Friday, April 10, 2009

One writer sees end of traditional country music, another says Swift brings young people back to it

"Country music just ain't what it used to be," Steve Tuttle writes for Newsweek Xtra, the magazine's online add-on. Writing before this week's Academy of Country Music Awards, he said, "If past concert appearances are any indication, the nominees for vocalist of the year will be dressed in skintight, revealing tops, some with long, flowing blond hair and deep golden tans. And that's just the men."

The description also fits Carrie Underwood, who was named both vocalist and entertainer of the year. "Women ruled the awards show," writes Shannon Mason Brock of The Anderson News in Lawrenceburg, Ky., noting among others the Crystal Milestone Award to Taylor Swift "for selling CDs and bringing young people back to country music." To read the column by Brock, a recent University of Kentucky graduate, click here.

Tuttle calls the 19-year-old Swift, left, "today's Nashville 'it' girl" and an example of the trend he doesn't like. But he notes that the definition of country music has been debated since the Carter Family made their first recordings in 1927, but in recent years the genre has blurred beyond recognition. He dubs Garth Brooks "the final nail in the honky-tonk coffin. His pop-sounding megahits and his wacky flying over arena stages on a wire in his way-too-tight Wranglers made my skin crawl. Almost two decades later, and by today's Rascal Flatts-ian standards, I consider him almost a modern-day Hank Williams."

But Tuttle says he's learned to accept the world as it is. "Today's producers are just giving people what they want, navigating the market as best they can," he writes. "It's a business, after all. Today's suburban music buyers don't labor in coal mines or cheat on their wives. Well, they don't work in coal mines, anyway. Songwriters and hit makers write about what they know, just as their forefathers did, except now what they know is driving the kids to Target in the minivan, or staying at home because they're unemployed. So maybe country sounds and lyrics veering a little toward spit-polished pop music aren't a sign of the end of the world, but something gritty and real has been lost. They borrow the vernacular of country music, the genuineness and masculinity of that hard-knock life, but they morph it into something that's barely recognizable. The rough edges and authenticity have been sanded off." (Read more)

We also recommend watching the article's slideshow of country stars from the beginning, including Patsy Cline, above, who some argued was too "pop" and was one of Swift's early favorites. We've seen most of the photos before; the better parts are the captions by Sarah Ball. To watch the show, click here.

Small farms in Mountain West are getting more numerous, but there are fewer of moderate size

Smaller farms are on the rise in the West, but moderate-sized family farms are on the wane. "The story of farming in the country, and in the West, has become a tale of two farmers," writes David Frey for New West. "Countering the growth of small farms is a concentration of more and more agriculture in the hands of fewer and fewer mega-farms. The small farms serve a growing niche of farmer’s markets. The giant farms fill the supermarket. The middle is disappearing."

USDA's Census of Agriculture released last month showed that in seven Western states -- Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming -- the amount of agricultural lands decreased by 5 million acres between 2002 and 2007, while the number of farms increased by 19 percent.

While small-farm advocates see the move as positive, others worry that without moderate-sized family farms, Western agriculture is in jeopardy. “Ultimately,” says Brian Depew, director of rural organizing and outreach programs for the Center for Rural Affairs, “a bifurcated system is not a sustainable system.” (Read more)

N.M. office helps rural towns seek stimulus money

In seeking economic-stimulus money, many rural communities are at a disadvantage because of the resources needed to apply and lobby for it. New Mexico has set up a state office to help those communities. “I think the initial concern for rural communities is that they’re not getting sufficient information, and that’s part of my office’s job,” said Toney Anaya, the head of the new Office of Recovery and Reinvestment. “We’re almost in a position where we can start reaching out to these communities.”

Anaya hopes to add grant writers to his staff, but he acknowledges that smaller communities still face challenges. Stimulus money requires "shovel-ready" projects, which are often difficult for communities with scant resources, writes Mike Sievers for the Socorro-based Mountain Mail. (Read more)

Financial crisis means much higher interest costs for small towns that bought bond derivatives

In Lewisburg, Tenn., population 11,000, the town was having difficulty paying interest on loans for new sewers. Investment bank Morgan Keegan & Co. was the town's financial adviser and host of a state-sponsored seminar on the risks and benefits of municipal bond derivatives, which the city bought to lower its interest rates. With the credit crunch, however, the town's annual interest payments have skyrocketed from around $250,000 to $1 million.

