Friday, May 06, 2011

Climate change cutting crop yields, study finds

Climate change is already boosting the price of staple crops and pinching production, according to new research that seeks to tease apart historical agriculture trends," reports Dina Fine Maron of Environment & Energy News. "Work published today in the journal Science finds that yields for wheat and maize during the past 30 years are lower than they would have been if it were not for rising temperatures." (Read more; subscription required) For a report on the study and how agricultural interests are coping with climate change, from Philip Brasher of the Des Moines Register, go here.

Excellent interactive map reveals food deserts

Does your area have a food desert, defined as a low-income census tract where a substantial number or share of residents has low access to a supermarket or large grocery store? Now it's easy to check, via an interactive map prepared by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Here's a view of food-desert census tracts in Missouri and adjoining states (click on map for larger image):
The map's zoom and transparency features allows users to create county-level maps suitable for publication. To qualify as a “low-income community,” a census tract must have a poverty rate of 20 percent or higher, or a median family income at or below 80 percent of the census tract's median family income. To qualify as a rural “low-access community,” at least 500 people and/or at least 33 percent of the census tract's population must reside more than 10 miles from a supermarket or large grocery store. (For urban tracts, the distance threshold is one mile.) Here's a story from CNN's Eatocracy site. The documentation for the map is here.

Feds cutting back wild-horse roundups to cut costs; more horses are held than are free

The Bureau of Land Managment plans to reduce its roundups of wild horses because it is already keeping 40,000 and the General Accounting Office has ruled the $80 million annual cost "unsustainable," Richard Cockle of The Oregonian reports. "More wild mustangs now live in government corrals and holding compounds in the Midwest than roam free in the West's backcountry." (Oregonian photo by Doug Beghtel)
The BLM is trying to control the wild horse population by focusing its removal efforts on stallions, neutering them and injecting mares with anti-fertility drugs, "but such moves don't settle the dilemma of what to do over the long haul with a program saddle-horn-deep in wild horses, fueled by a drop in adoptions, a high birth rate and the animals' 30-year life expectancy," Cockle writes.

Federal education chief working on rural rap

Michele McNeil of Education Week reports: Education Secretary Arne Duncan, "who certainly isn't known for crafting policies aimed at rural America," this week challenge rural advocates to "Make a commitment to ensure rural students complete college at higher rates." And he said the Obama administration would help.

Duncan "spoke alongside Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in Washington at the National Summit on the Role of Education in Economic Development in Rural America, sponsored by the Education Commission of the States," McNeil reports. "Duncan's policies are often considered to be urban-centric. . . . And his outreach—at least in the beginning of his tenure—to rural advocates was lacking. But, as is evidence today, he is working on it." (Read more)

EPA boss plans more trips to farm country

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator "Lisa Jackson is looking for some friends down on the farm," Robin Bravender reports for Politico. "Farm-state voters have seemingly lost patience with Democrats in Washington," in large measure because of EPA's "air and water regulations, which they claim will put farms out of business." So, Jackson and other Obama administration officials are going down on the farm to fight what she calls "myths."

"Jackson traveled to Iowa last month and California farm country in March, and EPA says additional trips are in the works," Bravender writes. "She has also been trying to improve EPA’s image through appearances on local radio stations and with op-eds in farm states." We first reported on Jackson's trips here, and on EPA's more recent Clean Water Act policy guidance here. (Associated Press photo: Jackson in Iowa)

"The attacks from farmers have been amplified amid Republicans’ constant criticism," Bravender reports. "House Republicans on the Agriculture and Natural Resources committees plan to continue their assault Tuesday with a joint hearing titled 'At Risk: American Jobs, Agriculture, Health and Species — the Costs of Federal Regulatory Dysfunction.' Jackson isn’t scheduled to testify." (Read more)

Forest Service plan draws fire from rural members of Congress from both parties

Lawmakers from rural congressional districts and both parties are voicing concern that the U.S. Forest Service's proposed planning document "could open the door to special-interest lawsuits and does little to ensure timber harvests will increase across the nation's millions of acres of national forests" and grasslands, Phil Taylor of Environment & Energy News reports.

By including requirements to "catalog invertebrate species and incorporating climate change language," the Forest Service "appears to be morphing into a hybrid of the National Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service, thrusting species viability above the needs of rural economies that depend on multiple-use of forests," Taylor reports, paraphrasing Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., who said, "The law requires species diversity, not viability."

