Saturday, May 28, 2011

Latest chapter in threat to rural post offices

Reuters is the latest news outlet to write up the U.S. Postal Service's plan to close rural post offices in an effort to reduce its burgeoning budget deficit. Kevin Murphy writes from Freeport, Kansas: "Six days a week, the small American flag flutters in the shade of a cottonwood tree outside the post office in Freeport, Kansas, population 5. The flag, which means the post office is open, may come down for good later this year because Freeport is among about 2,000 postal outlets eyed for closure by the United States Postal Service. The vast majority are in small towns, officials said." (Read more)

Rural medical training programs have success, but live 'on the edge' of personnel and funding

With the Obama administration offering more funding to improve rural health care, Rural Training Track programs to steer medical students to rural areas are hoping to expand, a move that would benefit underserved areas.

"Over 62 million Americans live in rural America and there is a significant crisis in terms of having access to care for these people," said Amy Elizondo, vice president of program services at the National Rural Health Association. "There is a very uneven distribution of health care professionals and an acute shortage of primary care physicians in rural areas. If we can recruit and retain physicians to serve rural areas, we improve access for rural America." (University of Washington map; click for larger version)
RTT programs aim to educate family physician residents in rural environments with the hope they will continue to practice there, Candi Helseth reports in a deailed article for the Rural Assistance Center. "These residency programs are a proven model for addressing rural family physician workforce shortages, with more than 70 percent of graduates praticing in rural areas," Helseth reports. The first such program started in Colville, Wash., in 1985. There are 25 RTTs in 17 states.

In Caldwell, Idaho, 95 percent of graduates have chosen to practice in rural areas over the past 16 years. "We heavily recruit residents who are rural-oriented," Dr. Samantha Portenier, a practicing physician and director of the Caldwell RTT, told Helseth. "We've had some who were not and we converted them. Part of it was that they really saw where the training we give them and the skills they learn are so needed in rural areas. I emphasize that in rural areas you can specialize in areas that particularly interest you."

Despite the success, 10 RTT programs have closed in the past 10 years. "Every RTT lives on the edge in terms of funding," Dr. Randall Longenecker, who is project director of Rural Training Track Assistance Demonstration Project, told Helseth. "In general RTTs are small, have limited faculty and are vulnerable to personnel changes, a bad year for recruiting, loss of funding and many other factors beyond their control."

Now, RTTs are under a federal microscope. The health care reform law created the Rural Training Track Assistance Demonstration Project, a three-year pilot program that plans to "collect comprehensive information to better understand the collective forces challenging RTT models and develop solutions that will strengthen existing RTTs and encourage development of new RTTs," Helseth reports.

The time is ripe, given that more medical students are choosing to be family medicine physicians, up by 11 percent last year and 8 percent the year before. "We have a real opportunity here to redefine the importance of primary care being foundational in rural workforces," Dr. Ted Epperly, past president and past board chairman of the American Academy of Family Physicians, told Helseth. "Right now, only 9 percent of physicians are choosing to practice in rural areas while 20 percent of the population lives there. RTTs offer a way to give family physicians a broad scope of practice, which they need practicing in a rural area, and to get them to stay in those rural areas." (Read more)

Friday, May 27, 2011

Groups sue to curtail antibiotic use in animals

"A coalition of consumer groups sued the Food and Drug Administration to force it to curtail use of antibiotics in animal agriculture," Julian Pecquet of The Hill reports. "The use of drugs to promote animal growth and prevent illnesses in poultry and livestock kept in crowded conditions is causing concerns about drug-resistant strains. The agriculture and drug lobbies say those concerns are overblown." (Read more)

Shirley Sherrod says proposed contract with USDA insulted her; Vilsack says talks in 'early stages'

Shirley Sherrod, who lost her job as the Department of Agriculture's Rural Development director in Georgia "after media reports misconstrued her statements about white farmers as racially insensitive," said this week that she was insulted by the department's offer of a contract that her spokesman said was worth about $35,000 and didn't include travel expenses, Krissah Thompson reports for The Washington Post. Talks on the contract, part of the agency's "plan to fix longstanding problems with discrimination," are continuing.

