Saturday, September 05, 2009

Carbon offsets for no-till farming no simple thing

No-till farming is one method for cutting carbon emissions that would be rewared by the climate-and-energy bill that has passed the House and is in the Senate, but some have questioned the practicality of the process. The bill would offer no-till farmers offsets that they can sell to companies that would have to decrease their carbon emissions.

Organic matter in no-till soil can be as high as two percent, twice as much as plowed soil, but researchers have discovered plowed fields hold as much or more carbon three or four feet below the surface, and while no-till farming stores more carbon in the soil, the benefit lasts only as long as the land isn't tilled, Christopher Joyce of National Public Radio reports.

The bill encourages farmers to remove crop residue after a harvest to make ethanol, but Ohio State University soil scientist Rattan Lal tells Joyce that removing crop residue negates the benefits of no-till farming. "That's a no-no," Lal says. "The moment you take the crop residue away the benefit of no-till farming on erosion control, water conservation and on carbon sequestration will not be realized." Lal tells Joyce that he still supports no-till farming because it means the farmer isn't using fossil fuel to run a plow and make fertilizer. (Read more)

Family saves farm by selling restaurants specialty produce, says it can be done anywhere

"Losing the family farm is a familiar story. Getting it back less so," Christine Muhlke writes for The New York Times. "Once Marty Travis’s family was finally able to piece together its 179-year-old farm, buying back the homestead and its parcel of land that was sold by his grandmother and slated for developers, the intention was to rebuild the dilapidated buildings. But over the last decade, Marty and his wife, Kris, have restored not only the farmhouse but the farming community in Fairbury, Ill.," 100 miles southwest of Chicago.

The Travises never intended to be farmers, but now they sell "produce that is obscure or nearly extinct to Chicago’s best restaurants," such as ramps, pawpaws, Galapagos tomatoes, popping sorghum, Kickapoo beans (handed down from an Indian chief), white Iroquois corn and radish seed pods, Muhlke reports. (Times photo by David LaSpina: Marty Travis and son Will harvest squash blossoms)

The Travises have organized "a group of 25 farm families who sell to the local grocery store and to Chicago restaurants via the Travises. Most members are under 18," Muhlke writes. Marty told her, "Every community across the country could be doing this." (Read more) Thanks to our friend Wendell Berry for pointing out this story; well, not really; see coment below.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Vilsack voices anger about 'swine flu' references; how about we just call it 'new flu'?

"Many media outlets" still refer to H1N1 influenza as "swine flu," and that angers Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack because of the negative effect on the stressed hog market, Julie Harker of Brownfield Network reports.

When Harker asked Vilsack if he was "dismayed" about it, he replied, “Dismayed would not be a proper characterization of how I feel. It’s anger . . . because there are real people behind this . . . the farm families that are working hard every day trying to put food on our table. They need all the help they can get. The last thing they need is to have somebody -- just because it’s easier, just because it’s a little bit catchier -- using the wrong term and hurting them.” (Read more)

Yes, "swine" has just one syllable and paints a familiar mental picture, so it's a much more popular adjective (especially with broadcasters) than the four-syllable "H1N1." But perhaps there's an alternative. The full technical name for the new flu is "Novel H1N1," meaning that it's the latest form of a long-identified type. Some distinction is necessary in news reports because seasonal flu is also going around, and vaccinations for it have begun. Associated Press photo by Brian Ray: Ruthann Schrock administers a standard flu vaccine to Will Ross in Iowa Monday during a clinical trial on when the H1N1 vaccine should be given.

Seems to us that the simplest distinction is "old" flu and "new" flu, with the first reference to the latter being "the new H1N1 flu." Some media in other countries, including Taiwan, like the "new flu" term. The usually helpful Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers little help on its Web site, as far as we can tell. At a press briefing on May 1, a CDC official acknowledged that the agency's initial use of the technical term "swine associated flu" had, well, gone viral: "Sometimes we use terms that have unintended consequences. So I would say that we're in a transition state where we're trying to get away from the word swine, because we know that isn't -- it's not exposure to swine that is the way that people in the United States are getting this infection." For the transcript, click here.

