Saturday, April 18, 2009

Union steps up efforts to organize at Wal-Marts

"The United Food and Commercial Workers union is ramping up organizing at Wal-Mart Stores Inc. after a five-year lull, dovetailing with its efforts to win support in Congress for a bill to make union organizing easier," Kris Maher and Ann Zimmerman report for The Wall Street Journal. "At this point, the union said it hasn't obtained majority support at any Wal-Mart stores, but has majorities in a handful of individual departments, which can be unionized separately."

Last we knew, most Wal-Marts were in rural areas. The story didn't reveal whether UFCW is focusing on urban and suburban areas, which might seem more union-friendly, but one of the two Wal-Mart workers quoted was an overnight stocker from rural Glendale, Ill., 30 miles north of Paducah, Ky. Linda Haluska told the Journal that Wal-Mart is "a good place to work, but it would be better with a union."

"Since February, Ms. Haluska said her store has held five or six meetings attended by managers from the Wal-Mart corporate office to discuss unionization. Ms. Haluska and other workers said the meetings are aimed at dissuading workers from supporting the union." Haluska told the Journal, "They are not giving us the full picture, just enough to discourage you." (Read more)

Preacher's push for community-oriented banking gets attention from Wall Street Journal columnist

Community banks have a new advocate, a type they probably didn't expect: a self-ordained street preacher who rails against the evils of consumerism and whose views got at least a temporary megaphone yesterday, a column in The Wall Street Journal.

In "Writing on the Wall," David Weidner tells about Billy Talen, the son of a small-town bank chairman who is running for mayor of New York: "In place of a system where big banks and corporations enter neighborhoods only to profit from them, Reverend Billy wants to empower small banks and credit unions that hold a stake in the communities they serve by offering incentives and making it harder for big finance to undercut local business. It's hard to argue against the system he envisions. Think for a moment about what community finance could mean for the nation: Neighborhood banks would lend to local businesses. Profits could stay in the community. Simply knowing who your customers are and living near them could bring common sense -- the most basic and sound form of risk management -- back to banking." (Read more)

Animal-welfare objections persuade some schools to cancel donkey basketball games, a rural favorite

Donkey basketball has been a familiar fund-raising gimmick in rural areas for decades, because folks are occasionally willing to pay a few bucks to see locals ride often recalcitrant asses and try to score baskets, "But the practice has drawn criticism from animal-welfare groups that say the donkeys are mistreated, leading some schools to cancel the events," Katie Thomas reports from Goffstown, N.H., for The New York Times. "That, along with a handful of lawsuits, has left some operators to wonder how long this peculiar slice of Americana will survive." (Times photo by Jodi Hilton)

“There’s going to come a day when there’s no longer going to be a donkey ball,” because of animal-welfare and liability issues, Brenda Amburgey, who owns Circle A Donkey Ball in Henry, Tenn., told Thomas. If you've never seen donkey ball, Thomas provides a pretty good description, which includes the revelation that some of the steeds "are trained to buck or to duck their necks — sending the players sliding to the floor — and referees reward the mischief with carrots. ... The pastime has been around since at least the 1930s, kept alive by fewer than a dozen family businesses that truck the donkeys to school gyms across the country in exchange for a cut of ticket revenue. Company owners say that their donkeys are beloved, spoiled pets, and that their work helps local charities that host the events to raise money."

Animal-welfare groups say donkey ball "is stressful to the animals, who travel long distances and are ridden by inexperienced players," Thomas writes. "The Humane Society of the United States, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals all oppose the sport. PETA’s campaigns have persuaded schools from Idaho to North Carolina to cancel events." The business is little regulated, partly because the U.S. Department of Agriculture considers it a competition, which not an exhibition, and USDA generally lets states regulate competitions. The Times put the story in its sports section. To read it, click here.

EPA declares greenhouse gases threats to health, opening door to tighter rules on coal, agriculture

The Environmental Protection Agency classified greenhouse gases as threats to public health yesterday, a policy change that could lead to tougher regulation of coal-fired power plants and other emitters of carbon dioxide. It could also spur a "cap and trade" system that could provide much new income for farmers, while raising the stakes for ethanol producers and spurring effort to limit methane emissions from animal agriculture. Here is EPA's news release; here is its detailed explanation.

