Saturday, May 16, 2009

Farmers, agribusiness trade groups start public-relations effort aimed at urban journalists

Several agricultural commodity groups, citing what they call "misinformation campaigns about food prices and renewable fuels," have formed The Hand that Feeds U.S., which calls itself "an educational resource for urban media on the importance of U.S. agriculture to the security and future of our country." Its initial news release said "America's farmers are extending an olive branch to the same urban media that have often been critical of agriculture."

The effort is a project of, which calls itself "a coalition of farmers and commodity groups." Groups involved in the effort include the Agricultural Retailers Association, the American Sugar Alliance, Bushmills Ethanol, the Crop Insurance Professionals Association, the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, the Southwest Council of Agribusiness, the Texas Corn Producers Board, Texas Grain Sorghum Producers, the Texas Peanut Producers Board and the USA Rice Federation.

"It makes no sense that we're being demonized in many of the nation's top media markets," Texas rice grower Linda Raun said in the release. "It's not the journalists' fault. "We haven't done a good enough job telling them our story." (Read more)

EPA greenlights 42 of 48 permits for coal mines in Appalachia, including mountaintop removal jobs

When the Environmental Protection Agency began blocking or delaying permits for mountaintop-removal coal mines, "Many saw it as the writing on the wall that the Obama administration intended to stop the controversial practice," Erica Peterson reports for West Virginia Public Broadcasting. But U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia "released correspondence between his office and the EPA ... announcing that the EPA had no concerns with the majority of the permit applications it was reviewing," 42 of 48 for mines in the Appalachian coalfield, not all of them involving mountaintop removal. (Read more)

EPA took a while to comment on Rahall's announcement, but finally issued a statement that read in pertinent part: “EPA decided not to provide additional comments on the remaining 42 permits after consideration of the nature and extent of project impacts. 28 of the projects have two or fewer valley fills. Eleven have no valley fills at all. None have more than six. EPA’s understanding is that none of the projects would permanently impact high value streams that flow year round. By contrast, EPA has opposed six permits because they all would result in significant adverse impacts to high value streams, involve large numbers of valley fills, and impact watersheds with extensive previous mining impacts.” Fior more coverage from Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette, click here.

Rural carrier charged with stealing mail, identities; Postal Service calls such charges 'very rare'

A rural mail carrier in northern Ohio, already in jail on a drug charge, has been indicted on five counts of identity theft, four counts of false credit-card applications, one count of theft of mail and one count of aggravated identity theft. Marsha Billock-Strahm is charged with "stealing some of the mail she was entrusted to deliver and fraudulently opening credit cards in the names of some of those on her rural route," writes Erica Blake of The Toldeo Blade.

A postal inspector told Blake that cases such as the recent criminal charges are "very rare within the postal service." Billock-Strahm served the town of Carey, population 3,900. "Mayor John Rymer said that in a small town, it's difficult not to be disappointed and feel betrayed by a longtime member of the community. A town of about 3,900 people, Carey is in Wyandot County and is about 65 miles south of Toledo. ... But being a tight-knit Christian town, the residents of Carey likely will forgive their former letter-carrier if the allegations are proved to be true, he said." (Read more)

Many GM dealers won't discuss their future; saddest stories are those targeted by two makers

General Motors told 1,100 of its 6,000 dealers yesterday that their contracts would not be renewed, but refused to release a list of dealers, sending reporters in every state scrambling to find those targeted -- many of them in small towns, serving rural customers.

Many dealers "kept quiet, trying to figure out whether they would stay in business until their contracts expire in October 2010 or attempt to get out sooner," report Ken Bensinger, Andrea Chang and Tiffany Hsu of the Los Angeles Times. Some dealers "worried that even though they weren't named, GM could follow Chrysler into bankruptcy soon, opening the door for more cuts." GM has already said it might cut at least 500 more dealers, and those notified yesterday can appeal to the company for reversal of the decisions.

