That will mean permanent layoffs for 3,000 workers and possible bankruptcy for contract growers who have gone into debt to build large chickenhouses to raise birds for the company.

Pilgrim's Pride, based in Pittsburg, Tex., said it would provide assistance to laid-off workers, but of the chicken farmers, its press release said only this: "Approximately 430 independent contract growers who supply birds to these three plants also will be affected." At least 300 were affected by earlier plant closings, we reported this month.

Female farm owners in Iowa push conservation

"Of Iowa’s 30.7 million farm acres, 47 percent are owned by women," reports Mark Clayton of The Christian Science Monitor. "But a growing share – 20 percent – is now owned by single women, many of them older, with a far different take on farming than their male counterparts. About three-quarters of the land owned by single women is rented out to mostly male tenant farmers." Dozens are turning out for a series of meetings in Iowa on “Women Caring for the Land” to learn more about farmland conservation and how to deal with their male tenant farmers.

According to more than 800 Iowa farm women who recorded their views on farmland ownership in 2006, conservation is their biggest priority. Women have a “clear and strong consciousness about land-health issues and respect nature intrinsically – not for its productive value, but because it sustains life,” the report found. From left: Laura Krouse, Linda Halsey, Carolyn Palmer, and Margaret Doermann of Iowa want their tenant farmers to care for the land more. (Photo by Mark Clayton)

Conservation does not seem to be as high a priority for Iowa's male farmers. Denise O’Brien, a full-time farmer who nearly became Iowa’s first female secretary of agriculture in 2006 said, “I hope women will feel empowered to say: ‘I want a waterway, buffer strips, and trees on my farm.’ When women say that today, men pretty much roll their eyes and think that they don’t know enough to make these decisions.” (Read more)

Stimulus, budget seek to fund 50,000 new police

As reported here, in last year's budget President Bush gutted the Office of Justice Programs, which oversees state and local anticrime grants such as the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program. President Obama's stimulus plan and budget provide funding to resurrect those programs, with the aim of hiring 50,000 new police officers. Stacey Barchenger of the Statesman Journal in Salem, Ore., reports that "Uncertainty about how it can be spent and strings attached to some portions of the money has police agencies taking different approaches."

The COPS program was created during the Clinton administration. The Obama version is slightly different. It no longer requires "police agencies to pay millions in local dollars to tap federal hiring grants," writes Kevin Johnson of USA Today. "It gives police agencies nearly unfettered access to $1 billion over three years for hiring up to 6,000 officers as many departments face cuts." (Read more)

The White House budget narrative for the Justice Department says, "Supporting the hiring of police nationwide will help states and communities prevent the growth of crime during the economic downturn." Some criminal-justice analysts say more police do not necessarily mean less crime.

Oregon is making preparations for the grant money. State Justice Commission Executive Director Craig Prins said, "The money might be designated to any of a number of specific projects, which could include community corrections, drug courts or drug response and prevention teams." (Read more)

W.Va. governor is fighting state's 'hillbilly image'

ABC's "20/20" documentary "A Hidden America: Children of the Mountains" was shot in Eastern Kentucky, not West Virginia, but Diane Sawyer said it represented the economic and social ills of Central Appalachia in general, and Tony Dokoupil writes in a Newsweek Web-only story, "Chances are that the stigma of these hoary Appalachian stereotypes will tar West Virginia far more than its less mountainous neighbor."

"That's because while we know Kentucky for Louisville, bluegrass and basketball, West Virginia's perceived backwardness has been one its most durable cultural memes — an unshakable label for a state that lacks a big city, a famous musical heritage or championship team to offer as an alternative," Dokoupil opines. "That may soon change. Shedding the state's hillbilly image has become a personal crusade of Gov. Joe Manchin," right.

Manchin, in his second term, "has authorized a multimillion blast of cash and marketing aimed not only at rehabilitating the region's reputation, but also stemming a three-decade exodus of the state's best and brightest residents," Dokoupil reports. "In the next few weeks he will announce a "Come Home to West Virginia" spokesperson — the face of a new campaign to cast the state as a destination for families, entrepreneurs and young leaders." Dokoupil errs by calling the Democratic governor a Republican; perhaps he was misled by Manchin's strong pro-business attitude. He notes that the state's "Wild, Wonderful" slogan had changed to "Open for Business."