"What happens next is unclear," writes Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post. "The agency's proposed finding is likely to intensify pressure on Congress to pass legislation that would limit greenhouse gases, as President Obama, many lawmakers and some industry leaders prefer. But cap-and-trade legislation, which would limit emissions and allow emitters to trade pollution allowances, is fiercely opposed by a coalition of Republicans and Democrats from fossil-fuel-dependent Midwestern states who fear that such a system would raise energy prices and hurt the nation's economy. If Congress doesn't act, the Obama administration is likely to press ahead with at least some curbs on carbon dioxide and other pollutants blamed for global warming. ... Officials from the industries that stand to be most affected indicated yesterday that they would rather help shape standards through the legislative process than defer to federal regulators." (Read more)

Friday, April 17, 2009

Kentuckian hopes to be first black federal co-chair of Appalachian Regional Commission

Some key Kentucky supporters of President Obama are asking him to name a well-known Appalachian acdemic the first African Amercian to head the Appalachian Regional Commission.

"I think my being an African American is a profound statement about Appalachia," William Turner, holder of the National Endowment for the Humanities Chair in Appalachian Studies at Berea College, told Dori Hjalmarson of the Lexington Herald-Leader. Turner is the son of a coal miner in the Harlan County town of Lynch and was a former high-ranking official at the University of Kentucky and interim president of historically black Kentucky State University.

Turner's backers include two top officials who backed Obama before Kentucky's presidential primary last year: U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler of Versailles, whose 6th District includes some non-coal Appalachian counties, and Lt. Gov. Dan Mongiardo, from the coalfield town of Hazard and a candidate for the U.S. Senate. Chandler told Hjalmarson that Turner "understands the needs of the sons and daughters of Appalachia" but should expect "a great deal of competition" for the job of federal co-chairman, the top official who works with the governors of the 13 Appalachian states.

At last month's Appalachian Studies Association conference, Turner received the Cratis D. Williams-James S. Brown Service Award, which ASA gives each year to an individual who has made exemplary contributions to the region. Phil Obermiller of the University of Cincinnati said in his presentation that Turner has been “a pioneer in articulating the role of African Americans in the region. . . . He has used his administrative appointments in various academic settings to promote recognition of the Appalachian region and its black and white residents. Perhaps most important are his unstinting efforts to make higher education attractive and accessible to students from the region." (Photo courtesy of Turner; woman is unidentified)

With little government oversight, producers pay for own food-safety inspections

The food industry has faced considerable losses over the past few years as a result of food-safety recalls. So, citing little oversight from the Food and Drug Administration, many food processors are taking matters into their own hands, hiring government inspectors to help with self-regulation. For example, the Leafy Green Products Handler Marketing Agreement pays the State of California for auditors to inspect the crop's producers, after the industry lost $100 million following a 2006 outbreak of e.coli in spinach. (Times photo by Peter DaSilva shows workers spraying chorine on freshly picked produce)

"It’s an understandable response when the federal government has left a vacuum,” said George Washington University professor Michael R. Taylor, who was formerly an officer in two federal food-safety agencies. But he and other critics warn that the approach is not ideal. “We want every inspector to be paid by and owe their loyalty to the people who eat, not to the owner of an unsanitary produce packing operation. You can’t work for both," said safety advocate Carol L. Tucker-Foreman of the Consumer Federation of American. (Read more)

Plan to switch off power lines during high risk of wildfires angers rural Southern Californians

Residents of Southern California are all too aware of the destructive power of wildfires, but when San Diego County officials proposed a plan aimed at reducing one potential wildfire source, protests abounded. San Diego Gas & Electric has proposed shutting down power lines under certain "fire-friendly weather conditions," a move that would primarily affect rural residents, reports Jennifer Steinhauer of The New York Times.

