Saturday, May 30, 2009

Rural, urban legislators in Texas join forces

In the Texas Legislature, "Rural and urban lawmakers have stood together in this session, a surprising alliance driven by changing demographics that yield common interests," reports Marcus Funk of the Dallas Morning News. "Rural lawmakers have seen their clout steadily decline as cities and suburbs have grown."

The latest example of rural-urban cooperation is "a bill that would use taxes on smokeless tobacco to lure doctors to underserved areas by helping pay off their student loans," Funk reports. "The bill helped both rural and inner-city Texans, and without one another's support, it could have faced longer odds in a chamber controlled by suburban lawmakers and the first House speaker from a metropolitan area in years."

The leading example of cooperation has been the rule that guarantees high-school graduates in the top 10 percent of their class admission to the state university of their choice. "Rural communities see it as a way for students from small communities to get into big state schools such as the University of Texas at Austin," Funk writes. "Urban lawmakers fiercely defend the law as an important factor in ensuring diversity at state colleges." Today, Christy Hoppe of the Dallas paper reports, the Senate sent Gov. Rick Perry a bill allowing UT-Austin to limit such automatic admissions to 75 percent of its 2011 frshman class. The rural-urban coalition successfully thwarted the original bill, which would have set a 60 percent limit at all state universities.

Ken Collier, professor of political science at Sam Houston State University in Nacogdoches, told Funk, "The rural interests did run the state for years, and sometimes I think that Texas is not really comfortable with its increasingly suburban nature. But legislators live in a world where the next issue brings a new best friend." (Read more)

Tenn. governor vetoes bill that would allow concealed guns in bars; override predicted

UPDATE, June 4: The legislature overrode the veto. For a report from Tom Humphrey of the Knoxville News-Sentinel, click here.

Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen has vetoed a bill that would allow concealed deadly weapons to be carried into businesses that serve alcohol, prompting gun-rights groups to say he broke a promise he made when running for re-election in 2006. Bredesen said at the time that he would support legislation for holders of concealed-carry permits "as long as they contained provisions to adequately protect the safety of the public."

Supporters of the bill predicted that it would still become law because it passed the House 66-23 and the Senate 24-7, and the veto can be overridden with simple majority votes in the House and Senate. Republicans have majorities in both houses; Bredesen is a Democrat who cannot seek re-election next year.

"The Tennessee Firearms Association is seeking to publicly identify each law enforcement officer and prosecutor who attended" Bredesen's veto event, Eric Schelzig of The Associated Press reports. A Bredesen spokeswoman said the group was inappropriately trying "to intimidate and retaliate against law enforcement officers." (Read more)

Paper runs ad calling for assassination, apologizes

A small daily newspaper in rural northwestern Pennsylvania has apologized for a classified advertisement that implicitly called for the assassination of President Barack Obama and says it is assisting the Secret Service investigation of the person who placed the ad.

The ad in the personals section of the Warren Times Observer's classifieds read, "May Obama follow in the footsteps of Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley and Kennedy!" Those are the four presidents who were assassinated, but the newspaper reported, "The ad representative didn't make the connection. . . . Upon realizing the mistake early Thursday morning, the ad was immediately discontinued and the identity of the person who placed the ad was turned over to Warren City Police as per newspaper policy." The short short story ended with the apology.

The 10,000-circulation paper reported in a slightly longer story yesterday that a Secret Service representative was in town "to investigate the circumstances surrounding the placement" of the ad, and interviewed the person who took the ad and Publisher John Elchert. The service "requested that the paper not publicly reveal the name of that person because it would hamper their investigation," the paper reported. "The Times Observer, in an effort to cooperate with those law enforcement officials, is honoring that request. It has also been the long-standing policy of this newspaper not to publish the names of people who are under investigation, but have not been either charged with a crime or named in criminal indictment." The paper is owned by Ogden Newspapers of Wheeling, W.Va.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Legislation passed to protect Nevada's foreign doctors, many of whom serve rural areas

Final approval was granted in Nevada Thursday to a bill that would allow the state Health Department to "stop the exploitation of foreign doctors who have come to practice in the state’s blighted urban areas and rural towns," Marshall Allen writes for the Las Vegas Sun.