He is skeptical that Manchin can succeed: "While you and I can reinvent ourselves by revamping our Facebook page, West Virginia's overhaul may require a deeper, more delicate approach, not least because many of the state's stereotypes are both longstanding and rooted in at least some fact." He recounts those facts and Manchin's "zero-tolerance policy on the ongoing pop-culture slander of his state," then ends with an illustration that makes Manchin look like, well, a hillbilly:

The annual Road Kill Cook-Off in Pocahontas, for instance, features dishes you're unlikely to see at your local restaurant, including intestine-challenging "flat cat," "bumper bruised bear" and "deer schmear fajitas." The mere mention of it puts a hard edge in the governor's voice. "Are they still running that s––– down south?" he asks an aide in disbelief, before adding: "Well, I tell you what, if you see [the organizer], kill the son of a bitch."

Soft paper obsession is hard on the environment

Americans are obsessed with soft toilet paper, so much that brands such as Cottonelle Ultra, Quilted Northern Ultra and Charmin Ultra increased their sales by 40 percent in 2008. Here's the rub, so to speak: Soft paper is made from standing trees, not recycled material, drawing ire of environmental groups.

"The country’s soft-tissue habit — call it the Charmin effect — has not escaped the notice of environmentalists, who are increasingly making toilet tissue manufacturers the targets of campaigns," reports Leslie Kaufman of The New York Times. (Times photo)

While most of the trees used in making soft paper come from farms, some are harvested from old-growth forests. Those trees are vital for absorption of carbon dioxide, the leading greenhouse gas, environmental groups note. They also point out that creating paper from recycled material uses less water, and creates less waste tonnage than making paper from trees. (Read more)

As rural-urban boundaries blur, so do interests, creating potential for collaboration, writer says

We reported here that President Obama created a White House Office of Urban Affairs but appears to have no plan for a rural counterpart. Jason Gray writes for the Daily Yonder that while White House policy appears biased toward urban areas, breaking down the rural-urban divide is the best way to create a more prosperous country.

"The small but growing number of rural-urban collaborations emerging across the country suggests that people realize that a collaborative framework is in everyone’s interest," writes Gray, a North Carolina writer-consultant. "These small seedlings are responding to the realities of rural and urban America for the 21st Century. Understanding and acting on this shared fate will go forward, but the Obama administration needs to realize now that important opportunities will be lost without federal leadership."

The boundary between rural and urban areas is becoming increasingly blurred and federal policy needs to address this change, Gray writes, noting that about half othe nation’s rural population lives in a county that is part of a metropolitan area. "Keeping rural and urban interests separate misses the point," he writes. "Advancing both the interests of the cities and the countryside requires us to see how the two work together."

A report Gray helped prepare, “Our Shared Fate: Bridging the Rural-Urban Divide Creates New Opportunities for Prosperity and Equity”, is providing insight on what the policy could look like. "Places we used to recognize as discrete and distinct – neighborhoods, communities, cities, suburbs, towns, counties, and rural areas – now have fluid boundaries with system interconnections and interdependencies that challenge our traditional policy making," the report says. "We are beginning to realize that we need to develop a more nuanced understanding of place – including what is ‘rural’ and what is ‘urban’ – in America." (Read more)

Agriculture primer for consumers contains too much story, not enough substance, reviewer says

In Farm to the Table: What All Americans Need to Know About Agriculture, author Gary Holthaus' emphasis on narrative overshadows the goal of his book, Kentuckian David Mudd writes in a review for the Daily Yonder. Mudd concedes that Holthaus' 2006 University Press of Kentucky book, recently issued in paperback, provides "succinct" information on the current agricultural landscape, and compelling evidence that big agricultural operations are not sustainable long-term, but says other writers provide similar information with less extraneous information.

"Story-telling is a worthy skill in a writer of books. But the urge can get out of hand and become seriously off-putting in nonfiction," writes Mudd. "In From Farm to Table, we must hike through five chapters before getting to what we really 'need to know.' For example, will the U.S. be able to go on feeding itself as ever-rising energy costs erase the rationales for mega-farming and long-distance transport of agricultural products? That's a compelling question, even for people who don't give a fig about farming." (Read more)

S.C. teen, rural town in spotlight after letter urging stimulus money to salvage her school

Dillon, S.C., population 6,300, and one of its students themselves on the receiving end of the national attention this week, after President Barack Obama read parts of a letter by eighth-grader Ty'Sheoma Bethea in his speech to Congress. Bethea, a 14-year-old at J.V. Martin Junior High School, urged Congress to pass the stimulus bill in order to help out her financially struggling school, writing in the part Obama quoted, "We are just students trying to become lawyers, doctors, congressmen like yourself and one day president, so we can make a change to not just the state of South Carolina but also the world. We are not quitters." In his campaign, Obama had pointed to the plight of rural schools in South Carolina.