The power outages could last between 12 and 72 hours, until dry, highly windy weather ended. Supporters of the plan say conditions which would require the shutdown are fairly rare. “We are projecting that we could have the conditions ripe for an emergency shut-off once or twice a year,” said Stephanie Donovan, a spokesperson for the utility, “covering about 18,000 to 22,000 people at a time.” During the outages, county residents would also be without water, since the utility powers water wells, and residents say that would threaten their safety. "When the other 97 percent of causes that start a fire occur, there is no water in our system to fight them,” said Gary Arant, general manager of the Valley Center (pop. 7,500) water district.

Steinhauer writes that the plan has heightened many of the county's rural residents' antagonism toward their urban neighbors. Michael Hart, publisher of The Julian News, told her, “Once or twice a year we get people who want to citify the backcountry. We had someone show up here once who wanted to make us like Santa Barbara. We ran them out on a rail.” (Read more)

Power lines to carry 'green' energy may threaten wildlife, posing environmental dilemma

With renewable energy a priority under the Obama administration, a new energy grid seems poised to become a reality. But with construction threatening wildlife refuges, environmentalists are finding themselves facing a dilemma: make green energy a key component of the nation's energy supply or protect wildlife?

In New Mexico, for instance, a power line which would provide wind and solar energy to Arizona cities "would cross grasslands, skirt two national wildlife refuges and traverse the Rio Grande, all habitat areas rich in wildlife," write Juliet Eilperin and Steven Mufson in The Washington Post. Among the wildlife threatened by the project are sandhill cranes, one of the species which live in that area. "Everybody in New Mexico loves the sandhill cranes," said Ned Farquhar one month ago, when he worked for the National Resources Defense Council. "We also love our renewable energy. So we have to figure this out." Since making that statement, Farquhar has been appointed head of the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management, who control much of the land affected by the proposed line and are therefore charged with determining the fate of the power line.

Renewable energy projects often require more land than traditional energy projects. Eilperin and Mufson write, "As the push for renewable-energy development intensifies across the United States, scientists and activists have begun to voice concern that policymakers have underestimated the environmental impact of projects that are otherwise 'green.'" NRDC senior lawyer Johanna Wald told them, "There is no free lunch when it comes to meeting our energy needs."

But others say that cleaner energy sources should take priority, for the sake of all wildlife. "Do people think it's better all those birds are breathing CO2? I'm not a scientist, but I doubt it," said Ditlev Engel, president and chief executive of the Danish wind-energy company Vestas. "Let's get the facts on the table and not the feelings. The fact is, these are not issues." (Read more)

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Melting Arctic ice means easier drilling, but Interior secretary finds rural Alaskans divided

UPDATE, April 18: A federal appeals court ruled Friday that the Bush administration had failed to adequately evaluate the environmental impact of oil drilling in the ocean north of Alaska, and "halted the program pending a full review," reports the Los Angeles Times.

"Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was in Alaska this week as part of an 'information gathering' tour to help craft a new Outer Continental Shelf drilling policy," reports Elizabeth Arnold of National Public Radio. "After two days of public testimony from those for and against offshore drilling, Salazar pronounced Alaskans passionate and divided."

Melting Arctic ice has made it easier to drill for oil and natural gas in the area. But plans to drill are meeting opposition from rural natives and environmentalists. There is strong support for drilling from Gov. Sarah Palin and the unemployed. "From laborers in hard hats chanting 'jobs, jobs, jobs' to environmentalists dressed as polar bears and puffins, division and emotion over offshore drilling was apparent," writes Arnold.

Just over a year ago oil and natural gas companies bid $2.7 billion for rights to drill in the Chukchi Sea, which lies between Alaska and Russia. In the 1990s, the same rights brought only $7 million. (Read more)

EPA will test pesticides for effect on hormones

The Environmental Protection Agency announced that it will "order the manufacturers of 67 pesticides to test whether their products disrupt the hormonal system of humans or animals," writes Matthew Wald of The New York Times. Congress passed a bill in 1996 requiring such tests but the EPA took years to develop the tests.