Many other small towns have had similar experiences, Don Van Natta Jr. reports for The New York Times. Those in Tennessee blame the state and its relationship with the investment bank. Tennessee supposedly has strong regulations on bond derivatives, but critics say that the regulations actually made it easier for the Memphis-based firm to sell towns the investments without fully explaining the risks, and that the seminar downplayed the risks that towns would face with the derivatives.

“We’re little,” Lewisburg Mayor Bob Phillips told the Times, “and we depend on people wiser than us in financial ways to keep us informed, tell us what things mean, and I really didn’t think we got that.” The investment bank denies wrongdoing, saying it provided towns with lower interest rates for years. (Read more)

Yesterday, Gov. Phil Bredesen admitted that state officials did not do enough to protect small towns from the investments. “There are places where derivatives make sense,” Bredesen said. “I think that perhaps with more guidance from the state and approval from the state, and some better education that some forms of these can still be useful.” Van Natta writes, "Asked if it had been a conflict for Morgan Keegan to serve as adviser and underwriter of the bonds, the governor said, “I think that really is probably at the core of what went wrong here.” (Read more)

USDA can keep feedlot data secret, judge rules

Feedlots can be controversial; the unpleasant waste and smell can draw complaints, and they can be sources of water pollution downstream. Nevertheless, the Department of Agriculture is not required to make public the names and telephone numbers of feedlots, a federal judge ruled last week.

The lawsuit was brought by Mary Zanoni, a journalist, lawyer and farmer who is executive director of Farm for Life, a non-profit supporting small farms in New York state. She filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the National Premises Information Repository, a database with contact information for feedlots that are part of the National Animal Identification System. Zanoni was writing a series of articles about the NAIS.

Zanoni "expected the data to show that USDA registered many livestock producers in the system without their knowledge or against their objections, according to court documents," writes Mateusz Perkowski for Capital Press Agriculture News. She "wanted to know the number of livestock producers who had asked to be removed from the system and how many of them were actually removed." (Read more of the story; read the decision)

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Ethanol use raised food prices 0.5% to 0.8%, or 10-15% of total yearly rise, congressional study finds

The increased use of ethanol was responsible for 10 to 15 percent of the increase in food prices for the year ending April 2008, adding 0.5 to 0.8 percent to the total retail cost of food, the Congressional Budget Office said in a study release yesterday. It says that high energy costs are responsible for much more of the increase, so the rise would have been greater if ethanol had not replaced traditional motor fuels, reports Charles Abbott for Reuters.

The report, "The Impact of Ethanol Use on Food Prices and Greenhouse-Gas Emissions," serves as a good resource for journalists interested in covering the ethanol industry and the pending decision on whether corn-based ethanol meets the Renewable Fuels Standard because it leads to clearing of woodland for cropland, mainly in other countries. (Read the report)

Farmers feel effect of recession; cut purchases

After largely avoiding the declines felt by other industries, agriculture is being squeezed by the recession, as both crop and land prices fall. As a result, farmers are cutting purchases, creating a ripple effect through rural and farming-related business. "Overall, I think conservative is probably the word that would best describe where we're at on things," farmer Steven Althouse of Wahoo, Neb., told Josh Funk of The Associated Press.

Crop prices that hit records in 2008, are starting to drop, and farmers are seeing less profit. Many who took on loans when crop prices were high are now finding themselves struggling to pay off their debt in tougher times. "At the John Deere dealership in Wahoo, combines and tractors farmers ordered last year with proceeds from $7 per-bushel corn are still being delivered -- despite the fact that corn prices are now closer to $4 per bushel," Funk reports.

