Saturday, February 19, 2011

'Food and Farm' new weekly feature on America's Web Radio, from Feedstuffs Foodlink

Our friend Ray Bowman debuted the Food and Farm radio show yesterday on America's Web Radio, and plans to broadcast each Friday at noon Eastern time.

Feedstuffs Foodlink, an internet-based educational outreach of Feedstuffs magazine, asked Bowman, a Kentucky farmer, agricultural journalist and veteran broadcaster, to develop and host the show. The goal of the program closely parallels the intent of the Foodlink website; reconnecting consumers with the sources of their food -- or as Foodlink puts it, "connecting farm to fork."

"The show will cover a wide range of topics, focusing on issues in animal agriculture production and seeking to answer consumer questions and provide balanced information regarding food sources and production practices," Bowman reports. To learn more, click here; to hear the first show, go here.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Bill passes in Ky. that would allow optometrists to perform more procedures; rural benefit or risk?

Backed by political money and arguments that rural areas need better access to more affordable eye care, the Kentucky legislature has sent Gov. Steve Beshear a bill that would significantly increase the care optometrists can provide, to a level available in few other states. UPDATE, Feb. 24: Beshear signed the bill.

Supporters say the legislation would make certain types of eye care more available in rural areas. Only 41 of Kentucky's 120 counties have ophthalmologists, who are medical doctors, according to optometrists, who are not, reports John Cheves for the Lexington Herald-Leader. (Read more)

Since it was filed Feb. 7, Senate Bill 110 has been cause for controversy, because of its speedy passage and optometrists' heavy contributions to lawmakers' campaigns. Tom Loftus of The Courier-Journal notes that optometrists have made more than $400,000 in campaign contributions to legislators and Beshear in the past two years. (Read more)

The bill allows optometrists, who do not attend medical school, to perform more types of procedures, most notably one that uses a laser to fix complications that can arise from cataract surgery. Only optometrists in Oklahoma are likewise allowed to use lasers while treating their patients, according to Kentucky Health News. In every other state, only ophthalmologists can. The bill also allows optometrists to prescribe certain drugs and lets the state Board of Optometric Examiners define what procedures optometrists can legally perform. Ophthalmologists argue the measure will put patients' sight in jeopardy.

40 percent of rural Americans lack broadband

You don't have to tell anyone in rural America that not everyone has broadband Internet access, but now the national media is starting to catch on. "As the world embraces its digital age — two billion people now use the Internet regularly — the line delineating two Americas has become more broadly drawn," Kim Severson of The New York Times reports. "There are those who have reliable, fast access to the Internet, and those, like about half of the 27,867 people here in Clarke County, [Ala.] who do not." A Department of Commerce report released Thursday reveals just 60 percent of people in rural America have broadband Internet service.

"That is 10 percent less than urban households," Severson writes. "Over all, 28 percent of Americans do not use the Internet at all." In conjunction with the Commerce Department report the Obama Administration this week released a national broadband map, "which took five years and $200 million to develop and shows a number of discrepancies in the quality and availability of broadband access between rural and urban communities," Severson writes. Brian Depew, an assistant director of the Center for Rural Affairs, notes "This is like electricity was. This is a critical utility."

In Clarke County, where the median household income is $27,388, the available cell phone and Internet options are too expensive, Severeson reports. "For most people out here, satellite is all you can get, and it’s $70 a month," Joyce Graham, who oversees Web-based classes at Coffeeville High School, said. "Now who is going to pay that? This is a poor, rural county." While broadband service can help drive rural economic development, it means more that that, says Depew. "You often hear people talk about broadband from a business development perspective, but it’s much more significant than that," he told Severson. "This is about whether rural communities are going to participate in our democratic society. If you don’t have effective broadband, you are cut out of things that are really core to who we are as a country."  (Maps below by The New York Times, of wired access, below; wireless access, bottom. Blue indicates it is available. Click on map for larger image.) (Read more)

Dee Davis and the Center for Rural Strategies advocate for rural America

After spending 20-plus years working on the problems of Appalachia at Kentucky-based Appalshop, Dee Davis decided to turn his attention to the problems of all of rural America. From that plan was born the Center for Rural Strategies, which adds public advocacy and coalition building to the mix for bringing attention to rural issues, James Nold Jr. writes for Kentucky Living, the managzine of the Kentucky Association of Electric Cooperatives. "The Center’s goal is as simple, and profound, as changing the meaning and connotations of a single word — the next to last one in its name: rural," Nold writes.

Davis, who is a member of the advisory board of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, spent 18 years as the executive producer of Appalshop Films and Television. In 2000, he left Appalshop to form the Center for Rural Strategies, also based in Whitesburg, Ky., after noticing rural Americans from South Dakota farm country to the Sacramento Valley to coastal Maine, were "facing the same challenges, and in the same straits," Nold writes.