"The agency said that the 67 pesticides were chosen because humans and animals are widely exposed to them, not because they are necessarily the most likely disruptors of endocrinal functions," adds Wald. In all 1,000 substances will be tested and manufacturers are supposed to return the results within a year. (Read more)

North Appalachian power line delayed until 2014

We've reported on the proposed PATH power line that would run from Pennsylvania south to West Virginia. According to The Fredrick News-Post in Maryland, the project has been delayed and is now scheduled for completion in 2014.

Allegheny Energy and American Electric Power are collaborating on the project but have not made all the appropriate filings to break ground. "The utility company had initially planned to file a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity with the Maryland Public Commission on Wednesday," writes Ed Waters Jr. of the News-Post. Similar filings have not been made in West Virginia or Virginia.

Allegheny and AEP have not made a final determination on the route the power line will follow. The two companies have been holding a series of town hall meetings to help determine the best route. Some environmental groups have been questioning the impact the line will have on "communities, historical sites and the environment," adds Waters. Some are pushing for the line to be buried to minimize its impact. (Read more)

Ala. plant converts town's wood waste to ethanol

When the word "ethanol" is mentioned, people usually think of corn, the traditional source of the biofuel. But cellulosic ethanol is advocated as a "greener" fuel, and one Alabama plant recently made a small batch of ethanol from wood waste. The plant, in Livingston, pop. 3,000, received wood scraps from nearby Hoover, pop. 70,000, and donated 100 gallons of the fuel for use in the town's police cars. While ethanol has been created from wood before, promoters believe it is the first time municipal waste has been used for the project.

Democratic U.S. Rep Artur Davis says that alternative fuels could be a major player in the state's economic development, and the town hopes to raise money for a large-scale plant. "This is only 100 gallons," Hoover mayor Tony Petelos told Val Walton of The Birmingham News, "but it's the beginning of a new process, not only for the city of Hoover, but this entire country." (Read more)

Subsidies are criticized as encouraging water use during Western drought

The drought in the West has left residents fighting to conserve water since 2007, leaving many critical of farm and water subsidies that they say encourage farmers to use more water. In California and Arizona, hundreds of farmers receive the subsidies. One supports crops such as cotton and rice, which are typically grown in flooded fields. The other offers cheap water for irrigation. "With our weather patterns, with climate change, and our population growth, we've got to look at how we use every drop," said California Rep. George Miller, a Democrat who represents part of the San Francisco Bay area. "We need to take a serious look at policies that encourage economically inefficient and unsustainable uses of our limited clean water supplies."

Subsidy supporters say the crops were around long before the drought, and the programs are necessary for farmers' survival. "I just don't think that taking the No. 1 ag state and drying it up is a good long-term answer for our country. I mean, people need food," Jim Hansen, a California cotton grower whose ranch receives the fourth-largest amount of the state's subsidies, told Garance Burke of The Associated Press. (Read more)

Struggling rural newspaper breaks a national story

The Tracy Press in California has been struggling for survival. Back in February 2008, we reported that the family-owned newspaper had cut back circulation from daily to just Wednesdays and Saturdays. Now the paper has broken a local story that went national.

After 8-year-old Sandra Cantu disappeared March 27, all the paper's drastically reduced staff started working on the story. After Cantu's body was discovered stuffed in a suitcase, reporter Jennifer Wadsworth, 22, started following rumors which led her to Cantu's 28-year-old neighbor, Melissa Huckaby, who had become a suspect in the case. Huckaby first refused to speak to Wadsworth when she contacted woman through the cell phone number listed in court records, the reporter told Alexandra Zavis of the Los Angeles Times, but then "She said, well, you're from the home paper."

Huckaby proceeded to reveal that she owned the suitcase in which Cantu's body was found. Although she claimed it had been stolen the day before Cantu's disappearance, she had not told police that. After reading Wadsworth's report on the paper's Web site, the cops brought Huckaby in again. Following a five-hour interview, she was charged with kidnapping and killing Cantu. With that, the paper itself became front-page news. "Wadsworth said she is struggling to get enough reporting time in between all the TV interviews," writes Cantu. (Read more)

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Study says genetic engineering ineffective at increasing crop yields

According to a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists called "Failure to Yield," genetic engineering is failing to substantially increase crop yields. The study finds that "Genetic engineering has delivered minimal gains in operational yield, and most yield gains can be attributed to non genetic engineering approaches," writes Kim McGuire of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. This claim runs contrary to the notion that genetically engineered foods can potentially solve the world's food crisis.

