Saturday, June 06, 2009

Millions still unprepared for transition to digital TV

Millions of rural households appear likely to lose television reception next Friday, the deadline for stations to stop broadcasting analog signals and go exclusively digital.

A Nielsen Co. survey "indicates that as of the end of May, more than 10 percent of the 114 million households that have television sets are either completely or partly unprepared, reports The New York Times. "Michael J. Copps, the acting head of the Federal Communications Commission, said that the people most likely to lose reception are society’s most vulnerable — lower-income families, the elderly, the handicapped and homes where little or no English is spoken. The transition will also hit inner-city and rural areas hardest, he said."

Reporter Stephen Labaton continues: "More than three million homes that do not subscribe to cable or satellite services are totally unprepared for the transition and will lose their reception, according to Nielsen. Another nine million homes that subscribe to cable or satellite services but that have spare television sets — typically in bedrooms and kitchens — that are not connected to any service are also expected to lose reception. And officials say that millions more who thought they were prepared are likely to experience technical problems like poor reception or improperly connected antennas."

In fringe areas, reception could be lost because of the difference in digital and analog signals and/or a station's location of a digital transmitter in a location different than its analog transmitter. For a report on that, click here. "Officials advised consumers to rescan the channels of their television sets after the conversion was completed on Friday to make sure they were pulling in all the correct signals," Labaton reports. For more information, go to or call the FCC's transition hotline: 1-888-225-5322. That's 1-888-CALLFCC.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Bill would recognize seven Indian tribes in Virginia and North Carolina, but they couldn't build casinos

A bill passed by the U.S. House this week would recognize seven Indian tribes in North Carolina and Virginia, but would not permit them to build casinos. If passed, the tribes would be eligible for up to $800 million in federal funds for housing, education and health benefits, Mary Clare Jalonick reports for The Associated Press.

The six Virginia tribes, which have been seeking recognition since the 1990s, have around 3,000 members. They are the Eastern Chickahominy, Chickahominy, Upper Mattaponi, Rappahannock, Monacan and Nansemond. The Lumbee tribe in North Carolina claims 55,000 members. Its effort for federal recognition, which began in 1899, has recieved support from President Barack Obama and several members of Congress. But some other tribes say the Lumbee haven't proven their historical status. (Read more)

Mine-safety agency not living up to president's promises for open government, advocates say

The Mine Safety and Health Administration is getting heat from groups who claim the organization is withholding information that should be disclosed under the Freedom of Information Act. OMB Watch reports that the secretive tactics of MSHA are not meeting the standards of a transparent government President Obama promised when his term began.

In the past 25 years, mine-safety attorney Tony Oppegard says, he has requested and received information from MSHA without issue. But, in October 2008, that openness stopped. Since then, Oppegard says MSHA has given him the runaround and cited several exemptions to the FOIA as reasons for withholding information, which he calls “utter rubbish.” He has publicly denounced MSHA’s failure to disclose and reminded the agency's legal counsel of the Obama administration’s new FOIA policies.

In an article in Mine Safety and Health News, Oppegard wrote that more enforcement is needed to achieve transparency on the part of MSHA. “Miners can only hope – and trust – that when the new assistant secretary takes office, he will put a quick end to the agency’s blatant attempts to protect operators who have been charged with discrimination by miners,” he wrote. Obama has yet to name an assistant secretary of labor for coal-mine safety and health.

The newsletter also reports that it has had difficulty extracting information from MSHA. In an editorial in the same issue, it says the agency’s secrecy is suspicious. "Regarding FOIA, MSHA is spewing red tape and accomplishing nothing, except alienating the American people – miners, their families, industry and the press." (Read more)

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Rural teen drivers at more risk for fatal crashes

A study released by Allstate Insurance Co. has found that rural teen drivers are more than twice as likely to be in a fatal car crash than their urban peers.

Federal crash statistics from 2000-2006 were reviewed for the study, which found that 51.47 of every 100,000 teen drivers on rural roads will be in a fatal crash. In urban areas, that number drops to 25.4. Historically, the 100 days between Memorial Day and Labor Day are the most deadly for teen drivers, likely due to increased events like graduations, proms and summer road-trips.

