Friday, October 21, 2011

Wal-Mart continues 'rollbacks,' this time for employees' health care benefits

Wal-Mart, a major rural employer, has told employees to expect changes in the company's health-care coverage. The company plans to eliminate health insurance for all future employees working less than 24 hours a week; exclude spouse coverage for employees working 24 to 33 hours per week, electing instead to offer only single and child coverage; and reduce company contributions to employees' health savings accounts, Steven Greenhouse and Reed Abelson of The New York Times report.

This change comes only a few years after Wal-Mart increased employee health coverage in response to rising Medicaid costs and pressure from states, labor unions and community groups. The company's decision was not easy, but ultimately it was about "managing costs and providing quality care and coverage", Wal-Mart spokesperson Greg Rossiter told the Times.

The 2012 plan will increase premiums more than 40 percent for some Wal-Mart employees and have "high deductibles that sometimes exceed 20 percent of their annual pay," Greenhouse and Abelson write. Rates may also be higher for tobacco users.

Wal-Mart is not alone in passing more health care costs to employees. "Nationwide, employer-sponsored health premiums are up 9 percent, and increases of 5 percent or more are predicted for next year, with workers shouldering higher burdens on premiums and deductibles," Greenhouse and Abelson write.

Mortgage providers question gas-drilling leases

Over the past 10 years, more than a million leases to natural gas drillers have been signed by landowners, raising concerns from bankers and real-estate interests, Ian Urbina of The New York Times reports. The concerns are about land value and the lease agreements themselves.

Banks fear drilling could damage the land. One credit union in New York requires gas companies to agree to pay for any devaluing damage to its mortgaged property, Urbina reports. Another lending institution grants mortgages only to applicants who agree not to sign a gas lease as long as they are paying on the mortgage. Many mortgages current require homeowners get permission from the bank before signing a lease, but many landowners don't do that. While this will likely not result in foreclosures, it does constitute a "technical default," Urbina reports.

Some banks see drilling leases as violations of mortgage rules and anticipate the development of tougher rules. Jack and Carol Pytila of Tompkins County, New York, are among those finding it more difficult to obtain mortgages when they have a lease agreement. They had been working with Visions Federal Credit Union to refinance their acreage when the credit union denied their loan after learning of their lease agreement. The couple later found another lender. (Read more)

Research confirms global warming is a real, measurable phenomenon

The mainstream estimate that the earth's surface temperature has warmed about 1 degree Centigrade since 1950 has been confirmed by researchers at the University of California, reports The New York Times. To see the data set and research papers, click here. To view the video report, click here. To see analysis charts, click here. For an excellent summary, in layman's language, from The Economist, go here.

Cultural journalism project for rural Alaska gains more national recognition

University of Alaska Fairbanks professors John Creed and Susan Andrews have been nationally recognized again, this time for their cultural journalism project designed to help students at the Chukchi campus of the university get works published in local newspapers and statewide news sites. (Amazon image)

The team received a bronze medal in Foreward Magazine's 2011 Book of the Year competition, a second-place award for nonfiction anthology in the Independent Book Publishers Association's Benjamin Franklin Book Awards and special recognition by the Alaska Professional Communicators for their latest anthology featuring stories from 23 rural Alaska writers, the Juneau Empire reports. The book is a follow-up to their first anthology, both of which are tied to their cultural journalism project. (Read more)

Thursday, October 20, 2011

EPA planning rules on water from shale-gas, coal-bed methane drilling operations

The Environmental Protection Agency "is planning to regulate how drillers dispose of the millions of gallons of wastewater created by shale gas production and expects to begin a rulemaking process in 2014," Mike Soraghan of Environment & Energy News reports. "The agency plans to start a rulemaking in 2013 on wastewater from coal-bed methane production, because it already has more information on such waste.

Surprisingly, the Independent Petroleum Association of America, a lobby largely for small, independent drillers, did not oppose the move, "noting the standards will be added to existing Clean Water Act standards and be enforced by states," Soraghan reports. But the American Petroleum Institute, dominated by major companies, "reacted coolly to the idea, noting it already has standards and state regulators can also regulate wastewater."

