Saturday, August 15, 2009

Data on dates show decline of Iraqi agriculture

"In Iraq, one of the places where agriculture was developed more than 7,000 years ago, there are increasing doubts about whether it makes much sense to grow ... much of anything," Timothy Williams reports for The New York Times. "Wars, sanctions, poor management, international competition and disinvestment" have left the country's agriculture "a shadow of its former self," and the same is true for manufacturing. (Times photo by Joseph Sywenkyj: A worker shakes sand from green dates near Baghdad)

"The agricultural industry has been particularly damaged during the past few years, a situation perhaps nowhere more apparent than in the country’s once bountiful date orchards," Williams writes. "Date palms have been left to die for lack of water, and fungi and pests have ruined thousands of tons of fruit because the country has only three crop-dusting airplanes and three qualified pilots. American military approval is still needed to fly."

The decline of dates has had big ramifications. The lack of work for young men fed insurgencies, and "As growers have abandoned farms, the orchards that had once formed a lush green ring around Baghdad have shrunk, causing more frequent sandstorms in the capital this summer and higher rates of asthma and other respiratory illnesses," Williams reports. It's a sad tale that reminds us of the fundamental nature of farming in civilization, proven in the same valley of the Tigris and Euphrates so long ago. And the story also has some data on dates that we bet you didn't know.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Rural 11-year-old student interviews the president

This is the best story of the day, so you've probably seen or read it already, but we can't ignore it, because it has a rural angle. Damon Weaver, the 11-year-old who landed an interview with President Obama and discussed it on several networks today, is from Pahokee, Fla., a rural town of 6,000 on Lake Okechobee.

"The 12 questions he asked the president focused primarily on education and were filmed as part of an educational program that will be broadcast to schools around the nation next month," report Dianna Smith and Jason Schultz of the Palm Beach Post. Weaver said on The Early Show' on CBS, "President Obama is so nice ... The president is a normal person."

"Damon's broadcasting teacher, Brian Zimmerman, said reporters in the White House press corps kept coming up to Damon before the interview with Obama and asking him about it, but he couldn't answer because it was supposed to be a secret. He said Damon has managed to keep the fame and media frenzy from going to his head," the Post reports.

Administration's Rural Tour makes stops in Alaska

The word "unique" is not supposed to take modifiers of degree, but every stop on the Obama administration's Rural Tour is arguably unique, and the latest one was probably the most unique -- or, to be grammatically correct, the one that was most undoubtedly unique. It was in rural Alaska, off the road system: at Bethel, in the Kuskokwim River Delta, and Hooper Bay, on the Bering Sea south of Nome.

The secretaries of energy, education, housing and agriculture came, marking the first time that four Cabinet members had ever been in Alaska at the same time, Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Begich told Rhonda McBride of Anchorage's KTUU-TV. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who is making all the tour stops, said Alaska hasn't taken enough advantage of his department's Rural Development programs.

The visitors were welcomed by Yup'ik Elder Peter Jacob, left, and educated by Nick Tucker of Emmonak, who told them, "Our subsistence way of life and culture is unique to our country. It's precious, and once they become extinct you will have lost a sacred set of values and teachings."

Energy is a major challenge in rural Alaska. Energy Secretary Steven Chu told the locals, "If there's any place in the United States where renewable energy has a cost advantage, it's Alaska." But McBride noted in her report, "High cost makes wind generation three to four times more expensive to install." Chu, who seems to be the most uninhibited Cabinet member on the tour, expressed dismay that houses were being built so close to sea level, presumably given the prospect that the level will rise with climate change. (Read more)

'The perfect herbicide' meets 'the perfect weed' and the latter wins

Curtis Burgess, 16, chops near Hughes, Ark. "Chopping cotton, a chore and tradition recalling the days of the preindustrial South, is making a comeback," Tom Charlier reports for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis. "Hundreds of thousands of acres of cotton and soybean fields have been infested with a rapacious, fast-growing weed that's become resistant to the main herbicide on which farmers have relied for more than a decade." (CA photo by Brad Luttrell)

The herbicide is glyphosate, most often Roundup, made by Monsanto, and the weed is Palmer pigweed, strains of which have developed resistance to the highly popular chemical, which even Monsanto says has been overused. The weed grows more than an inch a day, up to 10 feet tall, with tree-sized stalks, and each plant can produce up to 100,000 seeds. "If you wanted to draw up the perfect weed, this is it," Larry Steckel, extension weed specialist with the University of Tennessee, told Charlier. He said Roundup was thought to be "the perfect herbicide."