Michelle Lee, a field vice president for Allstate, urges parents and teens to learn more about safe driving tips. "While some areas post better scores than others [nationwide], it's time our entire nation acts against this public health crisis, which claims about 6,000 teen lives every year,' she told The Boomerang! in Moscow, Idaho. "Parents should start talking to their teens -- even before they get behind the wheel -- about smart driving decisions, while setting a good example through their own good driving behavior." (Read more)

Horse interests trying to form an overall lobby

Citing the recession, animal-rights initiatives and increasing abandonment of horses since the last U.S. horse slaughterhouse closed, some horse interests are creating an overall lobbying group for the restoration and viability of the equine industry. The United Organizations of the Horse aims to provide strong leadership in the equine community at the national level and take stands on controversial issues like horse slaughter, Julie Harker reports for Brownfield Network.

One of the organizers, state Rep. Wallis of Wyoming, argues that the industry lacks a viable representative in the federal government. She told Harker, "The horse industry in the United States and has been hit by kind of a – oh – triple whammy," which she says is a combination of the bad economy, an upsurge in animal rights-driven initiatives affecting the industry, and the closing of the three remaining horse-slaughter facilities in the U.S. The result is the future of the equine industry at stake. "We know that in order for there to be any chance of our livelihoods, our traditions, our culture surviving, we have to find a way to communicate." The United Organizations of the Horse has its first planning meeting in Washington, D.C. on June 14. (Read more)

Birds of a feather can't understand each other if one is urban and the other is rural, study finds

City boys and country boys really are different. In the bird world. Researchers at Aberystwyth University in Wales discovered that male great tits (Photo: Luc Viatour) in urban areas behave differently than those in rural areas. So differently, in fact, that two birds of the same species cannot understand one another! reports that the male city birds warble at a pitch high enough to be heard above the city’s noise, but their rural cousins, who emit a lower-pitch warble, are unable to understand it. The study used recordings of city-bird warbles from 20 towns and medium-sized urban areas and played them back to rural birds from a few miles away during breeding season. "Usually this would provoke a strong reaction … but there was a slower and weaker response from the rural males. They were less aggressive and not quite sure what to make of it," said Dr. Rupert Marshall, the project director. "It was like the city birds were speaking a different language. Likewise, we found city birds didn't understand the lower rural pitch.” (Read more)

As recession sinks stock investments, farmers are comforted by relatively stable land prices

"It seems that Midwestern farmers who are close to retirement, and who invested in their land, made the right choice," as opposed to stocks that fund most retirements and that have sunk in value, Howard Berkes reports for National Public Radio. The appreciating value of farmland continues to cushion the nest eggs of many Midwestern farmers such as Dan and Lorna Wilson of Paullina, Iowa. (Berkes photo).

Historically, farmland prices dip like everything in a struggling economy, but the drop in this recession has been smaller than usual. Ernie Goss, an economist at Creighton University in Omaha, told Berkes that is due to corn-based ethanol production and demand for other crops. Rentals to cell-phone and wind-energy firms also increase the land’s worth and provide cash income.

Berkes reports that the Wilsons bought their first 80 acres for just under $1,000 an acre; today, they estimate it's worth $4,000 an acre. Investing in land is not foolproof, though, and a decrease in organic food consumption could easily affect the Wilsons' revenue, because their sons raise organic hogs on the land, as well as crops. But for now, Dan Wilson feels secure. “As long as it can keep producing a crop and the crop's worth something, [farmland] is a good thing to own.” (Read more)

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Senators press GM, Chrysler on dealer closings; GM agrees to give committee list of those targeted

Tracking down the automobile dealers that General Motors wants to cut is about to become easier, but the list could grow soon. Those were the forward-looking headlines for rural journalists at today's hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee, which heard from small-town dealers and the heads of GM and Chrysler.

Under pressure from Alaska Sen. Mark Begich and committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, Fritz Henderson, CEO of GM, agreed to give the committee "a closely held list of all of GM's closing dealerships," as described by David Shepardson of The Detroit News Washington bureau. But the list could grow as some dealers refuse to mete a June 12 deadline sign what the chairman of the National Automobile Dealers Association called "onerous, one-sided agreements."

"If we sign it, we sign all our rights way," said Pete Lopez of Spencer, W.Va, "a small rural town of 3,800 people." Lopez said Chrysler is shutting him out but is keeping the franchise of an unnamed West Virginia dealer who operates out of his front yard and sells 19 cars a year. "Some closing dealers expressed anger because Chrysler ... urged dealers to buy more vehicles earlier this year than they had planned to help the automaker survive," Shepardson reports.