Soraghan notes, "EPA became alarmed last year by the practice of some drillers in the Northeast, particularly in Pennsylvania, of sending their wastewater to sewage-treatment plants unequipped to handle the salts and sometimes even radioactive material in the waste." Cynthia Dougherty, director of EPA's Office of Ground Water and Drinking Water, told a Senate subcommittee today that drilling wastewater can inhibit such treatment plants' ability to treat sewage. "West Virginia has already banned disposal of brine in publicly owned treatment works," Soraghan notes. (Read more, subscription required)

Ads for medical marijuana dispensaries are helping keep some community newspapers healthy

Local newspapers in states where medical marijuana is legal are raking in advertising dollars from local dispensaries eager to let communities know they exist. Mostly, alternative weekly papers are taking advantage of this new "cash cow," reports Jeremy Peters of The New York Times, but community papers are also capitalizing on the steady flow of advertising money provided by dispensaries. (Photo by Reed Saxon, The Associated Press)

The decision by the Obama administration to not prosecute dispensary owners so long as they comply with state law allowed dispensaries to flourish, bringing increased advertising with them. Peters reports their advertising is filling gaps left when other local businesses close, and when classifieds move online. The Daily Chronicle in Bozeman, Mont., draws about $7,500 a month from dispensary advertising. The Independent of Colorado Springs said it hired a reporter and promoted three staff to full-time with advertising money from a section devoted to marijuana. UPDATE, Oct. 27: Colorado has started issuing licenses to medical-marijuana retailers, John Ingold of The Denver Post reports.

Use and sale of medical marijuana in some places could face stricter regulations if ballot initiatives pass next month, and some newspaper staffs fear this will have a big impact on their bottom line. Matt Gibson of The Missoula Independent told Peters 10 percent of the paper's income is from dispensary advertising and that the industry carried it through the recession. Others, like Marcia Martinek, editor of the Herald Democrat in Leadville, Colo., said her paper accepts advertising from dispensaries, but that the "medical marijuana thing hasn't been a big deal" for the paper. (Read more)

National Geographic magazine's blog contest good outlet for Americans interested in rural topics

The theme for the annual National Geographic Blog-a-Thon this year is "Geography: The Adventure in Your Community," and is almost tailor-made for blogs that focus on rural America's geography and its reliance on community. According to the magazine, the contest "is about connections between people and their surrounding environments, local action and geography education."

In rural areas, geography is interwoven into all aspects of life, including Internet access, cell phone service, shopping and attending school. Every day, whether rural residents realize it or not, geography is shaping their daily lives in minor and major ways. If documented and submitted to National Geographic in blog form, the challenges faced by rural America because of geography could be highlighted.

The deadline to enter is Nov. 4. Winning posts will be published Nov. 13-19 on the My Wonderful World blog. Submissions of poetry, art, photographs, videos and academic papers will be accepted. Commitments for submission are requested and can be sent to To enter, send submissions with a 200-word-or-less description about the post and a complete copy of it to that address. For more information, click here.

Rosalynn Carter Fellowships help journalists report about mental health; applications due April 16

The Carter Center Mental Health Program is providing six Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for journalists to report on a selected mental-health or mental-illness topic for one year. The center overseen by former president Jimmy Carter says its intention is to increase accuracy in reporting about these issues and decrease the prevalence of incorrect and stereotypical information.

Applicants must have at least three years of professional experience in print or electronic journalism. If selected, they will be required to attend orientation and presentation meetings at the beginning and end of the fellowship year. They will also be awarded a $10,000 stipend, but will not be required to leave their current job.

Those wishing to participate must submit a completed application by April 16, 2012. Awards will be announced July 13, 2012. For more information and the application packet, click here.

Study finds locally owned businesses are better for communities; keep money at home

Locally-owned businesses with fewer than 100 employees have a positive relationship to economic growth but large, non-local businesses have a negative correlation to with it, according to a study from the Northeast Regional Center for Rural Development at Penn State. Researchers found that community economic development efforts are often "off-track" because they invest in bringing outside businesses into an area rather than in local start-ups.

Jon Bailey of the Center for Rural Affairs writes that locally owned businesses are better for economic development because they don't outsource their operations in the way larger businesses tend to do. Bailey says in-sourcing keeps money in a community and it multiplies several times, building the local economy from within. Small businesses also bring innovation and productivity to the community. According to the study, this brings a focus to local start-ups, on which many rural communities depend.