At the speech Tuesday, Bethea sat next to First Lady Michelle Obama and watched as the president read her words, after which, Fitzgerald writes, "the audience of congressmen, Supreme Court justices and others erupted in a standing ovation" for her. (Associated Press photo)

The story has a journalism angle. Howard Witt, a Southern correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, told Mark Fitzgerald of Editor & Publisher that he went to Dillon a few weeks prior to report on how the stimulus package would affect the school, which he described in an article as "a decrepit facility where the roof leaks and winter classroom temperatures hover in the 50s." When asking students their thoughts on the package, "Ty'Sheoma and one other student were the only ones who seemed to have a clue about the bill," Witt said. Following the conversation, Bethea went to the public library to write the letter, which made its way to the White House. For Witt's Feb. 11 story, click here; for Fitzgerald's, here.

UPDATE, March 1: Frank Rich writes in The New York Times that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke grew up in Dillon. "The school’s auditorium, now condemned, was the site of Bernanke’s high school graduation. Dillon is now so destitute that Bernanke’s middle-class childhood home was just auctioned off in a foreclosure sale. Unemployment is at 14.2 percent." Rich blasts South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, who opposes Obama's stimulus package and is refusing its money: "He accused the three Republican senators who voted for it of sabotaging “the future of our civilization.” In his mind the future of civilization has little to do with the future of students like Ty’Sheoma Bethea." (Read more)

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Appalachian papers' lessons from documentary: the need to dream, the need for local action

"What lessons should we take" from the ABC documentary "A Hidden America: Children of the Mountains" and its follow-up reports and viewer reaction? The Mountain Eagle of Whitesburg, Ky., asks that question in an editorial this week, and answers it by pointing to the closing comment of University of Kentucky historian Ron Eller: “There are ways to think about the future in the mountains in different kinds of ways than we’ve thought about it in the past. We just need to be willing to dream.” (Encarta map)

It's a good time for dreaming, the editorial argues: "Central Appalachia is a proving ground for the future of the United States. The problems that afflict the region today are the consequences of having been an economic colony ever since the first trainloads of local coal went off to power the industrial revolution that profited so many others. If Appalachia is hopeless, then the rest of the United States can’t be far behind – because the industrial revolution is history, the banking system is in rehab, and the mighty country that Appalachian coal miners worked so hard to make possible is in big trouble."

As for the show and journalism's role, the weekly says, "This newspaper, along with many other organizations and individuals, has been trying for decades to call attention to the underlying economic and political reasons why so many people in our beautiful, beloved corner of the world find themselves living lives of quiet desperation. But there’s no denying the power of a national network television program to get the public’s attention – at least briefly – on a scale that no newspaper can ever hope to match. Whether you admired Sawyer’s 20/20 special or hated every minute of it, we should all say a prayer of thanks that there are still television news organizations with the resources and the will to spend nearly two years putting together such a powerful program." (Read more)

Earlier this week, Samantha Swindler, right, editor of The Times-Tribune in Corbin, Ky., wrote, "The difficulty in doing a piece like Sawyer tackled is stereotyping and marginalizing problems when you’ve got less than a hour to work with. And while I think she did a good job portraying what life is like for the most unfortunate children of Appalachia, I would have liked to have seen not only a broader look at health problems, but a broader look at the vast differences in the region’s towns and rural areas. Because, as we know, there are two very different Appalachias." The show made that point, very briefly.

Swindler notes the divide between the very poor in the isolated hollows and the middle class who live in county-seat towns much like those in the rest of America. "Why is there such a great divide? Why do we accept it as inevitable? . . . How many of you Corbinites support foreign charities and decry the problems of inner cities, yet objected when media pointed out the problem in your own backyard? . . . Once we move past anger that our deepest embarrassments were broadcast to a nation, what are we going to do about it?" (Read more)

Obama budget would cut 'corporate' ag subsidies, abolish direct payments and other programs

President Obama's budget would cut farm subsidies. The budget's fact sheet for the Department of Agriculture says the proposal "targets aid to family farmers -- rather than corporate megafarms," and Obama said in his speech to Congress Tuesday night, "In this budget, we will ... end direct payments to large agribusinesses that don't need them." That echoed Obama's campaign rhetoric and other statements about limiting the definition of a farm.

A more detailed budget narrative says the budget calls for a $250,000 limit on commodity program payments and "reflects the president's commitment to fiscal responsibility by reducing direct payments to the largest farmers, reducing crop insurance subsidies, eliminating cotton storage credits, eliminating funding for the Resource Conservation and Development program, and reducing program funding for overseas brand promotion."