Representatives pressed Harris Sherman, the Forest Service's undersecretary for natural resources and environment, "to explain why the rule does not explicitly promote an increase in timber production at a time when rural economies are reeling from unemployment and lagging tax revenues," Taylor writes. "Sherman said timber, as a multiple use, is expressly recognized in the draft plan, and added that the Obama administration predicted a slight increase in timber production in its new budget." (Read more; subscription required)

ABA targets 10 states for criminal-justice reforms on minor offenses, pre-trial release, other topics

The American Bar Association is launching an effort to get 10 states to decriminalize minor offenses, ease pre-trial release and otherwise change their criminal laws and court practices to save money. The targeted states are California, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, and Vermont.

The effort also includes topics such as prisoner re-entry, increased use of probation and parole, and community corrections. "In each state, the ABA has assembled a team including prosecutors, defense lawyers, and allied organizations to push for change," reports Crime and Justice News. The ABA says it wants to "create an effective, low-cost system that improves our current justice system," and also "promote public safety, reduce recidivism, and save money."

The ABA says reform is needed in pre-trial release because many detainees awaiting trial "do not present a significant risk of flight and are unlikely to pose a public danger, especially when placed into cost-effective pre-trial release supervision program." It cites Kentucky as a model state. Kentucky recently adopted a set of sentencing and related reforms to save money, and Ohio now seems poised to do likewise, "with uncharacteristic bipartisan support," Alan Johnson of The Columbus Dispatch reports.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Rural finalist for Obama graduation speech overcomes obstacles for disadvantaged kids

UPDATE, May 19: Labor Secretary Hilda Solis will give the commencement address at Bridgeport.
The White House will announce Monday the high school where has announced that President Obama will give a graduation speech in Memphis., and even if rural Bridgeport High School in Washington doesn't didn't make it, but its role as one of the three finalists has highlighted its success at raising expectations for disadvantaged students. (Google map; click for larger image)

"Bridgeport boasts a 100 percent college acceptance rate; over 80 percent of the class has already committed to college," writes Tim Newcomb of Time magazine. Bridgeport High's population is 90 percent Hispanic and 100 percent of the district's students qualify for the free- or reduced-lunch program." Principal Tamra Jackson told Newcomb, “We created our own prep program. . . . We have set the bar pretty high and the students are meeting those standards.” (Read more)

The local Wenatchee World reported on the finalist announcement: "The 200-student school was by far the most rural of the six candidates competing in the Race to the Top Commencement Challenge. They faced big-city schools and specialized charter schools, mostly east of the Mississippi River." (Read more)

Election, pressure for cuts will delay new Farm Bill until 2013, experts with GOP ties say

Two experienced hands with Republican ties believe it will be challenging for Congress to pass a new Farm Bill before the November 2012 election, the Washington newsletter Agri-Pulse reports. Former House Agriculture Committee chairman Larry Combest and Chuck Conner, president and CEO of the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives and former deputy secretary of agriculture, made separate appearances before the National Association of Farm Broadcasting.

"There is a lot of concern now that we're looking at a 2013 Farm Bill," Conner said, noting that Congress has never written a Farm Bill in a presidential eledction year. The timing and pressure to reduce spending leave him wondering "whether Farm Bill writers can draft a functional safety net," Agri-Pulse reports. Both Conner and Combest doubt the Senate will "go along with the House spending blueprint for farm programs," which calls for cuts, Agri-Pulse reports.

Conner predicted that reduced federal spending may lead to crop insurance becoming the key farm subsidy. "I think we are headed in the direction of crop insurance becoming Title I, frankly, of the Farm Bill going forward," he said. Combest disagrees, and says alternative support mechanisms must be considered. Agri-Pulse is subscription-only, but offers a free, four-issue trial subscription.

Cave expert Thomas C. Barr Jr. dead at 79

Zoologist Thomas C. Barr Jr. died from a heart attack this week at the age of 79. Barr, a professor emeritus at the University of Kentucky, was known for the "scores of scientific papers, discoveries and a book" about caves in Tennessee and neighboring states, Anne Paine of The Tennessean reports. (Nashville Grotto photo)

Barr's "passion for the world underground began at age 7 when his parents took him to Mammoth Cave," Paine writes. His writings on ecology, taxonomy, cave evolution and beetles inspired a generation of cavers throughout the region; he was a founding member of the Nashville and Boston grottos of the National Speleological Society.