But relatively speaking, some say farmers are still in decent financial shape, thanks to lessons learned from the farm crisis of the 1980s. Mike Duffy, an economics professor at Iowa State University, told Funk that the crisis taught farmers to keep their debt low: "About three-fourths of our land [in Iowa] is held without debt. So if it drops in value, it isn't like they're going to have to dump it." (Read more)

Farm subsidy cuts appear dead for now, but wish to boost child nutrition means the battle isn't over

President Obama's plans to cut farm subsidies "appear dead for now," writes Philip Brasher of The Des Moines Register, but federal farm spending could still be cut, as Congress looks for money in the Agriculture Department budget to support healthy eating for children. The administration's plan to cut subsidies for farms selling more than $500,000 annually, in order to free up $1 billion a year for child nutrition programs, foundered because it would affect moderate-sized farmers, not just the giant agribusinesses Obama publicly targeted.

The House and Senate budget resolutions also eliminated a proposed $250,000 cap on the subsidies that could be received by any one farm, and replaced a proposed $500 million annual saving in crop insurance with a relatively token $70 million reduction over five years. But with childhood obesity on the rise, lawmakers still hope to contribute to school nutrition programs. "Congress is due to write new rules for school lunches and other federal child nutrition programs this year and will debate plans to expand eligibility for free meals and to address child obesity by improving the lunches' quality," Brasher notes. "School nutrition directors also want Congress to increase federal subsidies for meals." (Read more)

Researchers hope new beetle can save hemlocks

Central and Southern Appalachia's hemlock trees are being threatened by woolly adelgids, a tiny insect that has virtually wiped out the species in many places. But researchers are hoping that the introduction of a new beetle from the Pacific Northeast will control the infestation in Kentucky, where it was recently found.

Woolly adelgids, believed to have been imported with plants from Japan in the 1920s, have no natural predators in Appalachia. But after releasing 2,000 beetles in a test run, researchers were hopeful they would help curb the damage done by the insect. "It looks promising," University of Kentucky entomologist Lynne Rieske-Kinney told Roger Alford of The Associated Press. "We saw them go right after the adelgids."

Researchers say that they hope to introduce additional species to help control the pests. "It's going to take several species working together to establish control," said Rusty Rhea, a U.S. Forest Service epidemiologist. "There's not going to be a silver bullet." (Read more)

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Citizens fight possible appointment of career Interior official to be top strip-mine regulator

Citizens in the Appalachian coalfield fear President Obama "has abandoned both of the two good candidates" to head the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement "in favor of an OSMRE insider, perhaps acting director Glenda Owens," Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette reported in his Coal Tattoo blog. Tonight he reports that Obama may be close to nominating Owens, who is unacceptable to citizens' groups because of her track record at the agency, which Ward lays out in damaging detail.

Nominating Owens, left, would keep Obama from having to choose between competing candidates from Kentucky and West Virginia, the states most concerned with strip mining. Ward reports the citizens calling the Interior Department in an organized campaign are asking for either of those hopefuls: Lexington lawyer Joe Childers and West Virginia University law professor Pat McGinley. The campaign is directing calls to Renee Stone, deputy chief of staff to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. Her phone number is 202-208-6133.

In another post, titled "Credibilty for OSM(RE)?", Ward excerpts heavily from a Lexington Herald-Leader editorial and notes that it didn't pick a candidate, as the Gazette did with McGinley. "What Obama must not do is appoint anyone from inside OSM or the coal industry," the newspaper said. "OSM has suffered from a cozy relationship with the industry since the Reagan years."

Meanwhile, Ward also reports that the Environmental Protection Agency "lodged objections to three more mountaintop removal mining permits that the federal Army Corps of Engineers was prepared to issue. Two of the mines in question are in West Virginia, and the third in Virginia." (Read more) And Ward sees a change in attitude of U.S. Rep. Nick Joe Rahall, whose West Virginia district is a hotbed of mountaintop mining. Read about it here.

'Appalachia' series starts on PBS tomorrow night

Advance reviews are good for "Appalachia," the four-part documentary that premieres on PBS tomorrow night. They began more than a year ago, after the late Rudy Abramson saw the film. Abramson and his co-editor of the Encyclopedia of Appalachia, Jean Haskell, wrote then, "The filmmakers, Ross Spears and Jamie Ross, have broken the mold and produced an entirely new kind of film . . . that not only warms the heart, but exudes authority, credibility and powerful insight."

