Saturday, March 28, 2009

Credit crisis costs tiny rural county its only bank

The national credit crisis has had less impact on rural banks, because they generally have more conservative lending and investment policies. (For one example, the Bank of Eastern Oregon, see this story by George Murdock of the East Oregonian.) But in some cases where rural banks were bought to serve as tools for cashing in on the real-estate boom, the chickens have come home to roost. They did last week in Gibson, Ga., population 700, where the only bank in Glascock County, population 3,000, closed its doors. (Encarta map)

"To Glascock County residents, it now seems as if the crisis has extended a tentacle from Atlanta to their quiet community of farms and sawmills 120 miles to the east, where “sprawl” is something one does in the den after work," Shaila Dewan writes for The New York Times. Her story is more than a rural news feature; First City Bank was so weak that the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. couldn't find another bank to take it over, only the second such case in 48 bank failures since 2007.

"Most of the bank’s money came from “brokered deposits,” investments obtained from third parties that shop around for the highest rates, rather than more reliable “core deposits,” which come from local customers," Dewan explains. (Read more)

Friday, March 27, 2009

Ky. publishing technology pioneer Gibson dies

Funeral services will be held tomorrow in Monticello, Ky., for Jerry Gibson, who was known to publishers and editors across Kentucky because he probably helped half the state's newspapers install computers and other technology. "He maintained he had installed the first computer pagination and layout equipment in this part of the country," reports The Times Journal of Russell Springs, where he lived.

Gibson and Times Journal co-owner David Davenport founded the Web site, and Gibson "was the man behind the keyboard at, which is known to many as the definitive University of Kentucky basketball Web site, and a moving force for years at the Star Theater," the weekly reports. His body was discovered after he did not update the site with UK's loss in the National Invitation Tournament. He was 57. (Read more)

Gibson co-founded weeklies in Monticello and Somerset. Stuart Simpson, who competed with him in their hometown and collaborated with him in Somerset, had this to say on the Kentucky Press Association blog: "He was a reporter, editor, photographer, graphic designer, historian, computer expert, magazine editor, salesman, author, Internet web designer, musician … the list could go on. A lot of the things he did, especially in communication technology, he recognized the importance of before most people, and he could do better than most people. Mostly self-taught, Jerry was a very, very smart guy. I learned a lot from him, as did anyone who had the opportunity to be around him. But Jerry just couldn’t sit still doing one thing for very long. There was always something more exciting, more challenging that he wanted to get involved with." Other commenters included this poster, whose professional newspaper career Jerry helped start. May his energy and wit be long remembered and emulated. (Read more)

Economic stress reduces the number of candidates for rural offices around Peoria

"Several ... Peoria-area municipalities, school boards, library and park boards are faced with the quandary of more openings than candidates to fill them" in the election on April 7, reports Karen McDonald of the Peoria Journal Star.

"It's more of the economy than anything," said Norwood Mayor Jim Yocum, who isn't running again. No one else is, either, or for two town trustee seats. "Both spouses these days have to work to make a living, and they just don't have time" to serve in public office, Yocum told McDonald. (Read more)

Rural district in New York votes Tue. for Congress

UPDATE, April 1: The race is too close to call, reports the Albany Times-Union.

There's a strong rural angle to Tuesday's special election in New York's 20th Congressional District, to fill the seat vacated by Democrat Kristen Gillibrand when Gov. David Paterson appointed her to the Senate. "The contest has undergone shifts in public opinion usually reserved for much longer campaigns, drawn national attention as an early test of Barack Obama’s economic stimulus program, involved prominent national political figures, and tested the conventional wisdom about the political makeup of the sprawling, ten-county congressional district," writes Don Moore of ccScoop, a news site for Columbia County. ( map)

Republican Jim Tedisco, the state House minority leader, has been considered the favorite but "can’t quite seem to close the deal," Sean Reagan writes for The Back Forty, the blog of RuralVotes, a Democratic group. "Democrats have Tedisco on the defensive for not taking a stance on the stimulus bill in a district where President Obama and Gillibrand are very popular," writes Stu Rothenberg of the nonpartisan Rothenberg Political Report. The Democrat is Scott Murphy of Glens Falls, manager of a small business investment firm. Libertarian is Eric Sundwall, chairman of his state party.