Rockefeller said the companies must ease up, to save jobs, and "should not be allowed to take taxpayer funds for a bailout and then leave local dealers and their customers to fend for themselves with no real notice and no real help." Noting heavy participation by committee members, he said, "This is the largest turnout I can remember in 24 years on the Commerce Committee." Shepardson notes, "Dealers are politically powerful, making donations to nearly all members of Congress." (Read more)

"Industry analysts have long said that the sprawling retail networks hurt Detroit automakers because they force dealers ... to compete more against each other than rival automakers," driving down prices and profits," report John Crawley and Mari Saito of Reuters. But they note that is especially true in the suburbs of large cities. (Read more) Henderson said GM will keep many dealers in rural areas, where he said the company's brands have an edge on other manufacturers. Sen. John Thune of South Dakota told the car makers that dealerships "are sort of the center of gravity" in small, rural communities.

NADA Chairman John McEleney said, "No one has explained why dealer reductions will make Chrysler and GM more viable. ... Where is the accountability and the objective standard for these decisions?" Chrysler dealer Russell Whately of Mineral Wells, Tex., whose grandfather opened the family dealership in 1919, told the committee, "A 90-year investment is just gone, and neither my family nor my employees have any say about it. ... No dealership is a cost to Chrysler." Lopez said likewise, but Chrysler President James Press said closing dealers would save money in marketing, servicing and distribution costs. "Poor-performing dealers cost us customers," he said. Henderson said GM needs to reduce its per-car distribution cost of $1,000.

Judge calls halt to protests at mountaintop mines, says journalists can't trespass to cover them

A West Virginia judge has issued a preliminary injuction to stop protests at Massey Energy Co.'s mountaintop-removal mines in the Mountain State, and ruled that journalists cannot trespass on the property to cover the protests. "But activists said today their fight — and their peaceful civil disobedience actions — will continue," reports Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette.

Circuit Judge Robert Burnside earlier issued a temporary restraining order in a lawsuit that Massey subsidiaries filed "to block future protests, invoke more serious punishment (civil contempt, with fines or jail time) for future protesters, and require the State Police to handle future protests in specific ways," Ward reports.

"Burnside refused to drop contempt-of-court citations for photojournalist Antrim Caskey and four protesters. Burnside had held them in contempt of his previous TRO for a mid-April protest action. Caskey had been enjoined in the TRO after she went onto mine property to photograph earlier civil-disobedience actions. None of the four protesters were named in the TRO, but they and Caskey were held in contempt of the order because they alerted her to their planned protest and she went along to document it. Caskey and the protesters have been fined $500 each. Burnside also indicated he would include both Caskey and another journalist, Chad Stevens, as named parties specifically enjoined by his preliminary injunction."

However, Burnside "refused a request by lawyers for Massey that State Police be instructed to confiscate cameras, film and memory cards from cameras in the possession of any future protesters," Ward reports. Also, the judge "did allow one of the journalists to withhold the identity of his sources using the state's shield law," according to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. That was Stevens, a former photography instructor at Western Kentucky University. He says he is working on a documentary about wind turbines as an alternative to mountaintop removal; "Caskey is a photojournalist who has been covering the work of Climate Ground Zero, a group that is fighting the practice of mountaintop removal," says the Reporters Committee. "She considers herself 'embedded' in the group." She has been cited three times, Stevens once, for trespassing. (Read more)

Stevens asks on his Facebook page, "What happens in a situation when a story can literally only be covered photographically by trespassing? What about responsibility to the public? Our civic duty? Is breaking the law ever justified?"

With stakes raised by stimulus, foes of broadband-mapping company mount lobbying effort against it

A long-simmering battle between the broadband-information firm Connected Nation and Internet advocates who think it is too close to telecommunications companies gained a higher profile this morning with a story in The Wall Street Journal.

The company is the largest provider of broadband-coverage maps, which have become more important since the federal government put more than $7 billion into expanding broadband and "wants maps that show where the money should go," reporter Amy Schatz writes. "With so much money at stake, Internet providers, state officials and consumer groups are sparring over every detail of the program."

Connected Nation's maps are based on confidential information it gets from telecoms. Critics "worry Connected Nation will use the maps to steer stimulus funds toward its big corporate sponsors, at the expense of smaller players or poorly served areas," Schatz writes. The firm's officials "say Internet providers are the best sources of the data it needs, and say Connected Nation has a 'governance framework' for projects that is independent of its board of directors, which includes executives from cable and phone companies.

The firm's longtime adversary is Art Brodsky, "communications director of Public Knowledge, which has joined with other public-interest groups, including Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports, to lobby against Connected Nation," which began life as ConnectKentucky, a public-private partnership that helped expand broadband coverage in the state in the administration of then-Gov. Ernie Fletcher, a Republican.