The exploitation occurs in the J-1 visa waiver program. Investigations found that many bosses overworked and underpaid J-1 doctors, or reassigned the physicians from practicing in underserved areas to larger hospitals where they made more money for their employers.

The shortage of physicians and mental health professionals has long been a concern in rural areas, prompting loan forgiveness programs across the country, as well as foreign doctor incentives. If passed the legislation would closely monitor and punish violations, protect whistleblowers and charge participating employers a fee to cover the cost of enforcement. (Read more)

Smokeless tobacco tax for Texas doctor shortage

In Texas, a weight-based tax on smokeless tobacco was passed by the Senate this week, Emily Ramshaw reports for the Trail Blazers political blog of the Dallas Morning News. The bill is unique because a portion of the $105 million it is expected to raise over the next two years will cover student loans of approximately 450 young doctors in exchange for their commitment to work in parts of the state that have a dire shortage of health professionals. Jim Vertuno reports for the Houston Chronicle that federal guidelines call for one doctor per 3,500 people. In Texas, 114 of the 254 counties do not meet that standard and more than 5.5 million Texans live in underserved rural and border areas.

Opponents of the bill argue its intrusion on personal rights and unfairly targeting smokers. "It sounds to me like we're interfering in the free marketplace, and that destroys competition," Republican Sen. Mike Jackson said Tuesday night. Rep. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, who carried the bill in the Senate, argued that it makes tobacco companies equally accountable for taxes. Earlier in May, he told Robert T. Garrett and Christy Hoppe of the Dallas paper that the physician shortage is the priority. "We need 4,000 doctors out there right now. If we don't start helping them repay their huge college loans, we'll never satisfy that need. And instead, all these sick people end up going to the big cities and using their emergency rooms."

Shortage of rural mental-health professionals noted as Mental Health Awareness month ends

At the close of National Mental Health Awareness Month, the Nebraska-based Center for Rural Affairs has released a report titled "Mental Health: Overlooked and Disregarded in Rural America." The study supports the shortage of physical and mental health professional in rural areas. Carolyn Lee writes for the Imperial Republican that "over half of the counties in the United States have no mental health professionals, a situation that has changed little in 45 years."

In Nebraska in 1972, a federal law was passed that guaranteed everyone access to mental health services, but the vast majority of states still lack such measures. Kim Preston, one of the authors of the report, told Farm Futures that rural Americans remain undeserved in terms of mental health care providers and health insurance coverage despite the fact rural Americans suffer just as much from mental illness.

Most new roads in national forests banned for now

"The Obama administration waded into a nearly decadelong debate over roadless areas in national forests Thursday, announcing what amounts to a timeout from most new logging and development in pristine areas across the West," Jim Tankersley reports for the Los Angeles Times.

In ordering a one-year delay of proposed roads, a delay that be extended for another year, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack shifts "decisions about development in roadless areas away from U.S. Forest Service officials and requires that he approve all new projects," Tankersley writes. "Agriculture Department officials cast the order as a procedural timeout and said they expected Vilsack to approve some projects that meet the administration's standards for responsible forest practices. They noted that the move exempted national forests in Idaho, which has developed its own plan to manage roadless areas." (Read more)

Organic dairy farmers' boom turns to bust

The bad dairy business is worse for organic dairies. Caught between doubled prices for organic feed and a recession-driven drop in demand for their products, many have gone out of business, The New York Times reports. (Times photo by Caleb Kenna: Vermont dairy farmer Craig Russell and a calf)

The situation seems worst in New England, because of costs of transporting feed from the Midwest. "In Vermont, 32 dairy farms have closed since Dec. 1, significantly altering the face of New England’s dairy industry," Katie Zezima writes, quoting state Agriculture Secretary Roger Allbee: “We expect to lose a lot more farms this year.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture "says sales of organic whole milk in February were 2.5 percent lower than in February last year, with sales of organic reduced-fat milk 15 percent lower," Zezima reports. That represents a big reversal; sals of organic milk more than doubled from 2006 to 2008.

