Friday, August 06, 2010

Tribute to family doctor recalls impact of one man on his rural community

An essay in the Annals of Family Medicine recounts the memorial service honoring Dr. John Anderson, a family practioner of more than 30 years in a rural Washington community. "Dr. John had become part of the landscape, and the geography of the town just changed," wrote William R. Phillips and Larry A. Green, two doctors who had been friends of Anderson. The doctors attended the memorial service and were touched by the outpouring from the community. "Most of what we heard and saw that day was about years of service, days (and some nights) of caring, and moments of tenderness. ... What we did not hear was talk about technology, systems, or efficiency. ... It was powerful testimony to the value that personal doctoring offers to patients, families, communities, and to the future."

Anderson was a founder of the National Rural Health Association and through it connected to countless other small towns and health care teams across the nation. "No one felt the need to exaggerate virtues or downplay the burdens of being a good doctor in a small town; the people who dwelled in this community knew John and the job he did." As one person said at the service, "Thank you to the Doc Andersons everywhere." (Read more)

Google-Verizon deal would be blow to net neutrality

Google and Verizon are negotiating an agreement that would have Google pay Verizon to "speed some online content to Internet users more quickly if the content’s creators are willing to pay for the privilege," The New York Times reports. Such an agreement would be a serious blow to "net neutrality" advocates, who say the Internet should be free and open with no content being favored over any other, Edward Wyatt writes for the Times. "The charges could be paid by companies, like YouTube, owned by Google, for example, to Verizon, one of the nation’s leading Internet service providers, to ensure that its content received priority as it made its way to consumers," Wyatt writes. "The agreement could eventually lead to higher charges for Internet users."

The Federal Communications Commission moved in June to reclassify the Internet as a telecommunications service, giving the commission power to mandate net neutrality, a key element to the Obama Administration's national broadband plan. "People close to the negotiations who were not authorized to speak publicly about them said an agreement could be reached as soon as next week," Wyatt writes. Spokespersons for each company declined to comment on the rumored negotiations, and while such a deal would affect only those two companies it might "sway the opinions of lawmakers, many of whom have questioned the wisdom of the F.C.C.’s plans to oversee broadband service," Wyatt writes. (Read more)

Google moved to deny the Times story Thursday afternoon. "The New York Times is quite simply wrong," a Google spokesman told Ashby Jones of The Wall Street Journal in an email. "We have not had any conversations with Verizon about paying for carriage of Google or YouTube traffic. We remain as committed as we always have been to an open Internet." (Read more)

Summer's end feeds a delightful blackberry addiction

While the modern blackberry addiction is someone with an inappropriate attachment to a cell phone, this is the time of year for a different type of blackberry addiction. "The BlackBerries to which others are wed are pesky, ubiquitous metallic objects. I see Manhattan lawyers, Albany lobbyists, and Amtrak business travelers tethered to these devices all the time," New York farmer Mark Scherzer writes for Rural Intelligence. "My blackberry liaison is longingly anticipated and, when finally consummated each mid-summer, filled with rapture. I connect with the fruits of a living blackberry cane, or more precisely (and promiscuously) with dozens, right there in our backyard."

Scherzer grows Illini blackberries, right, named for the University of Illinois where they were originally bred. "The canes were specifically developed to survive the winter in hardiness Zone 5," Scherzer writes. "No, it’s not an heirloom variety, but we planted it because we wanted a high degree of confidence that it would survive the coldest of our winters, and it has." While purists might criticize the larger size of the Illini berry compared with wild blackberries, Scherzer writes none of the taste has been lost due to the size increase. (Photo by Scherzer)

"They are big enough to fill a pint container quickly," Scherzer writes. "As you might expect, there is a certain art to picking. The berries that have red druplets on them or that have to be pulled off the bush are still a bit tart for eating, though their higher pectin content makes them excellent for jam." As for possible recipes to use the blackberries, Scherzer argues "any further 'preparation' of the berries seems almost desecration to me." Instead he writes all you need to do is "take them home, rinse them off, put them in a bowl, and feast." (Read more)

Genetically modified canola plants breed in wild

A new study suggest genetically modified farm crops are spreading into the wild. "A survey of North Dakota has turned up hundreds of genetically modified canola plants growing along roads across the state," Geoffrey Brumfiel of National Public Radio reports. "The results, presented Friday at the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America in Pittsburgh, show that the vast majority of feral canola plants in the state contain artificial genes that make them resistant to herbicides." Cindy Sagers, an ecologist at the University of Arkansas who led the study, said researchers found two plants that contained traits from multiple modified varieties, suggesting genetically modified plants are breeding in the wild.

"What we've demonstrated in this study is a large-scale escape of a genetically modified crop in the United States," Sager told Brumfiel. While few scientists believe that the canola plants, right, pose an environmental risk, they say "the study highlights the ease with which some genetically modified plants can spread beyond their fields," Brumfiel writes. Canola plants are used in cooking oil, animal feed and some forms of biodiesel, and virtually all of U.S. canola is grown in North Dakota. (N.D. Tourism photo by Heather LeMoine)

"I wouldn't lose any sleep over it," Mike Wilkinson, a researcher at Aberystwyth University in the United Kingdom, told Brumfiel. Wilkinson, who has studied the spread of conventional canola in the U.K., said while it's common for the seedlings to spread, they don't fare well in the wild. The modified plants don't necessarily have any advantage over native plants, Wilkinson said because "in this particular case, herbicide resistance will provide little edge to plants growing in areas that, almost by definition, don't receive many herbicides," Brumfiel writes. (Read more)

FutureGen coal plant to be built based on redesign

Last summer we reported the Obama administration planned to move ahead on the Illinois "cleaner-coal" power plant, known as FutureGen, that the Bush administration canceled in 2007. Now the administration has announced  it will instead invest $1 billion to retrofit the Central Illinois plant to accommodate carbon-capture and storage technology, Christa Marshall of Environment & Energy Daily reports. Initial plans were to build a first-of-a kind power plant that would have gasified coal before burning and capturing nearly all of its emissions.