Officials of the current Democratic administration in Kentucky pulled $2 million in funding from Connected Nation last year, saying it over-estimated broadband coverage. Brian Mefford, founder and CEO of the firm, told Schatz it has improved its methodologies, corrects errors when notified, and now produces more accurate maps, one of which accompanies Schatz's story. "Regulators in Kentucky and other states, including North Carolina, say they can't verify Connected Nation's data, much of which was protected under nondisclosure agreements," Schatz reports, quoting Mefford: "What we do protect is the information that a provider deems as the most sensitive," typically locations and descriptions of hardware that telecoms have in the field. (Read more)

Thoroughbred interests blame Va.'s anti-gaming attitude for decline of their industry in the state

Virginia once had a thriving thoroughbred industry, but since 1996, no Virginia-bred horse has raced in the Kentucky Derby. “Breeder funds” of neighboring states that are dispensed from gambling revenues are a key reason for the decline, Tara Bahrampour reports for the Washington Post. (Post photo of thoroughbreds at Spring Hill Farm in Virginia by Andrea Bruce)

In several states, percentages of intake from gaming helps sustain breeder funds. Virginia breeders say their fund is meager because of an aversion to gambling among many Virginia legislators. Many horse trainers have moved their stables to take advantage of higher payouts from breeder funds in Maryland, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Florida. Access to betting is also a problem. Bahrampour writes that Virginia has nine betting venues, but the closest for Northern Virginia residents are in Richmond, “prompting many fans to travel to off-track venues in Maryland or West Virginia.”

The economic result of the situation is dire, compounded by encroaching development that has also threatened the horse culture. Glenn Petty, executive director of the Virginia Thoroughbred Association, told Bahrampour that he estimated Virginia loses $100 million a year in gambling revenue. "It's a $500 million industry [in Virginia], and yet the gaming that fuels a lot of it is seen as problematic. You see West Virginia and Maryland, if you'll pardon the expression, racing past us.” (Read more)

CDC funds rural cancer center in Appalachian Ky. for research, prevention; could be national model

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued a multi-million-dollar grant "to look for ways to prevent and control cancer in Appalachia, which has some of the highest rates in the nation," and the project could be a model for the nation, reports Laura Ungar of The Courier-Journal.

The grant is going to the University of Kentucky's Center for Excellence in Rural Health, based at Hazard, and will focus on 23 counties: Bell, Breathitt, Clay, Harlan, Floyd, Jackson, Johnson, Knott, Knox, Laurel, Leslie, Lee, Letcher, Magoffin, Martin, McCreary, Owsley, Perry, Pike, Pukaski, Rockcastle, Whitley and Wolfe. The exact amount hasn't been determined, but it will be but it will be about $800,000 to $1 million per year, said Dr. Baretta R. Casey, director of the center.

The grant will fund a Rural Cancer Prevention Center at the Hazard facility and workers who will visit cancer patients to conduct research and offer advice. “The community liaisons who will talk and meet with the participants of the research project are people from the community, so they trust them and understand them,” Casey told Ungar. “They know they’ve grown up just like they have and have the same problems. That is a voice that they believe, so it’s much easier to go into the community to be able to do this research. ... What we can find and discover could be replicated across the nation.”

Ungar reports that "A primary emphasis of the grant project will be to promote Gardasil, the vaccine against the sexually-transmitted virus that causes most cervical cancer." Richard Crosby of UK's College of Public Health told her, “The uptake of Gardasil in this area, even when given away, is extremely low. We find that less than 30 percent of young women offered the vaccine accept even the first dose for free. It’s even more difficult when you talk about the second or third dose. One major emphasis of the project will be 100 percent vaccine coverage for every eligible person in the area.” He said the overall project “is a model of rectifying health disparities in rural America.” (Read more)

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Rural Virginia county loses its only newspaper

Clarke County, Virginia, population 14,000, has had a newspaper since 1869. Not now. The Clarke Courier, circulation 2,200, has become the Old Dominion's first paid-circulation newspaper to close during the recession, and many mourn its passing -- including Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher:

"The only paper that really cared about Clarke County is gone. Will life in Clarke be diminished as a result? People aren't exactly broken up about the paper's death. It's just another sign of the times. But it says here that over time, each lost strand of community adds up to more disconnected lives. The web makes up for that kind of lost connection in many ways -- smaller groups of neighbors may find each other through community bulletin boards and listservs, and certainly people organize themselves and find one another online by interests, political activities and hobbies. But a service that listens to people and tells them about each other's lives where they live has been an essential organizing concept in how we live for nearly half a millennium. We'll certainly figure out a way to reinvent that connection, probably better than it's ever existed before. We just haven't gotten it done yet; we're too busy taking apart the old jalopy." (Census Bureau map)