Direct payments to producers with annual sales of more than $500,000 would be phased out over three years. The narrative notes that such payments were started in as a supposedly temporary measure in the 1996 Farm Bill but were renewed in 2002 and 2008. "Large farmers are well positioned to replace those payments with aternate sources of income from emerging
markets for environmental services, such as carbon sequestration, renewable energy production, and providing clean air, clean water, and wildlife habitat," and the Agriculture Department will help develop those markets, the narrative says.

American Farm Bureau Congressional Relations Director Tara Smith told Tom Steever of Brownfield Network that $500,000 in sales is relatively small. “If you look at soybean farm, for example, that has $500,000 in sales, by the time you take out cost of production, that farmer actually only nets only $36,000,” she said. “To be nickel and diming those kinds of farmers, we have some significant concerns with that.” (Read more)

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has suggested that "wealthy landowners, who don't do much more than make telephone calls to inquire about production decisions, shouldn't be eligible for government payments," Bill Tomson writes for Dow Jones Newswires. Vilsack told reporters recently that he was "particularly interested in suggestions that would help ... target the payments to farmers that really need the payments and to ensure the payments are not being provided to ineligible parties."

Others say that cutting farm subsidies could have disastrous effects. In a letter to Vilsack, Oklahoma Rep. Frank Lucas, ranking Republican on the House Agriculture Committee, wrote, "At a time when the USDA recently reported that U.S. net farm income is down 20 percent from last year, it is irresponsible to even think of eliminating the one stable form of support for our producers." (Read more) "A plunge in commodity grain prices since last summer is shrinking profits across the farm sector, making it even more politically dicey for farm-state legislators to go along with any cuts in federal aid," note Brody Mullins and Scott Kilman of The Wall Street Journal.

Crop insurance subsidies would be reduced for "both insurance companies and farmers," the budget narrative says. "Over the last several years, subsidies for crop insurance companies have grown rapidly without improving program coverage or customer service for farmers. Current subsidy levels exceed what is necessary to encourage farmer participation and they do not constitute a sound value to taxpayers." The RC&D program was started in 1962 "to build community leadership skills," the narrative notes. "After 47 years, this goal has been accomplished," and state and local councils "are now able to secure funding for their continued operation without federal assistance."

Economists slate briefing on drivers of food prices

When Farm Foundation released the report, "What's Driving Food Prices?" in July 2008, prices for grains and oilseeds, as well as crude oil, were at or near record-high levels. Low global grain stocks combined with spring weather problems had spurred worries about inadequate supplies. Biofuels were a growing market for grains. High food prices and short supplies fueled intensive debate.

Today, eight months later, the landscape is remarkably different. The 2008-09 crop production was higher than forecast. Crude oil prices have dropped significantly. Grain and oilseed prices have declined. Biofuel production has slowed. The value of the U.S. dollar has appreciated. A global financial crisis and recession now dominate the news. Given these changes, Farm Foundation asked the report's authors, Purdue University economists Phil Abbott, Chris Hurt and Wally Tyner, to update their analysis of the drivers of food prices. Their findings will be the subject of the next Farm Foundation Forum, form 9 to 11 a.m. March 11 at the National Press Club, 529 14th Street NW in Washington. Coffee will be available at 8:30 a.m. There is no charge to attend, but please RSVP by noon CST, March 9, to Communications Director Mary Thompson, by clicking here.

Farm Bill provision allows USDA to deny requests for information about individual farms

The Department of Agriculture is interpreting a provision in the 2008 Farm Bill in a way that allows it to deny requests for information about individual farms. The Society of Environmental Journalists says in its "TipSheet" that the interpretation "might mean, for example, that environmental reporters might not be able to get a list of local feedlots and their locations — even when those feedlots might be polluting local streams."

Section 1619 of the bill says that "any officer or employee of the Department of Agriculture, or any contractor or cooperator of the Department, shall not disclose — (A) information provided by an agricultural producer or owner of agricultural land concerning the agricultural operation, farming or conservation practices, or the land itself, in order to participate in programs of the Department."

The provision was explained as a response to Multi Ag Media vs. USDA, a court case which required the USDA to turn over its databases of farmers to a farm marketing company, but the SEJ says recent memos and policy decision indicate it is being used to avoid the Freedom of Information Act: "When the nonprofit Boise public-interest law group Advocates for the West FOIA'd a range of information on the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service's Environmental Quality Incentive Program, USDA did not supply the information (although it offered to negotiate). Much of the information not supplied was NOT provided by program participators." (Read more)

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Interior Dept. withdraws Bush-era oil-shale leases

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has withdrawn oil shale leases in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, saying his department "would first study the water, power and land-use issues that complicate one of the nation's most abundant but controversial untapped sources of energy," report Jim Tankersley and Nicholas Riccardi of the Los Angeles Times.