Among the early successes of the Center was a campaign to stop CBS from producing "The Real Beverly Hillbillies," a show that would have placed a poor rural family in a Los Angeles mansion. "We found ourselves learning to be spokesmodels," Davis told Nold. "It was a very interesting tutorial on how the media work. . . . You’d go on these talk shows and find out that everybody was crazy." He said no one expected them to stop the show, and the center simply hoped to "raise the issue that it was wrong to employ rural people as national laughingstocks." But in the end, CBS decided not to make the show.

Now Davis is promoting the idea that we don't have to think of being rural as a deficit. "All of our communities have assets and strengths that we are not necessarily inclined to see the first time we look at them," he told Nold. Justin Maxson, president of the Berea-based Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, notes, "Dee’s a master at connecting systemic issues or problems with individuals and their conditions. He knows policymakers and legislators respond to individual stories, not just ideas." (Read more)

Bipartisan votes protect local police subsidies and legal aid to the poor from House GOP cuts

House Democrats and some moderate Republicans joined forces to restore some funding for the Community Oriented Policing Services and legal aid for the poor, two important programs in many rural areas. "The victories were not without cost, forcing deep cuts from the nation’s space program as well as research and development funds in the Department of Homeland Security," David Rogers of Politco reports. "But the votes are the clearest sign yet of some second thoughts in the GOP about the depth and direction of the reductions demanded by conservatives and tea party supporters on the right."

In voting to preserve at least reduced funding for legal aid to the poor, 68 Republicans crossed party lines in support of the Democrats' initiative, and 70 Republicans supported restoring $208 million for the COPS program. "The dike seemed to break when as many as 132 Republicans backed an amendment by Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.) to restore $510 million for Homeland Security grants for first-responders," Rogers writes. In May we reported errors in a funding calculation from the stimulus act had led the COPS program to incorrectly award funding to applicants who didn't deserve it as the expense of others that did. (Read more)

Study guesses side effects of coal cost taxpayers $345 billion a year, give or take $170 billion

A study from a Harvard University researcher estimates coal costs the United States $345 billion annually in expenses that are not borne by miners or utilities, but are paid by taxpayers. The report attempts to take into account a variety of side effects that lead author Paul Epstein, associate director of Harvard's Center for Health and the Global Environment, associates with mining and burning coal. Those include "the cost of treating elevated rates of cancer and other illnesses in coal-mining areas, environmental damage and lost tourism opportunities in coal regions where mountaintop removal is practiced and climate change resulting from elevated emissions of carbon dioxide from burning the coal," Scott Malone of Reuters reports.

"The public cost is far greater than the cost of the coal itself," Epstein said. "The impacts of this industry go way beyond just lighting our lights." The U.S. Department of Energy reports coal is used to generate 45 percent of U.S. electricity. The study, which will be published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, estimates the true costs of coal to taxpayers could fall between $175 billion or $523 billion annually.

Lisa Camooso Miller, a spokeswoman for industry group the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, told Malone, "The Epstein article ignores the substantial benefits of coal in maintaining lower energy prices for American families and businesses. Lower energy prices are linked to a higher standard of living and better health." (Read more)

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Tax break, loan repayment considered for former residents of Kansas who move back

Kansas may offer an incentive to lure former residents back to the rural parts of the state. The state legislature is considering offering a state income tax exemption if the resident has been gone for five years and commits to settling in one of 40 Kansas counties hit by steep population losses, reports Tim Carpenter of the Topeka Capital-Journal. The state is also considering a college loan repayment program to former Kansans who graduated from an out-of-state college offering $15,000 in debt payments — if they live in a Kansas county included in the rural enterprise zone.

Republican Gov. Sam Brownback initiated the idea because he "agonizes over depletion of rural Kansas," writes Carpenter. Brownback grew up in the tiny town of Parker and served as Kansas agriculture secretary before representing the state in Congress. Passage of the bill would reduce general state tax revenue by an estimated $1.1 million in the upcoming fiscal year and $3.3 million in the next year. The tax break would be limited to 1,500 people. The student loan repayments would be shared by the state and a county that joined the program voluntarily, up to a maximum individual benefit of $15,000. (Read more)

'Farm animals are not pets,' we are reminded

Peter Davies, one of the owners of Turkana Farms in Germantown, N.Y., writes a farewell story about his very special ram, Suleyman the Magnificent, on the AgriCulture blog of Rural Intelligence, a news site for four counties in New York and Connecticut. Its headline, "Farm animals are not pets," is a useful reminder to urbanites who migrate to rural areas. (Rural Intelligence photo)

Suleyman, sire of 20-plus lambs a season, must leave the farm, "not because of any problem with him," Davies writes. "Indeed, we do not want to let him go. But to avoid inbreeding we need to bring a new ram in to increase the genetic diversity of the herd. Suleyman is that rare ram who has been gentle—a quiet, dutiful presence who has never seriously challenged us."