Washingtonian magazine National Editor Harry Jaffee, who has a home in Clarke County, sounded a similar theme in a column in the paper's final edition: "Communities live and die on connections and relationships. We visit at our schools, cross paths at the Post Office, break bread together at churches and clubs. And we read the local paper. It tells us who starred at the high school track meet, who lived a good life and passed on, why we are getting a new high school — or not." Jaffee concluded, "Who will keep us connected? . . . Perhaps an enterprising band of reporters and businessmen can resurrect our local paper. Why not?"

The Courier left its door open a crack. Its own obituary was headlined "Final edition," but it began, "This edition of The Clarke Courier will be its last until further notice." (Emphasis added.) The fourth paragraph read, "At this time, economic conditions in Clarke County do not allow the newspaper to continue publishing and serving the citizens of Clarke County."

Editor Cynthia Cather Burton (in photo by Ginger Perry, looking at May 21 edition) wrote, "For the past two weeks, we’ve been writing The Courier’s obituary, waiting for it to die. Grief is the only word to describe what we feel. ... Now, it’s time to plow ahead. Who knows what the till will turn up."

The last edition included a story by reporter Layla Wilder about the decline of downtown businesses. " The Courier’s struggle to survive the recession and changing times mirrors the struggle of Main Street over the years," she wrote. "Downtown now has more than 11,000 square feet of empty space. Some people, especially longtime merchants, blame the erosion of the town’s business district on chain stores in neighboring jurisdictions."

But Wilder also reported that some new businesses were opening. Fisher noted that, and offered this analysis: "Ad revenue, the lifeblood of journalism, dried up, both because of the recession and because of the massive shift of advertisers' dollars, interest and energy from the old standby of print papers to a hodgepodge of other outlets, both online and not (mostly to nowhere, actually--this is the great unwritten story of the dismantling of the news industry, the concomitant decline of the advertising and public relations businesses)." (Read more)

The Courier's parent, the daily Winchester Star, says it will keep covering the adjoining county, "But the editors and reporters of a community weekly — particularly when they live in the area they cover — hear rumors of news in their day-to-day lives," former editor Pam Lettie noted in a column in the final edition. "That connectedness ties journalists to their stories and the community."

Doctors helping patients in financial straits with low-cost options and decreased prices

Financial hardships are making their way into medical clinics and hospitals, where some doctors are slashing prices and "helping the bills with the ills," Sandra G. Boodman reports for The Washington Post in a joint effort with Kaiser Health News.

Across the nation, medical care providers are facing an increasing number of patients unable to pay for care and the Medical Group Management Association, which represents 22,500 medical practices nationwide, reports sharp increases in patients who fail to keep appointments and decreases in preventive-care visits. Boodman writes that "Some doctors have responded by selectively cutting their fees or devising novel payment arrangements; others have taken a harder line on billing and are sending more overdue accounts to bill collectors." Many have encouraged patients to utilize lower cost options like medical clinics and pharmacy services at chain stores like Target and Wal-Mart.

Boodman reports that many doctors feel an obligation to patients who are suffering financial straits and are doing what they can to help. Some offer free tests and exams for those who recently lost health insurance, while others, like family physician H. Lee Adkins of Fort Myers, Fla., launch programs. To treat patrients with chronic illnesses, Adkins has begun a program that entitles patients to a basic package of services including more than a dozen office visits per year, simple lab tests and many vaccinations for only $75 per month. "That's the same amount people spend on a monthly cable bill," he told Boodman. (Read more)

'Shifting cultural identity' of rural America in photographic exhibit at South Bend

The creative economy of South Bend, Ind., is getting a boost from a new exhibit at the Snite Museum of Art, reports. "Fourteen Places to Eat: a Narrative: Photographing Rural Culture in the Midwest," opened May 31 and the photographer, Kay Westhues, thinks her work revels in the unique culture of rural. "These photos mirror my personal history, but I am also capturing a people's history grounded in a sense of place. My intention is to celebrate rural life, without idealizing it," she told Artdaily. (Photo: Parked trailer in Ligonier, Ind.)