"Engineers plan to swap out a boiler in the 200-megawatt plant, replace it with one that can capture CO2 and pipe the resulting gas across the state to a storage spot in Mattoon, Ill.," Marshall writes. While the announcement represented a significant step back from the initial 2003 plans for a $2 billion state-of-the-art facility, the project's supporters considered Thursday's news a victory. "This was a great day for Illinois," Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin said on a conference call with reporters. "The heart of this is a research effort. We're going to learn as we go."

Durbin said the project, redubbed FutureGen 2.0, would bring 900 jobs to downstate Illinois and 1,000 additional jobs to Illinois manufacturers. Several coal experts told Marshall the project did not necessarily signal future federal investment in CO2 technology. "You're not going to see that huge amount of money unless there's a climate bill," Kevin Book, managing director of research at ClearView Energy Partners, told Marshall. "With federal climate legislation stalled on Capitol Hill for now, he and other analysts said that there may not be an economic driver to spur widespread deployment of the technology," Marshall writes. (Read more, subscription required)

Rural newspaper advocates testify against ending Saturday mail delivery

UPDATE, Sept. 16: Heath testified in person today and Cross did so Tuesday. To listen to a recording of Cross's testimony, preceded by that of Oregon Secretary of State Kate Brown, click here.

In testimony filed this week with the Postal Regulatory Commission two rural newspaper advocates argued that the proposed end to Saturday mail would hurt both rural newspapers and the communities they serve. "I believe the Postal Service has a special obligation to rural America that is rooted in its constitutional origins," Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues Director Al Cross testified. "Rural America’s needs cannot be assumed to be the same as those of urban America. Information options are more limited, and residents rely heavily upon local newspapers to remain connected to the community."

Max Heath, postal committee chairman of the National Newspaper Association, testified that the group is "aware of the many challenges in achieving real structural and business change in a falling mail volume environment . . . but in the end, we must support our members, who will be damaged by a five-day mail plan. Rather than support this proposal, we look to other options for reform: such as NNA’s long support on Capitol Hill efforts to remove the $5.5 billion in retiree health benefit prepayments, unprecedented in government agencies."

Cross testified that rural Americans rely more heavily on the U.S. Postal Service than their urban counterparts as they are presented with fewer and often more expensive options for private mail carriers. Rural residents tend to be older and more likely to rely on the Postal Service for delivery of maintenance medications. Rural post offices provide services that are often only accessible for rural residents on Saturdays, Cross added. Many rural newspapers depend on the Postal Service for Saturday delivery, but even those that deliver on Thursdays and Fridays could be hurt as subsribers farther away might not receive newspapers until Monday or Tuesday in the event of a holiday.

Heath testified that the USPS has not adequately considered the impact on rural newspapers of ending Saturday delivery. "The Postal Service has represented itself as 'sensitive' to these concerns of NNA member newspapers," Heath testified. "But beyond lip service, I am aware of no genuine effort  to address our concerns." Heath said ending Monday delivery would provide the same benefits as ending Saturday to the Postal Service but would cause less harm to rural businesses and newspapers.

Much of the threat of ending Saturday delivery to rural newspapers lies in the need for their advertisers to publish in time for weekend shopping, Cross testified. "While big-box stores and other major retailers can use mass mailings any day of the week, independent retail merchants must rely on their local newspaper to get printed advertising in the hands of their customers and potential customers," Cross testified. "The lack of a Saturday newspaper would mean the absence of a powerful advertising vehicle for local businesses at an increasingly important time of the week."

Tennessee farmer whose subsidies drew intraparty criticism wins Republican nomination for Congress

The farmer who was supported by many Republican leaders but was also criticized for seeking tea-party support while getting federal farm subsidies easily won the GOP nomination for the open congressional seat in northwest Tennessee's 8th District yesterday.

Stephen Fincher got 35,016 votes, just under half the total, in unofficial returns compiled by The Tennessean. Ron Kirkland got 17,638, George Flinn 17,309, Randy Smith 1,546 and Ben Watts 729. Fincher will face Democrat Roy Herron, who defeated Kimberlee Smith 27,132 to 12,965. The winner will succeed Democratic Rep. John Tanner, who is retiring.

The race has been the nation's most expensive for a House seat this year, The Associated Press reports: "The candidates ... have spent $5.2 million on the race so far, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. And that figure doesn't include another $1.3 million spent by one candidate's brother as an independent expenditure." Robert Kirkland, "co-founder of a national home decor retailer Kirkland's Inc.," ran polls and TV ads, criticized Fincher's $3.2 million in farm subsidies and noted that "10 percent of the wealthiest farmers receive nearly three-quarters of all farm subsidies." (Read more)

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Russian drought prompts export ban, driving up wheat prices; weather boosts other crop prices

Wheat prices zoomed to a 23-month high today as Russia said it would ban grain exports starting Aug. 15 in the wake of a severe drought that has sparked deadly fires in the country, the world's third-largest wheat grower. Also, Bloomberg reports "Dry weather in Kazakhstan, Ukraine and the European Union and excess rain in Canada are draining wheat stockpiles and dragging up prices of rice, soybeans and corn."