Barr wrote the book Caves of Tennessee while he was in his 20s. His research was funded by the state, and he and Roy Davis, operator of Cumberland Caverns, "eventually disclosed more than 700 caves," Paine reports.

Barr's caving expeditions led to his descriptions of "over one hundred species of cave beetles, many of which were previously unknown," Paine writes. "At the time of his death, he was collaborating on a paper for a newly discovered species of ground beetle, carabide, to be published by the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. (Read more)

Farm Service Agency's local-office employees suggest ways to save during an era of cuts

The National Association of Farm Service Agency County Office Employees is proposing cost-saving measures for the Department of Agriculture. "NASCOE believes Congress can find cost-saving measures in program delivery by eliminating duplication of services and calling on FSA to utilize the county-committee and the county-office employees to deliver these programs," NASCOE said in a March briefing paper obtained by Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter.

For example, NASCOE suggested FSA be made the sole collection agency for crop and production reporting by farmers and ranchers, Agri-Pulse reports. The recommendations come as FSA "field offices are being asked to limit employee travel, rely more on digital imagery and email, and find low or no-cost options to publicize program and payment eligibility requirements . . . to reduce the cost of administering farm programs."

Acting Administrator Carolyn Cooksie recommended that state FSA offices "carefully review where these recommendations can be implemented as FSA continues to address the current budget situation," which will result in fewer compliance checks and farm inspection. Agri-Pulse is subscription-only, but offers a free, four-issue trial subscription.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Al Smith Award established to recognize public service through community journalism

The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists have established the Al Smith Award for public service through community journalism in Kentucky, or anywhere by a current or former Kentuckian, with preference given to those outside metropolitan areas.

The award’s first recipient will be its namesake: Albert P. Smith Jr., who owned weekly newspapers in Kentucky and Tennessee, was founding host of Kentucky Educational Television’s “Comment on Kentucky” and main founder of the Institute, whose advisory board he chairs. It is based at the University of Kentucky.

The award will be presented at a dinner in Lexington on June 2. Proceeds will go primarily to the Institute’s endowment at UK and will also benefit the SPJ chapter, which funds scholarships for student journalists in the region. To make an advance reservation, add someone to the invitation list, or be a sponsor, contact Al Cross, director of the Institute, at 859-257-3744 or; or Janice Birdwhistell, development officer of the College of Communications and Information Studies, at 859-257-4241 or

Feds unveil interactive map of land they'd sell

The Office of Management and Budget held a news conference today to discuss its plans to reduce the federal deficit by disposing of excess federal real estate. So far 14,000 properties have been identified as excess. The properties can be located using the interactive map OMB posted today.

Many of the properties are in rural areas, such as national forests. OMB Deputy Director Jeffery Zients and Controller Daniel Werfel said legislation that President Obama is proposing to Congress today would cut red tape and politics surrounding federal property disposal and result in significant savings to taxpayers. They highlighted the website and map.

Citizens "can use this site to help us identify other properties in your communities that are not on the excess list but should be sold or otherwise disposed of," Zients said on The White House Blog. "These excess properties are just the tip of the iceberg." (Read more)

Farmers fear EPA effort to clarify water law's application could lead to broader regulation

Some farm groups and lawmakers fear that the Environmental Protection Agency's proposed guidance to clarify enforcement of the Clean Water Act is too vague and could subject farmers to new regulations. "The guidance proposes a biological or chemical connection test on a case-by-case basis between the upstream water body and wetland and the downstream navigable water," reports Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter.

The guidance document applies to traditionally regulated waters, including wetlands adjacent to either navigable or interstate waters, but additional waters could fall under regulation "if a fact-specific analysis determines they have a 'significant nexus' to a traditional navigable water or interstate water," Agri-Pulse reports.

Don Parrish of the American Farm Bureau Federation told Agri-Pulse that more definition and clarity is needed to satisfy farmers. "This document gives absolutely no assurance to landowners that anything is outside of the scope" of regulation, he said, such as pesticide usage and normal farming practices. The regulatory process could also lead EPA and the Corps of Engineers, which issues water-pollution permits, to further narrow what is considered "normal farming practice," requiring farmers to get additional permits.