Promoting rurality and agriculture as a celebration could help towns and businesses whose local economies are suffering. Westhues says her vision of the exhibit confronts the contemporary challenges of rural American head-on. "The overall theme since the project's inception is the effect of the demise of local economies that have historically sustained rural communities. Many of my images contain the remains of an earlier time, when locally owned stores and family farms were the norm. Today chain stores and agribusiness are prevalent in rural communities. These communities are struggling to thrive in the global economy, and my images reflect that reality." (Read more)

In a small, struggling, rural school district, death of a savvy superintendent leaves it reeling

For small, rural school districts, leadership is crucial, as Climax-Scotts Community Schools in southwestern Michigan knows all too well. Already beset by declines in population and revenue, the system is now reeling from the death of its superintendent, Julie Mack reports for the Kalamazoo Gazette. Its experience may be a lesson for rural districts anywhere.

Colleagues say Geoffrey Balkam's role as a "savvy, experienced leader for the past 12 years" was paramount to fixing the problems the district was already facing before his death. "I don't know what the future holds," Kevin Langs, the Climax-Scotts athletic director, told Mack. "I believe, and Geoff felt the same way, that there is a niche in today's world for small, rural public schools. But just because I believe that doesn't mean it will happen."

Mack reports that small districts struggle because they lack economy of scale, shrinking enrollment and less class offerings. She writes, "While a larger district might be able to lay off a teacher and divide 140 fourth-graders among five teachers instead of six, a district with only 50 or so kids per grade has less flexibility." Recession-driven budget cuts cut deeper in those institutions like Climax-Scotts, which have fewer assets to fall back on. But, despite the dire situation facing the district, the rural community remains fiercely loyal to Climax-Scotts and what it represents. Township Clerk Marcia Lewis, a lifelong Climax resident whose great-grandmother graduated from Climax and whose grandchildren now attend the school, is optimistic, even if logic says otherwise. "Of course the schools will survive. Of course we will." (Read more).

Experts, activists to discuss rural economic agenda in conference call at 1 p.m. EDT Friday, June 5

Some of the nation's top rural policy advocates will discuss how the recession is hitting rural America and what to do about it in a one-hour conference call at 1 p.m. EDT, Friday, June 5.

Panelists will be Tim Marema, vice president, Center for Rural Strategies; Marcie McLaughlin, constituent relations director, Rural Policy Research Institute; and Ed Sivak, vice president for policy and evaluation, Enterprise Corporation of the Delta. The moderator will be Ruben Lizardo, associate director of PolicyLink, which promotes equitable development.

Space is limited. Participants are asked to reserve a slot by Thursday, June 4. Those making reservations will receive call-in information. For information, e-mail

Agritourism may be a hassle, but California farmers say the results are worth it

Promoting a farm as a tourist destination requirs some adjustment and probably some hassle, but some farmers think the effort is a worthwhile investment, Lisa McKinnon reports for the Ventura County Star in California.

Converting a business to an agritourism destination has the potential for much more harm than good. Small issues like bee stings, entry fees and tour schedules are bothersome, but McKinnon reports that farmers and growers have bigger concerns. “Think trampled crops. Liability insurance. Parking, or the lack thereof,” she writes. In addition, there is the time and expense of paperwork, figuring out insurance kinks and obtaining the proper permits and licenses if needed.

But many are happy with the results, which have given their farms exposure and good publicity. “Frankly, doing the tours helps with sales,” Ron Asquith of Ojai Olive Oil, told McKinnon. He allows tourists to walk among the orchard and sample many of the homemade olive oils pressed on the farm. Craig Underwood of Underwood Family Farms is also happy with the decision to open their farm to agritourism. After four years and nearly $40,000 in California permits and licenses, visitors can mingle in “animal centers,” pick their own fresh fruit and vegetables, and participate in day camp sessions about the importance of agriculture. Underwood told McKinnon the efforts were worth it: the produce stands and agritourism operations of the family business now account for about a third of the company’s revenue. (Read more)

Monday, June 01, 2009

Biomass plants getting to industrial scale; forecast to be main renewable source of electricity in 2020

"While solar power is taking root in the sunny Southwest and wind power is growing in the blustery band from the Dakotas to Texas, other places are turning to trees and grass as their best bet for producing renewable energy, leading to a new building boom in 'biomass' power plants," The Wall Street Journal reports.

This photo from Zuma Press shows a biomass plant in California, a state that also has much solar and wind potential. But many areas have neither, and the climate-change bill moving through Congress would require utilities to generate 20 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2020, Russell Gold notes. That, and federal tax credits, are prompting electric utilities in the Southeast and parts of the Midwest to start building "industrial-scale plants that burn wood and other plant material." Biomass is forecast to be the top renewable source for U.S. electricity by 2020.