Salazar, a former Colorado senator, is seeking comments for 90 days, beginning tomorrow, when a notice in the Federal Register will ask "industry, local communities, states and stakeholders for their advice on the terms and conditions that should be included in the second round of leases," reports the Denver Business Journal. Salazar maintains that the previous leases drawn up during the final days of the Bush administration were riddled with flaws, including "locking in low royalty rates that would shortchange taxpayers," the Business Journal reports.

"Those who have fantasized that oil shale is a panacea for America's energy needs have been living in a fantasy land," Salazar said. The Times noted, "The move marked the third time in a month that the Obama administration has frozen late-term Bush decisions that sought to spur domestic energy development over objections from environmentalists." (Read more)

Fed up, Vt. journalist creates his own news outlet

As the newspaper industry around him continued to slip, journalist and Vermonter Jon Margolis, left, took matters into his own hands with a few hundred dollars and a web domain, creating Vermont News Guy.

Since its launch on Dec. 5, Margolis' site has garnered the attention of 56 subscribers (and growing), as well as the Committee of Concerned Journalists. Margolis, a former chief political reporter for the Chicago Tribune and author of The Last Innocent Year: America in 1964, writes on the CCJ Web site that Vermont News Guy is "a news site, not an opinion-mongering blog." Topics are chosen by proximity and relevance to the rural area where he lives, ranging from stories on stimulus package handouts to education reform and "The Carcass Conundrum" about hunting and fishing standards.

"Old-fashioned journalism need not be dull," Margolis wrote in his first blog post. "It need not mean writing wire-service style pyramid leads or abstaining from judgment, which is not the same as opinion." The future of the site depends on its usefulness to Vermonters, but until that becomes clear, Margolis isn't going anywhere. "You know what I’m doing five days a week? I’ll tell you. In my little home office here on the phone or Internet or in the Capitol in Montpelier schmoozing with legislators, I’m covering and writing the news." Read more.

Court backs EPA rules on farm dust; pork lobbyist claims it would limit non-farm rural development

The federal appeals court for the District of Columbia has upheld a decision by the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate farm dust, despite howls of protest from agriculture groups and warnings that the rules could inhibit non-farm development in rural areas.

EPA considered exempting farming and mining, but decided it could not exclude specific industries. the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Pork Producers Council said EPA "failed to show any negative health effects associated with the dust," reports Robin Bravender of Greenwire. But S. William Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, said "Coarse airborne particles in rural areas were often coated with pesticides, herbicides, toxics or metals, and could pose risks similar to those in urban areas." (Read more)

Michael Formica, the pork producers' chief environmental counsel, "fears the dust rule will also affect economic development in rural communities," reports Ken Anderson of Brownfield Network. “This isn’t just going to impact the existing producers,” Formica told Anderson. “This is going to prevent new producers from moving into town, or new manufacturing jobs from moving into town — or new ethanol refineries from going into place.” (Read more)

How does the stimulus impact agriculture?

The passage of the stimulus package has many interest groups wondering what is in it for them. Those in agriculture are no different. "Well, if the economy recovers briskly, farmers and rural folks will benefit," reports Mark Neuzil of the Minnesota Post. "But if you go looking for specific appropriations for growers, producers, processors and others involved in putting food on our tables, it's a little harder to quantify."

Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, chair of the House Agriculture Committee, was one of the few Democrats to oppose the bill. "Had this stimulus bill been limited only to programs directly resulting in job creation and infrastructure projects, and for unemployment compensation and food stamps, I might have felt comfortable voting for it," he said in a statement. "However, increasing the price tag on this massive package to include tax giveaways and additional spending on programs that have little or nothing to do with economic development is the wrong way to do this."

While struggling companies such as Deere & Co. claimed the stimulus would not help their business, the extension of the alternative-energy tax credits will certainly help boost that industry. (Read more)

Rural areas see drastic spike in unemployment

From December 2007 through November 2008, rural counties lost just under 15,000 jobs. In December of 2008 rural counties lost 282,000 jobs, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. "More than nine out of ten of the jobs lost in rural America since the beginning of the recession disappeared in one month — December 2008," report Tim Murphy and Bill Bishop for the Daily Yonder.

Rural areas in the Great Plains suffered the worst losses. Reasons varied regionally. In Northeast Indiana, recreational-vehicle makers cut back staff after business slowed due to rising fuel prices. Houseboat makers in Southern Kentucky and East Tennessee have been likewise affected. To read more and view a list of the 50 rural counties with the highest unemployment click here.

