Friday, November 27, 2009

Homes for unwanted horses get harder to find

We have often reported, most recently in October, how the recession and lack of U.S. horse slaughter plants had caused a glut of horses. Now horse rescues are having to turn unwanted horses away, Jack Brammer of the Frederick News Post in Maryland reports. According to a 2009 survey of horse industry officials, conducted by The Unwanted Horse Coalition, more than 90 percent believed the number of unwanted, neglected and/or abused horses to be growing.

Horses removed from racing due to injury or poor performance are sometimes recommissioned as event horses, personal riding horses or family pets, but many fall through the cracks, Brammer reports. Horse rescues, like other industries dependent on charitable giving, have been hit hard by the recession, while the number of unwanted horses is increasing beyond their capacity.

The survey also revealed six of 10 rescue facilities are at or near capacity and, on average, turn away nearly 40 percent of the horses brought to them. The closing of the last of the U.S. processing plants, changes in the demands for certain breeds, indiscriminate breeding and the high cost of euthanasia were all given as reasons for the increased number of unwanted horses. Diana Pikulski, executive director of the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, told Brammer, "The Thoroughbred industry needs to show the American public that it is taking affirmative steps to protect its horses by developing industry-wide mechanisms for humane retirement." (Read more)

Recession may keep U.S. from using ethanol Congress ordered; EPA ponders blend change

Two years ago Congress mandated that the U.S. use at least 15 billion gallons of renewable fuels by 2012, up from seven billion in 2007. Now the recessionary drop in demand for gasoline has some wondering if the country will ever use that much biofuel. Ethanol proponents say the Environmental Protection Agency must increase the allowable ethanol blend in gasoline at the pump to meet the mandate, Matthew L. Wald of The New York Times reports.

EPA may increase the current 10 percent blending standard as early as next week, but that decision would have several detractors. The automobile industry says an increase would harm catalytic converters that control automobile pollution. Converters are supposed to last 120,000 to 150,000 miles, Wald reports, but the industry says more ethanol in gas could drop the life expectancy as low as 50,000 miles. EPA could decide to wait for more information about ethanol's affect on cars, but that would only delay the difficult decision.

EPA could waive the mandate that requires large volumes of biofuels to be used, but that decision would anger corn farmers, who gain from ethanol production. Efforts to produce ethanol from waste materials might also be undermined, Wald reports. Increased use of E85, which is 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline, would boost the saturated ethanol market, but only cars equipped with flex-fuel technology can use E85 and the fuel costs 31 cents more per gallon after decreased mileage is considered. For now, Wald writes, the event most likely to spur increased ethanol demand would be a return of $4-a-gallon gasoline. (Read more)

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Tasty Thanksgiving leftover: Interactive maps show which recipes were sought most or least, by state

Kentucky is the corn-pudding capital of America, and its mother state, Virginia, is runner-up. But in West Virginia, the traditional Thanksgiving dish seems less popular than nationwide, based on geographic counts of search terms typed into, as reported by Kim Severson of The New York Times.

Kentucky is also the leader in broccoli casserole. Green bean casserole is most favored in Montana, Wyoming and Nevada. Sweet potato pie is clearly a delicacy of the old Confederacy, but pecan pie is by far an Arkansas concoction. And the most interest in pecan pie is found in Utah. Of course, because these rankings are based on searches, they don't include people who already know a recipe. Maybe that's why the Southeast ranked below average in searches for "sweet potatoes." But the Times has assembled a great interactive map showing the top 50 search terms, state by state.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Something we can all give thanks for: A man is free because a journalist and a newspaper cared

One of the most thankful Americans tomorrow may be Lebrew Jones, and he is doubtless grateful to a journalist, Christine Young of the Times Herald-Record in Middletown, N.Y. She thought he was wrongfully convicted for the murder of a Manhattan prostitute, and her reporting led to his release on parole last week. "In a decision that one legal expert called 'basically unheard of,' the state granted him parole after his first interview," Steve Israel of the THR reported. (THR photo by Chet Gordon)

Al Tompkins of The Poynter Institute has been following this story for a year or more, highlighting the "remarkable multimedia presentation" the 70,000-circulation newspaper assembled. She told him in an interview, "This story cost the newspaper a small fortune, and Derek Osenenko, the executive editor, and Joe Vanderhoof, the publisher, could have spiked it and didn't, just because they wanted to do the right thing. How great is that? How rare is that in a for-profit business?"