More recently, from Appalachia's largest city, Diana Nelson Jones of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote that the series is "engrossing and beautifully filmed and illustrated," and concluded, "Few documentaries give equal time to species other than the human to explain a history. This one does. It gives first billing, though, to the mountains themselves -- the "soul and spine" of a people as diverse as any but bound by a heart tug for "home" that's all about being an underdog who knows a superior beauty."

Ross and Spears say on the film's Web site that they have produced "the first environmental history series ever made." That means it explores "the intersection of natural history and human history in one of America’s grandest treasures." (Ross is a member of the advisory board of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which was co-founded by Abramson and Al Smith, former federal co-chairman of the Appalachian Regional Commission.) Ross told Rich Copley of the Lexington Herald-Leader, "Rich landscapes produce rich cultures, and that's what you see in Appalachia. Where Appalachia is troubled is where the land has been plundered, exploited and denigrated." (Read more)

The film is narrated by actress Sissy Spacek, who lives in the Great Smoky Mountains and played Loretta Lynn in "Coal Miner's Daughter," a classic Appalachian film. "She said the most moving part of the narration was reading the names of 20 or 30 of the 470 mountains lost" in the Cumberland Plateau section of the region's coalfield to mountaintop-removal strip mining, wrote David Bauder of The Associated Press.

Postal Service ending last backcountry mail drop

Howard Berkes of National Public Radio reports the U.S. Postal Service will end the nation's last backcountry mail plane service to more than 20 addresses in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness in Idaho this June. (Encarta map)

Residents are struggling with how they will cope when the service is eliminated. The weekly mail drop costs about $44 a week per customer and has served ranches, outfitters, lodges and a University of Idaho research station for 50 years, but the annual $46,000 price tag is too much for the USPS to continue.

Instead, it will provide free mailboxes at a post office in the Valley County seat of Cascade (lower left on map), a move that confounds locals. "Many of these places are inaccessible totally, except by air," Carol Arnold, whose Arnold Aviation company has had a mail-plane contract for 34 years.

"If you take that point of view to the entire mail system, there's a huge swath of rural America that wouldn't be served by regular mail service," resident Doug Tims told NPR. "They've (had) the commitment over the years to the American public to deliver the mail. And I think this is part of that commitment." Read more here.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Binghamton newspaper covers shooting tragedy despite cutbacks, language barriers

Like many newspaper editors these days, Calvin Stovall has been working with a reduced staff and a tight budget. But when a gunman opened fire at an immigration center in his town of Binghamton, N.Y., population 45,000, the Press & Sun-Bulletin editor didn't let the cutbacks stop him and his reporters from doing their job. "It is easy for us to get hung up on that," said Stovall. "But we have had the people we needed to cover the story."

Since Friday's shooting, the paper's staff have been working around the clock to cover the story properly, with extra print and web content that includes a focus on the 13 victims, who include eleven immigrants, their English teacher, and an office worker. Local translators have helped the staff overcome language barriers in interviews, and journalists from papers also owned by Gannett Co. Inc. have joined the staff to help with coverage.

Stovall told Joe Strupp of Editor & Publisher that the tragedy points to why journalists do what they do: "The industry is really going through a lot right now, we know we play a very important role and this is a reminder of the very important role we play." (Read more; read the paper's Web coverage here)

Ohio survey finds rural hospitals prone to layoffs

Ohio hospital layoffs are deeply affecting hospitals that serve rural areas, found a survey conducted by the Ohio Hospital Association. Of the hospitals anticipating laying off employees in the next six months, 41 percent serve primarily rural areas.

The OHA press release noted many of the concerns faced in rural communities across the nation: the lack of health care options that existed in many areas even before the economic crisis and the economic pressures that ripple through a town when a hospital -- often a major employer for a community -- starts cutting staff. (Read more)

West Virginia officals ask National Register to drop Blair Mountain, citing property owners' objections

One week after Blair Mountain was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, state officials have asked that the West Virginia site be taken back off the list, citing uncounted objections from area property owners. The 1921 battle waged on the mountain was the largest armed conflict over labor issues in U.S. history.

"Efforts to preserve Blair Mountain date back to the early 1990s, when [United Mine Workers] officials and environmentalists teamed up to fight strip-mining proposed by non-union Massey Energy," writes Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette. "Three years ago, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named Blair Mountain as one of America's 11 most endangered historic sites."