"The resistance problem will force growers to make wrenching and costly changes if they want to stay in business in the coming years, agriculture experts say," Charlier writes. "In Arkansas alone, the weed has invaded some 750,000 acres of crops, including half the 250,000 acres of cotton. In Tennessee, nearly 500,000 acres have some degree of infestation, with the counties bordering the Mississippi River hardest hit. The infestation is cutting farmers' cotton yields by up to one-third and in some cases doubling or tripling their weed-control costs."

Ken Smith, a weed scientist with the University of Arkansas, told Charlier, "I think this threatens our way of farming more than anything I've seen in the 30-plus years I've worked in agriculture." Charlier reports, "Some officials draw parallels between the pigweed resistance problem and the effects of the boll weevil infestation of cotton fields in the early 20th century." (Read more; hat tip to Al Tompkins of The Poynter Institute)

Community Broadcasters Association closes down

A lobbying group for low-power television stations is out of business "due to the cost of its recent regulatory battles and the general economic downturn," Broadcasting & Cable reports. The Community Broadcasters Association had won its recent fight to make sure that all digital TV converter boxes eligible for federal subsidy coupons included a pass-through feature for their analog signals, but the group's former executive director, Amy Brown, said the cost of that lobbying effort, the recession and the lack of low-power stations' access to cable and satellite systems “created an impossible situation for the trade association and its members.”

Brown said 40 percent of low-power stations “believe they will have to shut down in the next year if they are not helped through the digital transition. These broadcasters have been neglected by the federal government, even though they have played and continue to play an important role that cannot be duplicated by full power stations. These stations have more local ownership and more minority and female ownership by far than any other mass medium, wired or wireless. Yet, we have been repeatedly excluded from laws and regulations intended to ensure access by the public to diverse thoughts and ideas.” (Read more)

The group's emphasis on the digital transition is reflected in the name of its Web site,, which is still online. The group was formed about 20 years ago.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Amenity-rich rural areas will see influx of retiring baby boomers, new study predicts

Many of the baby boomers, those Americans now aged 45 to 63, are expected to migrate to rural areas in the next decade, according to a recent study by the Economic Research Service of the Department of Agriculture.

"Baby boomers have already demonstrated more of an affinity for moving to rural and small-town destinations than older or younger cohorts," authors John Cromartie and Peter Nelson note. "They led a short-lived rural 'rebound' in the early 1990s, despite being at an age when career-oriented motivations strongly influence migration decisions. They are now poised to significantly increase the population of 55-75 year olds in rural and small-town America through 2020, with major social and economic implications for their chosen destinations."

"Most counties won’t see a big influx of Boomers, however," Bill Bishop points out in the Daily Yonder. Those that do will be "the places with the most natural amenities — beaches, lakes, rivers and mountains." (Younder map from USDA data, below) Urban amenities, such as cultural opportunities, will also matter, the authors report. Other factors include reasonable land prices. For Bishop's excerpts of the study, click here. For the full study, click here.

Rural topics on tap at environmental journalists' conference; Friday, Aug. 14 is earlybird deadline

Friday, August 14 is the deadline to take advantage of discounted registration for the Society of Environmental Journalists Annual Conference in Madison, Wis., which includes several topics of rural interest. The event begins with workshops on producing video for the Web and computer-assisted reporting on the environment Wednesday, Oct. 6 and continues with area tours, including one to an environmentally friendly mega-dairy, on Thursday, Oct. 7.

Vice President Al Gore will give a keynote address on climate change and take questions from journalists on Friday, Oct. 9. The first round of concurrent sessions includes one on the Conservation Reserve Program for farmers and one on mountaintop removal, coal ash and climate change. A group of networking lunches will include one for rural journalists, hosted by Al Cross of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. After more concurrent sessions will come an afternoon plenary, to which Cabinet members and congressional leaders have been invited.

Topics of sessions on Saturday, Oct. 10 include ethanol, environmental enforcement, electric transmission lines, the local-food movement and the effect of climate change on agriculture. On Sunday, Oct. 11, author and farmer Wendell Berry will be among speakers disussing the legacy of Aldo Leopold, conservationist and environmental philosopher, at the Arboretum he founded. For more program information, click here. To register, click here.