UPDATE, June 6: Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told The Hill that journalists are missing the larger point, "that USDA has gone to great lengths to make sure it doesn’t repeat past mistakes," Kevin Bogardus writes. He quotes Vilsack: “The focus shouldn’t be on Shirley, no disrespect to her. The focus should be on the effort of transforming USDA. And Shirley is going to have, I hope, a role in helping oversee that opportunity and that effort.” Vilsack told Bogardus the department’s contract with Sherrod is “in the early stages of discussion.” His remarks appear at the end of a wide-ranging story about his tenure at UDSA.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Last Eastern Kentucky news bureau is closing

First it was The Courier-Journal of Louisville. Then The Associated Press. And now the Lexington Herald-Leader, the main daily newspaper serving Eastern Kentucky, will no longer have a bureau in the region, one of the nation's most rural places but one with more than its share of topics that need coverage, such as "politics and government, corruption, drug abuse, poverty, child welfare, health care, coal and the environment, to name a few," as Publisher Tim Kelly put it in an email to The Rural Blog.

Tomorrow is the last day for Pikeville bureau reporter Dori Hjalmarson, left, whose job was among those in the latest round of cuts for the newspaper, owned by the McClatchy Co., which is burdened by the huge debt it incurred to buy the old Knight-Ridder chain of which the Herald-Leader was a part.

The paper's coverage of Kentucky's Appalachian coalfield will now be done mainly by veteran reporter Bill Estep, who has already been covering coal from his Southern Kentucky hometown of Somerset, just outside the coalfield, which is the most common demarcation of "Eastern Kentucky." The western edge of the coalfield is roughly defined by the western edge of the Daniel Boone National Forest, the dark green diagonal strip on this Google map, the blue line on which shows the 156-mile, three-hour route from Somerset to Pikeville. (Click on image for larger version)
The coalfield's western counties have little if any mining. Most of the small white splotches in the east are strip mines, several just north of Hazard, just east of midway on the route. The Herald-Leader once had a bureau in Hazard, too, and its eastern coverage was supported strongly by Kelly, a native of Ashland, the largest city in the coalfield but far from the heart of it. He is retiring next week. He told us, "I expect that the paper will continue to do enterprise and investigative work on subjects of statewide significance, including the issues significant to Eastern Kentucky . . . regardless of where bureaus are physically located. We have always done that, and it remains central to our journalistic mission. Also, I have no doubt that the editorial page will continue to explore and comment on the issues of importance to Eastern Kentucky."

But there is no replacement for boots on the ground of the coalfield, as former Herald-Leader columnist Bill Bishop suggests in an article for the national Daily Yonder, which he co-edits from Texas. "To understand a place, you have to live there," he writes. "With the bureaus closed, the distance between the cities and the rest of the state will widen. The growing economic inequality between rural and urban in Kentucky will be matched by a social and political distance."

Bishop, a former reporter for The Mountain Eagle in the coalfield town of Whitesburg, recalls the 1960s and 1970s, when "Bureau reporters were gunslinging paladins of the powerless. The reporters covering Eastern Kentucky were able to change the nation from their little offices," with coverage of coal, poverty and other issues. He says it's fitting that Hjalmarson's "last big story" for the Lexington paper was about the population decline in the region, focusing on the valedictorian of Breathitt County High School, who would like to return to the mountains but can't yet see how. "That's what I've been raised in," Emily Tackett said. "That's my home." After tomorrow, one less reporter will call it so.

To hear an interview about this by Alan Lytle of WUKY-FM with the undersigned, the director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, both at the University of Kentuckyclick here.