The study claims to be the first to compare the cumulative effects of genetic engineering compared to other technologies. To prove this claim, two dozen academic studies were reviewed. "The Union of Concerned Scientists reccomends that the U.S. Department of Agriculture continue to support research into proven approaches to boost crop yield," adds McGuire. "Those approaches include conventional plant breeding methods, and sustainable and organic farming." (Read more)

Cops seek to close Florida-Appalachia pill pipeline

We reported here that prescription-drug seekers from Appalachia have found Florida an ideal location when looking for prescriptions. That state does not have an electronic monitoring system that keeps track of narcotic prescriptions. In an effort to stop the flow of these drugs to Kentucky, "24 alleged drug dealers in Montgomery and Bath counties have been arrested and accused of obtaining prescription drugs at Florida clinics and bringing them back to Kentucky to sell," Mount Sterling Police Capt. David Charles told .

Kentucky law enforcement is also working with Florida officials to investigate Florida physicians who prescribe the narcotics. "Doctors charge a few hundred dollars for an MRI that justifies the prescription and, in many cases, the drug seekers get monthly prescriptions filled at the clinics, for as many as 300 pills, without ever having to go to a pharmacy," reports

Iowa bill would set period, not runoff standards, to spread manure; anti-pollution officials object

An Iowa bill has drawn criticism from the state's Department of Natural Resources and the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Current law allows spreading manure at any time during the year but prohibits runoff from fields. The bill would ban the spread of manure from Feb. 1 until April 1. The environmental agencies say that would allow farmers to spread manure while there is snow on the ground, increasing the likelihood of runoff and water pollution.

"EPA officials could determine that the state is not in compliance with federal environmental rules and take over that part of operations from the state," said Richard Leopold, director of the state agency. "That could present major problems because Iowa would be less able to determine the best methods of meeting environmental regulations."

Efforts are being made to amend the bill so that it resolves EPA objections. One proposed amendment would ban the application of liquid manure from Dec. 21 to April 1. Environmentalists are also concerned that "the manure being discussed is largely the product of massive industrial operations," or confined animal feeding operations, writes Jason Clayworth of The Des Moines Register. The manure produced by many industrial farm operation is in a liquid form, making it more prone to runoff into drinking water. (Read more)

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

South leads in spread of HIV and AIDS, but region has fewer services, more social stigma

HIV and AIDS in the South constitute a growing epidemic. The region "accounted for 46.4 percent of new AIDS cases in 2007 and has the greatest number of people estimated to be living with AIDS," writes Dahleen Glanton in the Los Angeles Times, citing a Kaiser Family Foundation analysis of data from the Centers for Disease Control. Rural Southern communities are particularly affected, but HIV and AIDS patients in the South, the nation's most rural region, often face fewer services and more social stigma than they find in other areas.

Sheila Holt said when she moved from New Jersey to Henderson, N.C., she lost access to many of the services available in her former state: housing, transportation and medicine, to name a few. But she also lost access to the emotional support that comes from being able to talk freely about life with the disease. "People are scared in the South. They don't really understand that this is a disease," said Holt, of her experience. "They are either too religious to open up or they don't want the stigma." To combat the problem in her community, she has become a vocal advocate for HIV prevention.

Part of the problem is that the federal money allocated to AIDS prevention and awareness is unevenly distributed. The South and Midwest get less funds than any other region, says a study by the Trust for America's Health. Rural areas face even larger funding gaps. "There needs to be a better level of parity between the states. The money should follow the epidemic, but the way it stands now, the cities get way more per person than the rural areas," say Kathie Hiers, former co-chairwoman of the Southern AIDS Coalition. (Read more)

Dairy industry's goal for less-gassy cows just one example of global issues in U.S. agriculture

Methane is a major greenhouse gas causing global warming and climate change, but much of comes from the intestines of mammals and is hard to, well, regulate. But now, "The U.S. dairy industry wants to engineer the 'cow of the future' to pass less gas," reports Robert Imrie of The Associated Press.