That was in contrast to previous rams, who were downright mean. Both animals were taken to the auction house after they attacked their owmers, apparently unprovoked and unexpected. One had to be beaten back with a feed bucket, and the other was struck repeatedly with a heavy oak stick until Davies could retreat to the barn. "There was no doubt now that he was out to kill me," he writes.

Ed. Sec. Duncan talks about accountability, tenure; announces community college summits

School boards and teachers should be held accountable for school performance, teacher-assignment policies should be re-examined, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said at a labor-management conference in Denver. "Duncan called on attendees to make student learning the foremost element in all of their interactions — and not just at the bargaining table or in budgets, but also in the classroom, at school board meetings, and on school leadership teams," Stephen Sawchuck of Education Week reports. Duncan said teachers "have a point" when they say all the pressure for academic outcomes is on their shoulders.

He said that pressure should be spread to school boards as well. "This is not an area where there are a lot of examples," Duncan said. "Most school boards have to face voters. On the other hand, many school board elections have a low turnout—so we need a system where school boards also get the meaningful feedback they need from their partners, not just voters."

Duncan was vague about his plans for teacher assignment and layoff issues, but said they needed to be examined closely. "My view is that we need to look hard at the impact of staffing rules, seniority, and funding policies on students, especially in low-achieving schools," he said. "That means recruiting the best teachers and then making sure that our state laws, labor contracts and personnel practices support these teachers and keep them in their schools." (Read more)

Meanwhile, Duncan's Department of Education will convene four community college regional summits in the next two months to identify promising practices for increasing completion at community colleges, according to a press release from the department. Community colleges provide a handy door to higher education in rural areas. "Community colleges must lead the way to ... having the highest college attainment rate in the world by 2020," Duncan said. "All of higher education must contribute to reaching this goal - but community colleges will be the linchpin."  (Read more)

The conferences are:
• February 28: Community College of Philadelphia, "Transitioning Adult Learners to Community Colleges and the Workforce"
• March 9: Lone Star College System, Houston, "Successful Transfer Programs"
• March 23: Ivy Tech Community College, Indianapolis, "Partnerships Between Community Colleges and Employers"
• April 15: San Diego Community College District, San Diego, "Exemplary Programs for Veterans, Military Members, and Families"

Small, poor county in Eastern Kentucky to create marketplace for local artisans

"Buy local" programs are one strategy for economic development for rural communities. In Eastern Kentucky's small, poor Elliott County, the Cooperative Extension Service and the county tourism council are pushing to open a local products outlet that would serve as a showcase for local artisans, Aimee Nelson of the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture reports.  "If we can put all this together and have a collective place for artists and producers in the county to display their products, we’d have somewhere to direct people to go to actually take that 'buy local' advice," Elliott County Cooperative Extension Agent for Family and Consumer Sciences Gwenda Adkins said. (Rooster, by Minnie Adkins)

Adkins and friend Gayle Clevenger, the director of the tourism council, got a grant from the Brushy Fork Institute in Berea and the Appalachian Regional Commission for the program. A recent partnership between the tourism council and the Elliott County Fiscal Court, the county's governing body, has provided a prime location for the outlet: the Laurel Gorge Cultural Heritage Center, which had been closed due to budget problems. "I think it will really help local artisans think of what they do as a business, rather than just something they do," Adkins told Nelson. "We have a lot of tourism in our county because we have a beautiful county. This facility will just enhance our appeal. It’s also hard for artists to market the way they might like to individually, but as a collective group, we can do a lot more." (Read more)

USDA seeking fewer definitions of 'rural'

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Rural Development program is designed to provide economic development funding to rural communities, but the program's administrators say the defintion of "rural" has become problematic, perhaps because of news stories about previous administrations' spending in places that many if not most people would not consider rural.

The Washington newsletter Agri-Pulse quotes Cheryl Cook, USDA undersecretary for Rural Development: "Relying almost solely on total population as the definition of rural leaves out other obvious characteristics of a rural area compared to a metropolitan area." Cook spoke to the House Subcommittee on Rural Development, Research, Biotechnology and Foreign Operations.

Rural Development administers over 40 different programs and has an annual $20 billion funding authority, but many definitions of "rural," Cook said, "everything from 10,000 in the case of the water and waste disposal program to no rural area requirement in some other cases." She said it is difficult to explain to local community leaders in towns with population between 10,000 and 20,000 "why they would be eligible for a library or a hospital, but not for public water or sewer."

The system "has been challenging for Rural Development staff and exasperating for applicants and lenders," Agri-Pulse reports. "The 2008 Farm Bill made several changes to the many definitions of  'rural' to ensure that funds are not used in and around urban areas, but a panel of county, state and university rural advocates told the subcommittee that the guidance from Congress was too limited to fix all the problems with the current statutory definitions." For instance, the San Joaquin Valley in California is the largest agricultural region in the U.S. by size and production, but many communities in the valley are excluded from Rural Development programs because they have populations of 50,000 or more.