The New York Times notes, "Though G.M. says it still hopes to avoid bankruptcy and subsist on more government loans, Mark LaNeve, G.M.’s vice president for North American sales and marketing, acknowledged that the dealer cuts “would be hard to enforce” outside of court."

The L.A. Times, apparently calling GM dealers all over the country, found a talker in Allan Rose of Gloversville, N.Y. He "didn't suspect that he was part of the problem. Although his northern New York dealership is small, it's the only one of its kind for more than 30 miles in every direction, clear to the Canadian border. But he too got a FedEx letter."

The National Automobile Dealers Association's chief economist, Paul Taylor, "said the hardest-hit areas appear to be suburban communities and mid-size markets," the Times reports. "Those are the kinds of places, he said, that rely heavily on the spending, employment and tax revenue a dealer provides.He estimates that the average dealer employs close to 50 people and pumps $16.5 million a year into the local economy, including payroll, taxes, payments to vendors, advertising and charitable giving." Thomas Klier, senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, told the Times, "Every town has a car dealership. That's what was left out of this when the debate about the auto industry started." (Read more)

Some dealers handling both GM and Chrysler Corp. vehicles were hit with a double whammy. The New York newspaper found one in Middlesboro, Ky., and Jere Downs of The Courier-Journal of Louisville interviewed one in the semi-rural suburb of Mount Washington.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Bill to ban mobile dental clinics in Louisiana clears legislative panel after exceptions are added

Louisiana dentists' "controversial bid to outlaw school-based mobile dental clinics cleared its first legislative hurdle Tuesday after a House committee made changes that would allow some clinics to continue operating," reports Jan Moller of the Times-Picayune in New Orleans.

The bill cleared a House committee after being changed to allow "mobile dental units owned and operated by the state or local government, federally qualified health center mobile facilities, or a school-based health clinic with permanent facilities," if in place for at least six months over the past five years, reports Sarah Chacko of The Advocate in Baton Rouge. "An exception was also added to allow the dentistry in schools in areas designated by the Louisiana State Board of Dentistry as underserved for dental care, with the approval of the school district superintendent."

Moller writes, "Opponents of House Bill 687 said the measure would still prevent many poor children from getting necessary dental care at school, and that regulation of mobile clinics is best left to professional licensing boards, not the Legislature." Supporters of the bill say mobile clinics "are unsanitary and don't provide for enough parental involvement." The clinics "have been a growing trend in Louisiana since the Legislature last year raised the Medicaid rates to the point where it became profitable for dentists to treat poor children," Moller reports. For her earlier report on the bill being stalled, click here.

Maine bans crates for farm animals; Ohio Farm Bureau creates unit to fight ban proposed there

Maine has become the sixth state to ban gestation crates for pregnant animals and veal calves. Gov. John Baldacci signed the bill after it passed the legiuslature unanimously. reports that California, Colorado, Florida, Arizona and Oregon have "passed similar reforms." (Read more)

A battle is shaping up for a referendum in Ohio much like the one last year in California. The Ohio Farm Bureau says it has created the Center for Food and Animal Issues to "to protect people’s opportunity for choice, good common sense and very effective animal care in working with this relationship between people and animals, but our bottom line is that people come first.” For a report from Dave Russell of Brownfield Network, click here.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

New report summarizes U.S. budget's rural impact

Wondering how President Obama's budget affects your community, or rural areas as a whole? The Rural Policy Research Institute has distilled the budget into a brief report outlining various items with rural impact.