Intestinal methane is the single largest component of the dairy industry's carbon footprint, and the industry wants greenhouse gas emissions by 25 percent by 2020, AP was told by Thomas Gallagher, CEO of the U.S. Dairy and Dairy Management Inc. Innovation Center. Possible measure include feed additives such as fish oil or changing the mix of intestinal microbes.

The Applied Sustainability Center at the University of Arkansas "estimates the dairy industry contributes less than 2 percent of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions," Imrie reports. "But consumers increasingly demand products that are produced, packaged and distributed in a sustainable way, Gallagher said." (Read more)

The story is one of several in today's edition of Farm Policy that illustrate how U.S. agriculture is influenced by global factors. Other stories on the aggregating blog report on another aspect of climate change, a proposed cap-and-trade system that would reward farmers and foresters for practices that reduce emissions of carbon dioxide, the leading greenhouse gas; the World Trade Organization's consideration of whether animal-welfare issues can be cause for a country to reject certain imports; and talks between the U.S. and Mexico to work out a plan to allow Mexican trucks to haul produce into the U.S.; and yesterday's announcement that the U.S. would ease restrictions on families visiting relatives in Cuba and allowed them to send additional money and products back to relatives in the country. Farmers hope this will lead to the reduction or elimination of trade restrictions, opening the Cuban market for American produce. (Read more)

Monday, April 13, 2009

Sigma Delta Chi Awards have rural resonance

There's some rural resonance in most categories of the annual Sigma Delta Chi Awards for journalism, announced today by the Society of Professional Journalists.

In some cases, awards went to rural media or those telling rural-related stories to large rural audiences. The Gazette of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, circulation 58,000, won for deadline reporting among newspapers with circulations less than 100,000, for its coverage of a record flood in central Iowa. Jonathan Ellis of The Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, S.D., circulation 48,000, won the investigative reporting award for smaller-circulation papers, for "Casino Kings." Smaller newspapers continued to win the SDX award for cartooning. This year's goes to Chris Britt of the State Journal Register in Springfield, Ill., circulation 50,000.

Other awards were for work that examined issues or topics with strong rural angles. John Burnett, Marisa Penaloza, Quinn O'Toole and Tanya Ballard Brown of National Public Radio won the radio investigative reporting award for "Dirty Money," a series about local law-enforcement agencies becoming dependent on confiscations from drug traffickers. The award for breaking news coverage in small television markets (Nos. 51 and below) went to Alison Morrow, Jerry Owens and John Martin of WBIR-TV in Knoxville for coverage of the TVA coal-ash spill. The large-market award for feature reporting went to Boyd Huppert and Jonathan Malat of KARE-TV in Minneapolis for "The Land of 10,000 Stories," a series of features, many about rural Minnesota and Wisconsin. The staff of KTUU in Anchorage, which has a large rural audience, won the public-service TV award for its coverage of the trial of then-U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens.

Online winners with rural resonance included "Perils of the New Pesticides," a reporting project by the Center for Public Integrity. For the full list, go to

Chicken farmers get short end of the pulleybone?

A drop in the demand for chicken is crippling many Southern farmers who raise the birds for large processors, known as integrators because they own the birds from hatch. As demand here and abroad has diminished, many farmers have had their contracts canceled and are facing bankruptcy as bills go unpaid and they can't may mortgages on huge chicken houses.

"Nationally, 800 to 900 chicken farmers have lost contracts since last fall, almost all of them in the South," said Gary McBryde, an economist with the Department of Agriculture. "Chicken production is down 7 percent since April 2008," the National Chicken Council said. Many have suffered from the bankruptcy of Pilgrim's Pride, which we have covered here. Today the company announced closing of its plant in Dalton, Ga.