"Wheat for December delivery, the contract with the largest open interest, advanced as much as 7.9 percent to $8.155 a bushel in Chicago today, the highest level since August 2008," Bloomberg reports. “Wheat prices may continue rising till the end of August,” Chris Yoo, manager of the global derivatives team at Samsung Futures Inc. in Seoul, told Bloomberg. “Consumers are likely to switch to consume rice.”

Feingold, Grassley propose cap on farm subsidies

A bill introduced by a bipartisan pair of senators would put a $250,000-per-farm limit on payments from federal commodity programs. Sens. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Charles Grassley of Iowa say the measure would save more than $1 billion “by closing loopholes in farm programs which allow mega-farms and non-farmers to collect huge government checks each year.”

Feingold, who is in a battle for re-election, told Brownfield Network, “For too long large agribusinesses and non-farmers have gamed the limits on farm subsidy programs, taking limited and critical resources better used to support our family farmers who are facing numerous challenges in the current economic climate.” (Read more) President Obama has proposed such a limit but it has been defeated in the House with the help of rural Democrats.

Ky.-Tenn. outfit gets big rural broadband grant; Vermont winner predicts universal access in state

As part of the second round of stimulus package broadband funding, the Department of Agriculture announced Wednesday $1.2 billion in funding for 126 rural broadband initiatives in 38 states and tribal areas. "The broadband projects announced today will give rural Americans access to the tools they need to attract new businesses, jobs, health care and educational opportunities," Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a news release.

USDA said the largest award went to the West Kentucky Rural Telephone Cooperative, which received $123.8 million to construct fiber-optic communication that will provide very fast Internet access, up to 20 megabytes per second. The company, which according to its website became West Kentucky and Tennessee Telecommunications in October 2009, serves more than 21,000 households in 11 counties. It will spend 69 percent of its award in Kentucky and 31 percent in Tennessee. Another big award along the border, almost $66.5 million to Highland Telephone Cooperative, will aid McCreary County, Kentucky and Scott County, Tennessee.

VTel Wireless Inc., the winner of $116 million in grants and loans, said the deal put Vermont "in line to become the first ... to bring high-speed wireless Internet access to every resident," Sam Hemingway of the Burlington Free Press reports.

Rural schools also stand to gain from USDA's broadband funding. "These investments will fund projects to improve connections to rural communities and Native American tribal lands, bringing broadband to more than 1,900 schools, serving 550,000 students, and many of the students' homes," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a news release. "These projects will include more than 300 schools currently in unserved areas, providing the opportunity for a high-speed connection to 82,000 students for the first time." The full list of funded projects is here.

N.Y. Senate votes for moratorium on fracking

New York lawmakers took the first step toward a temporary moratorium on hydraulic fracturing in natural-gas drilling Tuesday when the state Senate voted 48 to 9 to impose a ban on issuing Marcellus Shale permits until May 15, 2011. Fracking is required to release gas from the deep, tight formation.

"While the measure cannot become law before the state Assembly passes a similar bill, and that chamber is not expected to take up the issue until September, environmentalists said the vote was significant in that it gave state officials more time to examine safety issues," Mireya Navarro of The New York Times reports on the Green blog. The vote was supported by New York City officials who oppose drilling near the watersheds that supply water to the city.

Brad Gill, executive director for the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York, told Navarro the moratorium would delay the jobs, tax revenue and other benefits the state would attract with more drilling. "We have companies that want to come to New York, but in this regulatory and legislative climate and instability they’re going to Pennsylvania," he said. "We’re just losing out on this economic opportunity." (Read more)

Farm groups fight FDA plan to limit antibiotics, but other groups say proposal not sufficient

In July we reported that the Federal Drug Administration had concluded that overuse of antibiotics in livestock led to development of drug-resistant diseases in humans.  But farmers say if the FDA moves ahead on its plan to curb livestock antibiotics, it will drive up production costs and eventually food prices. "Such limits aren't justified, producers say, arguing that there is insufficient scientific evidence that drug-resistant bacteria move from animals into food," Philip Brasher of the Des Moines Register reports. FDA said it would still allow antibiotics to be used to prevent illness in livestock, but industry groups are fighting back out of fear regulations will be tightened even further.

National Pork Producers Council spokesman David Warner said the group "fears losing the use of drugs that are now approved for growth promotion but also may help in disease prevention," Brasher writes. Warner claimed "manufacturers would be reluctant to go through the arduous process of reapplying to the FDA for the right to sell the drugs for prevention purposes." Meanwhile farm-state lawmakers from both parties have raised alarms about trying to restrict antibiotic use.

"We are a culture that looks for simple, easy answers when a lot of the time we're talking about complex tradeoffs," Iowa Democratic Rep. Bruce Braley said at a recent House hearing. While cattle operations can use antibiotics that don't have a human application, hog farmers say antibiotics also used in humans are particularly important to them because "swine are susceptible to diseases that can wipe out entire herds," Brasher writes.

FDA's move would only restrict antibiotics used for growth promotion, and some say that doesn't go far enough. A bill sponsored by the ironically named Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., would end all non-therapeutic uses of medically important antibiotics. "If we want to truly preserve antibiotics for future generations ... then we need to look beyond growth promotion," Laura Rogers, project director of the Pew Campaign on Human Health and Industrial Farming, told Brasher. (Read more)

Baby boomers supplement retirement income with organic farming

While the Department of Agriculture says it's difficult to track the exact figures, an increasing number of baby boomers appear to be moving to small-scale organic farming to supplement retirement incomes. "Yes, these farmers can make some money," Laura Tillman writes for the Daily Yonder. "But more importantly, farmers like [Kalman] Morris enjoy the life they’re living more than the office jobs they’ve left behind." Morris, who spent his pre-retirement career in graphic design, acknowledges he couldn't sustain his current lifestyle without the money he made from his previous work, but said farmers like him are sending an important message to the agriculture industry.