Asked how she was feeling about the role of journalism these days, Young (right) said, "It is the foundation of our freedom. It is under-appreciated and shamefully undervalued, even by the leaders in our profession, and that breaks my heart. As for journalism and justice, the world is filled with injustice, and the joy of being a journalist is being blessed with the opportunity to right it, even once." Amen, and amen. We are thankful for Christine Young and journalists like her.

National Farmers Union backs Senate health bill, focuses on Arkansas, Nebraska and Maine

The National Farmers Union, which represents about 250,000 households, endorsed the Senate health-care reform bill yesterday and "stressed the importance of major health care legislation to agricultural workers in Arkansas, Maine and Nebraska. Those states, of course, were carefully chosen," reports David Herszenhorn of The New York Times.

Herszenhorn notes that Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., has threatened to oppose the bill "if big changes are not made," especially over the "public option that would compete with private insurers. Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., has said likewise, and "has also suggested that the bill is too expensive, and that it should focus more immediately on controlling the rise of health care costs for everyone rather than on expanding health benefits to the more than 30 million citizens currently uninsured."

Maine Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe "are viewed as the most likely members of their party to potentially support the bill. But both of them voted against starting debate of the bill, and they have said that the legislation would have to be rewritten substantially to win their support," Herszenhorn writes.

Members from the three states joined NFU President Roger Johnson in a conference call with reporters. "He and others cited statistics showing that while the vast majority of American farmers have health insurance, it tends to be much more expensive for them and provide less comprehensive coverage," the Times reports. "About one-third of farmers and rural Americans buy their own individual and family policies compared to about 8 percent of the nation as a whole, they said."

Herszenhorn notes that the much larger American Farm Bureau Federation "has raised serious concerns about the bill" and opposes the public option and a provision in the House version that "would require most employers to provide insurance to their workers." (Read more) The House bill would exempt employers of fewer than 25 and an annual payroll of no more than $500,000. The Senate bill would require an employer that doesn’t offer coverage to pay a fee for every full-time employee if any of its employees qualified for a tax credit to buy health insurance. For comparisons from the Kaiser Family Foundation, click here.

Court budget cuts slow justice, reduce security

We rarely get a story idea from an editorial, but one in today's New York Times told us something we didn't know: In many states, justice is being delayed because of budget cuts in state court systems. In most states, state courts are also local courts, so there may be a story in what's going on in yours. Margaret Marshall, the chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, told the New York City Bar Association last month that state courts across the country stand at “the tipping point of dysfunction,” the Times reports. It adds some examples:

"New Hampshire ... suspended civil and criminal jury trials in 8 of 10 county courts for one month each between last December and June. In California, state courthouses are closed for business on the third Wednesday of every month. Iowa is planning to close all state courts for several days before the state’s fiscal year ends on June 30. ... In Georgia, it can take 60 days to hold a hearing in a temporary custody case that used to take just a few weeks. In other states as well, spending cuts have led to fewer court dates available for hearing and trials, creating a growing backlog of cases. With priority given to serious criminal matters, there is a looming threat to the civil justice system, and its ability to vindicate people’s rights, and to foster economic growth and stability by enforcing business contracts in a timely manner."

The problems go beyond judicial process to security. Citing the National Center for State Courts, the editorial says many court security personnel have lost their jobs. "In Maine, for instance, magnetic security machines at local courthouses are no longer regularly manned. In Alabama, says the immediate past president of the Alabama Bar Association, Mark White, fiscally driven “compromises in service and security are creating a situation ripe for disaster.” Better check to see what's happening at your courthouse(s).