Eating the vine that ate the South may help your health, even ward off diabetes, study suggests

Researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham have found that kudzu may be a valuable dietary supplement against a metabolic syndrome that affects 50 million Americans. Researchers discovered that isoflavones in kudzu can improve regulation of blood pressure, high cholesterol and blood glucose, according to a UAB news release. (Photo by Michael Jon Jensen, National Academies Press)

The study, published in the latest edition of the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry, found that the isoflavone puerarin is found only in kudzu and seems to regulate blood glucose. Excessive amounts of glucose lead to diabetes. The lead author of the study, Michael Wyss, says puerarin seems to regulate glucose by steering it to beneficial areas like muscle.

Kudzu is already a common supplement in Asia, UAB reports. The vine was brought to the U.S. in the 1930s for erosion control, but quickly overgrew much of the South. (IRJCI Director Al Cross's personal boundary for it is the Green River in Kentucky.) Kudzu vines can grow almost a foot per day and can overwhelm trees and power poles if left unattended. (Read more)

Texas newspaper puzzle writer finds new calling: Building homes for the poor from recycled stuff

A former writer of BrainSqueeze and CryptoGrapple puzzles for the Huntsville Item in Texas has found success in a new career building homes for the poor out of recyled materials. Dan Phillips, owner of Phoenix Commotion, began building the recycled homes in 1997 and has finished 14 homes in Huntsville, reports Kate Murphy of The New York Times. (Times photo by Michael Stravato)

Phillips has built roofs from used license plates and picture frames, windows from crystal platters, and floors from wine corks. As long the material allows him to meet building codes, Phillips will use it, Murphy reports. Each home is designated for a low-income family that helps with construction, much like Habitat for Humanity, but even with monthly payments between $99 and $300, Murphy reports that half the original residents have lost the homes to foreclosure. "You can put someone in a new home, but you can’t give them a new mindset," Phillips said.

Huntsville officials worked with Phillips to create a recycled-materials wharehouse where construction companies could donate leftover items for no charge and a tax deduction. Murphy reports officials in several other Texas towns have asked Phillips how to build similar warehouses. Phoenix Commotion is not a non-profit; Phillips tells Murphy that he hopes to prove there is money to be made in low-income housing construction. (Read more)

The Item first reported Phillips' switch from puzzle-builder to home-builder in November. “My fondest dream is that our low-income housing project would be replicated around the country, and we’re getting there,” Phillips told reporter Kristin Edwards. “A group in Houston is already starting an initiative modeled after this one in Huntsville, and there are also initiatives developing in Georgia and Oklahoma.” (Read more)

Pa. school district planning a day of local food

In northwest Pennsylvania, Ridgway Area Schools Superintendent Tom Butler is hosting a "farmers market day" to help encourage students in Elk County appreciate healthy eating and local farmers. Butler plans to serve the district's 1,000 students a meal of locally grown food, reports Joe Smydo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Butler tells Smydo he knows the value of stretching a dollar, but hopes to advocate spending a little extra for local food to boost the local economy. "There are other bottom lines to consider, too," Butler said. Once children connect with local farms they are more likely to eat vegetables, National Farm to School Network outreach director Debra Eschmeyer told Smydo, adding that farm-school partnerships are on the rise.

Butler's farmers-market meal will include more than 230 pounds of locally grown food, including blueberries, corn, mixed vegetables and ground beef. Local farmers will also be invited to the event on Sept. 16 to be recognized for their work. (Read more)

Post-office closure list shortened; rural offices still not on it, but postmasters have arguments ready

We noted last month that the U.S. Postal Service sent the Postal Regulatory Commission a list of 700 urban post offices it planned to close or consolidate. Some feared the list could be expanded to include rural post offices, partly because some rural posts in the United Kingdom are being closed, but those fears appear to have been averted. The Washington Post reports the Postal Service has revised the list, but only shortened it. (Read more)

In his Morning Meeting column for the Poynter Institute, Al Tompkins, who grew up in rural Western Kentucky, plays devil's advocate and asks: Why not close smaller rural offices? He links to a February position paper of the National League of Postmasters saying rural post offices should be kept open because rural Americans aren't "second-class citizens." (Read more)