"The conventional wisdom about the 20th CD is that it is a majority Republican district," because Republicans outnumber Democrats more than 3 to 2, Moore writes. But the actual voter registration figures are "Republicans 41 percent, Democrats 26 percent, Independents 5 percent, Conservatives 2 percent, other minor parties and unaffiliated voters 26 percent." And Obama carried the district 53-47 in November. (Read more)

UPDATE, March 29: "The national Republican and Democratic parties have made it nothing less than a referendum on Obama's first two months in office, his economic agenda and his appeal," reports Keith Richburg of The Washington Post. "An opinion poll by Siena College's independent Siena Research Institute and the parties' internal polls show the contest a virtual toss-up. ... With turnout typically low for a special election, the outcome is likely to be determined by who can best get their supporters to the polls." (Read more)

Milk prices plummet, dairy farmers in deep crisis

After lifetime highs in 2007, raw milk prices have fallen by nearly half and farmers are struggling, Keith Good reports for Farm “Pennsylvania producers received about $11.50 per hundred pounds of milk in February, while production costs ranged from $15.50 to $18.50,” says the state’s Center for Dairy Excellence. Dan Piller writes for The Des Moines Register that “The American Milk Producers Federation says the average cost to produce milk in January exceeded the price of milk by 25 percent.”

“The number of dairy cows being sent to slaughter has risen by about 20 percent from last year, as desperate farmers cull their herds and sell at fire-sale prices,” Sue Kirchoff writes for USA Today. “Adding to the problem, banks are less willing or able to extend farmers’ loan payments amid the financial turmoil.” John Murawski reports for the News & Observer in Raleigh, "Several dozen dairy farms in North Carolina are expected to go under this year." (Read more)

A letter to President Obama from the
National Milk Producers Federation warned that without more aggressive strategies, thousands of farms and jobs could be lost. “There are several reasons for the implosion: oversupply, falling export demand and continued high prices for supplies such as feed,” Kirchoff explained. “The dairy sector in the past has been less prone to huge price swings than other areas of agriculture, but that’s changing as the industry relies more on the markets and less on government programs.”

On Wednesday, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack responded to the crisis. “The U.S. government will shift 200 million lbs. of nonfat dry milk surpluses to domestic feeding programs, helping low-income families and dairy farmers hit by high feed costs and low prices,” , Christopher Doering reported for Reuters. Read more.

USDA's action may have helped. "Daily Dairy Report notes that contracts for the second half of 2009 now average $16.00, up $2.31 from a month ago," notes Bob Meyer of Brownfield.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Marketer ‘will work for food,’ barters with farms

As Valerie Gates started seeing business decline at her marketing and design firm in Wellesley, Mass., she started reading books on eating locally and sustainably, and got an idea: Why not offer her marketing services to local farms in exchange for food?

The idea worked, and Gates has taken her "Will Work for Food" campaign national, offering services along a three-tiered pricing system that cover taxes which apply to bartering partnerships. At the same time, she's bridging the gap between rural and urban, partnering with inner-city teenagers to help promote the campaign with apparel bearing the name of the project.

Gates hopes to apply for grants and continue the project, writes Daphne Bishop for The Back Forty, the blog of RuralVotes, but she's still adjusting to the whirlwind new business she's created for herself. It's an odd journey for someone who says that until recently had "never eaten or cooked a turnip," but in it, she's found a new passion: "I also want to help make farming hip, to brand farming as a hip thing." (Read more)

Self-employment rises in depopulating rural areas

A Nebraska sociologist says self-employment is on the rise in rural areas, reflecting a new way of making a living that relies more on private contracting than traditional employer-employee relationships. Randy Cantrell of the University of Nebraska estimates that self-employment accounts for 18 percent to 30 percent of workers in the state's rural counties.

The annual poll of rural Nebraskans hasn't backed up Cantrell's numbers, writes Joan Ortiz of The Associated Press. "but he has a theory: The rural poll is asking the wrong question. In the past, people have been asked if they have a business. Cantrell realizes that may be leaving out those who still get a paycheck from their employers, but technically are private contractors. He used the example of inbound telemarketers, who he thinks can rightfully assert they have a business."