"One of the things that I believe in is the power of many small things," Morris told Tillman. "Stronger bonds are made between things with many parts — even though the power of each is not significant, it's the strongest bond you can create. It seems to me that in a large sense America has it all wrong: the American concept of bigger is better is not correct. You end up with things that are too big to fail." USDA says it has little data on the number of baby boomers supplementing retirement income with organic farming, and the movement can be tough to track since many farmers don't decide to be officially certified as organic operations.

John Cromartie, a geographer with the Resources and Rural Economics Division of USDA, recently wrote a report on baby boomer movement to rural areas but said he didn't look at the farming component of that migration. Brad Stufflebeam, former president of Texas Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, told Tillman he has witnessed mixed results among baby-boomer farmers. "The ones that are successful are the ones that choose to do it as a lifestyle," Stufflebeam said. "The ones I see failing are the ones who have money, buy land, and hire help to do the work. I see those failing. The reason is you have to be deeply involved and its very management intensive." (Read more)

Rural teatment for drug abuse is lacking, but a new option has helped

Deaths from drug abuse in rural America are outpacing those in urban areas, but just nine percent of treatment programs are found in rural areas. The Maine Rural Health Research Center found that 82 percent of rural residents live in a county with no detoxification provider, David Wahlberg of the Wisconsin State Journal reports as part of the Madison newspaper's Rural Health project. "Drug abuse overall is lower in rural places than in metropolitan areas, federal surveys show," Wahlberg writes. "But rural youth use more alcohol, methamphetamine and prescription painkillers, drugs that are cheap and easy to get." (State Journal chart)

"For years, medical treatment for addiction to opiates such as heroin and the prescription painkillers OxyContin and Vicodin was limited mostly to clinics offering methadone, a replacement drug that prevents withdrawal symptoms and reduces highs," Wahlberg writes. Methadone clinics are particularly hard for rural residents to use because they are maionly located in larger cities and require daily visits. In 2002, the government approved Suboxone as an alternative to methadone, which has greatly expanded treatment options as doctors can prescribe the drug in their offices and require only weekly visits.

The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports "Suboxone is considered less risky than methadone but also less powerful, so it can be less effective for addicts with high levels of opiate dependence," Wahlberg writes. Still, David Friedman, director of the addiction studies program at Wake Forest University, said Suboxone has been important for bring drug abuse treatment to rural areas. "The idea was to mainstream addiction treatment," he said. "Having an alternative to methadone is a real good thing." (Read more)

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Memorial to 9/11 victim turns refugees into farmers

The agriculture industry may not be the first place most think to look for the legacy of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but a Massachusetts farming program is hoping to carry on the work started by one of the victims. John Ogonowski, the pilot on American Airlines Flight 11 that crashed into the World Trade Center during the attacks, had been a farmer as well. He had served as the first farming mentor in the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project, launched to teach refugees farming skills.

The program "has quietly trained about 150 refugees of war, famine and genocide in modern farming to help them integrate into American life," Russell Contreras of The Associated Press reports. "On farms along the Massachusetts-New Hampshire border, the refugees have slowly replaced aging farmers and put back into use land that has been idle for years, the program's organizers said." Project director Jennifer Hashley said of the refugees, "Some were farmers. Some come from a family of farmers. What we do is provide them with the means to return to agriculture by figuring out financial resources and developing a production plan."

Following the terrorist attacks, Ogonowski's widow Peggy helped create a farm trust as a memorial to her husband, and Tufts University secured $500,000 in grants to expand the program and train more farmers. Participants complete a six-week agriculture and commercial farming course at Tufts before entering a three-year transition program in which they farm small plots, typically earning $5,000 to $10,000 a year to help supplement their non-farm incomes, Contreras writes.

After three years, farmers lease a plot from the Ogonowski trust or the project helps them find other land. "You hear all sorts of languages when you're out here," said Tsimba, a refugee who said the program helped her learn the basics of farming. "We pick up new ideas from each other." The program has also developed a reputation for teaching local food skills, attracting an American clientele. In three years it has grown from 15 trainees a year to 30, over half of them Americans. (Read more)

Deputy education secretary for rural outreach cites rural upbringing in Education Week interview

In October, amid criticism that the Department of Education was out of touch with rural schools, the department created a deputy secretary for rural outreach. Former department press secretary John White, right, was appointed to the position and recently was interviewed by Mary Schulken of Education Week for the Rural Education blog. White said his position was created to "ensure communication and coordination regarding the needs of rural schools across programs within the department and to engage in mutually beneficial external communications with rural states and schools." (Education Department photo)

Prior to joining the department, White was chief communications officer for Prince George's County Public Schools, which serves approximately 130,000 students in more than 200 schools in Maryland just outside of Washington. Thay may seem to be an odd stepping stone for a rural school position, but White said he brings a rural background to the table. "I grew up in Calvert County, Maryland, when the area had two high schools and many more farms and tobacco fields than schools," he told Schulken. "The experience of growing up in 'the country' was very different than my last job."

White said his top concerns for rural schools are "access and opportunity for students to pursue and create new careers in their communities" and "the expectations of adults for rural students, and the students' expectations for building a career where they grow up. In extremely poor rural places, I have visited elementary and middle school classrooms where children can name the college they want to attend and the career they want to pursue. In some of these same places, school leaders say expectations change in high school because of factors outside of school."