An area cannot be listed on the register if a majority of property owners object. Originally, state officials counted 22 objections out of 50 property owners , but now say that 30 objections were actually filed. (Read more)

UPDATE, April 9: Scott Finn of West Virginia Public Broadcasting reports state officials say they "missed several letters from objecting landowners. Those letters from objectors reveal a coordinated campaign by landowning and coal companies to gather signatures of property holders to oppose the nomination. Most are filled out as a form letter, simply stating that they are landowners and they object to the listing, and nothing else. Many are signed on the same date, and many have the same witness or notary public co-signing the document." (Read more)

Monday, April 06, 2009

Bird flu, not the bad kind, found on Kentucky farm

A Western Kentucky poultry farm that produces hatching eggs for Perdue Farms Inc. has been quarantined "following the detection of a non-pathogenic or low-pathogenic form of avian influenza" in the birds, reports Dave Russell of Brownfield Network.

“The state and federal government and Perdue are acting aggressively to contain and eliminate the disease,” State Veterinarian Robert Stout said. “There is no evidence that any infected poultry are in the human food supply as a result of this infection. We will do what is necessary to minimize the disruption to overseas trade.”

"Perdue plans to depopulate the 20,000 chickens in two houses on the farm, and the Kentucky Department of Agriculture is also conducting surveillance of backyard flocks within a 2-mile radius of the farm," Russell reports. "The strain poses minimal risk to human health and is not the high-pathogenic strain associated with human and poultry deaths in other countries."

Rural health centers often lack eye-care services

Add limited access to eye-care services to the list of rural health issues, says an analysis from George Washington University. The article from Ophthamology Times, “Assessing the Need for On-Site Eye Care Professionals,” says GWU found community health centers across the country are severely lagging in their access to comprehensive eye exams for rural and low-income populations.

Federally funded community health centers have improved some situations, but GWU reports that 70 percent of those centers do not offer on-site vision care services. The American Optometric Association is beginning to pay more attention to the disparity and has been working to expand access to eye-care through community health centers. The analysis listed several key barriers to providing on-site eye-care, including inability to afford space and equipment and difficulties with Medicare and Medicaid coverage and reimbursement. Read more here.

Iowa 1st rural state to legalize same-sex marriage; most-rural Vermont the first via a legislative vote

The Iowa Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage write is significant because Iowa is a state with significant rural population (39 percent in the 2000 census), a fact not lost on several news outlets. UPDATE, April 7: Iowa's rural culture is more traditional than that of Vermont, where the legislature enacted same-sex marriage today over a gubernatorial veto.

"When it was only California and Massachusetts, it could be perceived as extremism on the coasts and not related to core American values," Brown University sociologist John Logan told The Associated Press. "But as it extends to states like Iowa, and as attitudes toward gay marriage have evidently changed, then people will look at it as an example of broad acceptance." (Read more)

Iowa's largest newspaper notes the state's status as a bellwether. "I think it’s significant, because Iowa is considered a Midwest state in the mainstream of American thought," Richard Socarides, former adviser to President Clinton on gay rights issues, told Jeff Eckhoff and Grant Schulte of The Des Moines Register. "Unlike states on the coasts, there’s nothing more American than Iowa. As they say during the presidential caucuses, 'As Iowa goes, so goes the nation.'"

But critics say the decision was not one the Iowa Supreme Court should have made. The court "stepped out of its proper role in interpreting the law," says Doug Napier, a lawyer for the Alliance Defense Fund in Arizona. The state's 1998 Defense of Marriage Act "was simple, it was settled, and overwhelmingly supported by Iowans. There was simply no legitimate reason for the court to redefine marriage." Opponents are planning to challenge the decision with a constitutional amendment, but, unlike California's speedy referendum process, any amendment to the Iowa constitution cannot occur until at least 2012. (Read more) Other articles note the expected economic benefits Iowa may see, reactions to the ruling and a profile of the judge who authored it.

UPDATE: The Vermont veto was overridden with the minumum 100 votes needed in the state House. The state is the first to enact same-sex marriage with legislation rather than court action, notes the Burlington Free Press.