Cantrell says decreasing rural populations means that there are not enough people to support a multiple-person business, but the same services are still needed. This leads many to sub-contract work out to individuals, a trend which he says will only grow. He hopes to test his theory in this year's version of an annual poll he send to rural dwellers on work, well-being and policies. (Read more)

Farm Bureau asks Obama to restore program for Mexican trucks in U.S.

"In an effort to end trade sanctions against U.S. farm products by Mexico, the American Farm Bureau Federation sent a letter today to President Barack Obama seeking quick development and implementation of a cross-border trucking program that would comply with U.S. obligations under the North American Free Trade Agreement," AFBF says on its Web site.

The program was suspended as part of a recent spending bill. "This action by Congress has come at a cost to U.S. agriculture and our exports to one of our top markets,” AFBF President Bob Stallman said. "We urge you to find a resolution that will honor our obligations under NAFTA, eliminating any cause for Mexico to halt U.S. trade."

"Under the terms of NAFTA, the U.S. and Mexico each agreed to allow trucks from the other nation access into their countries," adds the AFBF. "Unfortunately, the U.S. maintained its restriction on Mexican trucks crossing the border even after NAFTA implementation began." (Read more)

Now that the pilot program has been eliminated, the U.S. finds itself out of compliance with its obligations under NAFTA. Under the treaty, "Mexico has the right to retaliate against U.S. products entering Mexico, and it has done so,” Stallman said. “This retaliation will affect hundreds of millions of dollars worth of fruit, vegetable, nut, juice, wine, processed foods and oilcake exports to Mexico.”

Report on militia groups as potential terrorists triggers national backlash

The Missouri Information Analysis Center, "which opened in 2005, is a 'fusion center' that combines resources from the federal Department of Homeland Security and other agencies," writes T.J. Greaney of the Columbia Daily Tribune. "It was set up to collect local intelligence to better combat terrorism and other criminal activity." But a report issued to law enforcement officers about militia groups has created a national backlash.

"The report gained national attention in recent weeks after it was leaked to the public," reports Greaney. "Portions of the report say that members of third-party political groups or supporters of third-party presidential candidates might be terrorists." Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder "expressed outrage at the report, saying there was no mention of radical environmental groups or radical religious groups other than Christians." It appears that the report took a narrow view of who should be considered a terrorist and who should not. (Read more)

Environmentalist funds cause by racing stock cars

Leilani Munter maybe the epitome of an enigma. "In a sport of barbecue-loving good 'ol boys, she's a self-described 'vegetarian hippie-chick race car driver'," writes Jim Morrill of The Charlotte Observer. Her sister is even married to a member of The Greatful Dead. But Munter believes she is in a unique position to further the environmental cause with race fans, a group that is not considered the biggest fans of green energy.

"If I were another biology graduate from California, a composting, recycling, tree-hugging, very hippie chick trying to change their light bulb, they wouldn’t give me the time of day," Munter says. "The only way I have their attention is because I have a racing suit on and race car underneath me."

"For every race, she buys an acre of rain forest through the National Wildlife Federation to offset her carbon emissions," Morrill reports. There are signs that NASCAR maybe following suit. It has hired its first director for its new "Green Initiative." Other attempts to make racing more environmentally friendly include the decision by IndyCar to switch all racers to ethanol-based fuel, and some sponsors are offsetting drivers carbon emissions with investments in solar energy and wind farms. (Read more)

Wild bees may hold the key to future pollination

"Honeybees across the country are dying by the millions due to colony collapse disorder and other environmental factors, causing many growers of fruits, nuts and vegetables to wonder how their future crops will be pollinated," reports the Environmental News Service. "A study released today shows that wild bees, which are not affected by the deadly disorder, may become a pollination alternative."

The study was conducted by Julianna Tuell and and Rufus Isaacs of Michigan State University and John Ascher of the American Museum of Natural History on blueberry farms in Michigan. "Using traps and direct observation, the researchers identified 166 bee species, 112 of which were active during the blueberry blooming period," writes ENS.

Other potential fruits that are visited by many of the bees in the study are cherries, apples, and cranberries. By supporting habitats for wild bees farmers may be able to avoid the disastrous effects of dwindling honeybee populations. (Read more)

Big drop in donations threatens mobile dental clinics in rural Northwest

Throughout Oregon and parts of Washington, poor rural residents get free dental care in four vans provided by Medical Teams International's larger mission to provide free care in areas that need it across the globe. But the Christian organization's donations are down -- December saw a 30 percent drop -- and their mobile clinics are in danger of being pulled off the road, reports Sheila Hagar in an article for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin.