Bill from Kentucky lawmaker who owns small coal mines would reduce medical help at such mines

UPDATE, April 3: Bill failed.

UPDATE, Feb. 27: The Appalachian News-Express, in Hall's home county, quotes Hall as saying he does not own a mining company but leases coal to a mine, and the two other "mines" mentioned by the Lexington paper were "a three man auger crew he contracted last year" and a crew that built the road to the mine.

A bill in the Kentucky House would weaken mine-safety laws in the state by reducing the number of medical emergency technicians required in coal mines with fewer than 18 employees. The bill's sponsor, Rep. Keith Hall, D-Phelps, is the president of of Beech Creek Coal Co., which operates three mines, all with fewer than 18 employees, reports John Cheves of The Lexington Herald-Leader.

"The minimum requirement of two METs is part of a broad 2007 law the legislature passed that tightened mine safety standards, such as doubling the safety inspections at underground mines," Cheves reports. Lobbying against the bill by coal interest began immediately after the law's passage.

"Typically, mine operators pay about $1 an hour extra to miners certified as METs, who are trained to provide medical care during on-site emergencies,"according to Steve Earle, a United Mine Workers of America lobbyist. That would mean mine operators could save $25 a day by eliminating one MET position. "About 47 percent of the state's 586 coal mines have fewer than 18 employees, according to the state Office of Mine Safety and Licensing," adds Cheves. (Read more)

Organic food expert named USDA undersecretary

Ending weeks of speculation and lobbying, President Obama announced his choice for the No. 2 spot at the Department of Agriculture this week. The selection of Kathleen Merrigan "was immediately welcomed by sustainable agriculture and food policy advocates who have been lobbying hard for progressive appointments at an agency that has historically has emphasized programs that support commercial farming," wrote Jane Black of The Washington Post.

Merrigan "helped draft the 1990 legislation that recognized organic farming while a staffer for Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.)," reports Black. "She then went on to head the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service, which drafted rules for organic labeling under her leadership."

"We think it's great news," said David Murphy, director of Food Democracy Now, a nonprofit group that has petitioned for the appointment of candidates that support smaller, sustainable farms over commercial enterprises. Merrigan was number nine on their list of preferred candidates for the post. (Read more)

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Cattle industry sees little or no profit, prospects of stricter country-of-origin labeling

The cattle industry is experiencing hard times all around, with almost no sector currently making a profit, writes Julie Harker for Brownfield Ag News. USDA livestock analyst Shayle Shagum says less consumer demand for beef is lowering prices so that no one in the industry is doing more than breaking even. "Packer margins had been high until recently but we have seen them deteriorate," he said. "Cow-calf operators, obviously, saw poor returns last year given the fact that they’re gonna have their feeder cattle prices pushed down in the first part of this year, it’s probably going to take awhile for those returns to recover as well." (Read more)

At the same, the industry also faces new country-of-origin labeling standards, but is pleased that new Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack continued the timeline set by the Bush administration, which would introduce the labeling on March 16. However, the National Cattleman's Beef Association expressed concern over Vilsack's encouragement of more stringent labeling. "Any time that you add additional steps in the processing and packaging of meat products, you’re going to add cost," said Colin Woodall, the NCBA's executive director of legislative affairs. "Woodall says the extent of labeling is not part of the Farm Bill compromise hammered out by NCBA and other organizations," says the story, also from Brownfield. (Read more)

"USDA plans to do a retail review of products carrying COOL labels in six to nine months, to see how well processors covered under the law are adhering not only to the legal requirements, but also the tighter, voluntary procedures" Vilsack outlined, reports Lisa Keefe of Craig Morris, deputy administrator of the Agricultural Marketing Service, told processors at the National Meat Association's convention in Las Vegas that the agency is already "reviewing the level of compliance to COOL by taking stock of labels as seen in retail outlets around the country," Keefe reports. In six to nine months, "If [Vilsack] is not pleased with what he sees, he'll take steps to address what he sees as the industry's reluctance." (Read more)

Small-town banks still lending, entrepreneur notes

Rural entrepreneur Jack Schultz notes in his Boomtown USA blog a recent report from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis that, as he puts it, "small town banks are still lending and carrying the USA forward, though "the rallying cry from D.C. over the past several months" has been "Banks need to start lending again!"

"While I've found that small town banks are carrying on business as usual, the large ones and Wall Street appear to be be frozen up," Schultz writes. "Perhaps it would help if the national media looked beyond the Beltway and Wall Street for their information."