Unfortunately, local businesses often have a hard time obtaining capital with which to start, said Al Cross of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues. "Local banks ownership and policies can mean a lot," Cross said. "Most loan-making decisions are no longer made in rural areas because of the consolidation of banks." Often, locally-owned banks are under-capitalized or they can be overly conservative, leaving local start-ups with no way to generate capital or get a loan, Cross said.

Bailey says the study should be a lesson to communities about long-term economic growth that locally-owned businesses can provide. This should make local leaders understand that attracting non-local businesses that normally provide short-term employment should not be their main focus. The study makes clear the importance of initiatives that provide capital and assistance to local businesses, he says. One of the study authors, Stephen Goetz, sums it up another way: "We can't look outside of the community for our economic salvation. The best strategy is to help people start new businesses and help them grow and be successful." To read the complete study, click here.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Republicans allege 'war on rural Maryland'

Republican legislators "from rural (or once-rural) parts" of Maryland have introduced bills to fight Gov. Martin O'Malley's efforts to "clean up the Chesapeake Bay, to limit new development on septic systems and to use state funds more effectively in fighting rural sprawl," accusing the Democrat of waging "war on rural Maryland," Tim Wheeler reports for The Baltimore Sun.

"None of the measures is likely to get a hearing, much less a vote, until the General Assembly returns for its regular 90-day session in January. But the rural lawmakers were serving notice they intend to push back against O'Malley's initiatives," Wheeler writes. "The Environmental Protection Agency is requiring local governments around the bay to submit bay cleanup plans by next year, and a task force is looking at whether to resubmit failed O'Malley legislation to limit new large-scale development on septic systems." The group 1000 Friends of Maryland "argues that rural Maryland is already under assault by sprawling development, and it will only get worse" if such bills pass. (Read more)

Congress could swap one farm subsidy for another

Leaders of agriculture committees in Congress proposed a new system of farm subsidies last month that would end the $5 billion-a-year direct payments some farmers now get and cut a total of $23 billion from the federal deficit over 10 years. In the same package was a new form of crop insurance that would guarantee 10 to 15 percent of a farmer's revenue, "paying out not only in years of heavy losses, but also when revenue dipped less severely," The New York Times reports.

The "shallow-loss" plan was introduced as a way to "simplify and expand" the crop-insurance program, William Neuman reports. Most farmers already buy crop insurance to protect against major losses and are guaranteed about 75 to 85 percent of their income; the federal government pays over half the cost of premiums. The new approach "would help protect farmers during longer periods of depressed prices," Gary Schnitkey, a professor of farm management at the University of Illinois, told Neuman. Critics say subsidies like these don't help struggling family farmers the way they were intended, but instead go mostly to well-financed operations with large land holdings.

Neuman writes: "Vincent H. Smith, a professor of farm economics at Montana State University, called the maneuver a bait and switch. 'There’s a persistent story that farming is on the edge of catastrophe in America and that’s why they need safety nets that other people don’t get,' he said. 'And the reality is that it’s really a very healthy industry.' The subsidy swap is gaining momentum as lawmakers seek to influence the cuts in farm programs that are expected to be made by a special congressional panel charged with slashing $1.2 trillion from future budgets."

It's unclear exactly what it will cost taxpayers to fund the plan. Schnitkey thinks farmers could be paid $40 billion over 10 years, $20 billion less than the previous subsidy program, but Smith says the cost could be a lot more because recent high crop prices were used as benchmarks for the subsidy formula. Neuman says most of the $5 billion would go "straight back to the same farmers," though he probably means the same type of farmers (large ones), not specific farms. (Read more)

'Kudzu bug' devouring soybeans across South, quickly migrating toward Midwest soy land

Kudzu has been steadily swallowing Southern forests for decades, but it may have finally met its match in insect form: the "kudzu bug." The small, brown, member of the stink bug family is extremely voracious, which is a good thing when it feasts on kudzu. However, when soybean season starts and it migrates to those fields, the tiny bug causes big problems for farmers.