What has the administration done for rural schools since his appointment? "So far, the administration has included priority points for proposals that would address the needs of rural schools in competitive grants," he said. "Technical assistance and outreach are being provided, and we plan to make changes to the department's 21 Comprehensive Technical Assistance Centers to provide expertise and capacity building for states and school districts throughout the country." You can read the entire interview, in which White talks about complaints from rural districts, the Title 1 funding formula and the rural role in the "Blueprint for Reform" among other topics, here.

Daily Yonder takes closer look at rural uninsured, finds wide ranges across counties, states, regions

How will health-care reform affect rural Americans without health insurance? While rural counties have a slightly lower rate of uninsured than urban counties, new data from the Census Bureau shows that statistic can be misleading for most areas, Bill Bishop and Roberto Gallardo report for the Daily Yonder. In all rural counties, 17.1 percent of people under 65 don't have insurance, compared to 17.2 percent in urban counties, but the rate of uninsured within rural America varies widely across states and regions, the Yonder reports.

Just under half of the nation's 2,038 rural counties have uninsured rates below the national average of 17.1 percent, but "In most states, the rural uninsured rate is higher than the urban rate," the Yonder reports. All but seven of the 50 counties with the highest rates of uninsured people are found in Texas, Bishop and Gallardo write. "Rural counties have lower rates of uninsured only in Arizona, California, Illinois, Nevada, South Carolina, Texas and Connecticut." (Read more) (Yonder map; click for larger version)

Environmental group joins industry in challenging EPA's greenhouse gas regulation

The Environmental Protection Agency has failed to satisfy either side of the debate about its tailoring rule that would regulate greenhouse gases from only the largest industrial sources, like power plants. "The Center for Biological Diversity is joining a number of industry groups in challenging EPA's tailoring rule," Robin Bravender of Greenwire reports for The New York Times. "But while industry groups argue that EPA climate rules will hurt businesses, CBD says the agency is not going far enough." Tuesday marked the deadline for groups to file challenges to the rule with the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

"We want to make sure that there are some lines in the sand that are drawn and that truly the large industrial sources of greenhouse gases are actually regulated," CBD senior counsel Bill Snape said. EPA says without the tailoring rule, "even small sources would need to get permits for their greenhouse gas emissions when the agency's emission limits for tailpipes will trigger Clean Air Act permitting rules for industrial facilities," Bravender writes. Snape echoed previous promises that CBD is not trying to force EPA into regulating greenhouse gas emissions from smaller sources, but said the agency can do better than the tailoring rule.

"Starting in January, only sources that already have to apply for permits for other pollutants and emit more than 75,000 tons of greenhouse gases per year would be affected," Bravender writes. "And starting next July, new and modified plants that emit more than 100,000 tons of greenhouse gases per year would be affected." EPA initially proposed to regulate emitters of over 25,000 tons, but air chief Gina McCarthy said in May agency officials realized that threshold would include sources it didn't intend to regulate. "You've already seen EPA pushed back so the final rule is significantly weaker," Snape said. "Our take was: That jump from the proposed rule from the final rule was pure fear politics." (Read more)

Lawsuit intended to further restrict agricultural pesticides

Environmental groups have had success in the past in getting courts to force the federal government to restrict pesticide use, but one group is planning a larger pesticide-related lawsuit for later this summer that may have broad-reaching impacts. "Rather than continuing to file piecemeal lawsuits, the Center for Biological Diversity says it will file a broader suit this summer that involves nearly 400 pesticides and almost 900 species that are protected under the Endangered Species Act," Les Blumenthal of McClatchy Newspapers reports. "Washington state officials said the restrictions that could result from that lawsuit could affect agricultural production significantly in at least 48 states."

Dan Newhouse, the director of the Washington State Department of Agriculture, told Blumenthal it was impossible to know how dramatic the effects of tighter restrictions would be right now, but he believed in Washington "every farmer would be impacted one way or another." The Endangered Species Act requires federal agencies "that are contemplating any action that could 'jeopardize' listed species to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service and come up with a plan to alleviate or lessen the effects," Blumenthal writes, but environmentalists say the Environmental Protection Agency seldom followed that requirement.
That inaction began to change in 2002 when a Seattle District Court judge ruled "that the EPA had violated provisions of the Endangered Species Act by not consulting with the National Marine Fisheries Services about how the use of pesticides and other chemicals could affect the more than two dozen salmon runs that are protected under the act in Washington state, Oregon, California and Idaho." Jeff Miller, a spokesman for the Center for Biological Diversity, said the group is changing its focus from regional to national because EPA continues to drag its feet. "I know (President Barack) Obama has a lot on his plate right now, but the EPA is still not aggressively taking on this issue," he said. (Read more)

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Progressive Farmer tries to counter negative farm images with 'The Real American Farmer'

Agribusiness has seen its image take a hit in recent months because of animal-rights abuses, anti-comptetive practices and environmental issues, and many in the industry feel farmers are gaining an unfair reputation as a result. In an effort to combat those negative images, The Progressive Farmer has a special section in this month's issue called "The Real American Farmer," which profiles three farm and ranch families "who care deeply about their land, their livestock and their profession."

The Beckers, a Minnesota family that owns and operates LB Pork, have seen a shift in the industry to the point that Lonny Becker is in touch daily with three or more marketing advisers, Tom Dodge reports. "Who'd have ever thought five years ago that we'd have to be concerned with the daily gyrations of the euro?" he asked Dodge. To weather the economic downturn, the family has held weekly meetings for the last two years. Lonny's sister-in-law Julie forsees even more scrutiny from outside the industry. "As producers, farmers have been doing the right things all along," she told Dodge. "But from now on, you'll have to prove it to everyone else."