Many argue that the contracts given to farmers to raise chickens stack the odds against them succeeding. "The farmers raise the chicks to maturity, then are paid by the pound for the meat," reports David Zucchino of The Los Angles Times. "But the integrators own the chickens and decide how many the farmers get. They determine the formulas under which farmers are paid, based on a complicated feed-to-meat ratio."

According to the National Contract Poultry Growers Association Farmers provide half the capital in the industry but earn only 1 percent to 3 percent on their investments, versus more than 20 percent for integrators in boom times. (Read more)

Rural unemployment rises again, at lesser rate

Job losses in rural America slowed dramatically in February, but unemployment jumped as more out of work people looked for jobs, the Daily Yonder reports. The unemployment rate for rural counties was at 9.8 percent in February, while exurban counties were at 9.2 percent and urban counties were at 8.7 percent.

"The most dramatic change in the employment picture in February was the slowdown in the nation’s loss of jobs," Tim Murphy and Yonder Co-Editor Bill Bishop write. "In January, rural counties in the U.S. lost 600,000 jobs. In February, those same counties lost only 3,308 jobs."

But the good news about slowing job losses was tempered by the rise in unemployment. "The number of unemployed in rural counties — that is, people who say they are seeking a job — jumped by more than 108,000 in February, and by 690,000 nationally," write Murphy and Bishop.

Click here to read the full story, see graphs tracking rural employment and to see a list of rural counties with the highest number of lost jobs since the beginning of the recession.

Farm exports fall, taking crop prices with them

Last year, farm exports were thriving, helping American farmers achieve record profits. But with the recession affecting countries worldwide, global demand for farm produce is declining, and crop prices are going with it. "The 2008 wheat crop was almost a once-in-a-lifetime crop, where you had above-average yields and above-average prices," Kim Anderson, a grain economist at Oklahoma State University, told The New York Times. "And then you come into the 2009 crop with almost the exact opposite."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture "recently predicted that farm exports, which account for about 20 percent of the value of farm production, would fall this year to $96 billion, from $117 billion in 2008, roughly in line with the recent falloff of all American exports," Clifford Krauss write for the Times. "But the decline is particularly drastic for corn and wheat, two staples of the farm economy, and government economists say the falloff could directly lead to a loss of 45,000 jobs."

The lowered demand can be attributed to several factors, writes Krauss. Not only are countries less willing to pay for imports, thanks to the economic crisis, but the strengthening dollar also makes it less cost-effective to buy from the U.S. Homegrown crops are also on the rise for many of the traditional importers. (Read more)

I-75 a 'pill pipeline': Appalachian addicts travel to get easier prescriptions for painkillers in Florida

Florida has become a popular destination for addicts seeking pain medication, since it is one of the few states that does not have a system in place to track the prescription of narcotics medication, helping Interstate 75 become known as the "pill pipeline" to Central Appalachia, a region plagued by prescription drug abuse.

In Bath County, Kentucky, population 12,000, overdoses on prescriptions from Florida have killed nine people since August. "We are hearing of thousands of Kentuckians going to Florida to get prescriptions, people going in droves to pharmacies in states along I-75 to get the prescriptions filled," said Van Ingram, director of the Kentucky Office of Drug Control.

Kentucky is among the states that monitor narcotic prescriptions through a computerized network. The system shows if someone is going to multiple doctors to get pain medication, or if a doctor is over-prescribing narcotics. Florida has no such system. "In some cases, drug dealers provide cash for addicts to pay for the pills in Florida. The couriers buy pills for themselves, and the dealers sell the rest when they return to Kentucky," writes Valarie Honeycutt Spears for the Lexington Herald-Leader. "Doctors charge a few hundred dollars for an MRI that justifies the prescription and, in many cases, the drug seekers get monthly prescriptions for as many as 300 pills filled at the clinics without ever having to go to a pharmacy."

Officials are urging the Florida to implement a tracking system, and one is currently being considered by the legislature. Kentucky Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo, a southeastern Kentucky physician, is planning to speak to Florida's General Assembly. "If you stop doctor shopping in one state, they find another source," and Florida's narcotics "are killing people and driving up costs in emergency rooms," he told Spears. (Read more)