Some farmers are trying to stay afloat by selling directly to the public. The Vermont House of Representatives passed a bill this month to increase the amount of raw, unpasteurized milk a farmer can sell to consumers, Zezima notes. (Read more)

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Pediatricians, environmental health experts say well water should be tested at least once a year

Notice to rural residents on well water who have children: The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that you test your well water at least annually, "especially for nitrate and microorganisms such as coliform bacteria, which can indicate that sewage has contaminated the well," reports TerraDaily. "Researchers at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, part of the National Institutes of Health, took a lead role in working with the AAP to develop these recommendations and draft a new AAP policy statement about the things parents should do if their children drink well water."

About one in six Americans drink water from private wells, which in most states are lightly regulated if at all. "Because children drink relatively more water than adults, they are more susceptible to the waterborne illnesses that can result from contaminated wells," the AAP said in a press release. The June issue of the group's journal Pediatrics has extensive background information on well water, sources of contamination and their effects. The journal is subscription-based, but the full article was available at the time of this blog posting. The authors are Drs. Michael T. Brady and Walter J. Rogan, an epidemiologist at the institute, and the AAP committees on Environmental Health and Infectious Diseases.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Vilsack calls for carbon credits for agriculture and forestry, with USDA oversight, and disagrees with EPA on measuring ethanol's carbon footprint

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said today he would push Congress to add carbon credits for agriculture and forestry to the climate bill now moving through the House, and to give his department, not the Environmental Protection Agency, authority to oversee those segments of the proposed "cap and trade" system.

"We will be advocating forcefully" for both provisions, Vilsack said at a community forum in Central Kentucky. He also said he agreed with House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) that calculations of the carbon footprint of ethanol should not include "indirect land use," such as the conversion of forest land to agriculture when expansion of corn acreage for ethanol pushes production of other crops elsewhere, including other countries.

That position seems at odds with a recent finding by EPA, but Vilsack told reporters that EPA's proposal is still "subject to peer review," and he is confident that a final rule on the topic will find him and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson in agreement. Peterson said he and at least 26 other rural Democrats will oppose the Waxman-Markey climate bill unless EPA's position on indirect land use is not reversed.

Vilsack said agriculture emits 7 to 10 percent of U.S. greenhouse gases but could be as much as "25 percent of the solution" via farming practices that prevent carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere. He said USDA is better suited than EPA to monitor those practices, since it has more than 2,000 offices, and employees "in virtually every county in the country."

During the forum, which lasted about an hour and a half, Vilsack touched on many issues facing his department. For the rest of the story, click here.

Creativity can be a big part of rural economies, but you might have to look a bit harder for it

Reports by the Regional Technology Strategies and its partner in the Alliance for Creative Advantage, Mt. Auburn Associates, have found that rural areas in at least some states boast a booming creative economy, contrary to many urbanites' expectations.

Dan Broun reports for the Daily Yonder that “creativity” is defined as “a select group of businesses that produce and distribute goods and services and for which the aesthetic, intellectual and emotional engagement of the consumer adds value to products in the marketplace.” The study in Arkansas, Colorado, Wyoming and North Carolina indicated that creative enterprises are vital to helping rural regions develop effective economies.

Creative economies are often under-reported since they can be difficult to quantify and analyze. “Much of the wealth that the creative economy produces falls just under the radar screen of conventional economy analyses,” Broun writes. Microenterprises, proprietorships without employees, part-time businesses and supplementary sources of income are often the structures that house creative economies in rural areas.

When someone goes to the trouble and expense to count them, though, creative enterprises such as arts and crafts take on more significance than many observers might expect. In Arkansas, the study found that without artists and design workers, the estimated employment would have increased by only 15 percent between 1990 and 2000 instead of the 24 percent growth that actually occurred.

The research may refute or at least downplay notion that the “creative class” exists only metropolitan areas, with high concentrations of advanced-degree holders. To stimulate creative growth, RTS wants rural areas to recognize arts and creativity as an economic-development engine. Broun says chambers of commerce, tourism promotion agencies and city officials are in positions to publicize the success of rural creativity and its contribution to the economy. (Read more)

Rural Democrats want EPA stand on 'indirect land use' reversed before they will support climate bill

The Waxman-Markey bill, which would caps on carbon emissions and a system for trading them, is being threatened by rural Democrats who say they won’t vote in favor of it unless proposed federal policy is made more favorable to ethanol made from corn.