The report, "A Snapshot of the President's Budget FY 2010: What's in it for Rural America?" covers areas of economic development, broadband, health care, renewable energy, infrastructure, conservation and natural resources, and community development. It also includes an appendix listing cuts and reductions that impact rural communities and interests. (Read the report; read the full budget)

Note to readers: This is Jen Green's last post to The Rural Blog, unless the spirit moves her. She will spend the summer as a junior fellow at the Library of Congress, working on a bibliographic control and access project, collaborating on a database providing information about special collections across the library’s holdings. Jen is finishing her first year in the two-year master's degree program in library and information sciences at the University of Kentucky. She has a B.A. in Religion and Journalism from Campbellsville University, and a Master of Divinity from Duke Divinity School. Read more about her internship here. --Al Cross, IRJCI Director

Chrysler announces dealership closures; GM's list is expected Friday; much downside for rural areas

Chrysler Corp. announced today it would be cutting almost a quarter of its dealerships, while General Motors is expected to announce the closure of 1,000 to 1,200 dealers on Friday. The cuts would have a big imapct on small towns and rural areas, as we have reported.

The National Automobile Dealers Association is lobbying the Obama administration's auto-industry task force to allow the companies to keep more dealerships. "We’re not objecting to consolidation. We understand the realities of the marketplace," NADA president John McEleney told Nick Bunkley of The New York Times. "The situation’s going to get taken care of by natural market forces. To radically accelerate the process doesn’t seem to make sense in this environment." (Read more)

What dealerships are closing in your area? A complete list of Chrysler closings is available here.

UPDATE: The Treasury Department, perhaps feeling the political heat, issued a press release this afternoon saying in part, "The Task Force played no role in deciding which dealers, or how many dealers, were part of Chrysler’s announcement today. We understand that this rationalization will be difficult on the dealers that will no longer be selling Chrysler cars and on the communities in which they operate. However, the sacrifices by the dealer community – alongside those of auto workers, suppliers, creditors, and other Chrysler stakeholders – are necessary for this company and the industry to succeed." (Read more)

Amendment would allow guns in national parks

The Senate approved an amendment allowing firearms in national parks if the owner is legally allowed to carry them elsewhere and no other federal, state or local laws prohibit it. The decision follows a last-minute Bush administration decision allowing loaded handguns in the parks, which was blocked by a federal judge in March.

''If an American citizen has a right to carry a firearm in their state, it makes no sense to treat them like a criminal if they pass through a national park while in possession of a firearm,'' said Sen. Tom Coburn, the Oklahoma Republican who sponsored the bill. But Bryan Faehner, associate director of the National Parks Conservation Association, told The Associated Press that if the amendment becomes law, "'it would not only put park visitors and wildlife at risk, it would change the character and the peaceful and safe atmosphere in our parks." Hunting is not allowed in the parks. (Read more)

National forests in Virginia crack down on mud-slinging four-wheelers

National forests in Virginia are cracking down on "mud-bogging," a four-wheeling sport that involves souped-up vehicles through mudholes, thanks to the efforts of one U.S. Forest Service law enforcement official. John Price and another officer have caught almost 80 people in the act since last November in the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests.

Mud-bogging tears up the ground, causing significant ecological damage to protect areas. In an area cultivated by the Forest Service to attract wildlife, four-wheelers started showing up in March. "They veered off the road, plowed through the creek bed and did what Price calls 'Dukes of Hazzard doughnuts' in meadow," Laurence Hammack of The Roanoke Times writes in a long, detailed story.

Price says that once an area has been used by mud-bogging for the first time, more feel free to use the area. When writing a ticket to an 18-year-old he caught one evening, the young man explained he thought it was legal, since there was a mudhole already there. "It's up here because people have been taking their Jeeps and coming up here and raising Cain, tearing it all to pieces. That's why it's up here," Price said. "They come up here and rip it and tear it and spin it to death." (Read more)

North Carolina, the top tobacco-producing state, is banning smoking in restaurants and bars

"Smoking will soon be prohibited in bars and restaurants across North Carolina, a state where tobacco was once revered for the money it generated for farmers, universities and community institutions," reports Benjamin Niolet of the News & Observer in Raleigh. After a final compromise, the legislature sent the bill to Gov. Beverly Perdue, who said she would sign it.