"Rural post offices are the backbone of rural America and are an integral part of the social, political, and economic fabric of small towns. They are the glue that holds the nation's rural communities together. If a rural post office disappears, the town often disappears," the league writes. "An attack on rural post offices is an attack on rural America, as most rural citizens and all rural congressmen know well." (Read more)

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Electric officials fear Ga. mollusks' endangered-species designation would hurt hydropower output

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to add three species of North Georgia mollusks to the endagered species list, a move that the Southeastern Power Administration says would hurt hydroelectric power production. The habit designation for the mollusks may affect 160 miles of waterways across 11 counties in Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee, reports Andy Johns of the Chatanooga Times Free Press.

"Southeastern is specifically concerned with the fact that the [Service] knows little about the habitat requirements needed, yet proposes to list the entire reach of certain creeks and rivers as critical habitat," the federal agency wrote in a release. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has said it doesn't have any objections to the designation, but has asked for a chance to comment about its effects on hyrdoelectic power production after an economic analysis, Johns reports.

The Alabama Aquatic Biodiversity Center applauded the decision and said the critical-habitat ranges of the mollusks should be expanded, Johns reports. (Read more)

Environmental groups press case against Obama's choice to run Office of Surface Mining

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and other environmental groups have spoken out against President Barack Obama's nominee to lead the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. Obama chose former Pennsylvania mining regulator Joseph Pizarchik to head the office, a decision that environmental groups see as a failure of the administration to follow through on campaign promises to reform mining regulations, the Environmental News Service reports.

Asked about mountaintop removal during his conformation hearing, Pizarchik cited the rarity of the practice in Pennsylvania and said he wasn't familiar enough with it to make a policy statement. He promised to learn more about the perspectives of all groups involved in the moutaintop removal debate if confirmed, ENS reports. PEER also objects to Pizarchik's advocacy of disposing industrial coal ash in coal mine sites. The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources has yet to vote on Pizarchik's nomination.

Beverly Braverman of the Pennsylvania non-profit the Mountain Watershed Association wrote against Pizarchik's nomination because because of several environmentally dangerous policies that had expanded under his watch in Pennsylvania, ENS reports. "We need a consensus builder and someone who thinks outside of the box to help solve this nation's energy challenges, not someone who totes the company line regardless of the impacts," Baverman wrote in a statement. (Read more)

Swap-shop shows can offer glimpse of recession

"Swap Shop" and "Trading Post" programs have long been a staple of rural radio, a sort of free-classifieds-of-the air that may have been harbingers of Craigslist and eBay. Now P. J. Huffstutter of the Los Angeles Times finds that an over-the-air marketplace of an Ohio radio station offers a unique view of the impact of the recession on individual rural families. Sounds like a story most any rural news outlet could do.

"Three or four years ago, there used to be some days where the phones were dead," Chris Oaks of WFIN in Findlay told Huffstutter. "Now, we can't get everything in." In hosting Tradio, the "classified-ad section of the airwaves" for the station that reaches six largely rural counties, Oaks, left, has learned a lot about "life on the farms and blue-collared factory towns dotting the rolling hills" of Northwest Ohio, Hufstutter writes. "Every weekday at 11 a.m., he spends 30 minutes offering hope and the chance to make a few bucks." (Times photo by Jeffrey Sauger)

Oaks' callers range from sellers of wedding rings and dresses with the tags still on them, to older listeners looking for someone to talk to and families looking to move and sell their belongings quickly, Huffstutter reports. One regular listener called to sell a lawn mower and commercial carpet cleaner from his now-defunct business to pay for his medicine after esophageal-cancer surgery. "You can tell these are people who need to raise some cash. That becomes kind of tough," Oaks tells Huffstutter. "How do you react when people will say, I just lost my job, we need to raise money, so we're selling the car; or we're selling the TV we just bought?" (Read more)

Rural states with most to gain from health reform tend to have senators under fire from vocal foes

Some of the most vociferous opponents to reforms that could bring insurance to many employed rural Americans are those same rural Americans, reports James Oliphant of the Los Angeles Times. But Bill Bishop and Julie Ardery of the Daily Yonder take issue with the Times story, writing that "The relationships among geography, politics and health insurance aren’t so divisive and extremist as the Times and the TV screens would suggest."