MTI is no longer able to subsidize the full cost of the vans, "Rural areas have fewer organizations to approach for financial help, and many of the sites that host the dental van have not been accustomed to paying a supportive 'site fee,' as a way of partnering the effort," Hagar writes. MTI's Steve Vickers told her, “If we gave everyone a bill (for services), it comes to $5.8 million a year. But it costs us $1.2 million to deliver that care. If they give us a dollar, we turn it into $5 of dental care.” (Read more)

Corps OKs Ky. mountaintop-removal mine permit, asserting itself in Appalachian fight with EPA

"U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials on Wednesday escalated a fight with the Environmental Protection Agency over the regulation of mountaintop removal coal mining," by reinstating "a permit that had previously been suspended after environmental groups sued in federal court to stop it," reports Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette. The Corps acted on the Kentucky permit without consulting EPA, reports Jim Bruggers of The Courier-Journal in Louisville.

This week, EPA objected to two applications before the Corps for mountaintop mines in Kentucky and West Virginia, and signaled that it would give about 200 other such applications a more critical review than it did under the Bush administration. The Courier-Journal op-ed page today has an article by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. saying "President Obama has signaled his intention to save this region."

But Tim Huber of The Associated Press reports that EPA "has struck a note of economic fear in Appalachia." Some of that could have come from initial news reports of a "crackdown" and irresponsible, online headlines such as "Obama administration halts mountaintop removal." Ward writes in his Coal Tattoo blog, "Around the country, through the magic of the blogosphere — at The Huffington Post to be more specific — there’s a completely different discussion going on." He praises a post by Matt Wasson, interim director of the environmental group Appalachian Voices, which notes the importance of "fairly high paying jobs" at Appalachian mines.

The story should be a local one for every news outlet in the mountaintop-removal region of Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. The Post in Big Stone Gap, Va., has a report in which Jeff Lester says the news "elated environmental activists and panicked coal companies who fear it will stall hundreds of pending mine permits. But speculation about EPA’s actions is wildly overblown, the agency said." (Read more; subscription required)

The EPA move affects not only mountaintop-removal mining, but any mining that uses valley fills. Don Hopey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that EPA has asked for more information on "a Consol Coal Co. proposal to bury almost five miles of streams and six acres of wetlands in Greene County under more than 90 million cubic yards of coal waste rock." (Read more)

Rural legislator takes conservatism, 'unpolished style' into race for governor of suburbanizing Va.

Bath County, Virginia, on the Eastern Continental Divide and the West Virginia border, is so small and isolated it doesn't even have its own newspaper. Can it produce a governor in a state where suburban voters have become dominant? The campaign of Democratic state Sen. R. Creigh (pronounced "Kree") Deeds will answer that question. All the other candidates are from heavily suburbanized Northern Virginia.

"The bedrock values and unquestioned traditions of rural Virginia can also clash with those in more urban and cosmopolitan regions," writes Fredrick Kunkle of The Washington Post. "Although Deeds has championed abortion rights and environmental causes, he also opposed the ban on buying more than one handgun a month. And he voted at least five times for a state constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage and civil unions, which he later said he regretted." Kunkle also notes Deeds' "unpolished style" contrasts with those of Democratic primary opponents Terry McAuliffe and Brian Moran.

For an independent take on Deeds, Kunkle consulted our friend Anne Adams, publisher of The Recorder in Highland County, which is the local weekly for Bath County. "When you grow up in a small town, you can't afford to make enemies. You volunteer. You go everywhere with a covered dish," she told Kunkel, who wrote: "She said those habits come through in Deeds's earnest style, but so does the sense that Deeds sometimes seems ill at ease on the campaign trail talking about himself and his accomplishments." Adams said, "Here, if you were that kind of cocky, they'd say, 'You're spreading yourself'." (Read more)

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

USDA urges farmers to generate 'green power'

A recent workshop by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Energy for America Program in Salt Lake City encouraged small business owners and farmers to generate their own “green power,” Jasen Lee reports for the Deseret News.