Columnist: Obama out of touch with Main Street

The team of economic advisers assembled by President Obama is woefully out of touch with Main Street, America, says a rural; business. "Operating a business on Main Street is a lot different than lecturing at the Harvard Economic Club," Richmond, Ky.-based Don McNay writes on The Huffington Post. "The team President Obama surrounded himself with has spent way more time in a faculty lounge than in the corner barber shop. "

McNay writes that those on Main Street knew from Day One that the Obama team wouldn't understand the problems of regular Americans. He says there is nothing in their backgrounds to suggest they would. "I don’t blame the people Obama appointed," McNay writes. "I blame the guy who appointed them."

"We have not had change on the economic front because Obama chose his advisers from the same bunch of Wall Street and Washington insiders that George W. Bush chose from," McNay writes. To solve the U.S. economic plight, McNay advocates forming policies based on Main Street interests. Only then, he says, can Americans see the change they were promised during the presidential campaign. (Read more)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

One way to say thanks on Thanksgiving Day

Our friend Tom FitzGerald sends out this poem every Thanksgiving, and we are always thankful that he does. It's by Marian Wright Edelman.

God, we thank You for this food
for the hands that planted it
for the hands that tended it
for the hands that harvested it
for the hands that prepared it
for the hands that provided it
and for the hands that served it.
And we pray for those without enough food
in Your world and in our land of plenty.

Police: Census worker labeled 'fed' killed himself

The part-time Census worker who was found dead with "FED" written on his chest and his government ID taped to his forehead "killed himself but tried to make the death look like a murder, authorities have concluded," Bill Estep reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. Bill Sparkman, 51, "apparently was trying to preserve payments under life insurance policies." Police said Sparkman discussed his plan with a friend a few days before he carried it out in early September. (Photo by Tara Kaprowy, Community Newspaper Holdings Inc.)

The case got wide media coverage and Internet comment, including speculation that Sparkman was killed out of hatred of the federal government, the longtime enemy of marijuana growers that contribute heavily to southeastern Kentucky's poor economy -- and that more recently has become the adversary of local officials and political supporters snared in a Department of Justice corruption investigation. Liberal commenters "were trying to turn Bill Sparkman into a sacrificial lamb for ObamaCare," Manchester Enterprise editor Morgan Bowling told Robert Stacy McCain of The American Spectator, a conservative publication.

Sparkman's alleged ruse worked well "in a media environment where the public seems to prefer ideology, opinion, speculation and outrage over fact and reason," Herald-Leader columnist Tom Eblen writes. "Hateful and irresponsible speech comes from the political left as well as the right. Until the public rediscovers the difference between news and entertainment, journalism and advocacy, people like Bill Sparkman will continue playing the talking heads for fools." Estep reports, "Many people felt the speculation and coverage of the death played on Appalachian stereotypes and gave Clay County an undeserved black eye," Estep reports, and state Senate Majority Leader Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, said many in the news media owe the county an apology.

Charles House, former editor of the Enterprise and The Sentinel-Echo in nearby London, told Carl Keith Greene of The Times-Tribune in nearby Corbin that the news-media treatment was “like the things they’ve done over the last 30 or 40 years with the TV networks. When they have a Clay County story they prepare their script in advance. Then they send their producer here and they find the requisite number of stereotypes to mouth the words for their script. They pose them in the stereotypical setting, usually Pat’s Pool Room. And the story tells itself. Then they go home and everybody’s happy, except for Clay County (Wikipedia map), which has been smeared once again.” (Read more)

Police said there was no evidence of a struggle and "FED" was written from bottom to top, indicating that Sparkman wrote it. His hands were bound with duct tape, but loosely enough to allow him to create without help the conditions found at the scene. A cancer survivor, Sparkman told a friend he believed the disease had returned and he would die. However, there was no physical evidence of that. "He had significant debt and didn't have a full-time job," Estep reports, citing State Police Capt. Lisa Rudzinski, commander of the London post.

"Sparkman’s son, Josh, had questioned previous reports his father may have committed suicide," reports Ronnie Ellis of CNHI News Service. "Rudzinski said investigators met with Josh Sparkman who she said 'understands why we waited as long as we did' to announce the results of their investigation. 'Our hearts go out to him,' she said."