Biomass offers an advantage over other big renewables: It's always available, unlike the sun and the wind. "While greenhouse gas is released when biomass is burned, the process is considered nearly carbon neutral because the plants only emit the carbon they absorbed while they were growing," Gold reports. "The plants would release the same amount of greenhouse gas if they died naturally and decomposed. The burning of coal, by contrast, releases carbon that otherwise never would have been sent into the atmosphere." (Read more) Biomass plants can still cause controversy. They can create more pressure to harvest trees and undergrowth from national forests, and can encounter opposition from citizens, as Grace Schneider of The Courier-Journal reports from Milltown, Ind.

Acting FCC chair speaks loudly for rural broadband

It is a "Rooseveltian call to arms," one writer says, but another says it does not "describe a comprehensive rural broadband strategy," which is what Congress directed the Federal Communications Commission to do. It is a 77-page report by Michael Copps, acting chair of the FCC, and it was issued last week.

"The report does, however, acknowledge the still-large deficit in rural broadband coverage (even though Copps states that nobody knows who in rural America has broadband access and who doesn’t)," writes Bill Bishop, co-editor of the Daily Yonder. "And in the ongoing discussion about who is best suited to provide rural broadband — the telcos? local government? — Copps gives his support and encouragement to government."

From his bully pulpit, Copps delivers a strong message: "For years, large parts of rural America have languished on the sidelines of the digital revolution. Home to the homesteaders, pioneers, and the rich and diverse Native American cultures that contribute so much to our national identity, rural America has for most of our history been deemed too remote, too sparsely populated, or too inaccessible to be fully connected with our nation’s infrastructures. ... As long as a grade-school child living on a farm cannot research a science project, or a high school student living on a remote Indian reservation cannot submit a college application, or an entrepreneur in a rural hamlet cannot order spare parts, or a local law enforcement officer cannot download pictures of a missing child without traveling to a city or town that has broadband Internet access, we cannot turn back from these challenges.”

"It reads like it was actually written by somebody," writes Matthew Lasar in ars technica. Maybe that's because it represents Copps' views, not those of the FCC, whose chair-designate, Julius Genachowski, has yet to get a schedule for his Senate confirmation. Lasar and Bishop wonder of the new chair will be as friendly to rural areas; the view from here is that if Obama keeps one promise to rural America, it will be this one, which he repeated most in his campaign.

A child dies, and a voice cries out on the Web

Good citizen journalism, via blogs and otherwise, can amplify stories and give them greater depth, especially if the journalism comes from a thoughtful observer and talented writer like our friend Randy Speck of Albany, Ky., whose Web handle is The Notorious Meddler. That title has a hint of apology in it, perhaps because citizen journalism in rural areas can get more personal than some of the subjects would like. But when a chronic problem is displayed in freshly horrific fashion, it calls for citizen commentary like Randy just published about the death of a toddler in the next county who drank a chemical used to make methamphetamine.

"She had a baby when she was barely 13. He would have been 2 in July," he writes. "She is 14 now, and charged with murder, same as the 19-year-old father. Why hasn't this been fixed? It's my fault. I haven't demanded it be fixed. Have you? Tonight, we will sleep safe and snug in our bed while this drug problem rages on, and it is because I haven't screamed STOP! loud enough and neither have you. Today, my heart is heavy. I hope yours is, too. Maybe the two of us will start to yell loud now. When the children cry let them know we tried 'cause when the children sing then the new world begins. What have we become ... just look what we have done. God PLEASE help us."

That's the whole post, but it takes up much more space on Randy's blog because each sentence or phrase gets its own line, widely separated by white space. The spaces make you think, and make the prose seem like poetry, which, of course, it also is. For a news report on the tragedy, from WKYM of Monticello, Ky., click here. There's nothing on The Wayne County Outlook's site as of this posting, but the weekly's lead story last week was about the busting of six meth labs. UPDATE, June 2: Bill Estep of the Lexington Herald-Leader has an excellent story with plenty of details.

As suburbs eat up fund created to help poor school districts, Georgia governor and legislature cut it

"A fund designed to help poor school districts provide an education comparable to what’s available in wealthier systems was slashed $112 million this year by Georgia lawmakers looking for ways to balance an unsteady state budget," reports James Salzer of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, calling it "just the latest blow to poor school systems already slashing staff and salaries, crowding classrooms and killing extracurricular programs."