Perry Mathews, the business and cooperative program director for USDA Rural Development, told Lee that REAP can combine grants and loans to help farmers and rural businesses buyand install renewable energy systems. Environmentally conscious designs such as wind turbines, solar panels, geothermal, micro-hydro or biomass systems all add up to a better bottom line for owners.

"The administration feels that it's very important, from President Barack Obama to [Agriculture] Secretary [Tom] Vilsack,” Jeff Jobe, national cooperative field advisor for Rural Development, told the Deseret News. Lee reports that money is available on a competitive basis for communities with populations of less than 50,000.

An important angle is the ability to make the most of current resources. William Chatwin, energy efficiency coordinator for the Utah State Energy Program, said people can "multiply the benefits" of producing clean, renewable energy as they improve efficiency, with measures such as taking advantage of water running downhill as an additional source of electricity. Read more here.

EPA starts aggressive review of permit applications for mountaintop-removal strip mining of coal

As reported here the Obama Administration has promised to take a stance on the practice of mountaintop removal. Monday, the president told Jim Carroll of The Courier-Journal, "The environmental consequences of the runoff from some of these mountains can just be horrendous." Yesterday, the Environmental Protection Agency released letters it had sent Monday to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, voicing major concerns about permit applications for three mines, two in West Virginia, the other in Eastern Kentucky. EPA's actions were a clear indication of a policy change, Tom FitzGerald, executive director of the Kentucky Resources Council, told Andy Mead of the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Bill Caylor, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, told the paper that the new bar the EPA appears to be setting could affect all surface mining, not just mountaintop-removal operations. Adding, "If that happens, he said, it could put 6,000 Eastern Kentucky miners out of work, creating a ripple effect that could mean the loss of 23,000 more jobs in an economy that already is suffering." Mead says the announcement doesn't mean an end to mountaintop removal or other surface mining, but could mean that the practice will have to be conducted in the most environmentally sound manner possible: "What is needed now, FitzGerald added, is a new director of the federal Office of Surface Mining who "gets up every day and says 'How can we do what Congress intended to do? How can we fully protect the rights of people downstream and downhill?' " (Read more)

The move spurred West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin to go to Washington to meet with EPA officials. As reported by Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette, Manchin said he was expediting a meeting between the coal companies and EPA. Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear said he is seeking clarification from EPA about the process. "Those permits should be reviewed in a timely manner, regardless of the outcome of any one application for mining," he said. "Our goal in Kentucky is to continue the responsible mining of coal in a way that protects safety and the environment, while also preserving and creating jobs in a region desperately in need of them." Both governors are Democrats. The United Mine Workers of America, which also supported Obama for president, said it was also seeking clarification from EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson.

EPA does not issue strip-mine or Clean Water Act permits, but is supposed to review applications for the latter to determine whether the act is being obeyed. In the West Virginia case, EPA recommends denial of the permit and calls for "A detailed Environmental Impact Statement — a position environmentalists have been advocating for years, but which U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers rejected," Ward notes. "But in the other case, EPA officials offer more watered-down criticism, and suggest much easier ways for mining to move forward." For EPA's letters on the West Virginia mines, in the Coal River and Guayndotte River watersheds, click here and here. For the letter on the Kentucky mine, which would extract 7.3 million tons of coal and permanently affect more than three and a half miles of streams in the Big Sandy River watershed in Pike County, click here. For background from EPA on mountaintop mining, click here.

UPDATE: EPA stopped the Corps from issuing the Kentucky permit April 28.

Feds look at use of antibiotics at ethanol plants

An already struggling ethanol industry could be dealt another blow over its use of antibiotics to prevent bacteria from ruining batches of the product. The grain used in distillation is sold to farmers as cheap feed for their cattle, and as fears over antibiotic-resistant bacteria rise there is concern about that "super-bugs" could spread and that the antibiotics could enter the human food chain.