North Carolina still produces almost half the nation's tobacco, but the crop's political potency has diminished as the state's economy diversified, and the number of tobacco farmers dwindled even more after Congress repealed the federal program of production quotas and price supports in 2004. The News & Observer notes that 23 percent of the state's adults smoke, but eight in 10 said in an Elon University poll in March that secondhand smoke was a threat to their health, and two-thirds said they supported a smoking ban for indoor public places.

The bill passed yesterday started out with a such a ban, but the House exempted bars. That drew opposition from "restaurant owners who feared bars would steal late-night customers," Niolet reports. The Senate-revised bill, which passed the House 62-56, exempts cigar bars and outdoor dining areas but allows local governments to impose stricter limits. (Read more)

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Small banks healthy, still affected by credit crisis

Small banks have gotten little blame for the credit crisis, but are still feeling the effects. "The public, politicians and the media have made little distinction between the stress-tested behemoths and the 7,630 community banks across the country — the vast majority of which have watched the crisis like bystanders at a 10-car pileup," David Segal writes for The New York Times.

Although greatly outnumbered by national and regional banks, community banks have bypassed much of the fallout from the credit crisis because of their relatively small assets, but are still facing backlash. To deal with the negative image of the finance industry, community banks have promoted public relations campaigns stressing their fiscal health that include assurance meetings, cookouts and and clever signage like "Safe, Strong, Secure" at Demotte State Bank in Southern Indiana.

Beyond a loss of consumer confidence, community banks are facing increased bills from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., which is described by Segal as "basically an insurance fund underwritten by banks." After paying $42,000 last year, Demotte will now owe $500,000 or more because of failures in other parts of the country. Demotte's president, Donald E. Goetz, is grappling with the turn of events. “Isn’t that the American way?” he says, folding his arms. “Whoever is left standing, whoever was prudent, is always the one who has to pick up the pieces.” (Read more)

Rural counties find cleanup of meth-lab sites so troublesome, expensive, many left abandoned

Homes are sitting vacant in many rural Indiana counties, after their use as methamphetamine labs rendered them uninhabitable without costly clean-up. State regulations require owners to pay for the cost of decontamination, necessary since meth residue can linger for a decade and can cause significant health problems for those living in the residence. But many rural counties lack the authority to enforce regulations or the money to clean up the residence themselves.

The cost of meth cleanup can range between $3,000 to $30,000, not counting initial testing, which costs around $1,500. That price is too steep for many, who instead choose to abandon the property. Meth makers are not the only ones affected: the law affects landlords, who can be stuck with cleanup costs thanks to their tenants' activities. As we reported earlier this year, Indiana found a third more meth labs in 2008 than they did in 2007, with the highest number of labs discovered in rural Noble County, population 47,500.

In Perry County, Ky., 78-year-old Geneva Litherland's son complained to Jermie Farmer, an environmental specialist at the county's health department after a neighboring trailer was abandoned. But there was nothing Farmer could do. "It's one of those situations where your hands are just tied, especially in a small county such as ours," he said. "We are sick of it." (Read more)

With federal oversight lacking, states pass their own laws to improve food safety

With little federal oversight of food safety and several recent outbreaks of contamination, many states are tackling the problem themselves. But there is concern that without consistent regulations, food manufacturers and distributors will face difficulty adhering to the standards.

In Georgia, where a salmonella outbreak started from tainted peanuts in a processing plant, lawmakers passed a bill requiring food processors to report internal test results on their products within 24 hours. Idaho created a licensing system for the food industry, in which fees pay for safety inspections. A number of other states are considering similar bills.

"I think states are reacting to the perceived lack of federal oversight on food," said Doug Farquhar, a program director at the National Conference of State Legislatures, told Jane Zhang of The Wall Street Journal. Others say that the recent outbreaks and resulting legislation highlight the need for more federal oversight. "It's a good thing states are trying to raise the bar and improve food safety, but it needs to be looked at carefully," said Robert Brackett, chief science officer of the Grocery Manufacturers Association. "It should really lead to a national system." (Read more)

Forest Service pick has little forestry experience

The post of U.S. Forest Service director has always been held by someone with a background in forestry, but President Obama's nominee for the job has little experience in the field. Homer Lee Wilkes is a conservationist who holds degrees in business administration and urban conservation.