Since over half the rural population lives in counties located in metropolitan areas, "Congress needs to move beyond 'outmoded' definitions of rural as the sole mechanism for targeting scarce resources to rural America," Charles Fluharty, president and CEO of the non-partisan Rural Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri, told Agri-Pulse. "If we're going to think about moving from federal dependency to wealth creation, we're going to have to think about an innovation strategy that links rural regions to micropolitan regions and smaller new clusters." (Read more)

Bill for horse slaughter is out of Neb. committee

A bill paving the way for Nebraska to begin a horse slaughter program has passed the state legislature's agriculture committee. The bill would establish a state meat inspection program as a first step to opening horse slaughter and processing plants. JoAnne Young of the Lincoln Journal Star reports the bill "was introduced by Sen. Tyson Larson of O'Neill, who said it could open markets for horse, elk, ostrich, bison and grass-fed cattle processing," Young writes. Horse slaughterhouses have been championed as a market-oriented solution to the growing number of abandoned horses in the country, but opponents say they are inhumane.

In 2006, Congress prohibited the use of federal funds to inspect the remaining three U.S. horse slaughter facilities, a factor that led to their closure. The Nebraska "meat inspection program would be funded at least initially by $200,000 from the Commercial Feed Administration Cash Fund, and later by fees for the inspection services," Young writes.  Sen. Tom Carlson of Holdrege, chairman of the agriculture committee, said any horse processing plant would have to be a state-of-the-art facility designed by someone with expertise on facility design and animal behavior, welfare and handling.  He also noted, "We are going to treat horses in the way people want them to be treated." (Read more)

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Evolutionary biologists visit some rural schools

The National Evolutionary Synthesis Center in Durham, N.C., sent a group of biologists into rural areas of the U.S. to celebrate Darwin Day, reports Amy Harmon in The New York Times. Darwin was born 202 years ago on Feb. 12, 1809 (the same day as Abraham Lincoln). Craig McClain, a marine biologist at the center who studies giant squid, said, "You want to send evolutionary biologists out to rural America ... on purpose?" Nineteen schools agreed to have the scientists come to tell students about science and hopefully interest them in a career in science. (Associated Press photo)

Scientists from the center went to schools in Virginia, Nebraska, Montana, and Iowa. The group’s small-town hosts took their own precautions. A high school principal in Ringgold, Va., sent out permission slips so parents could opt out of sending their children to the event (two did). A museum vice president in Putnam, Iowa, publicized the festivities only to teachers, rather than risk riling members of her conservative Christian community, writes Harmon. (Read more)

Arkansas works to attract home-grown teachers

Community Foundation of the Ozarks has launched an initiative to hire rural teachers. Ozarks Teacher Corps provides scholarships of $4,000 for two years if college juniors and seniors chosen for the corps agree agree to teach in a rural school district for three years after graduation, reports Susan Atteberry Smith for the News-Leader. Funding from new private donors to CFO will double the number of scholarships offered to incoming students.
CFO President Gary Funk came up with the idea of providing scholarships to "grow their own" teachers, said CFO Executive Director Julie Leeth. When students come back to their home communities, Leeth calls it a "major coup." Said student Missouri State University Mykie Nash about returning home to teach, "Everybody goes to the Friday night football game. I've always loved that, and I've always thought that was important in education and in raising my own kids." (Read more)

Ga. legislature holds first 'Rural Black Family Day'

The Georgia legislature is inaugurating an effort to increase "black participation in agriculture and other professions in rural areas," reports Maggie Lee for the Macon Telegraph. The first Rural Black Family Day at the Capitol will be held Tuesday, Feb. 22. Rep. Al Williams said legislators will push for more professional schools at historically black colleges and universities, including a doctorate in veterinary medicine at Fort Valley State University, a law school at Albany State University and a graduate teaching school at Savannah State University.

Sen. Robert Brown of Macon, said public school education also needed improvement. "There are too many people who are literally stuck in rural Georgia because they have been under-prepared by the education system. ... If they do come to Atlanta, they go directly to becoming almost a permanent economic underclass." (Read more)

Online classes level playing field for rural schools

Online education is a strategy for leveling the playing field for rural schools, and some small Idaho districts are already latching on to that plan. "It’s second period at Notus Junior/Senior High School, and students in Trish Shelden’s room are learning everything from psychology to digital photography," Kristin Rodine of the Idaho Statesman reports. "Eighteen students sit at computers, and one bounces nearby on a small platform, taking PE via Wii." Most of Notus' 113 high school students spend at least one of their class periods taking an online course.

"With a slate of around 130 such courses available from the Idaho Digital Learning Academy, students can take electives little Notus can’t offer, make up for a class they failed or get a coveted course at a time that works for them," Rodine writes. Notus School District Superintendent Benjamin Merrill, who also serves as principal and football coach for Notus Junior/Senior High, notes, "This gives my kids the same opportunities as students at Eagle High School or Boise High School. We’ve been able to leverage our resources and level the playing field."