Oliphant writes that senators from rural states with higher percentages of uninsured workers have been some of the most eager to work toward a health-care compromise, but those senators have faced vocal opposition from constituents.

A high percentage of employers across rural America are small businesses that don't offer health insurance, Oliphant reports. Western and Southern states also have lower incomes than other parts of the country but higher thresholds for Medicaid eligibility, leaving employed people without coverage. "The states that tend to be more conservative have a higher rate of people who are uninsured," Ron Pollack, director of pro-reform Families USA, tells Oliphant. "As a result, health-care reform is going to provide a disproportionate amount of resources to those states."

Bishop and Ardery note that a recent report on health-care coverage from the U. S. Census Bureau shows the counties with the lowest percentages of uninsured residents are overwhelmingly urban. Rural counties with the largest number of uninsured voted in a landslide for Sen. John McCain in the 2008 election, and the "national press has, for the most part, missed the facts and the variations in health insurance rates across rural America." (Read more)

Not all the public outcry in rural areas has been directed at health care reform, Jack Hatch, a Democratic state senator in Iowa, tells Oliphant. "I've been to a half a dozen of these [town hall meetings]," Hatch said. "There are maybe 15 to 20 percent of the people who are just angry with everything. They're angry with their economic situation. When we shift to health care, there's a lot less noise and a lot more questions." (Read more)

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

West Virginia rally latest example of coal interests mining the grassroots for lobbying boost

A rally and concert dubbed "Friends of America" by its pro-coal sponsors has become the latest example of a growing trend among grassroots organizing by coal interests. Law-enforcement officials are preparing to accommodate as many as 70,000 people for the Labor Day rally featuring musicians Hank Williams Jr., John Rich, Ted Nugent and conservative commentator Sean Hannity, David White of The Charleston Gazette reports.

"There obviously has been an increase in grassroots community-type action and demonstrations in this area," West Virginia University political science professor Chuck Smith told Michelle Saxton of the Charleston Daily Mail. "The most recent development is obviously in response to their concern that the people who are moving to have mountaintop removal ended are being increasingly successful in bringing public attention to that issue."

Saxton points to the Federation for American Coal, Energy, and Security, which bills itself as FACES of Coal, a coalition of more than 70 different organizations joined by a common support of the industry, joining Friends of America and Friends of Coal, created by the West Virginia Coal Association, in leading the new pro-coal grassroots movement. FACES coordinator Brian Brown told Saxton that the group is not a political or lobbying group but does encourage members to "voice their opinions on coal-related issues and benefits." (Read more)

The Labor Day rally will be held on a former surface mine in Logan County and is billed as a way "to stand up for American jobs," White reports. Massey Energy has joined with the coal association, International Coal Group and other corporate sponsors to fund the free concert. The Center for Biological Diversity, Credo Mobile and several anti-mountaintop-removal bloggers have urged Verizon Wireless to pull its sponsorship of the event. Verizon spokesman Jim Gerace told Ken Ward of the Charleston Gazette that the sponsorship amounted to a $1,000 payment to be able to sell their products at the rally, but that didn't stop ICG Vice President Gene Kitts from tweeting his appreciation for Verizon "supporting the working people who actually pay the cell phone bills, even for clueless kids." (Read more)

Coal is also calling on the musical tradition of the mountains in its new organizing strategy. Friends of America performers Taylor Made have published a song rallying against the environmentalist opponents of coal mining. "This is coal mining country, that's what we do, and we don't like you nosing around. For years we've had your kind trying to undermine the West Virginia underground," Taylor Made sings.

Selenium pollution may be the next big environmental issue for Appalachian coal

Environmental groups charged this week that state officials in Kentucky have failed to regulate dangerous levels of selenium in water and fish near coal mines in the Appalachian coalfield. The Kentucky Waterways Alliance and other groups allege that the state kept the information secret for two years, Andy Mead of the Lexington Herald-Leader reports.