Marijuana legalization is more popular than ever

Support for legalizing marijuana may be at an all-time high, after several recent developments. Maine voters decided earlier this month to allow the sale of over-the-counter medical marijuana at state-licensed dispensaries, and the American Medical Association reversed its previous position by urging the federal government to remove marijuana from Schedule 1 of the Controlled Substances Act, Karl Vick of The Washington Post reports. The news will encourage those who see cannabis sativa as a new source of farm income, both for medicinal purposes and hemp.

Neither of the recenmt developments may have helped marijuana's cause more than the election of President Barack Obama. The president followed through on a campaign promise to halt federal prosecutions of medical marijuana use where permitted by state law, Vick reports. Obama is also the third consecutive president to admit to having smoked marijuana, but the first to regard it with something close to nonchalance. The president's attitude may be a reflection of the generational change that saw a record 44 percent of Americans favor full legalization of marijuana in an October Gallup Poll.

"Anti-drug advocates counter with surveys showing high school students nationwide already are more likely to smoke marijuana than tobacco -- and that the five states with the highest rate of adolescent pot use permit medical marijuana," Vick writes. Advocates for legalization say evidence suggests violence associated with the marijuana trade flows from its prohibition. Bruce Merkin, communications director for the D.C.-based advocacy group, Marijuana Policy Project, told Vick, "There is a reason you don't have Mexican beer cartels planting fields of hops in the California forests." (Read more)

RFK Jr., Appalachian coal boss to debate Jan. 21

Debates between environmentalists and coal industry advocates are not uncommon, but you will have a hard time finding two more polarizing figures for a debate than the University of Charleston has booked for Jan. 21. Massey Energy Chief Executive Officer Don Blankenship and environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. will debate mountaintop-removal mining, U.S. energy policy, climate change and other topics at UC's Geary Auditorium, Davin White of The Charleston Gazette reports.

Kennedy is the president of Waterkeeper Alliance, chief prosecuting attorney for the Hudson Riverkeeper and the son of the late U.S. senator and attorney general. In a recent column in The Washington Post, he referred to mountaintop removal as "the greatest environmental tragedy ever to befall our nation." Blankenship, head of the leading coal company in Central Appalachia, described global warming as "pure make-believe" at a Labor Day pro-coal rally he organized in West Virginia.

UC President Ed Welch told White, Kennedy and Blankenship would each receive 200 tickets to give to whomever they chose. The remaining 400 to 500 tickets will go to UC students, faculty and staff, the school's board of trustees and political officials. (Read more)

Voracious, invasive Asian carp may be closer to the Great Lakes than thought

Last year we reported that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was fighting to keep the Asian carp from the Great Lakes. The latest data show the fish may be closer to Lake Michigan than previously thought. To halt the carps' migration toward the lake, the Corps built an underwater electric fence across the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal two miles from the lake. David Lodge, director of the Center for Aquatic Conservation at the University of Notre Dame, recently performed "environmental DNA" tests that show the carp may be north of the barrier.

"You can think of this e-DNA as the equivalent for environmental protection of, say, using DNA in crime fighting to detect whether someone was at the crime scene," Lodge told Robert Seigel of National Public Radio's All Things Considered. "So, we don't actually have a body, but we have DNA." The fish were originally brought to the U.S. to control nuisance algae, but they escaped and migrated to the Mississippi River basin. The Chicago canal connects the system to the lake.

The carp are highly invasive, with huge appetites, and Lodge and other scientists fear they could overwhelm native Great Lakes species, NPR reports. Lodge told Seigel he doesn't know for sure what effect the carp would have on the Great Lakes, but "there's lots of reasons to think they would be highly damaging." Even though his data show carp may be closer to the lake than previously thought, Lodge says its important to go ahead with previous plans to poison a 5- to 6- mile area near the canal to reduce carp populations. (Read more)

UPDATE, Dec. 8: Mark Guarino of the Christian Science Monitor reported Dec. 4 on the Dec. 2 poisoning of the canal, the possibility of Michigan suing Illinois, and more drastic action, such as closing a lock on the canal or closing the canal permanently.