Lisa Lerer reports for Politico that the debate intensified when the Enivronmental Protection Agency said “indirect land use” issues should be considered when calculating the carbon footprint of ethanol over its life cycle. Critics argue that the global effects of indirect land use of biofuels hold farmers responsible for economic factors far beyond their control. “Assume that those soybeans grown in Brazil are processed into animal feed and used to produce pork that ends up on someone’s dinner plate in China,” Bob Dinneen, CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association, told the House Agriculture Committee last week.

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson of Minnesota and 26 other Democrats have introduced a bill that would exclude indirect land use from the life-cycle definition and would have the evaluations done by the departments of Energy and Agriculture, not EPA. Peterson said, “There’s just enough concerns that the committee members have pretty much decided to stick together — that unless we get a resolution here that we think we can live with, we don’t see how we can support this.”

Mark Gaede, a lobbyist for the National Association of Wheat Growers, told Dan Looker of Agriculture Online that the climate-change bill could be more attractive to farmers if it included agricultural offsets and they could be traded. However, Gaede told Looker he was frustrated with some groups that have opposed the bill too early before any changes have been made. "Agriculture can never make its case for this unless we're united,” he said.

Agriculture writer says farmers would benefit most from reform of the health-care system

If you need a face for health-care reform, look no further than the weathered ones of ranchers and farmers, writes widely circulated agriculture columnist Alan Guebert. "Just nine percent of the nation’s doctors serve 17 percent of its citizens scattered across 80 percent of its geography," he writes.

In addition to severe doctor shortages, rural areas also suffer from a lack of health insurance access and competition. Health insurance can also be problematic in uban areas, but Guebert says rural residents are in more danger because they are employed by smaller businesses (including themselves) and make lower wages. Also, he says the demographic of rural Americans — older, poorer and less educated — indicates greater use of the health-care system.

Jon Bailey, director of rural research and analysis at the Nebraska-based Center for Rural Affairs, told Guebert, “Health insurance coverage and cost is an ‘anything goes, Wild West show’ across rural America," because of little regulation and little competition. (Read more)

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Dust storms in West indicate climate change, raise concern about reduced water supplies

A series of dust storms in Western Colorado and south of the Rocky Mountains has some worried about the causes (climate change?) and the effects (faster snowmelt?). Nicholas Riccardi reports for the Los Angeles Times that levels of dust in the region are five times the historic norm, and more 12 dust storms have occurred so far this year, compared to eight annually in the last three years. "Something's been going on, and I don't think we're exactly sure what,"Jason Neff, a hydrologist at the University of Colorado, told Riccardi.

The dust, which has been a reddish-brown color, has not yet begun adversely affecting operations like ski resorts, but further testing has been called for. The increased dust may speed up snowmelt and cut water supply; mountains that usually remain snow-covered until midsummer are already almost bare in western Colorado.

Even without the current storms, forecasters predict that global warming will decrease soil quality in the western U.S. to dust-bowl levels by 2050, Riccardi reports. Jayne Belnap, a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, told him, "This is the kind of world we need to imagine we're going to be living in and decide if we can afford this dust." (Read more)

FDA trying to cut deaths from painkillers, a leading cause of death in West Virginia

OxyContin, sometimes called "Hillbilly heroin," gets a lot of attention but is only the tip of the prescription-drug iceberg in West Virginia, where deaths from accidental painkiller overdoses have been rising. Scott Finn reports for National Public Radio and West Virginia Public Broadcasting that the Food and Drug Administration is seeking ways to decrease fatalities.

Death by prescription pain medication is becoming a nationwide problem. Finn reports that in 1999, 11, 000 deaths were a result of painkiller overdoses; by 2005, that number had grown to 22,000. It is a major problem in West Virginia. In 2007, deaths from accidental painkiller overdoses in the state outnumbered those from car accidents, homicide and suicide combined, Finn reports. "If these people had died of the swine flu, we'd probably make national headlines," Wyoming County funeral director Michael Goode told Finn.