Peter Goldman, assistant director of the state Division of Water, told Mead that an employee erred when he repeatedly denied an environmental group's request for selenium test results under the state Open Records Act. Mead reports the water downstream from one mine site and one road cut exceeded state water quality standards, and other mines showed elevated levels. Levels of selenium in fish was also found to have exceeded Environmental Protection Agency standards at three mine sites. The state released a new Clean Water Act general permit for mines in July, without selenium restrictions. (Read more)

Selenium levels in West Virginia's Mud River watershed have been pushed to the "brink of a major toxic event," Ken Ward of The Charleston Gazette reports. Ward also examines the Kentucky selenium reports and notes that environmental groups are hoping to use the data draw more attention to what they feel is a growing, unaddressed problem resulting from surface mining in Appalachia.

"As this Sierra Club fact sheet points out, selenium is a mineral that is beneficial to health in tiny, tiny amounts," Ward notes. "But it can also be very dangerous, especially to fish and other aquatic life, at only slightly larger amounts. That makes regulating it tricky, but also especially important, given the thin margin of safety involved." (Read more) Ward provides useful links to more information. One is a Sierra Club fact sheet, which notes, "Exposure can cause hair and fingernail loss, fatigue, and irritability. In the long term, selenium exposure can cause damage to the liver, the kidneys, and to the nervous and circulatory systems."

Freedom Communications, publisher of many rural papers, is latest to seek bankruptcy protection

Freedom Communications Inc., owner of 33 daily newspapers and 70 weeklies, has become at least the 10th newspaper publisher to file for bankruptcy protection in a year. The reorganization will decrease Freedom's debt from $770 million to $325 million, Mary Ann Milbourn reports for the Freedom newspaper The Orange County Register. (Read more)

In addition to its flagship paper, Freedom Communications owns many rural newspapers such as the Jacksonville Daily News in North Carolina. The chain's chief executive, Burl Osborne, told Michael Liedtke of The Associated Press that the reorganization gave the company a chance to realign its balance sheet "with the realities of today's media environment," and the company has enough cash to finance its operations and the filing wouldn't affect the day-to-day business. (Read more)

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Eastern Kentucky still waiting to be a tourist hub

"As Labor Day draws close, vacationers make their end-of-summer plans, and Kentucky’s mountain foliage begins to turn colorful, Eastern Kentucky still wonders when it will become a tourism hub," as many in the region have long hoped, J.J. Snidow writes for the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. (National Park Service photo: Cumberland Gap National Historical Park)While many political leaders push tourism as the key to the region’s development, others caution that such hopes are more flights of fancy than realistic plans for the future," Snidow writes. "Kentucky’s Appalachian coal counties have significantly fewer food and accommodations establishments -- bellwethers of a healthy tourism economy -- and on the average, generate about 30 percent less money from tourism than the other regions" of the state, known for horse farms, historic sites and recreational lakes.

Snidow reports that new golf courses in the region haven't prompted hoped-for resort development, and notes critics who fault the state for not doing enough to spur such development. Some officials want the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to allow more development on or near the shores of its lakes; others promote adventure tourism. And though reclaimed strip mines are home toa growing elk herd, the skeptics say the region's coal industry remains a disincentive for tourists. (Read more)

Meatpacker and Muslim workers hope this year's Ramadan doesn't see repeat of 2008 controversy

Officials at the JBS Swift meatpacking plant in Grand Island, Neb., are hoping that the controversy from the 2008 Ramadan observance doesn't return in 2009. Around 500 Muslim employees walked off the job last fall when plant officials refused to allow them time to pray. Pete Letheby of the Grand Island Independent reported Aug. 21 that JBS Swift is providing its Muslim employees rooms for prayer before breaking fast this year.

Even after the added accommodations for the 2009 Ramadan, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled last week that JBS Swift must do more to meet the religious needs of its Muslim employees, Tom Johnston of reports. A spokesperson for the Council on American-Islamic Relations told Johnston that the commission didn't recommend a solution, but urged the two sides to work toward one. (Read more)

The rulings came a week into Ramadan, and after JBS Swift had begun providing prayer rooms. JBS Swift spokesman Chandler Keys told Johnston the timing was unfortunate, but they were still working with the United Food and Commercial Workers, Muslim employees and commission to ensure there wasn't a repeat of the 2008 walkout.