"Across Idaho, small rural districts have emerged as leaders in the use of online education," Rodine writes. "State schools Superintendent Tom Luna has praised their innovation as he moves toward requiring all Idaho students to take online classes before they graduate." The state has funded IDLA, which has a roster of part-time teachers, since 2003. "We had one student in Riggins who was able to receive 54 credits in post-secondary education before he even left high school," Mike Caldwell, academic director for IDLA, said. "For some districts, we’re the foreign language program."

Luna's proposed requirement would require all students beginning with freshmen in 2012 take six online credits before graduating. Not everyone is enthusiastic about the proposal, including Merrill, who has seen the benefits of online courses first-hand. "The need varies for every kid," Merrill told Rodine, "and that’s why I’m a little concerned about Superintendent Luna’s one-size-fits-all proposal. I’m not sure all of our students should be taking online classes." (Read more)

Forest management proposal panned by industry and conservation groups

Environmentalists and industry representative have found fault with a U.S. Forest Service proposal that would shift forest and grassland management to a collaborative and science-based system. National forest Deputy Chief Joel Holtrop said the proposal "strikes a balance between economic and ecological demands," and the agency says it will "accelerate timber sales and provide rural jobs while protecting watersheds, wildlife and quiet spaces for recreation," Eric Mortenson of The Oregonian reports. "The proposal is the latest attempt to update 1982 planning rules governing 193 million acres, including more than 12 million acres of national forests in Oregon." (Photo of Umpqua National Forest, by U.S. Forest Service)

Tom Partin, president of the Portland-based American Forest Resources Council, said his group welcomes the "increased emphasis on socio- and economic elements in the planning process," but he noted "the plan contains a 'cumbersome' process for documenting species diversity when planning how a forest will be managed, Mortenson writes. Conservation groups claim the proposal left too much discretion to local officials. "In Oregon, we've seen the result of decades of mismanagement at the hands of old-school forest managers in places like the Umpqua National Forest, where tens of thousands of acres have been ravaged by clear cuts," Oregon Wild spokesman Rob Klavins said. (Read more)

Hard mineral mining is up and may be taxed

Hard mineral mining doesn't get the media coverage of coal mining, but it's an industry that affects many rural communities across the country as evidenced by a trio of recent stories. The value of U.S. mineral production was up nine percent to $64 billion in 2010 from the previous year, suggesting "that the nonfuel minerals industries, particularly metals, were beginning to recover from the economic recession that began in December 2007 and lasted well into 2009," the U.S. Geological Survey writes in a news release announcing the agency's annual report of mineral production statistics. The report also breaks down which minerals are extracted in each state and includes valuable maps that pinpoint hotspots for a particular mineral in each state. (Read more)

Currently, mining companies owe virtually nothing to the federal government in royalties for gold, silver, copper and other minerals mined in the U.S., but in his budget proposa, President Obama called for a five percent royalty on minerals extracted from new projects on public lands. "The amount of revenue projected in the first few years from this royalty is minuscule (in terms of the federal budget), about $7 million or less a year," Felicity Barringer of The New York Times reports. "But the principle of subjecting international mining giants like the Newmont Mining Corporation and the Barrick Gold Corporation to the same kind of royalty regimen that is a way of life for oil, gas and coal companies is significant, no matter the size of the initial revenue." A 2009 bill that would have placed a royalty on such minerals died in the Senate. (Read more)

Residents of Yerington, Nev., have filed a class-action lawsuit against BP America and the Atlantic Richfield Co., accusing the companies of  "intentionally and negligently concealing the extent of the contamination leaking off the abandoned site for decades," Scott Sonner of The Associated Press reports. The suit filed in U.S. District Court in Reno seeks a minimum of $5 million on behalf of at least 100 Yerington residents who live near the old Anaconda copper mine, which opened in 1941. "The plaintiffs say the wells they once used for drinking water are polluted with uranium, arsenic and other metals in a plume of groundwater that slowly has migrated off of the site," Sonner writes.

"The lawsuit says that even after whistleblowers started to publicize previously secret records documenting the dangers, the corporations refused to cooperate with state and federal regulators trying to clean up the radioactive and other hazardous waste the past 10 years," Sonner writes. Tom Mueller, a spokesman for BP America, told Sonner that company officials have not had a chance to review the lawsuit and had no immediate comment. (Read more)

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Illegal pot growing damages forest land

Officials at California's Los Padres National Forest told Cindy Von Quednow, for Scripps Howard News Service that illegal pot-growers are causing big problems. Sgt. Mike Horne of the Ventura County Sheriff's Department narcotics bureau said not only do growers kill animals that get in the way of their gardens, but they also set up shop in natural habitats, poisoning water and land. (Photo by Santa Barbara County Sherriff's Department of marijuana eradication effort in Los Padres National Forest)