Clay Rightmer (far right, with family) is the fourth generation of Rightmers to ranch in central Texas, and he claims "you cannot find a better life no matter how hard you look," Jim Patrico reports. Rightmer terms frugality his survival tool, pointing to his choice to use cottonseed rather than corn as cattle feed while corn prices soared over the past few years. One area Rightmer said he doesn't look to cut costs is environmental stewardship. "Water begets wildlife," he told Patrico. "It's about working in harmony with the land and changing when it changes."

Todd Hays is a seventh-generation Missouri farmer who earned a two-year degree in marketing because it appeared his family farm had no room for another farmer. He eventually married into another farm family, giving him his chance to return to the work he loves, Patrico reports. Today Hays and his wife's family have about 600 sows and market 13,000 hogs a year. To counter the vocal critics of agriculture the family goes beyond environmental requirements. "When possible, the family injects manure into the soil rather than spreading it on the surface," reducing runoff and odor, Patrico writes.

Hays said he tries to see things such as skepticism about biotech crops from the non-farming point of view. He said such crops can lower production costs and reduce farming's impact on the environment. "We can use fewer chemicals and herbicides," he told Patrico. "And I don't [often] have to use insecticides for rootworms and curtowrms." Hays said the key to improving the ag industry's image is to show people the way farming actually works, and then they will understand and approve. (You can subscribe to The Progressive Farmer here.)

Report details violations by Marcellus drillers in Pa.

Companies drilling the Marcellus Shale (map) for gas in Pennsylvania were cited for more than 1,435 violations in the last two years, an average of around 1.5 per day, and 952 were considered "most likely to harm the environment," according to a report from the Pennsylvania Land Trust, Donald Gilliland of The Patriot-News of Harrisburg reports. The report was compiled through open-records requests with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. "Nearly half of the violations were related to improper erosion and sedimentation plans and improper construction of wastewater impoundments that contain fracking water," Gilliland writes.

"There were 155 citations for discharging industrial waste onto the ground or into [state] waters," Gilliland reports. The report revealed 100 violations of the state Clean Streams Law. "There’s likely to be lots more violations out there that haven’t been identified," Jeff Schmidt, director of the Pennsylvania chapter of the Sierra Club, told Gilliland. "Many people feel this is the tip of the iceberg." James A. Schmid, a consulting ecologist who produced a study about DEP's monitoring of longwall coal mines in souther Pennsylvania, said a review of more than 75,000 pages of DEP files revealed "DEP is not very credible in its monitoring and permitting," and since the drilling study didn't look at the actual files there were likely many more violations not reported. (Read more)

Annual free clinic in southwest Va. highlights big gap in dental-care system for adults

A lack of affordable dental care has long been a problem in rural America, and while health-care reform addresses that shortage for children, it makes little mention of adult dental care. At the annual Remote Area Medical clinic in Wise, Va., most of the 2,347 people who showed up for free care wanted to see a dentist even though a wide range of other medical exames, tests and screenings were offered, Mary Otto reports for The Washington Post. "You still have this big huge hole for adults," dentist Terry Dickinson, who runs the state dental association and volunteers at the clinic, run by Knoxville-based RAM, told Otto.

Public and private dental insurance can be hard to find, even after the passage of health care reform, Otto writes. Some can afford to pay for dental care out of pocket, but for many, like those at the Wise clinic, that is not an option. "For the financially stretched, dental work can take a back seat to other needs, such as food, fuel and housing," Otto reports. (Post photo by Michael S. Williamson of crowd gathered outside gates before opening of clinic)

"It's rugged dentistry," North Carolina dentist Brittany Semones told Otto. "It's rewarding. We get a lot of hugs." Blacksburg, Va., dentist William Huff said, "I came here because people need help desperately. A lot of people are hopeless. Their teeth are beyond what we can restore." While pulling teeth is considered a last resort, it's the grim reality for many of the Wise clinic patients. "We cannot leave these people in pain." Huff told Otto. (Read more)

Senate candidate Paul taken to task for comments about making mine safety a local responsibility

In July we reported backlash against Republican U.S. Senate candidate Rand Paul of Kentucky for comments he made opposing farm subsidies; now he is facing similar criticism for comments he reportedly made about decreasing mine-safety regulation. "The comments attributed to Paul in Details, a monthly magazine published by Condé Nast Publications, reportedly came from a public appearance Paul made at the Harlan Center in Harlan County before the May 18 GOP primary election," Bill Estep and Jack Brammer report for the Lexington Herald-Leader. The magazine says Paul said, "The bottom line is I'm not an expert, so don't give me the power in Washington to be making rules. You live here, and you have to work in the mines. You'd try to make good rules to protect your people here. If you don't, I'm thinking that no one will apply for those jobs."

Tony Oppegard, a Lexington attorney and mine-safety advocate, called Paul's statement "idiotic," and members of the United Mine Workers from Kentucky have scheduled a telephone news conference Tuesday to take Paul to task for the comments. Oppegard said Paul's comments show "a lack of understanding of Eastern Kentucky, the region's economy and of the history of underground coal mining in the region, where for generations coal operators strongly opposed efforts by workers to form unions," Estep and Brammer report.

The Paul campaign did not dispute the quotation but criticized the initial Details story and subsequent follow-ups as "sloppy reporting on more sloppy reporting." Paul spokesman Ryan Hogan said in a statement, "Dr. Paul has been clear that he favors more local control rather than ham-fisted, one-size-fits-all dictates from Washington. Insinuating Washington bureaucrats are the only solution to problems is insulting to Kentucky." Hogan also said Paul feels punishment is called for if the investigation into the April explosion that killed 29 miners at a Massey Energy mine in West Virginia reveals safety rules were broken, the reporters write.