Horse virus spreads in West; events canceled

An outbreak of equine herpes virus-1, a highly contagious airborne virus, has led to the death of at least seven horses in western states, Gale Holland of the Los Angeles Times reports. The horse Powered by Pep (right, with owner David Booth) became infected after an event at Bakersfield, Calif., but intravenous fluids and anti-inflammatory and anti-viral drugs appear to be helping him. (Times photo by Wally Skalij)

Authorities believe the outbreak started in Ogden, Utah, sometime between April 18 and May 3 and has spread to California, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington and four other Western states. "Colorado, which has reported 22 suspected cases and two euthanizings, is requiring health certifications for horses crossing its border," Holland writes. California has had a total of 18 reported cases. Seven of those where euthanized due to severe neurological signs. The survivors are under a state-ordered quarantine and care from private veterinarians, the California Department of Food and Agriculture told Holland.

Since 2000, there has been an increased fear of the EHV-1 strain of equine herpes, which "spreads from horse-to-horse contact — humans are not susceptible — and manifests along a spectrum ranging from cold-like symptoms and fever to hindquarter weakness, coordination dysfunction and finally collapse and paralysis," Holland writes. Horses may even carry the virus and show no symptoms and with no vaccine available, many events have been cancellation to prevent further spreading. (Read more)

Unwilling landowners dislike forced pooling for gas and oil wells; some cite water-well pollution

Gas and oil drillers have long gained access to those minerals through a controversial legal process known as 'forced pooling' which "compels holdout landowners to join . . . agreements with their neighbors" if they own enough property, Marie C. Baca of ProPublica reports. While the specifics vary among states, the general consensus among the 39 states that have some type of forced pooling regulations is "drillers can extract minerals from a large area or 'pool' if leases have been negotiated for a certain percentage of that land." (ProPublica photo by Peter Mantitus)

"Landowners cannot legally opt out," Baca notes. Those who do not choose to contribute to the cost of the well and share in the profits may either receive profits minus a penalty or get a minimum royalty set by the state. Opinions of forced pooling vary among landowners. Supporters say it protects them from companies that drill near their property and "siphon off" oil or gas without payment, Baca reports. But state laws limit wells' distance from property lines, and Joseph Todd, right, a resident of Big Flats, N.Y., sees the other side of forced pooling. He found methane in his well water after forced pooling began near his home, and told Baca, "We never wanted to be a part of the drilling. To have something like this happen is beyond frustrating."

Gas companies argue that new horizontal drilling technology gives them access to more minerals with fewer wells, making for a tidier drilling parcel, Baca writes. "Drillers must notify all the landowners within the prospective drilling area of their right to participate in a hearing before the oil and gas board, or whatever regulatory agency the state has set up for that purpose," she writes. (Read more)

Extinction forecasts may have been overstated

Many ecologists agree that humanity has contributed to extinction through destruction of natural habitats, but a controversial study published in Nature magazine suggests "scientists have made a fundamental mistake in how they reverse-engineer this law, known as the species-area relationship, to extinction estimates," Greenwire reports for The New York Times. This may mean extinction estimates could have bene overstated by double or more.

"This is welcome news in that we have bought a little time for saving species," Stephen Hubbell, ecologist at the University of California, Los Angeles and co-author of the study, told Voosen. "But we have to redo a whole lot of research that was done incorrectly."

"Stuart Pimm, ecologist at Duke University and Michael Rosenzweig, ecologist at the University of Arizona, question the paper's evidence and conclusions, saying that while the researchers "raise an important theoretical point for estimating extinctions -- a notion echoed by several other ecologists -- they do not shake the foundations of ecology," Voosen writes. (Read more)

Rural county says goodbye to longtime publisher

The line to the casket ran out the front door of the funeral home in Jamestown, Ky., yesterday as the people of Russell County said goodbye to David Davenport, who had edited or published their leading local newspaper for decades.

Davenport, 71, died Sunday of lung cancer. He was publisher and co-owner of The Times Journal of Russell Springs and the Russell County News-Register, which was created by a recent absorption of a competing weekly paper. The Times Journal's story is here.