As national news media go for niches, local media are increasingly needed to deliver facts

We're still urging rural journalists, as we did earlier this week, to do their own reports on the debate over health-insurance reform, because the battle in Congress and the country shows no signs of letting up -- and because some of your readers, viewers and listeners clearly need other sources of information. NBC's First Read reports this morning that at a town-hall meeting held by Sen. Ben Cardin in Hagerstown, Md., yesterday, "One mother-daughter combo -- unprompted -- enthusiastically boasted, "Fox rules!" "It's all we ever watch!"

That reflects a longstanding human proclivity, to prefer sources of information that comfirm our values and pre-existing beliefs, that has been amplified in recent years by the multiplication of the national news media and the resulting fractionalization of their audience. Fox capitalized on the established networks' liberal tilt, which was much milder than their conservative critics argued. Now MSNBC has carved out a niche on the liberal side, and rather than surf through channels for different views, many if not most viewers stick to one national brand.

Meanwhile, most of these TV news outlets spend too much time and money on talking heads who spout opinion than on reporters who perform the much tougher, more expensive and time-consuming jobs of digging up and presenting facts. In the last two decades, the market for opinion in this country has increased while the market for fact has decreased. That is not good for a representative democracy that depends on a well-informed public. At the local level, news outlets still emphasize fact, and that is probably why they are more trusted. Let's honor that trust with presentation of facts, and debunking of falsehoods.

Loggers wait for recovery to reach them; example of narrative storytelling, topic of Oct. 2 seminar

Economic experts say the recession is bottoming out and recovery is in sight, but that is cold comfort to folks who are out of work or short of work. In the latter category is independent logger Clarence "Sunnyman" Primm, right, who "is struggling to keep from laying off his crew as the economic downturn continues to ripple through his industry and Alabama community," The Washington Post reports. The story by Wil Haygood and the photographs by Linda Davidson make a package, "Waiting for Work in the Silent Woods," that is a great example of narrative storytelling with words and pictures.

That is the kind of storytelling that will be taught at a workshop, "Storytelling with Narratives in Print and Pictures," Oct. 2 at the University of Kentucky. The storytellers will be Stephen G. Bloom, author and journalism professor at the University of Iowa and writer for The Oxford Project, a 2008 book of photographs and narratives of the people of Oxford, Iowa; photographer David Stephenson, who recently left the Lexington Herald-Leader after helping the newspaper break new ground in storytelling with audio, video and still photography; and Amy Wilson, feature writer and roving rural reporter for the Herald-Leader and former reporter for the Orange County Register in California. The workshop is sponsored by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog. For more information go to the Institute's home page; for a PDF with more details and a registration form, click here.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Judge nixes Obama's fast-track move to reverse Bush rule easing mountaintop-removal mines

A federal judge told the Obama administration today that it can't use a quick, backdoor approach to restore the "buffer zone" protecting streams from valley fills used by mountaintop-removal coal mines. The ruling likely means that the Interior Department will have to go through a months-long process of proposing and holding hearings on a regulation, much as the outgoing Bush administration did when it enacted a regulation that Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette says "essentially eliminated" the buffer-zone rule, making it more difficult to block mountaintop-removal mines.

"Getting rid of the Bush rule change was a key part of the Obama administration’s plan to deal with mountaintop removal," Ward writes on his Coal Tattoo blog. The Interior Department tried to scuttle the Bush regulation with a motion, in a lawsuit filed by environmental groups challenging the Bush changes, claiming “serious legal deficiencies” in the Bush process. But Judge Henry H. Kennedy Jr. of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia said in his ruling that Interior was asking him to “repeal a rule without public notice and comment, without judicial consideration of the merits.” (Read more)

Meanwhile, "The Obama administration late last week quietly approved one of six major mountaintop removal permits that were said to be undergoing close scrutiny by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency," Ward reports. "Without announcing the move publicly, EPA gave the nod for the federal Army Corps of Engineers to issue a Clean Water Act permit for Consol Energy Inc.'s Peg Fork Surface Mine near Chattaroy in Mingo County." (Read more)

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Cattle rustling boosted by recession, ease of crime

"Cattle rustling has made a major comeback," Ryan Owens and Gina Sunseri report for ABC News. "In Texas alone, more than 6,000 head of cattle were stolen last year -- that's triple the number from the year before. This year is set to break records in ranching states across the West. . . . The special rangers assigned to catch cattle rustlers say the crime has everything to do with the recession."