Aging but able nuclear fleet may be a key to thwarting climate change in the short term

U.S. nuclear energy plants were commissioned to last 40 years, but the average plant may now stay in working condition for another 50 or 70 years before it is retired. The recently improved ability of engineers to replace parts in facilities that were designed to last a plant's entire lifespan has pushed nuclear to the front of some strategic energy plans to thwart climate change, Paul Voosen of Greenwire reports for The New York Times.

The recent push for alternative energy sources has lead the Department of Energy to research nuclear power as a "long-term operation" for the first time, Voosen reports. The oldest U.S. commercial plants turned 40 this year, and the average plant is 30 years old. Already more than half of the nation's reactors have had their original licenses extended for an additional two decades, Voosen writes, and most of the rest are expected to win such decisions. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission says it expects the first 80-year permit to be applied for in the next five years.

Engineers say they have already replaced almost every part in a nuclear plant at some point, with the lone exceptions being the critical elements: the reactor pressure vessel and the concrete containment structure. In Russia, engineers have piloted an effort to replace pressure vessels, Voosen reports, but the process is very expensive and challenging. Current DOE research revolves around the long-term effect of radiation on concrete, a phenomenon that is still poorly understood. Gary Was, the director of the University of Michigan's Phoenix Energy Institute, says these questions have to be answered to support energy demand: "Without relicensing, we go off a cliff five years from now." (Read more)

Monday, November 23, 2009

Associated Press consolidates state editors

As part of the restructuring plan that saw The Associated Press dismiss or lay off 90 union members last week, raising concerns about delivery of state news to rural news outlets, several AP news editors across the country have new states under their jurisdiction. Today the news cooperative announced that it had assigned six news editors to oversee multi-state jurisdictions.

The news editor in Tennessee will now also oversee Kentucky AP, which lost one of its two state-capital reporters (the most experienced one) in the payroll reduction. The news editor in West Virginia will now also oversee operations in Virginia, which lost its Roanoke reporter. In both cases, the smaller states had lost their bureau chiefs a few years ago and have since been overseen by a chief in the larger state. Similar moves were made across the nation.

In the latest realignment, the news editor in Arkansas will add Oklahoma to her oversight. Some changes involve more than two states. The news editor in Nebraska has been named the Great Plains news editor, adding North and South Dakota to his responsibility. The New England news editor will add oversight of Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine to her current responsibilities in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Finally, the news editor for Maryland and Delaware will also oversee the Mid-Atlantic bureau in Washington, D.C. (Read more)

Tennessee judge overturns controversial gun law

We reported in May that the Tennessee legislature had overridden Gov. Phil Bredsen's veto to enact a bill that would allow concealed deadly weapons to be carried in restaurants that serve alcohol. Now a Nashville judge has ruled the law unconstitutional because it is "fraught with ambiguity," Clay Carey and Michael Cass of The Tennessean report. The law made it legal for gun owners to carry weapons in restaurants that served alcohol, but many said it wasn't clear as to the distinction between a restaurant and a bar.

State Sen. Doug Jackson, who sponsored the Senate bill permitting guns in bars, said the law's problems revolve around semantics, not the public policy, and he could propose a new bill as early as next week for the legislature to consider when it reconvenes in January. The state also has the option to appeal the court's ruling. (Read more)

Most-read stories on The Rural Blog last week

This is a measure of page views of individual items (usually via links sent by us or readers) and does not reflect readership by those who view the blog as a whole.
AP layoffs underway; hit at least one state capital (Kentucky's)
Appalachia, Black Belt highest in diabetes, obesity; CDC has first national, county-by-county maps
Dell closure of new N.C. plant shows need to stop chasing 'footloose industry,' economic expert says
EPA study shows widespread mercury and PCB contamination of U.S. lakes

From 2003 to 2008, poverty grew twice as fast in rural counties as it did in metropolitan areas

New census data show the number of Americans living in poverty increased by 3.2 million between 2003 and 2008, with a disproportionate increase in rural areas. Rural counties were home to just 16 percent of the U.S. population in 2008, but accounted for 33 percent of the increase in poor Americans between 2003 and 2008, Bill Bishop of the Daily Yonder reports. A two-person household was defined as poor if it had an income less than $14,051, and a four-person household had to have an income less than $22,025.