Now, the FDA has begun to step up efforts to combat the rising figures with a strategy for each painkiller, aimed at ensuring that the benefits of a prescription outweigh its risks. Additional measures like physician training and prescription limitations, patient drug tests and pill counts could be required to decrease abuse. But some are worried that such regulations could make life harder for legitimate pain sufferers and think the Drug Enforcement Administration is better equipped to handle illicit drug use. Mary Baluss, a pro bono attorney for ethical pain management issues, commented, "The simple fact [is] that pain is disabling and that many sources of pain cannot be cured, only treated and that opiods are the difference between life and death for many." (Read more; to listen to Finn's report, click here)

New programs rely on Internet to connect small farmers with consumers

Some food activists are creating systems that could bring local produce closer to home. The tool of choice: the Internet. Rona Roberts reports on her blog Savoring Kentucky that new tools for informing consumers where their food comes from appear to be cropping up across the nation. She cites Wired magazine, where Alexis Madrigal outlines the latest: FarmsReach, a system that would create an online food marketplace to directly connect farms with restaurants. "In other words, middlemen beware: Food could undergo a transition like the one that swept through classified ads, air travel and dozens of other industries," Madrigal writes. Other locally based programs are in the works to connect small farms, consumers and retailers.

Advocates say such systems could give consumers more information about the original sources of their food and help them eat healthier, reducing problems with food safety and obesity. "The current system does a remarkably good job of concealing how food is grown and by whom ... [and] farmers have a hard time showing the value they add and being recognized for innovative practices," Madrigal writes.

Roberts points out the biggest hurdle to projects like FarmsReach is lower Internet use in rural areas. She says a farmer "will not go several times a day and struggle with poor or slow connections to post breaking news about how many eggs, black raspberries, and fryer-sized rabbits he has for sale. He does not have time for bad infrastructure." The Obama administration is putting billions into bringing high-speed broadband to rural areas, but Roberts says for now, "Slow Technology is not a bright hope to set alongside Slow Food."

Monday, May 25, 2009

'Minicows' offer more cost-efficient beef and milk

Increasing feed prices have some farmers such as Nebraska's Ali Petersen trading down to "minicows," reports the Los Angeles Times. (Times photo by Chris VanKat)

Writing from Tekamah, Neb., a farming village of 1,900 about 40 miles north of Omaha, P.J. Huffstutter reports that many farmers who once raise normal-sized bovines have turned to minicows because of cost effectiveness and convenience. Researchers have argued that minicows consume roughly half of what a full-size bovine does, and yet produce 50 to 75 percent of the rib-eyes and fillets. "We get more sirloin and less soup bone," farmer Ali Petersen said. "People used to look at them and laugh. Now, they want to own them." The farmers have already sold some of their herd to others in Missouri, Indiana, and Texas, and they say the phone keeps ringing.

Huffstutter writes that dairy farmers too "brag how each animal provides 2 to 3 gallons of milk a day, though they complain about having to crouch down on their knees to reach the udders." Weighing approximately 500 to 700 pounds, mini-Herefords and Angus cows have been around for centuries. Huffstutter reports that big cows emerged in 1950s and '60s, when farmers were more focused on meat and not efficient use of animal feed or land. Today, more than 300 miniature-Hereford breeders are in the U.S., up from fewer than two dozen nine years ago, according to the International Miniature Cattle Breeds Registry. The growth of smaller farms has also promoted the use of minicows, which require less space; one animal needs less than an acre to graze. (Read more)

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Credit crunch finally reaches agricultural lenders

"The credit crunch is trickling down to the farm as agricultural lenders tighten credit standards, leaving some farmers short of money to feed their animals or put in crops as the planting season nears its end," Lauren Etter reports for The Wall Street Journal. "Deepening slumps in the livestock, dairy and ethanol industries have contributed to mounting troubles for rural lenders. That is making it harder for some growers to borrow money they need to buy seed, fertilizer, equipment and animal feed."

In some places, local bank failures, takeovers or other difficulties have left farmers without lines of credit. USDA's Farm Service Agency, a lender of last resort, "made about $728 million of direct operating loans for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, up nearly 70 percent from a year earlier" and the highest in 20 years, Etter reports."The Farm Credit System, a federally chartered network of five banks and 90 borrower-owned associations, reported a nearly 20 percent decline in its first-quarter 2009 combined net income." The system's Omaha-based bank set aside $29.5 million for potential loan losses, up exponentially from $583,000 last year. Bank President Douglas Stark told Etter, "Certainly, we would look at new requests for credit with a much more critical eye." (Read more)