It also has something to do with how easy it is. Texas cowboy Bill Cawley told ABC, "The thief doesn't need a horse, he doesn't need dogs. He needs a paper sack. He can put a couple of rocks in the sack and shake it, and those cows will come straight into the pen." (Read more) Kate Linthicum of the Los Angeles Times also has a story. (Times photo by Tom Pennington)

His metropolitan paper closed, political writer found a new calling as owner of a rural newspaper

As metropolitan newspapers cut staff to survive, some of those journalists are migrating to the bright spot in traditional journalism: community newspapers. One whose story has received the most notice lately is ME Sprengelmeyer (no punctuation), late of the late Rocky Mountain News and now owner, publisher and editor of The Guadalupe County Communicator in his native New Mexico.

The career change began when Sprengelmeyer got Scripps Howard News Service to let him follow the presidential candidates around Iowa for the better part of a year, with a secondary motive. "I had the fantasy -- and a whole lot of reporters I know have had the fantasy -- of one day being a one-man newsroom at a tiny little paper like the one in The Milagro Beanfield War and so much great literature," he writes on Temple Talk, the blog of the Rocky's former editor, John Temple. (Photo from Temple Talk)

So, as he tracked the candidates around Iowa, Sprengelmeyer asked local journalists about their trade: "Are the ads still flowing? What about the Internet? Is it much of a threat out in the sticks? How many people does it take to put out a quality product? What if you made some strategic investments in quality content here and there? Would your franchise do any better, or had it already maximized the local potential? I didn’t always find healthy newspapers. But invariably, I saw potential . . . Because they have a physical presence, provide intense local coverage, stay within their financial means and tailor their content quite intensely to match the needs of the people who wander into the front door to complain every day, they provide a service that has lost little value over the past two decades of stunning technological changes."

After he bought the Communicator, a small weekly In Santa Rosa (Encarta map), Sprengelmeyer got help from a "surge staff" of former Rocky colleagues. Now he's on his own. I wish him well, and as a former weekly editor who worked for a metro paper for 26 years and now tries to help rural journalists, I invite other metro refugees to follow his lead. (Here is the Communicator's Web site; it also has a Facebook fan page.)

UPDATE: CNN profiles Sprengelmeyer.

It's natural for us to name nature, but we're losing contact with it

Last week we posted an item about the loss of contact with nature by Americans, particularly young people. Again drawing from The New York Times, we direct your attention to a related article by Carol Kaesuk Yoon, adapting her new book, Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science.

Yoon offers some eye-opening accounts of the fundamental human nature of naming the natural world, the talent for taxonomy that even occupies a specific part of our brains. (Some of the 53 commenters noted she doesn't mention God's command to Adam in Genesis to name all living creatures.) She urges us to use that gray matter, to get back in touch with the natural world.

"Even when scads of insistent wildlife appear with a flourish right in front of us, and there is such life always — hawks migrating over the parking lot, great colorful moths banging up against the window at night — we barely seem to notice," Yoon writes. "We are so disconnected from the living world that we can live in the midst of a mass extinction, of the rapid invasion everywhere of new and noxious species, entirely unaware that anything is happening." (Read more)

Carbon-capture technology faces major obstacles

The next time you hear someone confidently predict that sequestration and storage of carbon dioxide from coal-fired power plants will ensure the future of the coal industry amd limit climate change, you might suggest they read a story in today's Washington Post by Steven Mufson. We can't recall an article that better explains the huge obstacles that must be overcome in a relatively short time, and it includes some handy facts and illustrations, such as this one: "The United States produces enough carbon dioxide to cover the nation's entire land mass with a layer one foot deep every year."

Mufson pegs his story to a pilot project, which could start as early as next month, at a coal-burning plant on the Ohio River near New Haven, W.Va. (Post map). The plant is owned by American Electric Power Co., which buys more coal than any other customer in the U.S. Its CEO, Michael Morris, told Mufson, "Clearly carbon capture and storage is essential for a company like AEP, and I would argue equally essential for the United States, because you can't go through the process of prematurely shutting down half the supply base of the American utility industry."