The Details story, by Jonathan Miles, begins with him and Paul "trying to remember why Harlan, Ky., might be famous." Paul mentions the nearby county seat of Hazard and says, "It's famous for, like, The Dukes of Hazzard." While Hazard, Ky., used that supposed connection while the TV show was on network TV, the show was actually set in Georgia. Even when a campaign aide correctly says Harlan was known for "the coal battles" of the 1930s, Paul ignores him. Later, Miles confirms that and provides details, leading into Paul's comments's about coal, which also included an endorsement of mountaintop-removal coal mining.

UPDATE, Aug. 10: Though his concept of mine-safety regulation is clearly libertarian, Paul writes in an op-ed for USA Today that "I choose to use a different phrase to describe my beliefs — I consider myself a constitutional conservative, which I take to mean a conservative who actually believes in smaller government and more individual freedom. The libertarian principles of limited government, self-reliance and respect for the Constitution are embedded within my constitutional conservatism, and in the views of countless Americans from across the political spectrum." He says the libertarian label "has become an emotionally charged, and often misunderstood, word in our current political climate." (Read more)

North Carolina program shows how webcams can help rural teachers improve student literacy

A University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill program is working to use free, over-the-Internet applications to help rural teachers gain valuable continuing education. "Beaming into classrooms in North Carolina, Nebraska, New Mexico and Texas via webcams, literacy consultants at UNC have helped 58 teachers learn new ways to teach struggling readers in kindergarten and first grade — and helped 300 children learn to read," UNC's website reports. "They are part of Targeted Reading Intervention, a program that aims to eliminate achievement gaps." Participating students received 15 minutes of one-on-one instruction a day with a teacher in person and UNC literacy expert via web chat services like Skype and iChat.

"There’s no substitute for helping that teacher right there in real time," said Dr. Lynne Vernon-Feagans, principal investigator on the project. Participating teachers visit Chapel Hill before the school year for training in Targeted Reading Intervention instruction methods. The program is funded in part through the National Research Center on Rural Education Support, established in 2004 with a five-year, $10 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education. When compared with students at a control school, "struggling readers receiving Targeted Reading Intervention scored an average of 10-to-13 points higher than struggling readers in control schools," UNC reports. (Read more)

"Using free applications also makes this a cost-effective way to deliver professional development to remote rural schools," Mary Schulken of Education Week writes of the program on the Rural Education blog. "Such partnerships are particularly important for small schools where the resource pool is limited and there isn't always know-how (or a tech-guru) to get things set up." Vernon-Feagans told Schulken the Targeted Reading Intervention program is considered a national model for delivering professional development to rural schools via webcam technology. (Read more) (UNC Video)

Monday, August 02, 2010

Biotechnology critics call for greater regulation of weedkillers

Critics of agriculture biotechnology have used the increasing reports of herbicide-resistant weeds as new fodder for their campaign to increase regulation of the industry. Ohio Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich, who chaired a House hearing Wednesday on the spread of Roundup-resistant weeds, said the Agriculture Department has been too quick to approve new varieties of herbicide-tolerant crops and other biotech products, Philip Brasher of the Des Moines Register reports on the Green Fields blog. David Mortensen, a weed scientist at Penn State University, called for the government to restrict the use of herbicide-resistant crops and impose a tax on biotech seeds to fund research and education programs.

"Now, more than ever, farmers need to have a Department of Agriculture that takes care to preserve and protect the farming environment for generations to come," Kucinich said. The herbicide-resistant weeds are most prevalent in southern cotton and soybean fields but is spreading to other regions, Brasher writes. Michael Owen, an Iowa State University weed scientist, disagreed with Mortensen's call for a seed tax but agreed farmers need to quit relying so heavily on Roundup to control weeds. Farmers "value the convenience and simplicity of these crops without appreciating the long-term ecological and economic risks," Mortensen said. (Read more)

Air pollution added to list of complaints against natural gas drilling

Most of the focus regarding potential pollution problems resulting from natural gas drilling in shale formations has been focused on water, but fears of pervasive air pollution from Barnett Shale operations in Texas are affecting the industry as well. While the natural gas industry has been marketing itself as a cleaner alternative to coal, that description is being "shoved aside by critics who say addressing public health issues tied to gas production is no longer optional," Joel Kirkland of Environment & Energy Daily reports. "They want gas drillers to face the same scrutiny for their air emissions as 'major' emitters such as gas processing plants or oil refineries."

"Just because coal mining is worse, or that coal burns dirtier than gas, doesn't make this all safe," Tim Ruggiero, who houses a Aruba Petroleum Inc. well on his horse farm outside of Fort Worth, told Kirkland. "It burns clean compared to other fossil fuels. OK, I give you that. But if you look at the process by which they obtain the gas, I'm not so sure that all told, beginning to end, it's any cleaner than coal." In recent months the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has increased its monitoring of pollution sources operating in the Barnett, Kirkland writes, but critics say that move came only in response to mounting public pressure to do so.

Even amid the national conversation about greenhouse gas emissions, some locals' air pollution fears are on a much more basic level. "They ask, 'Do you believe in the greenhouse, Tim, do you believe in global warming?'" Ruggiero told Kirkland. "I go, 'You know what, when you've got this thing blowing in your backyard, and you can stand on your front porch and smell propane, global warming isn't the first thing that comes to mind.'"