During Ramadan, Muslims pray five times a day and fast from sunup to sundown. The evening prayer is made during a half-hour window after sunset but before dark. Prior to last year's Ramadan walkout, the plant employed 500 East African immigrants, including Sudanese Christians, Letheby reported. This year that number is down to around 400. Letheby wrote that Ramadan falling earlier in the year in 2009, with later sunsets, may help alleviate some of the trouble from 2008. (Read more)

Rural Texas high school sits at half capacity as town waits for suburban sprawl to reach it

The small town of Prosper, Texas, population 7,000, just opened a $113.5 million, 590,000-square-foot high school. While the school is built for a 2,000 students, it opened with only 850. District officials say that the school will soon fill as families move north from nearby, crowded Dallas suburbs like Frisco and McKinney, Jessica Meyers of the Dallas Morning News reports.

The school has three gyms, one of which is an college-style arena, a 1,000-seat auditorium, four computers and an interactive whiteboard in every classroom, a garage for auto mechanics and a wing dedicated to technical education, Meyers reports. The school isn't just a symbol of growth's march through once mainly rural Collin County, she writes; it is also a source of small-town Texas pride. (Encarta map)

The school district passed a $710 million school construction bond by an 80 percent public vote two years ago, Meyers reports. She quotes Prosper Independent School District Superintendent Drew Watkins: "This is more than bricks and mortar. This is a community facility. This is what the community wanted. And when they say best, they mean best, not just pretty good."

The community's discussion regarding the new high school hasn't ended with its opening. At the time of this posting, 42 comments had been left on Meyer's story, ranging from supportive parents happy that the school had invested in the state-of-the-art facility to tax payers angry that so much development went into the athletic facilities. (Read more)

Bullet supply struggles to keep up with demand apparently driven by fear of gun control

Demand for bullets has soared since the 2008 election, apparently from fears that the Obama administration will push stricter gun regulations. U.S. gun sales have increased since the National Rifle Association spent millions of dollars in advertisements during the election, suggesting a vote for Obama was a vote for new restrictions, reports W. J. Hennigan of the Los Angeles Times. NRA spokeswoman Rachel Parsons tells Hennigan it didn't take much convincing for Americans to believe Obama would increase gun control. (Times photo by Lawrence K. Ho) Obama said during his campaign that he supports an individual right to keep and bear arms and would not take away anyone's guns, but did support renewing the expired assault-weapons ban.

"Buying 9-millimeter ammo used to be like finding Coca-Cola," handgun owner Tak Shimada tells Hennigan. "It's not like that now." Bullet factories are running around the clock to meet the increased demand, Hennigan writes, adding that the National Shooting Sports Foundation Inc. expects about 2 billion more bullets to be made in 2009 than 2008's 7.5 billion.

Hennigan reports that for the first time in 20 years the Los Angeles Gun Club has limited customers to buying four boxes of ammunition per visit. The bullet shortage isn't only affecting gun owners, he reports: The U. S. military's demand for small-arms ammunition has almost quadrupled this decade, and the Riverside Police Department reports a 20 percent increase in its amunition bill and a 10-month waiting period for the order to be filled. (Read more)

Area where free medical clinics treat uninsured has ambitious plan for improving people's health

Every summer, the Virginia mountain town of Wise is the site of a huge free clinic where thousands of people without health-insurance coverage get free medical care. Though it is one of several such clinics in the U.S., it tends to get the most news coverage, perhaps because presidential candidate John Edwards stopped there in 2007. Wise County's main newspaper, The Coalfield Progress of Norton, has a story at the top of today's front page on a local effort "to improve the region’s health by coordinating the resources of existing health care systems, public health agencies, colleges and many others." (Progress photo of clinic by Melanie Lane)