The "Bank Loans and Credit" chart that accompanies Schultz's blog post is difficult to read on his blog or here, but it is part of a report from the bank. For a PDF of it, click here.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Office of rural affairs in the Obama White House appears unlikely

President Obama created a White House Office of Urban Affairs last week, but he appears not to have the same status in mind for rural America.

Asked if Obama plans to create a rural office in the White House, spokesman Shin Inouye told The Rural Blog tonight, “The president is committed to addressing the needs of rural Americans, and will work with the various departments, including Agriculture, Interior and Commerce, to achieve this goal.”

Obama's main rural theme during his campaign was help to extend broadband Internet in rural areas, and the stimulus bill he signed last week includes more than $7 billion for that work.

Army charity fund is hoarding millions, AP reports

"From 2003 to 2007 — while military families dealt with long deployments and more home foreclosures — Army Emergency Relief grew into a $345 million behemoth," reports Jeff Donn of The Associated Press. "During those years, the charity put $117 million into its reserves while spending only $64 million on direct aid, according to an AP analysis of its tax records." This impacts rural families especially hard since Army recruitment draws disproportionately from rural areas.

The nonprofit organization has, for the most part, been funded by troops. Donn writes that the program "allows superiors to squeeze soldiers for contributions; forces struggling soldiers to repay loans, sometimes delaying transfers and promotions; and has violated its own rules by rewarding donors with such things as free passes from physical training."

The program, started in 1942, was design to ease the financial difficulties "of active-duty soldiers and retirees and provides college scholarships for their families," adds Donn. "Its emergency aid covers mortgage payments and food, car repairs, medical bills, travel to family funerals and the like." The latest recession surely represents an emergency for many soldiers.

AP found that instead of giving money to soldiers, "the Army charity lent 91 percent of its emergency aid during 2003-07," writes Donn. "Smaller civilian charities for service members and veterans say they are swamped by the needs of recent years, with requests far outstripping their ability to respond." (Read more)

In Iowa, manure replaces costly chemical fertilizer

The use of pig manure on Iowa cornfields is helping farmers' pocketbooks and the environment at the same time. The manure is replacing chemical fertilizers for many Iowa farmers because of the rising cost of natural gas used to make chemical fertilizers. Pig manure, an environmental problem if spilled into water or stored in large amounts, now has found a use as a natural fertilizer after years of neglect. (Register photo)

"Spills of manure can foul creeks and kill fish, and large confinements emit hazardous fumes that harm lungs and burn eyes and noses," reports Dan Piller of The Des Moines Register. "When properly managed and applied, however, manure becomes a valuable homegrown resource that can replace fertilizers made from fossil fuels and imported minerals."

Manure had largely been ignored by farmers because of the affordability of chemical fertilizers. Those prices increased from "the $150-per-ton range, above $500 per ton by 2006," writes Piller. "They doubled again to more than $1,000 per ton by last fall when farmers were ready for their post-harvest applications." The roughly sixfold increase in the price of chemical fertilizers forced farmers to consider other options.

The pig farmers have responded to the new demand for manure by increasing the size and scope of pig containments over the past few years. "As recently as 2000, we had to beg farmers to take manure away," said Howard Hill, chief operating officer of Iowa Select Farms in Iowa Falls, whose company finishes about 3 million pigs in confinements in Iowa. "Now, I hear about feuds among farmers about who has first crack at it." According to Iowa State University, a 1,200-head confinement can bring in $50,000 from the once worthless manure produced. That number is up from $17,500 in 2007. (Read more)

Iowa farmland values down 6% last quarter of '08

In another sign that the recession is beginning to hit rural areas, land values in Iowa dropped by 6 percent in the last three months of 2008 according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. Dan Piller of The Des Moines Register reports, "The decline in farmland values was the first such drop in a decade, but it surprised few agriculture experts who have watched corn and soybean prices plunge by more than 50 percent since last summer."

The drop could make it harder for farmers to buy land since banks might start requiring larger down payments. Currently, down payments are on average 35 percent of the appraised value but could increase to 40 percent or 45 percent if the downward trend continues.

Piller writes, "The Chicago Fed report didn't put a dollar amount on farm values. Iowa's 6 percent fourth-quarter land value decline was the largest percentage decrease in the region, which includes Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan." (Read more)

Montana program helps farmers find land to buy

A new program in Montana is hoping to connect new and expanding farmers with farmland that might be for sale. Land Link Montana, part of Missoula's Community Food and Agriculture Coalition, hopes to counteract a growing loss of arable land by making it easier for farmers to find those who want to sell their farmland.