This item is a point of personal privilege for the undersigned, who in 1975 edited and managed a weekly that was printed at The Times Journal. Dave Davenport helped me become a professional community journalist -- he would say "newspaper man" -- and I remain in his debt.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Ky. state parks, mostly rural and all 'dry,' will sell alcohol in 'wet' areas; legal ad was story tip

State parks are an economic boon to many rural areas, but some of those areas prohibit the sale of alcoholic beverages, so some parks have been unable to offer the full range of amenities to visitors. In Kentucky, almost all the parks are in "dry" territory, so the state Department of Parks hasn't even bothered to break the alcohol barrier for the few parks located where alcohol is legal. Until now.

The department's plan to open four parks in "wet" areas to alcohol had been part of a strategy of "turning food services at selected parks over to private vendors" to save money, but "there was not enough interest from private vendors to proceed with that part of the plan," writes Phyllis McLaughin of The News-Democrat in Carrollton, site of General Butler State Resort Park, on the Ohio River between Louisville and Cincinnati. (Parks Department photo: Two Rivers Restaurant at General Butler)

State officials have applied for licenses at General Butler, Lake Barkley State Resort Park in Cadiz, Jenny Wiley State Resort Park in Prestonburg and John James Audubon State Park in Henderson, McLaughlin reports. "We’re only doing this in parks where voters have already voted to allow alcohol sales," spokesman Gil Lawson said. "There will be no bars or cocktail lounges," though alcohol will be available at conference centers and golf courses. "We still see ourselves as family friendly." (Read more)

Note to journalists: The News-Democrat, a weekly paper, learned of this development from the legal ad that the state had to place regarding the license application. It shows why the legals are always a good place to check for story ideas.

Texas egg farm to pay $1.9 million for water pollution, largest civil fine in federal CAFO case

The term "concentrated animal feeding operations" typically conjures up images of feed lots for cattle and houses for broiler chickens, but a Texas egg producer, one of the nation's largest, has agreed to pay the largest civil penalty ever in a federal enforcement action against a CAFO, the Environmental Protection Agency said in a news release.

Mahard Egg Farm will pay $1.9 million "to resolve claims that the company violated the Clean Water Act at its egg production facilities in Texas and Oklahoma," the release said. "The company will also spend approximately $3.5 million on remedial measures to ensure compliance with the law and protect the environment and people’s health." The company has seven CAFOs.

The settlement, reached with the help of state agencies, "reflects the seriousness of Mahard’s violations," said Cynthia Giles, assistant administrator of EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance and Assurance. "Large animal feeding operations that fail to comply with our nation’s environmental laws threaten public health and the environment and put smaller farming operations at a disadvantage." (Read more)

Agriculture Department spending bill starts moving with cuts in discretionary programs

The House Appropriations Agriculture Subcommittee yesterday approved a Department of Agriculture spending bill for the 2012 fiscal year, beginning Oct. 1, with $17.25 billion in discretionary funds, about $2.7 billion below the figure enacted for the current year "and more than $5 billion below the amount requested by President Obama in a fiscal 2012 spending proposal released in February," reports the Washington newsletter Agri-Pulse.

Commodity prograns would not be affected, but "Agricultural research takes a major hit of some 15 percent compared to the FY 2011 and requested levels, farm programs (primarily ag credit and RMA operations) are about 8 percent short of FY 2011 and 17 percent short of the president’s request, and Rural Development is about 17 percent shy of FY 2011 and 5 percent shy of the request."

The bill, which includes $108 billion for nutrition programs, is scheduled for action by the full Appropriations Committee Tuesday, May 31. For a copy, click here; for a summary chart, here. Agri-Pulse is a subscription-only newsletter, but offers a free trial subscription.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Farm runoff remains top source of stream and lake pollution; here are tips on how to cover it

Agricultural runoff remains the "leading source of water quality impacts to surveyed rivers and lakes, the third largest source of impairments to surveyed estuaries, and also a major contributor to ground water contamination and wetlands degradation," according to the most recent National Water Quality Inventory, noted in the latest Tipsheet from the Society of Environmental Journalists.