"In the midst of a nationwide health care debate, big media has labeled Southwest Virginia as the place where Remote Area Medical sets up shop one weekend each summer to provide services that many people can’t otherwise get," Jeff Lester writes. "If the Southwest Virginia Health Authority has its way, the need for RAM to provide free dental, vision and other care in this region will be eliminated." His source for that is the authority's chairman, the state House of Delegates member who represents the area. The authority, created by the state legislature in 2006, can "accept grants, borrow money, acquire property and construct buildings," Lester notes, and has ambitious goals, including a dental school. (Read more; site is subscription-only)

Meanwhile, RAM has scheduled four more clinics this year in Appalachia: in Harriman, Tenn., Sept. 19-20; Jenkins, Ky., 18 miles across Pine Mountain from Wise, Sept. 26-27; Grundy, Va., 60 miles up the Cumberlands from Wise, Oct. 3-4; Winchester, Tenn., Oct. 17-18; and Maynardville, Tenn., Nov. 14-15. The Winchester clinic will also include a free veterinary clinic.

Rural school districts fear they are at a disadvantage when competing for stimulus grants

Some rural school administrators fear that the Obama administration's education policies give an edge to urban schools. Groups like the Rural School and Community Trust say that initiatives outlined in the Race to the Top Fund established by the stimulus plan "fail to recognize the distinctive problems facing rural school districts, Michele McNeal of Education Week reports.

The Race to the Top Fund will provide competitive grants to states based on large-scale education improvement. One criterion for evaluating state plans is the creation of charter schools. McNeal points to states like South Dakota, with fewer than 300 students in half of the school districts, and Montana, with fewer than 100 students in half the districts, as examples of rural areas that may be penalized for their small populations. She quotes South Dakota Democratic state Sen. Sandy Jerstad: "Charter schools just don’t work for us, and I hate to see the whole issue of charter schools be a criterion for federal funding."

Rural educators took further offense when Education Secretary Arne Duncan (right) wrote, "Rural schools shouldn’t let their unique challenges become excuses for keeping the status quo" in an Education Week commentary, McNeal reports. She notes that the unique challenges rural educators face include teacher and principal recruitment, small central-office staffs and peer-review of teachers. McNeal writes that most of the secretary's answers at at a town hall in Hamlet, N.C., part of the Obama administration's Rural Tour, didn't "distinguish the problems of rural districts from those of their urban counterparts." (AP photo by Charles Rex Arbogast)

The Department of Education responds to the worries of rural educators by saying that charter school creation is only one criterion of the Race to the Top Fund, and that nothing in the fund disadvantages states with large rural populations. McNeal quotes Race to the Top Fund Director Joanne Weiss: "We’re definitely very concerned about helping to make sure rural schools have all of the different tools and supports to improve.” (Read more)

Monday, August 31, 2009

Check the Rural Calendar for upcoming events

The Web site of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues has a Rural Calendar, an eclectic compilation of upcoming events of interest to rural journalists and others interested in rural issues. The eclectic nature of the calendar is shown by its current headlines:
Sept. 3-4: Appalshop filmmakers at Berea College in Kentucky
Sept. 15: Rural economic growth panel in Washington
Oct. 2: Storytelling workshop in Ky. for rural journalists (early registration deadline is this Friday, Sept. 4)
Oct. 6-10: Society of Environmental Journalists, Madison, Wis.
Oct. 17: Kentucky Conservation Committee annual meeting

Here's a list of coal-ash dumps; is one near you?

The U.S. has 584 sites where coal ash is dumped, "almost twice as many as previously identified," reports Facing South, the online magazine of the Institute for Southern Studies. The South is a major focus of concern about coal ash because of the region's many coal-fired power plants and the brobdingnagian spill caused by failure of a Tennessee Valley Authority ash pond (Roane County News photo). The Environmental Protection Agency gathered the data in response to the spill, and released it in response to a Freedom of Information Act request from three environmental groups.

The list "reveals ownership, location, hazard potential, year commissioned, type and quantity of coal combustion waste disposed, dates of the last regulatory or company assessment and in some instances whether an unregulated discharge of ash has occurred," Sue Sturgis reports. "However, some critical data is missing because companies are claiming it's confidential business information. Duke Energy, Progress Energy and the Southern Co.'s Alabama Power and Georgia Power are among the corporations withholding information on 74 coal ash dump sites, including some of the country's largest ash dumps." Some ash is dumped wet, some dry. (Read more)

UPDATE, Sept. 1: Jim Bruggers of The Courier-Journal reports that Kentucky and Indiana lead the nation in coal-ash ponds.