The growers harm plants and animals by overuse of fertilizers, diverting streams and constant tramping through the forest, which scares off the animals.  "Poaching, pollution and habitat destruction all go hand in hand with marijuana cultivation," said Patrick Foy, a warden with the California Department of Fish and Game. Small animals are specifically poisoned to protect crops, deer are naturally drawn to the marijuana and bears like the food that growers leave behind. "When bears come to a camp, they're not shot in the lungs or the head, they're shot in the gut so they run away," Foy said. "They purposefully inflict mortal wounds to animals so they suffer for hours before they die." (Read more)

Vilsack: Proposed subsidy cuts won't hurt farmers

The agriculture industry can withstand cuts to farm subsidies proposed by President Obama as part of his budget, says Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack. Obama's 2012 budget proposal "revives a proposal to tighten income eligibility for farm subsidies and to slash the amount that large farms and landowners can collect," Philip Brasher of the Des Moines Register reports. "Congress has rejected similar proposals at the behest of farm groups, but Vilsack said the cuts are imperative to help address the deficit."

"We continue to maintain a strong safety net for people who are most in need of that safety net," Vilsack said of the budget. The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Monday estimated net farm income would reach $95 billion in 2011, a 20 percent increase from last year. "If the forecast is right, 2011 will be the second best year for farm income in the past 35 years when adjusted for inflation," Brasher writes.

In Obama's proposal, direct payments to farms would be capped at $30,000 per person per year, down from $40,000. His overall plan sets up "a battle between the White House and legislators from agricultural states," P.J. Huffstutter of the Los Angeles Times writes. "It will also test the political will of some Republican and 'tea party' lawmakers from rural districts who have vowed to trim federal spending." (Read more)

Idaho non-profit brings subsidized transportation to rural residents

Reliable public transportation has long been an issue for rural communities, but one Idaho non-profit is bringing new transportation sources to the Twin Falls area. "By aggressively seeking federal grant monies and dedicating a large share of staff time to implementing a voucher system, the Living Independence Network Corporation now offers transportation to more than 1,000 local residents," Laura Tillman reports for the Daily Yonder. The program provides free blue vouchers to people who work, attend school or volunteer more than 16 hours a week and $4 white voucher for seniors and disabled residents to get discounts for bus rides and participating taxi companies.

Drivers then return the vouchers to LINC for payment. LINC saw the need for a subsidized transportation system because many disabled residents without adequate transportation struggled "to undertake even the basic activities most people take for granted," Tillman writes. While Medicaid provides transportation to and from doctors appointments, it covers no other rides. The program now has five participating taxi companies and around 1,050 members. "If we were to start advertising this service, we’d be out of money in five months,"Advocacy Director Melva Heinrich Heinrich said.

"Though the Twin Falls program has been a success, LINC employees say that they don’t expect to see many other non-profits starting similar programs," Tillman writes. Only 10 percent of the grant money LINC receives can go to administrative costs, meaning LINC employees receive their salaries from the profits LINC makes through its home health service." With a measure of trepidation, LINC employee Sue Brown admitted that 'transportation has taken over' the Twin Falls office, making it difficult for the staff to put time into other programs, like helping people access and learn to use assistive technology," Tillman writes. Still Brown notes the importance of the transportation program. "Transportation is a huge issue," she told Tillman. "If they don’t have it, they can’t meet their own needs." (Read more)

GAO report warns of security threats from rural U.S.-Canada border

Most of the focus on U.S. border security has been focused on the southern border with Mexico, but a recent report from the Government Accountability Office suggests the greater threat may come from the north. This month, the GAO released a report "warning that the terrorist threat from Canada was higher than from Mexico because of the vast swaths of unprotected frontier," The Associated Press reports. Just 32 miles of the 4,000-mile border have an acceptable level of Border Patrol security, with agents available to make on-site arrests, the report said.  (Associated Press Photo, U.S. Border Patrol agents Glenn Pickering, front, and Janice Jones ride snowmobiles along the St. Lawrence River in Massena, N.Y.)

The mostly-rural Canadian border is "the United States' forgotten border, where federal agents and police play cat-and-mouse with smugglers and illegal immigrants along 4,000 miles of a mostly unmarked and unfortified frontier," AP writes. Senators from northern states have pushed the Obama administration to deploy military radar and more unmanned planes, and Connecticut Democratic Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the head of the Senate's Homeland Security committee, recently suggested the government should examine requiring visas for Canadian visitors. "Our country is so focused on the southern border," Michigan Republican Rep. Candice Miller, who will chair a hearing about the report on Tuesday, told AP. "At the same time the northern border is essentially wide open."