"The consequence of such runoff is well illustrated by the annual plume of nutrients that pour into Lake Erie from the Maumee River," the Tipsheet notes. "The runoff is high in the fertilizers phosphorous and nitrogen, which leads to a gigantic algal bloom in Lake Erie that, after it dies off, sinks to the bottom and begins decomposing, depleting the water of oxygen. Every summer, a 'dead zone' grows in Lake Erie as the oxygen levels get so low that fish can't survive. This is the same phenomenon observed in the Gulf of Mexico." (NASA photo: Lake Erie, with Toledo and Maumee River at left, Cleveland at bottom)
States are most responsible for controlling such pollution, and a 2010 report by the Environmental Law and Policy Center and the Mississippi River Collaborative concluded that they are failing to protect water quality. "The farm lobby is politically powerful, and farmers have resisted mandatory controls for decades," the Tipsheet notes. "Most of the time, the best that could be hoped for has been federal incentive payments for land conservation measures that reduce pollutant runoff." Those include the the Conservation Reserve Program, which some farm interests are trying to change in order to avoid penalties for putting more erodable land back into production.

The Tipsheet points to a list of agricultural issues and guidelines from the Environmental Protection Agency, the federal Natural Resources Conservation Service website and state agricultural runoff policies, avaialble from state agencies.We suggest contacting state Farm Bureaus for the farmers' side of the issue.

Community Newspaper Holdings executive gets coveted Nieman fellowship at Harvard

The vice president for content of one of the largest community newspaper chains has been awarded a Nieman fellowship to study at Harvard University in the 2011-12 academic year.

David Joyner of Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., based in Birmingham, will study the availability of local news and information and its effect on civic engagement. He is the 2012 Donald W. Reynolds Nieman Fellow in Community Journalism, sponsored by the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation. The full list of fellows is here.

The foundation, created by a late small-town publisher, started funding Nieman fellowships for community journalists six years ago, renewing a five-year grant last year. This year's Reynolds fellow is Annmarie Timmins from The Monitor in Concord, N.H. (Read more)

Bill to criminalize recording of farm activity without owner's consent is advancing in Iowa

UPDATE, June 16: "A measure to punish those who make secret videos initially appeared to be sailing through the Iowa Legislature, but after clearing the state House it has sputtered out in the Senate and appears dead for this session," Mike Glover of the Associated Press writes in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Legislation has stalled the bill due to strong opposition from animal welfare groups.

Iowa may be "the first state to criminalize recording sights and sounds at farms without permission from owners," Mike Wiser of Iowa-based Lee Newspapers reports. The development comes after attempts to pass similar legislation failed in Colorado, Texas, Missouri and Florida.

Dan Mathews, senior vice president for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said at a news conference, "With lawmakers in other ag states wanting these bills to die, the ongoing debate in Iowa makes it appear like the farmers there have more to hide." Democratic Sen. Tom Rielly of Oskaloosa, who is revising the approved House version before the Senate vote, says there is nothing to hide and "predicts the Senate will take up the measure this session," Wiser reports.

If the Senate and House agree on the bill, the final version will go to Republican Gov. Terry Branstad, who "believes undercover filming is a problem that should be addressed," gubernatorial spokesman Tim Albrecht told Wiser. Rebecca Zietlow, visiting professor of constitutional law at the University of Iowa, told Wiser the main constitutional issue with teh bill is prior restraint on publication. "The courts have generally said we should let the speech come out and then let the chips fall where they may," she said. (Read more)

Monday, May 23, 2011

Joplin staffers lose homes but get paper out, start Facebook page for survivors, seek volunteer aid

UPDATE, June 7: The fund for Globe employees has reached $40,000, Joe Pompeo reports on The Cutline for Yahoo! News.

Some employees of the Joplin Globe who lost their homes in the deadliest U.S. Tornado in 58 years yesterday reported to work to remake and get out the Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. paper, publisher Michael Beatty said in a story by CNHI News Service.

Of the paper's 117 employees, 26 "took heavy damage to their homes or lost them completely," the story said. "It was amazing," Beatty said. "Their focus was just to get the news out for the people, in print and online, so that they would have the information they needed about where to go and what to do." To see the paper's front page, click here.