Paul Hubbard, director of the program, says that western Montana has less fertile land, making it harder to find available and appropriate property. But, he says, "keeping farmland in agriculture is vital to Montana's economy and legacy."

"The majority of agricultural land in the U.S. is farmed by someone other than the owner," said Dan Huls, a fourth-generation dairy farmer. "A clearinghouse for people to connect is critical - current farmers, wannabe farmers, and landowners." The Prairie Star, a Montana agriculture newspaper, notes that the program will also connect people to "resources that can assist with financing, business planning, land transfer arrangements, local marketing, and legal issues." (Read more)

Farm Bureau's new Web site hopes to connect consumers with farm life

While more and more Americans are becoming distanced from farm life, the American Farm Bureau Federation is attempting to connect consumers with where their food comes from. Its new Web site, "Your Agriculture," is "aimed at educating the non-farming public about agriculture issues, farmers and ranchers and the food, fiber and fuel they grow," a press release said.

"The average American is three generations removed from the farm and does not have a clear understanding of where their food comes from," said Don Lipton, the association's public relations director. Their website hopes to change this, with "Meet a Farmer" section that includes interviews and video with different farmers or ranchers each month, quizzes, fact sheets and a guide to agricultural policies and issues. (Read more)

Obama names N.D. woman rural health boss

While President Obama does not yet have a secretary for the Department of Health and Human Services, he does have a new rural health administrator. On Friday, Obama named Mary Wakefield as the administrator of the Health Resources and Services Administration. Wakefield has served as the director of the Center for Rural Health at the University of North Dakota, and is "described by the White House as one of the nation’s top rural healthcare professionals," writes Foon Rhee for The Boston Globe. (Read more)

Economists uncertain about broadband's potential

The rural broadband provision in the stimulus package was promoted as developing more jobs in rural areas, but economists at a conference last week said the provision's effects aren't as inevitable as frequently stated.

One problem with job-creation projections is that they often ignore that fact that "technology that helps fewer people get more work done may be good for the economy in the long run, but it makes extra workers redundant," writes Saul Hansell in The New York Times. Raul Katz, a Columbia University professor, noted that increased broadband might also increase the number of outsourced jobs. After all, "When the general store has broadband, it can send its tax returns to India rather than hiring the corner C.P.A.," writes Hansell. "Katz published several scenarios that range from a loss of 110,000 jobs to the creation of 164,000 jobs." (Read more)

Rural broadband has been dominating the web lately, with the National Rural Assembly publishing a report entitled "Rural Broadband Principles and Policy Recommendations," the Daily Yonder's county-by-county analysis of broadband accessibility, and the Rural Policy Research Institute's policy brief on the subject.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Harlan editor calls for local action in Appalachia; another paper says E. Ky. takes care of its own

Local action is needed to address the problems of Appalachian Kentucky, the managing editor of the Harlan Daily Enterprise wrote in an editorial after making a trip to the state capital and watching the short follow-up to the "20/20" documentary "A Hidden America: Children of the Mountains."

John Henson wrote, "ABC spent some time Friday patting itself on the back" for getting help for the children whose lives showed the failings of their parents and other adults, and the region's social ills. "The part of the follow-up show I liked best was the interview with Gov. Steve Beshear, who said that stimulus funds would be approved to help the region with water projects and new roads." Henson said he was already optimistic about that after he and other members of the local Chamber of Commerce met in Frankfort with new House Speaker Greg Stumbo, who hails from the region.

But as state and federal help is needed, so is local action, Henson wrote. "In order to turn around our situation, Harlan Countians must help themselves and break through the years of inaction and ineffective leadership. There’s been some momentum in that direction, but it’s still more talk than anything else. ... Continuing to improve education in southeastern Kentucky is a must if the next generation is going to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past."

And Henson also targeted personal responsibility: "A big part of the problem in our region goes back to the fact that so many people choose to live on welfare instead of getting a job. I’m not sure how you fix the problem of laziness and lack of pride. The saddest part is the children who can’t help the fact that their parents are useless. Taking them out of the loop could help, if that’s possible, so that the money that should meet the children’s basic needs aren’t used for pills or booze." (Read more)

The Paintsville Herald, the weekly newspaper published in the home county of the most prominent figure in the ABC show, football player Shawn Grim, said in an editorial before the follow-up report that the first one should have noted "that while these children might be forgotten by the world, they are certainly not forgotten here at home. If any community in America retains the idea that neighbors take care of their neighbors, it’s in Eastern Kentucky." The paper made a similar point with the above cartoon, a rarity for a weekly. (Read more)