Environmental and wildlife groups applauded the move. Former Ducks Unlimited president John Tomke spoke at the EPA press conference about the guidance was released. "DU and several other wildlife and environmental groups plan to weigh in with more support for EPA during a press conference scheduled for Wednesday," Agri-Pulse reports. Agri-Pulse is subscription-only, but offers a free, four-issue trial subscription.

The rules "maintain exemptions for roadside ditches, stock ponds, tile lines and other agricultural structures," notes Philip Brasher of the Des Moines Register, but House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., contends they are a "foundation" for the government "to regulate essentially any body of water." (Read more)

Editor's apology and newspaper's coverage of his DUI arrest comes too late for some

Newspapers frequently publish arrests and other personal matters of local public figures, but what happens when the public figure is one of their own? At the Gainesville Times in Georgia, "Executive editor Mitch Clarke was arrested for driving under the influence and briefly jailed, but his paper didn't report it until Sunday — in his column," Jim Romenesko of The Poynter Institute reports. It was not until after Clarke's court appearance that the Gainesville Times officially reported the incident. To read the Times story detailing Clarke's sentencing and the arrest click here.

Clarke wrote in his column that the "newspaper's policy is not to run DUIs unless they involve public figures. My supervisors made the call that I didn't meet that standard," Romenesko reports. In hindsight, Clarke said, he should have insisted that the newspaper report the story because he is in fact a public figure. (Read more) Clarke and the newspaper received much criticism for the lack of coverage of the arrest. To read his apology to the newspaper staff and readers, or see readers' comments click here.

Clarke was luckier than Mike Alexieff, who as editor of the Daily News in Bowling Green, Ky., defended a story about a local official's DUI arrest partly by saying that if he ever was ever arrested for the offense, it would be on the front page. When he did get arrested for DUI, he lost his job.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Tenn. study finds asthma rising among rural kids

A new study has found that asthma is an increasing problem among rural children, at least in Tennessee. "We know that asthma is a problem among poor urban children in the U.S., but it turns out it is also a problem among poor rural children, " lead researcher Dr. Robert S. Valet of the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville told Amy Norton of Reuters. He said higher asthma rates may be related to higher rates of maternal smoking and bronchiolitis in infancy. "Among rural children, 35 percent had a mother who smoked during pregnancy, compared with 16 percent of urban children. And 22 percent of rural children had bronchiolitis as infants, versus 17 percent of urban kids," Norton writes.

Researchers reviewed records of 117,080 Tennessee children covered under Medicaid and found "11 percent of urban, 12 percent of suburban and 13 percent of rural children had an asthma diagnosis between the ages of 4 and 5½. When it came to inhaled corticosteroids, 31 percent of rural children had a prescription, as did 32 percent of suburban and 35 percent of urban children.The lower rates of inhaled corticosteroids may be related in part to the lack of asthma specialists in rural areas, Norton reports. The researchers propose "offering more asthma education in rural primary care clinics – in the form of written materials or trained 'asthma educators'" as the solution. (Read more)

Farmers dependent on immigrant labor worry about push to make e-Verify program mandatory

Some Republican lawmakers are pushing to make the federal employment verification system mandatory and many "are calling on the Obama administration to step up workplace raids to find and arrest illegal immigrants," Matt Kennard of the Financial Times reports. That concerns farmers who depend on immigrant labor. (Read more)

Many farmers fear that a mandatory program, without legislation to create a path to citizenship for immigrant workers, would wipe out the nation's agricultural work force, Jason Hoppin of the Santa Cruz Sentinel reports. "To say that we're going to use e-Verify without giving you a legal means to citizenship, the message there is, 'We want consumers to buy foreign food,'" Thomas Nassif, president and chief executive officer of the Irvine, Calif.-based Western Growers Association told Hoppin.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith of Texas, a leading supporter of expanding e-Verify, said at a hearing in January, "Statements that Americans are not willing to do these jobs demean the hardworking Americans who actually do this work on a daily basis. Citizens and legal immigrants should not be forced to compete with illegal workers for jobs." (Read more)

Rural school district in Wisconsin is first to say it will end vocational agriculture education

Rural education without agricultural education: Is that even possible? The Department of Public Instruction in Wisconsin believes so. It has identified 33 agricultural programs that may face cutbacks, and as Megan Peterson of WEAU 13 News Eau Claire reports, "One district close to home is going a step further and may eliminate it altogether."