"If confirmed by the Senate," writes Jeff Barnard of the Associated Press, "Wilkes will face a list of tough national forest issues: the growing costs and threat of wildfire in a warming climate, widespread insect infestations killing wide swaths of pine forest, battles over putting millions of acres of roadless areas off-limits to logging, and whether to keep paying subsidies to rural timber counties." (Read more)

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Lexington paper bucks national trend, maintaining regional news bureaus in Appalachian Kentucky

"Hundreds left homeless after devastating storms," read the near-banner headline in this morning's print edition of the Lexington Herald-Leader, over a story mainly about flooding in Eastern Kentucky. Other daily papers in the state ran a story from The Associated Press. Lexington is relatively close to Eastern Kentucky, but the big difference is that the Herald-Leader story was written from the disaster scenes by two reporters based in the state's Appalachian region.

Despite major challenges facing its owner, McClatchy Co., and the rest of the newspaper industry, the Herald-Leader recently filled a vacancy in its easternmost bureau. The office had been in Hazard; now it's in Pikeville, filling a gap left by the retirement about two years ago of a reporter who had been based in Paintsville and the longstanding vacancy at the AP bureau in Pikeville. The other Appalachian bureau is a three-hour drive west-southwest, in Somerset. It has been staffed for years by Bill Estep.

The Herald-Leader filled the Pikeville bureau job with Dori Hjalmarson, left, at a time when many if not most metropolitan papers are closing regional bureaus and eliminating far-flung circulation. Publisher Tim Kelly told us last month that the paper keeps reporters in Eastern Kentucky for journalistic and commercial reasons.

"A substantial amount of our circulation still remains outside of the Bluegrass," and Eastern Kentucky is part of Lexington's retail, service and leisure market, Kelly said in an e-mail. "I think it’s essential that we continue to serve Eastern Kentucky and be a journalistic presence. ... It has become even more essential for us to maintain a reporting presence in the area since first, The Courier-Journal and now The Associated Press have closed their Eastern Kentucky bureaus. Many of the counties in which we circulate receive no daily newspaper other than the Herald-Leader."

Kelly noted that the Pikeville paper, the Appalachian News-Express, which went daily in 2006, recently cut back to three days a week. Pikeville is far afield. It has no direct four-lane highway connection to Lexington, which is two and a half hours away. With the recent rebuilding of US 119, it's less than two hours from Charleston, W.Va. But Lexington is the home of the University of Kentucky, and Wildcat basketball is an article of faith from one end of the state to the other.

Some papers in the region give the Herald-Leader story tips because they consider the stories too hot to handle themselves, former Editor Linda Austin said a year and a half ago. Today Kelly named Peter Baniak to succeed Austin, who recently resigned and is now at Arizona State University.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Economy seems to be helping agri-tourism, as vacationers stay closer to home

This is National Tourism Week, but the tourism industry is struggling in many areas as people scrap vacations in the face of financial uncertainty. Farmers are facing similar challenges, as both demand and prices for crops decline, but agricultural tourism has emerged as an unlikely success story in this tough economic climate, Chris Bickers reports for Southeast Farm Press.

“I think the main reason for the boom is the economy,” Blake Brown, an extension agricultural economist at North Carolina State University, told Bickers. People are finding that visiting farms provides a relatively cheap excursion close to home.