"Ethanol producers use penicillin and a popular antibiotic called virginiamycin to kill bacteria," reports Mark Steil of Minnesota Public Radio. And some of the concerns over the use of those antibiotics appear to be valid. Mark von Keitz, with the University of Minnesota's Biotechnology Institute, discovered antibiotic-resistant bacteria at four midwest ethanol plants several years ago. "The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has taken a mostly a hands-off approach to the use of antibiotics in the ethanol industry," adds Steil. "But amid increasing concerns over food safety in recent years, the agency is taking a closer look." If the federal government decides to limit or stop the sale of distilled grain, it would hurt both the ethanol and livestock industries. (Read more)

Archie Green, who died last week, documented the culture of work, especially rural

Archie Green, who passed away March 22, studied and promoted the lives of working people in America. "For five decades he studied hillbilly music and pile-drivers’ tales," writes Julie Ardery of the Daily Yonder, who worked with Green. "He made inventories of 'tin men' – the showpieces of sheet metal workers -- and analyzed sailors’ slang. He recorded songs by millworkers and miners’ wives." (Photo by Jerry Telfer, San Francisco Chronicle)

Green worked until near the end of his life, writing articles and publishing books, which included Only a Miner, a study of coal-mining music. His lobbying of Congress lead to the creation of the National Folklife Center and inspired others to "join him in documenting the culture of working people," adds Ardery. “Many of us owe him a huge debt,” wrote filmmaker Mimi Pickering, of Appalshop in Whitesburg, Ky. “We will not see the likes of him again.” (Read more)

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Ky. to use tobacco-settlement funds to help farmers be more efficient in use of energy

The Kentucky Agricultural Development Board has announced a new investment area, aimed at helping farmers go green. The On-Farm Energy Efficiency & Production program will support energy-efficient farming, with the goal that lower energy use will result in greater profits for farmers.

“Over the last several years, energy, reducing usage, and developing alternative sources have become critical issues for Kentucky agriculture,” Roger Thomas, director of the Governor's Office of Agricultural Policy, which staffs the board, said in a release. “The on-farm energy investment area will provide Kentucky’s farmers with the opportunity to make changes to their operations that will improve their profit and reduce agriculture’s impact on energy consumption.” (Read more)

The board makes grants and loans to improve the agricultural economy, with money from the state's share of the national tobacco settlement. The state legislature allocated 50 percent of the state's settlement money to improvement of the agricultural economy.

State, electric co-op and local money fund plan for beef processing plant in southeastern Kentucky

A rural Kentucky county on the Tennessee border may be home to a new $110 million beef processing plant, with the state, a local group and a rural electric cooperative putting $260,000 into the planning process. The industrial development board in McCreary County, population 17,000, says the money from the Kentucky Agricultural Development Board is an important first step toward building the plant, which would produce beef jerky, pork rinds, and other meat-based snacks, and would create around 750 jobs for the area.

Kentucky is the No. 1 cattle-producing state east of the Mississippi, but has no specialized beef processing plant. Tennessee also is a relatively large cattle state. "We have this large cattle population, but truck them out west" for finishing and slaughter, Bennie Garland, community development specialist for the South Kentucky Rural Electric Cooperative Corp., told the McCreary County Voice. "So it makes sense to look at development of this type of facility in our area. In my opinion, this is one of the best investments the Kentucky Agricultural Board could have made using tobacco funds to strengthen the diversity of our agricultural economy." The board spends the 50 percent of national tobacco-settlement funds that the legislature has allocated for building the state's agricultural economy.

The electric co-op amd the McCreary County Industrial Development Authority each put $65,000 into the plan to match the state money, Andrew Powell reports for the Voice. The county has already conducted a feasibility study on the project, which provided guidance for the type of processing plant that was most likely to be successful. (Read more)

As states close prisons, small towns feel effects, but experts dispute the economic ramifications

Several states are closing prisons to fight budget deficits, a gtrend that has many small communities worried about the impact if their prisons are shuttered. Many small towns have come to rely on jobs created by prisons, but as Keith Richburg of The Washington Post points out, "With most governors and legislatures grappling with crushing budget deficits, what's good for rural economies is often proving bad for states."

Richburg focuses on Norwich, N.Y., where Camp Pharsalia is one of the four prisons Gov. David Paterson has recommended shutting in a proposal that would save an estimated $26 million a year. Mayor Joseph P. Maiurano says the cost would be high for the already-struggling community: not only could it lose almost 60 families who would have to move to work in other prison, but about 40 local businesses would lose procurement funds. Inmate work also helps approximately 50 local organizations. And that's not even counting the indirect effect the prison has on the community. Some worry that without the large mail volume provided by the prison, the post office would close tool. "I thought we were trying to save jobs," said Paul Lashway, a Camp Pharsalia prison guard and steward for the local prison officers' union. "Here, they're trying to take 'em."