Advocates of the process argue or hope that it "will get better and cheaper over time," Mufson writes. "It is central to selling climate policies to consumers, because it permits policymakers to assert that costs will be tamed and energy prices will get only modestly higher." He quotes U.S. Sen John Kerry, D-Mass.: "I'm prepared to bet on American ingenuity." (Read more)

Monday, August 10, 2009

Why do some rural towns thrive? Answers to this and other questions, from rural sociologists

Bill Bishop of the Daily Yonder went to the annual meeting of the Rural Sociological Society and, in non-academic terms, found out a bunch of stuff. Here's a hint:

"Some of the most interesting discussions were about the role of ethanol in the economies of Midwestern towns — and the increasing corn monoculture in parts of the Great Plains. There was also a lively debate about how the Obama Administration was approaching rural issues — the jury has yet to return a verdict on this one — and how The New York Times continues to show an anti-rural bias in some of its reports and editorials. There was also a great deal of talk about why some rural towns thrive."

The story is worth reading.

As old dams get removed, more 'fish-friendly' ones are proposed to generate hydroelectric power

"In the 1950s and ’60s, a dam went up in the United States every six minutes to generate electricity, provide irrigation water and protect against floods, according to the United States Forest Service," Matthew Preusch writes for The New York Times. "If that was the great dam-building era, we are now in the age of dam removal."

Maybe, but perhaps not for long, at least in parts of the country where there is a growing demand for hydroelectric power. Joshua Zaffos reports for High Country News that utilities in the Pacific Northwest are considering dams for hydropower that would be "more fish-friendly" than those that disrupted salmon runs. Most would be "run-of-the-river," less than 15 feet high with little or no impoundment. Still, "These small projects in many cases have the biggest impacts relative to their size," Thomas O'Keefe of American Whitewater told Zaffos. (Read more)

Preusch also reports from the Northwest. He cites an Oregon dam (Times photo by Stuart Isett) that a utility tore down and replaced with "cheaper power sources rather than pay for repairs and upgrades. Others are known as L.D.D.’s ... 'little dinky dams' that few would miss. There is also a growing consensus that dams are destructive to fish habitats and wildlife, and environmental groups have been lobbying aggressively for their removal." American Rivers says about 40 are removed each year.

Another reason for rural journalists to report on health-insurance reform: You're more believable

Tonight on their main newscasts at least two major television networks did stories that fully debunked the contention by people who should know better that a Democratic health-insurance reform bill would push euthanasia. The reports were well done and even-handed, but we wonder how much such reports in "mainstream media" will be accepted by people who have become suspicious of the MSM, for whatever reason. The same goes for reports clarifying or dispelling other allegations and beliefs about the complex legislation. The MSM have lost too much audience, and too many Americans prefer to get their information from sources that fit their prevailing ideologies or politics. At least that's what we think.

This is where journalists in smaller markets, including rural areas, should come in. They and their news outlets generally enjoy more trust from readers, listeners and viewers than do metropolitan and national media. They can and should do stories like this, looking at claims on both sides of the issue, especially with the protests at town-hall meetings of senators and House members. As we've mentioned before, good starting points are the online services that fact-check political commercials, and Each list additional sources. Go for it!

Chemical drift from farms prompts law in Maine, call for more controls in Illinois and similar states

The drift of chemicals from one farm where they do good, to another farm or residential area where they do harm, has long been an issue in agricultural areas, but seems to be rising on the public agenda. "State legislatures throughout the country are grappling with chemical drift from farm fields and the conflict between the rights and pressures of farming and the rights and health of rural residents," Clare Howard reports for the Peoria Journal Star.

Proponents of more regulation point to a new law in Maine, which "calls for the creation of a notification registry for two types of aerial applications to inform neighbors of what, when and how chemicals are being used on agriculture fields," Howard reports, quoting an officer of the Maine Organic Farmers & Gardeners Association, who said the law "is expected to serve as a national model."

Howard illustrates the need for such a program by writing about the tribulations of a vineyard owner, who says his vines were damaged by 2,4-D, and a retired minster who "has filed complaints about chemical drift with the Illinois Department of Agriculture for 14 years." The 2,000-word story is here.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Expedition of New River, actually old, is under way

The second New River Expedition, designed to remind local governments and people living near the river in North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia of things they can do to protect it, began July 20 and ends this Friday. Mary Hardbarger of The Roanoke Times made part of the passage last week with members of the National Committee for the New River, which started the annual expedition last year, and filed a story for today's paper. To read it, click here. (Times photo by Justin Cook)

Despite its name, the New River is thought to be the oldest in the Western Hemisphere and younger only than the Nile. As the Appalachian Mountains rose, the river maintained its northerly course, creating scenic gorges and whitewater runs on its way to confluence with the Gauley River. The two form the Kanawha, which flows into the Ohio. For more about the river, from the committee, click here.