The cuts are making some districts considering reactivating a lawsuit contending that the state has "an inadequate school funding system that leaves children behind in poor and rural areas of Georgia," Salzer reports. “It looks to me with the lawsuit still out there, you would think this equalization cut would become Exhibit A,” Herb Garrett, executive director of the Georgia School Superintendents Association, told Salzer. “If you’re going to cut, why not do it across the board? Why do it to the 75 percent of districts who can least afford it?” The suit, similar to those that have won more funding for property-poor districts in other states, was withdrawn in 2008 when a new judge was assigned to the case.

Supporters of the cut say the cost of the extra aid has ballooned lately, and is increasingly going to fast-growing suburban districts. Gov. Sonny Perdue, who leaves office next year and proposed the cuts, has said he wants to change the funding formula. Salzer's story has plenty of details about the process and examples from rural counties; to read it, click here.

College students learn about farming this summer

As farmers struggle with a squeeze in prices and costs and such issues as climate-change legislation and the National Animal Identification System, it often seems like food is produced in a world not seen by the general public. Going against the grain are students who see food and food policy as the "political movement of their time" and are using their summers to learn the ways of agriculture.

From Barnard College in New York to Kenyon College in Ohio, farms will be getting a helping hand or two from liberal-arts students seeking something different, Kim Severson reports for The New York Times.

Katherine L. Adam, who runs the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, financed by the Department of Agriculture, said 1,400 farms sought interns this year, almost three times the number in 2007. Jamie Katz, an English major at Kenyon, will plant peach trees in Virginia this summer and sees his contribution as simply doing his part. "Everyone eats, and everyone has a vested interest in this." (Read more)

Rangers see complications in legislation allowing loaded guns to be carried in national parks

Congress passed legislation last week allowing people to carry loaded weapons in the nation's 391 national parks and 550 national wildlife refuges beginning next February. But while supporters praise the law and cite it as a step for the right to self defense, Scott Streater writes for The New York Times that its passage will not end the debate over private gun rights and public safety in national parks and wildlife refuges.

Most of the opposition is concerned with the ability of law enforcement to protect the public from unsafe firearm holders. "Instances of directed violence or just careless gun-wielding continue to draw attention from law enforcement agencies and the courts," Streater reports, beginning his story with the tale of a man who fired at least nine shots in a campground at a black bear foraging for table scraps. The varied locations of national parks, from rural Yellowstone to New York Harbor and the Statue of Liberty, will also increase how long it will take to implement the new law. The Interior Department says it will take nine months.

National Park Service statistics show the crime rate in national parks is the lowest it has been since 1995, but Streater reports that there are also fewer park rangers than a decade ago. Approximately 1,500 are responsible for ensuring the safety of 300 million annual visitiors spread out over 85 million acres. Add to that discrepancy the exisiting incidents of vandalism and wildlife poaching, and park rangers seem particularly overwhelmed. This new legislation adds another layer of complexity to the issue. "The biggest fear is people will be wandering around in the woods with firearms," said Doug Morris, a former NPS chief park ranger in California. "Now we'll have our backcountry filled with morons carrying guns." (Read more)

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Family selling 'Extreme Makeover' home; weekly covers story, prompts letters, defends sellers

"It was the true story of how small-town people really do know their neighbors and really will do anything for them. And it played beautifully on TV on a Sunday night in spring of 2006. Three years later, it's a test of the meaning of generosity and, maybe, its limits." That's how Amy Wilson of the Lexington Herald-Leader begins her story today about a Kentucky family, saddled with debt and illness, selling the house it got from the generosity of neighbors and ABC-TV's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition." (Herald-Leader photo by David Stephenson)

The controversy went public with publication of a story in The Cynthiana Democrat, which noted said the family wanted to be closer to its doctors in Lexington and would not be the first "Extreme Makeover" homeowners to sell the house they had been given. That prompted a letter to the Landmark Community Newspapers weekly, calling the events "a disgrace and a humiliation to this community" and telling the family to rely on God to provide health-related transportation from their isolated home.

That prompted several letters defending the family, and the paper's longtime editor, Becky Barnes, weighed in on the family's side in an editorial: "Whether the Hassalls choose to sell their home or remain in it and struggle day to day is entirely up to them. In their time of need, they were given a gift. That gift didn’t come with stipulations. That gift may still be the answer to their prayers. Not one of us knows God’s plan and this just might have been it all along." (Read more)