"U.S. officials have said they are especially worried about extremists like Ahmed Ressam, the 'millenium bomber' who was caught in 1999 trying to bring an explosives-filled car into the United States on a ferry from British Columbia," AP writes. In addition to terrorist threats, the border also has become the target of drug smugglers. "In May, a Canadian kingpin confessed to running 2,000 pounds of marijuana a week through the forests of upstate New York. ... And in December, Canadian officials arrested 29 smugglers on charges of using boats to run tons of marijuana, Ecstasy and methamphetamine across the Great Lakes to Michigan and New York." (Read more)

Monday, February 14, 2011

Social media website both reveals and creates problems for small towns

Anonymous comments on the social networking website are proving troublesome for some small towns. Since 2007, Topix "has listed newspaper articles and blogs from thousands of sources by subject and geography, allowing users to type the name of a town, city or a ZIP code to link to local stories and forums," Grace Schneider of The Courier-Journal of Louisville reports. Critics say the website's forums encourage anonymous rants, gossip, libel and cyber-bullying, but some say the site offers increased accountability for officials and institutions in communities.

"The reason why people have a hard time with us is because a lot of the stuff is actually true," Topix CEO Chris Tolles told Schneider. "We are the WikiLeaks for small-town America in a lot of cases." Stioll, Tolles said, he and his staff are working on ways to "push things in a more civil direction." Schneider called him after Topix posts were blamed for a multiple murder-suicide that wiped out a fanily in Austin, Ind., last month.

Schneider also found that Topix can be particularly troublesome for small towns because it's easier to discover the subjects of postings despite the anonymity, according to Zeynep Tufekci, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Maryland in Baltimore County who specializes in social media research.

Tolles reports Kentucky is the website's most active state with over 1 million daily page views, but even there "the site is reviled by some community leaders as a mostly corrosive influence," Schneider reports. Glasgow Mayor Rhonda Trautman told her that recent postings about her city included "a local bankruptcy, an alleged sex offender with address provided, someone inquiring about where to buy pornography, and the mention of families whom the writer alleged are inbred."

However, the anonymity that bothers local leaders may also be the most important part of the website. Schneider writes: “Al Cross, director of the University of Kentucky's Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, agreed that such sites serve an 'accountability function.' Many newspapers in rural communities lack the resources and the backbone to tackle controversy, he said, but 'these Topix sites provide unfiltered, anonymous criticism (which) can be healthy.'” (Read more)

Fired USDA official sues blogger who posted misleading video about her

Shirley Sherrod, right, the Georgia Rural Development director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is suing conservative activist-blogger Andrew Breitbart. Matt DeLong of The Washington Post reports Breitbart was served with the lawsuit while at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington this weekend.

In July 2010, Breitbart produced a video purporting to show Sherrod admitting to an NAACP audience that she had discriminated against a white farmer because of his race. Sherrod felt pressured to resign her position, which she did. After it was revealed that the video was heavily edited, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack offered Sherrod a job but she declined to return to the department. Later in July, Sherrod told the National Association of Black Journalists that she was going to sue Breitbart. "He had to know that he was targeting me," Sherrod said in a discussion with three NABJ members. "I will definitely sue."

Breitbart responded to the lawsuit on his website that he "categorically rejects the transparent effort to chill his constitutionally protected free speech and, to reiterate, looks forward to exercising his full and broad discovery rights." (Read more)

"Coincidentally, Shirley Sherrod and four other cooperative leaders will be inducted into the Cooperative Hall of Fame here May 4," Washington newsletter Agri-Pulse reports. "Sherrod will be honored for her civil rights leadership. She participated in successful legal action against USDA for discriminatory lending practices after a 6,000-acre cooperative and land trust she co-founded was forced into foreclosure. She is also being cited for her field staff work at the Federation of Southern Cooperatives.

"Others to be honored are Noel Estenson, who was CEO of the old Cenex co-op and of its successor CHS until his retirement in 2000; former Rep. Daniel A. Mica, D-Fla., who was CEO of the Credit Union National Association after leaving Congress, and Gloria and Stanley Kuehn, agricultural development pioneers in Salvador and Nicaragua. He was country director for the National Cooperative Business Association."

Rural life has been good to couple

Elza and Vivian Moses married in 1927, at ages 17 and 22 respectively, built a life together and after 80 years of marriage, still live in their rural Illinois home. Elza is 102 and Vivian is 97. Vivian says, "A neighbor told Grandma, 'That ain't gonna last.'" Leonid Gavrilov, a biodemographer at the University of Chicago's Center on Aging, used actuarial tables to estimate the chances of a couple living as long as the Moseses and also remaining married to be about 1 in 7 million, reports Colleen Mastony for the Chicago Tribune. (Photo by Michael Tercha, Chicago Tribune of Elza and Vivian Moses, 102 and 97)

They lived and farmed in Nebraska after they married. But unrelenting heat and drought sent the couple to Tiskilwa, Ill., population 780, about 50 miles north of Peoria, where they still live. Elza raised corn, soybeans, hogs and dairy cows. Vivian tended to the garden, the house and their five daughters, writes Mastony. "For both of them, I think it was their first love," says daughter Judy Speers, 65. "They always totally relied on each other. And to this day they still do."