Meanwhile, Shaila Dewan of The New York Times catches up on the controversy over a poor Alabama county's acceptance of ash from the Tennessee spill and the millions of dollars that is part of the deal.

Ted Kennedy was a friend to rural America, particularly the poor, and especially in Appalachia

This is a bit late, because of our academic and professional schedules, but The Rural Blog would be remiss if we did not note that Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who was buried over the weekend, was a friend of rural America, particularly the rural poor, and especially those in Appalachia.

Kennedy showed that many times. One example was a 1983 trip that focused on hunger and concluded in Eastern Kentucky, where he also threw a national spotlight on poverty and health problems in the region, with the help of the local congressman, Carl D. Perkins (at left in an Anne Lewis film from Appalshop), who was chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee. Eight and a half months later, Kennedy was back in the same area, to speak at the funeral of Perkins , whom he called "one of the few true giants among the men and women who have shaped the destiny of America." It took one to know one.

Wind energy attracting big investments again

A federal program offering cash grants to help fund alternative-energy investments has helped spur renewed investment in wind energy, according to The Wall Street Journal. Russell Gold reports "after a six-month lull, Wall Street is getting back into the business of financing new wind farms."

Gold writes that Morgan Stanley and Citigroup Inc. have separately invested $100 million to finance wind farms. He reports that under the new program the government will give companies a 30 percent cash rebate for the cost of building a renewable-energy facility. The Department of Energy and Department of Treasury expect to spend $3 billion on the program. (Journal chart)

Not everyone is convinced the program will work. Gold quotes a spokesperson for Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., "We are concerned that this may evolve into a Cash for Clunkers version 2.0." Unlike that program, Gold reports, the government has placed no spending cap on renewable energy grants and is committed to spending as much as is needed. (Read more; may require subscription)

Gold's story comes on the heels of Business First of Louisville's report Friday that Kentucky's two largest utilities, Louisville Gas and Electric Co. and Kentucky Utilities Co., filed a "notice of intent" to add wind energy to their profiles of energy service. Kentucky has relatively little wind-energy potential; the subsidiaries of E.ON U.S. plan to get theirs from Illinois. (Read more)

Stimulus focuses fresh attention on broadband as a key to rural economic development

New stimulus-funded broadband development in rural America may be the key to reversing the exodus of the rural workforce to urban areas. The National Telecommunications and Information Administration and the Rural Utilities Service have received 2,200 applications for the money.

For example, Dale Neal of the Asheville Citizen-Times reports Internet providers, nonprofits and government agencies joined to apply for more than $30 million of the stimulus to improve broadband access in rural western North Carolina, arguing that increased Internet access in North Carolina will help bring jobs to the region.

Indrajit Basu of Government Technology reports that increased broadband access in rural areas has led information-technology firms to build a sustainable model for "rural outscourcing" in the U.S. The recession has led U. S. companies to favor domestic outsourcing because of the lower startup costs compared to sending jobs overseas, Basu writes, and broadband development may curb the trend of people leaving their homes to find work. He quotes Hytry Derrington of Rural America Onshore Sourcing, a Louisville-based IT firm: "People can leave the urban areas and go to the rural areas and build their businesses, provide services, make products and compete worldwide from small communities."

Craig Settles of The Daily Yonder argues that the key to successful broadband development is finding a commercial customer base to sustain the development. Settles writes that any broadband owner will have to "generate enough revenue to cover buildout and operating cost." He argues that to accomplish this goal, broadband developers must market toward county governments, schools and other institutional customers to remain profitable.

Settles cites as an example the Pulaski Electric System of Tennessee, a municipal utility that is building a high-speed, fiber-optic system. (Pulaski Electric photo) Dan Speer, executive director of the Pulaski-Giles County Economic Development Council, told Settles, “The World Wide Wait is over in Pulaski." (Read more)