At least 20 of the paper's workers lost their homes, and employees from CNHI's headquarters in Birmingham, are heading to Joplin to help out, reports News & Tech, quoting Keith Ponder, CNHI's senior vice president and Sun Belt Division manager: "The Globe team has done exemplary work under difficult circumstances. In spite of their own losses, several of these amazing people were at The Globe contributing to producing this morning's edition and working to provide vital information to the Joplin community in this difficult time." (Read more) The Missouri Press Association has established a fund for the employees affected by the tornado; information is here, and here is the site to make a tax-deductible contribution.

UPDATE, May 24: The Globe "established a Facebook page to link tornado survivors with their family members and friends," Adam Hochberg of the Poynter Institute reports. "The page encouraged Joplin residents to post a note if they made it through the tornado safely, and it allowed other people to post inquiries about friends and family members they haven’t been able to contact." At least four similar pages have appeared, and "Some emergency management experts warn that the hastily created sites can also foster confusion, especially when so many spring up around the same disaster," Hochberg reports. His colleague Julie Moos wrote about Globe reporter Jeff Lehr's experiences with the storm, including his interview on NBC Nightly News. Ziva Branstetter of the Tulsa World has a story about the use of social media.

Small-town chambers of commerce in Kentucky, Nebraska and N.C. up for national awards

A good chamber of commerce can be an important asset to a small town, and each year the American Chamber of Commerce Executives names up four as Chamber of the Year, in categories based on annual revenue. This year's small-town finalists are the chambers in Laurinburg, N.C. ($450,000 and less), Norfolk, Neb., and Paducah, Ky. (up to $900,000). The winner will be determined by interviewed at the ACCE convention in August. (Read more)

Sunday, May 22, 2011

'60 Minutes' looks at child labor on farms

Since 1938, the minimum age for work in most industries in America has been 16, but on farms it's 12, and more children -- as many as 155,000 -- are working the fields these days because of the economic downturn, Byron Pitts reported on tonight's extra edition of CBS's "60 Minutes."

"Farming is a job many families are returning to, entire families, because children are legally alllowed to work here," Pitts said, focusing on the family (one pictured) of a Texas truck driver who lost his job, went back to the fields and took his children into "the migrant stream ... moving north with the harvest" and work that precedes it. Weeding cotton fields in the Texas Panhandle, they work 10 hours a day, six days a week, often in the sun, and when it rains they don't work and don't get paid.

"Outside of school they can work unlimited hours," Pitts noted. He said that in 1938, "Most farms were small, family operations and child labor was considered necessary." Now some disagree. "We feel the age of 12 is really, really young," said Norma Frances Lopez of the Association of Farmworker Opportunity Programs, who picked corn as a child.

The employers' side was represented by Frank Gasperini of the National Council of Agricultural Employers, who said child labor probably isn't necessary for farm productivity but provides opportunity for work, and western North Carolina vegetable farmer Keith Darnell, who said, "I don't see anything wrong with it. ... I picked when I was 12, worked for $1 an hour. It was hard, but it didn't hurt me." The story's web page is here.

Mississippi River flood: rural invades urban as man battles nature

Joel Achenbach, the author of Why Things Are & Why Things Aren't, is one of our best explanatory journalists, and he shows his stuff in The Washington Post today, describing what could be called a rural invasion of urban territory as the Mississippi River's record or near-record flood crest (depending on location)  moves south:

"The snakes are out. And the bears. The gators. The jumbo rodents known as nutria. The feral hogs. They seek higher ground as the floodwaters advance, and that can mean the top of a levee or in someone’s back yard. Herds of deer have clumped on tiny islands in an ancient swamp that is becoming a lake." (Associated Press photo by Gerald Herbert)

Achenbach's man-vs.-nature story is mainly about the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' efforts to prevent breaches of vulnerable levees, and makes a point that shows his skill for explanation: "A flood exists in four dimensions, including time — because a long-duration flood can be more problematic than one that crests and recedes quickly." (Read more) In a blog item, Achenbach pays tribute to John McPee's The Control of Nature.