Al Armendariz, the Environmental Protection Agency's top regional official based in Dallas, projected in a 2009 study that summer "emissions of nitrogen oxide and cancer-causing volatile organic compounds from gas sources in the Barnett Shale would exceed emissions from cars and trucks in the Dallas-Fort Worth area," Kirkland writes. The political environment over the saftey of hydraulic fracturing operations has also thrown the future of Barnett Shale operations into doubt. "Right now they [gas companies] like that they have a geologic formation where they can make a profit. They like the fact they have a stable political environment," Republican Rep. Michael Burgess told Burgess. "But if they damage it because of their own actions, they have nobody to blame but themselves." (Read more, suscription required)

Oldest U.S. grapevine saved from errant herbicide

What began as a simple attempt to rid power line poles of brush nearly killed the country's oldest grapevine. The Mother Vine, in Manteo, N.C., was planted about 400 years ago, most likely by Croatan Indians or Sir Walter Raleigh's settlers, David Zucchino reports for The Los Angeles Times. In May, a power company contractor spraying herbicides on power poles accidentally hit some of the vine, causing the sickness to spread through the plant. Jack Wilson, right, an 84-year-old retiree who owns a house where the vine grows near the edge of Roanoke Island, "pruned dead leaves and vines, only to watch the weedkiller outrace him, pumping poison from the ends of the vine toward the roots," Zucchino writes. (LA Times photo by Zucchino)

"Plant experts rushed in from the North Carolina Department of Agriculture," Zucchino writes. "A viticulture specialist from North Carolina State University was dispatched to Manteo for consultation." The power company, Dominion Virginia Power, upon learning it had caused the problem hired Virginia Tech University weed scientist Lloyd Hipkins to tackle the problem. "When I was told a 400-year-old grapevine had been sprayed with herbicide, well, it wasn't exactly what I wanted to hear," Chuck Penn, a Dominion spokesman, told Zucchino. "We were distraught. You're talking about an historical icon." The vine's canopy, 32 feet by 120 feet, is supported by an elaborate set of posts, some carved out of locust trees decades ago.

Hipkins' prescribed treatment was prune, water and fertilize, which appears to have saved the plant. "It looks like hell," Hipkins said of the vine's damaged section, "but the injury to the plant was really localized." Rodney Blevins, a Dominion Power vice president who visited the Wilsons recently to check on the Mother Vine's health, said the company is working with contractors to ensure nothing like this happens again. For now, the Wilsons say the vine appears to have weathered the storm. "If she's made it 350 years, or 400 years, I think if we keep taking care of her, she'll survive," John Wilson told Zucchino. "She's a tough old bird." (Read more)

Schwarzenegger vetoes bill requiring overtime pay for farmworkers

Saying he didn't want to hurt the California agriculture industry, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill that would have given farmworkers the same right to overtime pay enjoyed by other hourly workers in the nation's largest farm state. In his veto message the Republican governor said, "applying the eight-hour day to agriculture would be burdensome to business and reverse longstanding labor practices," Marc Lifsher of the Los Angeles Times reports. The bill would have made California the first state to recognize overtime rights for farmworkers.

As recently as 1999, state lawmakers approved a bill that specifically exempted farmworkers from the eight-hour day, Schwarzenegger said, "recognizing that agricultural work is different from other industries: it is seasonal, subject to unpredictability of Mother Nature and requires the harvesting of perishable goods." Both giant agribusinesses and organic-farm owners had used similar arguments against the bill. Agriculture lobbyists said payroll costs would rise by at least 10 percent if overtime were added after eight hours.

The bill's supporters said it was wrong to treat farmworkers differently than other employees. "The governor's decision is a blow to fairness and justice. We will have to wait for a new governor to right this wrong," Democratic state Sen. Darrell Steinberg told Lifsher, referring to the end of Schwarzenegger's term in January. Democratic Senate Majority Leader Dean Florez accused the governor of  "turning his back on history" by choosing "to continue the second-class treatment of the men and women who toil in the fields, their backbreaking labor at the core of a more than $30-billion-a-year agricultural industry." (Read more)

Test scores drop after Louisiana district adopts four-day school week

The four-day school week, an idea that seems to be gaining traction among some rural school districts, may be adversely affecting one Louisiana district where test scores have dropped since the policy's adoption. A comparison of Caldwell Parish Schools fourth-grade standardized test scores from 2007, the year before the district adopted a four-day week, and scores from 2010 shows students' scores dropped in three out of four subject areas, Barbara Leader of The News Star in Monroe reports. Scores among eighth graders were also down in three of four subject areas. Caldwell Parish had a population just over 10,500 according to the 2000 census.

"Students qualifying for promotion from grade four to five has remained the same as in 2007, but students meeting promotional standards in eighth grade are down four points," Leader writes. Caldwell Superintendent John Sartin countered that the districts total performance score, a combination of a school district's individual students scores on LEAP, iLEAP and Graduate Exit Exam, as well as attendance and dropout rates and graduation outcomes, actually increased from 92.8 in 2007 to 96 in 2009. Data from 2010 was not yet available. "We certainly are looking at [the four-day week] very carefully," Sartin told Leader. "If we felt like it was overall adversely affecting our score, we would have to look at changing."

"I have real reservations about how it will affect student achievement," Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education President Keith Guice told Leader of the four-day week. "But, sometimes districts don't have a choice." In Union Parish, population just over 22,000, the local school board recently decided to adopt the four day week. "Union doesn't have a choice because it is being forced on them by financial problems," Guice told Leader. Sartin said regardless of the test score results, the four day week was "absolutely not" adversely affecting student performance. (Read more)