In 2003, 12.3 percent of urban Americans and 13.9 percent of rural Americans lived below the poverty line, Bishop reports, but in 2008 12.7 percent of urban Americans and 16.3 percent of rural Americans lived below the line, more than doubling the percentage-point gap between the two groups. The trend was widespread; only 345 of the 2,577 rural counties or exurban counties (metropolitan-area counties a significant rural population) counties saw poverty rates decrease.

The Daily Yonder has assembled an excellent resource for journalists with the 2003 and 2008 data for each county in a spreadsheet. We used that data to assemble a list of the 20 counties where the percentage of the population in poverty increased most from 2003 to 2008. Note that 18 of them were rural.

The rural counties with the lowest poverty rates were found predominantly in the Mountain West, Bishop reports. Ski-resort counties like Tenton, Wyo., and Pitkin, Colo., seemed immune to the poverty rate increase. The poorest counties from decades ago remain mostly the poorest counties today. Counties in Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta, South Texas and those dominated by Native American tribes still retain some of the highest rates. (Yonder map)

Thanksgiving meal has evolved regionally

UPDATE, Nov. 26: Kim Severson of The New York Times uses traffic counts at recipe Web sites to track regional preferences for Thanksgiving meals. Read about it here, see interactive map here; Kentucky and Virginia are runaway leaders in requests for corn pudding recipes.

Thanksgiving dinner has become a nationwide tradition, but it may look very different from place to place. Thanksgiving spread from New England in the mid-19th Century partly with with the hope the observance would help ease harsh feelings between the North and South, Charles Perry of the Los Angeles Times reports, but the whole country didn't immediately latch on to the holiday. (Times photo by Kirk McKoy highlights stuffed acorn squash)

Many Puritan New Englanders refused to celebrate Christmas, citing the lack of a scriptural warrant for Dec. 25 as the date of the birth of Christ, until the 19th Century, so Southerners initially distrusted Thanksgiving as some sort of "bogus Yankee imitation" of Christmas, Perry writes. That initial distrust is just one of the reasons Southern Thanksgiving has become a rather distinctive meal. Red meat like ham or roast beef is often served alongside turkey in the South, and side dishes like cornbread stuffing, sweet potatoes with pecans, macaroni and cheese, potato salad and ambrosia have become Southern Thanksgiving facets.

The Midwest meal may feature sweet potatoes topped with marshmallow, boiled squash or any number of German and Scandinavian influences, Perry reports. In the Pacific Northwest, the 19th century craze for oysters is still prominent in Thanksgiving meals. The only dishes you're almost guaranteed to see on the dinner table Thursday across the country are turkey and cranberries, so don't expect those to vanish anytime soon. What will Thanksgiving look like by 2019? Perry answers, "My guess is it won't be a complete free-for-all of eclecticism, because families need traditions, and so do countries." (Read more)

Rural real-estate columnist says we need more deer hunters and dead does to control population

While most people will likely look forward to the upcoming holiday as a chance to see family and take a break from work, "Country Real Estate" columnist Curtis Seltzer hopes the vacation time will see more hunters helping to control a growing problem: deer overpopulation. "Unlimited hunting reduced America’s white-tail deer population to about 300,000 in the 1930s," Seltzer writes. "Today, the herd is estimated at about 30 million, and much of our hunting focuses on big bucks with big racks."

Deer cause an estimated $2 billion annual damage to forests, crops, landscape vegetation and vehicles, Seltzer reports. Suburbs have provided ample food supply for deer with very little threat of predators. "Deer do best on developed land, not old-growth forest," Seltzer writes "Backyards, golf courses, parks, power-line easements — it’s easy for them to make a living off modern American life."

To control the deer population, Seltzer says, hunters will need more incentive to kill does, and he proposes tax incentives for hunters who donate unwanted doe meat to programs to feed the needy. He acknowledges that hunting for population control, especially near suburbs, is not without risks (see this item), but writes, "The alternatives — habitat management, fences, bioengineering, repellents, etc. — are usually too costly, unwieldy or ineffective." The first Thanksgiving dinner was likely centered on venison, but this Thanksgiving Corky Seltzer and others are hoping for fewer deer. For his column via Landthink, click here)