Others say that towns overestimate the economic boost offered by prisons. Gregory Hooks, a sociologist who has studied the economics of prisons, says inmate labor reduces the number of low-paying manual jobs, makes the community less attractive for tourism and other industries, and creates a limited number of long-term jobs, making the community dependent on the prison. "If you look at the poorest counties, the impact is negative," he said. "If you put a prison in a struggling county, they get worse, not better." (Read more)

Monday, March 23, 2009

For first time, they say, feds shut down production at a coal mine because it hasn't paid civil penalties

We reported here last week that Double A Mining was one of 15 mines that were under threat of being shut by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration because of repeated safety violations and unpaid fines resulting from those violations. Apparently the threat was a real one. MSHA "announced Monday that it had issued a withdrawal order to Double A Mining Inc," reports Bill Estep of the Lexington Herald-Leader. "That means the operator can't mine coal until it pays its delinquent fines."

According to an MSHA release it is the first time the agency has stopped production at a mine for unpaid safety and health violations. Double A Mining has racked up $313,820 in fines for 360 safety violations at its No. 4 mine. According to MSHA the owner had not made a penalty payment since August 2004. (Read more)

Rural places face challenges getting stimulus aid

Small towns in rural America may have a tough task in securing money from the $787 billion economic stimulus package despite their needs. Larger cities are better equipped to research access to stimulus money, to have shovel-ready projects, and to be able to match a percentage of federal funds, reports Heather Clark of The Associated Press.

Small towns in New Mexico, for example, "will have to compete against Albuquerque, where Mayor Martin Chavez announced the formation of 10 city government teams, organized by subject, to research how the city can access economic stimulus money," Clark writes. That is just one example of larger cities using bigger staffs and more funding to try to increase their share of stimulus money, a luxury many rural communities do not have.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson pledged to help rural communities access stimulus money but has not outlined a specific way to do so. "New Mexico's congressional delegation released a 46-page guide to help local governments and constituents understand which federal departments are funding stimulus projects and how," adds Clark. (Read more)

The town of Panton, Vt., is having a different problem. City leaders submitted applications for two infrastructure projects but learned that that would have to supply 20 percent matching funds. "The town says the 20 percent match was never mentioned and expected the stimulus money would fully fund the projects," writes Darren Perron of WCAX News. "Some smaller towns, like Panton, also say they're also at a disadvantage because it's easier for bigger cities, like Burlington, to raise the matching funds." The total cost of the two projects in Panton was $2 million. Since 20 percent of that would require the town put up $400,000, it has been forced to drop one of the projects. (Read more)

Iconic moonshiner developed a public following

The suicide of Marvin "Popcorn" Sutton on March 16 may have signaled the end of an era. The famous moonshiner of western North Carolina was an iconic figure. He not only published books and DVDs on making liquor, to the surprise of many he continued the practice despite all the public attention.

In 2007 Sutton was arrested with 850 gallons of liquor and three 1,000-gallon stills. Despite his obvious violation, the aged moonshiner received tremendous public support. "There are, as of this writing, 14 pages on Facebook dedicated to Popcorn," writes Max Watman for Gourmet magazine. "Every blog post or news article on the Web is followed by a long thread of comments, mostly expressing that the government ought to find something else to do and stop bothering a poor old hillbilly who was just making a living the only way he knew how. ... In late January, the 62-year-old moonshiner was sentenced to 18 months in a federal penitentiary, and, according to his wife and daughter, chose to take his own life rather than face the time." (Gourmet photo)

Writing on Sutton's dichotomy, Watman adds, "To the end, his act was as clear as corn liquor and muddled as the hangover it gives you. Where shtick ended and reality began is impossible to tell, but one thing is for sure: Lots of people on the Tennessee border are going to go thirsty." (Read more)

Appalachian states have little data on safety of injecting coal slurry into abandoned mines

Vicki Smith of The Associated Press reports that none of the five Appalachian states that allow coal slurry to be dumped into abandoned undergound mines can substantiate their claim that the practice is safe. Alabama reports 11 such sites, Kentucky has 14, and West Virginia allows 15 firms to practice this method of disposal, which is cheaper than filtration and drying systems or building dams. Pennsylvania and Ohio each have two such sites. (Read more)

Ken Ward of The Charleston Gazette notes in his blog Coal Tattoo that Smith refers to a West Virginia case in which Boone County residents are asking a judge to stop the process, "citing high levels of toxic materials they believe are leaching from the slurry into drinking water supplies." Their lawyers argue, "The coal industry has plausible options in which to process coal. The residents of Prenter and Seth do not have an alternative as it pertains to their health." (Read more)

The process of putting slurry into underground mines may bring up memories of the slurry spill in Martin County, Kentucky, in 2000, but that was a case where the slurry was in an impoundment, broke through into old mine workings and flowed downstream.