A North Carolina couple who marked their 86th anniversary in May hold the record for the longest marriage. "But the Moseses' longevity has made them celebrated figures in Tiskilwa and beyond. ... Local schoolchildren sent more than 100 cards for Elza's birthday," writes Mastony.

Both of them are in good health, though Elza has some hearing loss and Vivian has a sore shoulder. They agree that doing things together has kept their marriage strong. She writes birthday cards to every child, grandchild (nine), great-grandchild (28) and great-great-grandchild (14, with four on the way); he takes the cards to the mailbox. Vivian turns to Elza and asks, "Would you know what to do without me?" "I'd be completely lost," he says.(Read more)

Small towns fear losing their post offices

"Rural life has taken quite a beating, and losing the post office would probably be the nail in the coffin," Jack Hutchinson, chairman of the Iroquois Farmers State Bank in Iroquois, Ill., told Judy Keen of USA Today. Hutchinson said he would rather lose Saturday delivery or pay more for postage than lose the office altogether. In Port Wentworth, Ga., mayor Glenn Jones' mother told him, "Son, you just cannot let them get away with this."

In March, the U.S. Postal Service will follow a 57-step process to select the 2,000 post offices that will be closed. Spokeswoman Sue Brennan says because the postal service is self-supporting, it cannot continue without reducing offices, stations and branches. Customers "don't need to come to a brick-and-mortar location with a big flagpole," she says. "Those days are over."

But residents who could lose their local office disagree. Susan Allen, postmaster in Woodland, Ill., population 301, said of small towns, "If they lose their post office they lose their identity." (Read more)

Houses on land may save Ky. houseboat industry

The Kentucky houseboat industry is hoping to reverse its recent struggles buy forgoing water for land. "The idea is to build energy-efficient modular homes on the same factory lines that normally produce luxury houseboats," Bill Estep of the Lexington Herald-Leader reports. "The goal is to boost jobs at the Lake Cumberland-area factories and at material suppliers while creating a model of relatively low-cost, highly energy-efficient houses." Supporters hope the homes can be marketed to low-income people, those looking for compact vacation homes and empty-nesters looking to downsize. (Rendering of project prototype)

"There's just all kinds of opportunities," said Bruce Chesnut, a partner in Stardust Cruisers. The first two prototypes will be constructed in Wayne County and set up there in Monticello and nearby Whitley County, which each received a $125,000 federal grant to finance the prototypes. The project also received a $1 million grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission. Houseboat Factories in Wayne, Pulaski, Clinton, Russell and Adair counties employed an estimated 1,000 people at one point, but now fewer than 200 workers are employed by the remaining factories.

"The project is a collaboration of Kentucky Highlands and the University of Kentucky College of Design, which also worked with the Center for Applied Energy Research at the university," Estep writes. In addition to creating jobs, Jerry Rickett, president and chief executive officer of Kentucky Highlands, "has had an interest in promoting construction of more energy-efficient homes to replace aging houses and mobile homes in rural Kentucky that are not efficient, meaning high energy costs for their owners," Estep writes. The project also aims to use as many materials from Kentucky suppliers as possible. (Read more)

Ohio cities push limits for fracking wastewater

Cities in Ohio are looking to cash in on the wastewater created by natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale. But state environmental officials say the process of cleaning the water could pollute Ohio's rivers and streams. "East Liverpool, Steubenville and Warren want to take the millions of gallons of salty, toxic wastewater that such wells produce and run it through their sewage-treatment plants," Spencer Hunt of The Columbus Dispatch reports. "However, Ohio Environmental Protection Agency officials say they want strict limits on the amount of brine the cities want to dump in the Mahoning and Ohio rivers."

In December, Ohio EPA "gave Warren officials permission to dump no more than 100,000 gallons of treated brine each day into the Mahoning along with as much as 16 million gallons of treated sewage," Hunt writes. Thomas Angelo, who is director of Warren's water-pollution-control center, told Hunt the Mahoning could handle as much as 600,000 gallons a day and that volume could boost city revenue from an estimated $150,000 a year to at least $900,000. "Discharging 100,000 (gallons per day), it's the proverbial drop in the bucket," Angelo said. "There is more salt coming off the roads into waters of the state than what is coming off the Marcellus shale."

Marcellus shale drilling uses hydraulic fracturing, during which millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals are injected into wells to break the shale and release gas. "About 15 percent of the water shot down the well comes back up, tainted with salt and hazardous metals that can include barium, cadmium and chromium," Hunt writes. "After the initial surge of  'flow back' water, wells continue to produce brine that contains even higher concentrations of salt, metals and minerals." Warren has filed a legal challenge to Ohio EPA's limit, and the agency will consider requests from Steubenville and East Liverpool in the coming weeks. (Read more)