“I am seeing a big increase in local consumption of agritourism,” Ron Taylor, a farmer, vineyard owner and food processor in Dublin, N.C., told Bickers. “Usually, the consumer is taking this step in lieu of going on extended vacations that would cost more.” Taylor is one of the relatively few agri-tourism operators who offer overnight lodging, at cabins in his vineyard. (Farm Press photo)

Taylor admits that opening his place to the public wasn't easy. “That’s hard for us to do,” he told Bickers. “We have always been leary of people coming onto our farms, and a little reluctant. But now a different mindset is needed. We have to adapt if we want our operations to continue to be sustainable.” (Read more)

Watch out for farm machinery on the roads at planting time, Wisconsin paper reminds readers

The Green Bay Press-Gazette published a story last week that many newspapers with rural audiences should consider running every year or every other year: a story highlighting the increased dangers on rural roads at this time of year. With planting season comes increased farm machinery traffic, and other drivers aren't always aware of how to safely share the roadway with the large, slow-moving equipment.

Kewaunee County Sheriff Matt Joski told the Press-Gazette's Nathan Phelps that drivers "don't understand or respect the dynamics of that equipment, be it the size, its stopping ability or its turning ability."

The article also points to common mistakes drivers make. "Most of the incidents we see with farm equipment and motor vehicles do happen with a left-hand turn," said Cheryl Skjolaas, an extension agriculture safety specialist with the University of Wisconsin. "As that tractor or self-propelled implement operator goes to make that left-hand turn, that car (driver) thinks they're slowing down, and, 'Here's my chance to get by.'" As a result, "they usually end up hitting that rear tire on the tractor." (Read more)

Home-foreclosure crisis spreading in rural America

"When the mortgage mess erupted, some economists believed that rural America wouldn't be heavily affected," writes Nick Timiraos of The Wall Street Journal. "Farms were prospering. The housing boom largely bypassed small rural towns. And exotic, new mortgages at first were seen as an urban and suburban phenomenon. But rural homeowners, it turns out, were just as susceptible to subprime loans and easy lending as the rest of the country, often refinancing existing mortgages to take out cash or pay off debts." And now "The home-foreclosure crisis ... has spread to rural America."

Foreclosures are still less common in rural areas than in metropolitan areas, and the decline in home values has also been less in rural areas, but "defaults in rural counties are rising rapidly and setting off concerns that the population in these already sparsely populated towns will decline further," Timiraos reports, using Minnesota as his object example.

The vulnerability appears greater among rural residents who do not farm, or farm only part-time. "Full-scale farms are in somewhat better shape because agricultural mortgage lenders didn't follow the looser standards that prevailed elsewhere," Timiraos writes. "Two years of record commodity prices have given farms a financial cushion, but the manufacturing and construction trades that were tied to agriculture are reeling." (Read more)

Continued layoffs by automobile companies, parts suppliers and other manufacturers in the Midwest could also raise rural foreclosure rates. Many factory workers in the region live in rural areas, farm part-time and finance their homes through agricultural lenders.

Virologists say 'swine flu' more likely caused by globe-trotting people than pigs and factory farms

Despite being commonly referred to as "swine flu," the pork industry bears little blame for the H1N1 virus, say virologists, who instead trace the disease's development and spread to humans who travel around the world and pick up a variety of flu strains, creating an entirely new strain. "The easy way out is to blame the pig," influenza expert Robert Webster, a virologist at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., told Alan Zarembo and Karen Kaplan for the Los Angeles Times.

"The flu strain, which has killed dozens of people and sickened thousands more since March, has yet to be found in a single pig outside Alberta, Canada, where an infected farmworker -- yes, a person -- transmitted it to a herd," the Times reports. That's not to say that pigs have no role in the process: They can get flu viruses and transmit them to humans, and part of their flu genomes contributed to the strain that makes up H1N1. But those studying the problem say their contribution is only one small facet of the problem.

"Do pigs contribute to the flu gene pool? Yeah, and so do people, and so do wild birds," said the University of Minnesota's Dr. Kurt Rossow, who studies diseases in people handling pigs. "I just don't agree that pigs are an evil mixing vessel just boiling over with flu that's pumping out to people on a regular basis." That is the fear of some who have pointed to confined animal feeding operations, or factory farms, as breeding grounds for viruses. (Read more)