"We made about $300,000 worth of cuts last year," Alma Center-Humbird-Merrillan School District Supt. Bill Van Meer told Peterson. This year the school district needs to cut $481,000 to balance its budget. Van Meer estimates a savings of $80,000 to $90,000 by cutting the agriculture program.

Supporters of agricultural education are very upset about Van Meer's announcement to cut agricultural education to save money. "We just feel it's that valuable and we'd sure like to keep it and help do what we can to make sure it's there in the future for other families and kids," FFA Alumni President Jerome Laufenberg told Peterson. (Read more)

Branding debate sizzles as USDA plans to make ear tags the official identifier for cattle

The livestock brand, an icon of the American West, is being challenged by the U.S. Department of Agriculture as the official identification for some livestock. "The USDA in March announced that ear tags will be the official cattle ID," Tom Lutey of the Billings Gazette reports. The tags may help regulate diseases by tracing it back to the source across state lines; branding, used to identify cattle on open ranges in the West, is an unfamiliar practice in many states. (Dickinson Cattle Company photo)

Gilles Stockton, a Montana rancher, USDA adviser and supporter of branding, told Lutey that 14 states rely on branding for livestock identification but many other states are ill-equipped to use and record brands. "There is, therefore, pressure to not accept brands as a means of official identification," he said. "A slowly emerging disease like foot-and-mouth disease would be in the animal for months before it ever produced recognizable symptoms. By that time, disease exposure would have occurred and ear tags wouldn't matter."

Ear tags work well in livestock operations where animals live in stalls and are easy to track, but many ranchers prefer permanent brands because they do not fall out and easier to read from a distance, Lutey reports. The ear tag ID program is expected to be published as a regulation in the Federal Register by the end of the month. (Read more)

Coal firms, insurers pay residents for flood damage worsened by mining (and lax regulation?)

Faced with an engineerng study that one expert said was "groundbreaking" for the area, four coal companies settled with 91 residents near Quicksand Creek in Breathitt County, Kentucky, over flood damage the residents said was worsened by the companies' strip mines. They filed a lawsuit against Miller Brothers Coal, Appalachian Fuels, Lexington Coal and International Coal Group sayign they "exacerbated flooding after heavy rains in May 2009," Dori Hjalmarson of the Lexington Herald-Leader reports.

A Virginia engineering firm compared the Quicksand Creek watershed to a predicted watershed if no mining had never been done and "found that peak flows in the creek increased 77 percent to 81 percent during a rain like the soaking that occurred May 8 and 9, 2009," Hjalmarson reports. Jack Spadaro, the plaintiffs' reclamation and hydrology expert and former federal inspector, told Hjalmarson, "This is the best engineering study that I've seen on this issue. It certainly is groundbreaking in Kentucky."

The details of the settlement are confidential but plaintiffs' attorney Ned Pillersdorf of Prestonsburg did tell Hjalmarson that due to bankruptcies of Miller Brothers and Appalachian "much of the negotiation was done with insurance companies." The case was set to go to trial next Monday, two years after the start of the flood.

Also mentioned in the lawsuit was the state Department for Surface Mine Reclamation and Enforcement for what the plantiffs criticized as "lax inspections and too many variances given to companies mining in the watershed," Hjalmarson reports. (Read more)

Monday, May 02, 2011

Illegal immigration by Hispanics alleged in place you might not think: Upstate New York dairies

Upstate New York might seem to be an unlikely place for the federal crackdown on illegal immigration by Hispanics, but in March federal agents removed eight illegal immigrant workers from a Butterville Properties farm in Smithville, N.Y., following a work-related death investigation on the property, Sarah Haase of the Watertown Daily Times reports. John Barney, co-owner of Butterville Properties, was arrested for allegedly hiring illegal immigrants and this event left many dairy farmers wondering, "Who will be next?"

The New York Farm Bureau estimates that state farms employ close to 10,000 immigrant workers. "The relationship between dairy farmers and Hispanic immigrants has proven to be something that is extremely valuable to both groups," Cornell University professor and co-author of a university study on dairy farms, Thomas R. Maloney told Haase. "Hispanic immigrants are doing the most physically demanding jobs on the farm, which are the hardest to fill."

Ronald Robbins, owner of North Harbor Farms, told Haase, "We can't entrust just anyone with our animals, and we can't say, 'Oh, well, we don't feel like producing today. The commitment to make money — and send it home to their families — ensures that Hispanic workers don't cause trouble." (Read more)