Obama wants a look at rural air service subsidies

President Barack Obama's budget recommends a re-examination of the subsidy for flights to rural airports. Essential Air Service pays airlines to fly to communities where the low number of passengers are not enough to cover the cost, but Obama's budget "says the program is 'inefficiently designed' and could be sustained while 'improving cost-effectiveness'," writes Ledyard King for the Argus Leader of Sioux Falls, S.D.

King does a good job localizing the story, noting its effects on South Dakota communities. He also notes its effect on business and other aspects of rural life: "Planes also carry mail, agricultural suplies and medical samples for testing at hospitals in larger cities. The program is also touted as an important marketing tool." How does the Essential Air Service affect your community? (Read more)

Chain closes a weekly, so volunteers start one

When Swift Communications stopped printing the weekly Valley Journal in Carbondale, Colo., three months ago, residents of the town of 6,000 quickly concluded that they would not be well served by the company's daily papers in the Garfield County seat of Glenwood Springs, 13 miles to the north, or in Aspen, 30 miles to the southeast. (Encarta map)

Rebecca Young, who founded the paper in 1975 and sold it five years later, told DeeDee Correll the Los Angeles Times that the loss of the paper and such essentials as obituaries hit home when a friend died and she didn't find out until two weeks later. So she found six other town residents to start the Sopris Sun, a free-circulation weekly named for a local mountain and run mostly by volunteers. "It just beat the dickens out of sitting around whining that our paper was dead," she told Correll, of the Times bureau in Denver.

Carbondale has a volunteer ethic. Its one-screen movie theater is supported by volunteers who sell concessions. "It wouldn't surprise me if [the newspaper] was sustainable because there are an awful lot of people who do labors of love here," Mayor Michael Hassig said. Staffers are looking for revenue in any way possible, even applying for grants to keep the paper running, and editor Trina Ortega, the first paid employee, received resumes and phone calls from people willing to donate their time, as well as a phone call from someone in another state who volunteered to work on the paper's Web site.

For the first issue, published Feb. 12, the Sun printed 3,000 copies. The Valley Journal had a circulation of about 5,000 when it announced its closing on Christmas Day. It said in a farewell note, "The need for Carbondale to have a newspaper is still very real, and we of course prefer to look at this as a temporary situation, with the goal being the return of a stand-alone newspaper ... whenever the economy allows." The paper said the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, circulation 5,000, and The Aspen Times, 11,000, would have more "Carbondale news, happenings and human interest stories." The Valley Journal site reported Jan. 17 that volunteers were "in the throes of birthing a new community newspaper," but as far as we can tell it has not reported that they delivered. It did report that a Spanish-language paper had started to fill the niche vacated by La Tribuna, another shuttered publication of the Swift subsidary Colorado Mountain News Media.

Young told Aspen Times reporter John Colson for the January story that the Sun would not try to cover government meetings, "which she said can be amply covered by the dailies." She told him, “I kind of think the old model of weeklies is dead,” and that the Sun would focus on “what comes after the meetings, what are the biggest subjects, the impacts” of decisions made at them. "Plus, she said, the paper will publish 'the human features,' stories she said are intended 'to introduce people to one another,' from one generation to the next or from one social sphere to another." (Read more) And, despite Young's inspiration, there are no obituaries.

Correll's story ends with a quintessential quote from rancher Emma Danciger, "who has driven into town every Thursday for years to pick up the latest issue." She told Correll, "We've got to have our paper." (Read more) That calls to mind a maxim often cited by Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, who is quoted in the story: "You know it's a community newspaper if the readers say 'our paper,' not 'the paper'."

UPDATE, April 6: Doug Burns reports in the Daily Yonder that the Sun is especially valuable when it comes to covering land-use issues.