The bug comes from Asia and was first discovered close to Atlanta in 2009, reports Allen Breed of The Associated Press. Since the first spotting, it has spread to most of Georgia and North Carolina, all of South Carolina and several counties in Alabama. These states, along with Tennessee where there have been confirmed sightings of the bug, are huge producers of soybeans, but not as big as Illinois and Iowa, where production reaches hundreds of millions of bushels a year and where researchers fear the bug will spread. The bugs don't simply feed on the pods or leaves of the plant; they suck on the stems and leaf petioles, effectively "draining the life out" of them and preventing them from feeding, which reduces the number of pods per plant. The damage is not very visible, but will reduce yields.

Scientists are trying to find ways to stave off the invasion, but are discovering the bug is very resilient. They've been spotted on mountains, the coast and windows at the top of Atlanta skyscrapers. "I think they'd be able to dwell anywhere in the United States that we grow soybeans," Clemson University entomologist Jeremy Greene told Breed. Farmers are relying on insecticides used to kill other stink bug varieties without success. Just days after spraying, fields are re-infested with the kudzu bug. (Read more)

Groups will receive USDA funding to continue training veterans to be farmers

Research shows that returning veterans have a hard time readjusting to rural life, but programs have been developed to help former soldiers learn about agriculture in the hopes they will someday replace the aging farming population. This year a coalition of groups who have been involved in those programs will receive help from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Risk Management Agency to try and establish new veteran farmers in Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado and Missouri.

The agency has provided the Farmer-Veteran Coalition, the Center for Rural Affairs and nine other partner organizations with money to continue agriculture programs for veterans. Kathie Starkweather of the Center for Rural Affairs told Nebraska Farmer that the economic and demographic challenges in rural America can be turned into opportunities for young veterans because older farmers who control most of the nation's farmland will be looking for ways to transition their land into younger hands.

This new wave of funding will help organizations teach veterans about financing, land access, business development, specialty crops, livestock, crop insurance, how to access resources for technical assistance, production, marketing information and mentoring through a series of educational workshops. Starkweather said the long-term goal of the project is that veterans will start and maintain their own farms. (Read more)

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Website lets patients see how their hospital compares when it comes to patient safety

Patients can now see how hospitals in their area compare to others when it comes to surgical complications, infections and potentially avoidable deaths. Medicare is publishing the patient safety ratings "as the first step toward paying less to institutions" that provide inferior care, writes Jordan Rau of Kaiser Health News.

Medicare's Hospital Compare website evaluates facilities on how often their patients have complications like a collapsed lung, a blood clot after surgery or an accidental tear or cut. The measures "also include specific death rates for patients who had breathing problems after surgery, had an operation to repair a weakness in the abdominal aorta and had a treatable complication after an operation," Rau writes.

Publishing the information is the first step to paying hospitals for their performance, rather than for each procedure, part of the federal health-reform law. "Over time, hospitals with the lowest quality — as judged by a variety of metrics, not just the new patient safety measures — will be at risk to lose up to 2 percent of their regular Medicare reimbursements," Rau notes.

"This is pulling the curtain back on preventable health care harm to older Americans," said Rosemary Gison, co-author of The Treatment Traps. "These are really good things to know. We are really getting into the meat of what can happen to patients in hospitals." (Read more)

Child poverty more common in rural areas

Child poverty is disproportionately more likely to occur in rural areas of the U.S. according to researchers at the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire. The institute conducts research about vulnerable children, youth, families and sustainable community development. In their study, researchers found that 81 percent of counties experiencing persistent child poverty are non-metropolitan. (Carsey map)

Authors used census data from 1980, 1990 and 2000 and American Community Survey five-year estimates between 2005 and 2009 to identify counties with persistent child poverty. These are places where poverty rates over 20 percent have been consistent for 40 years, such as Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta, the Great Plains and parts of the Southeast and Southwest. The disparities between rural and urban areas are great: 26 percent of rural children live in counties with persistent poverty compared to 12 percent of urban children. This research also reveals the number of counties experiencing child poverty greater than 30 percent rose from 484 between 2005 and 2007 to 556 between 2008 and 2009.

The researchers document high unemployment, low educational attainment and physical and social isolation as contributing to high rates of rural poverty, and suggest these factors create problems much different than those faced in densely populated urban areas. They also suggest that urban focus of welfare programs shifts policy makers' attention away from needy families in rural areas. To read their brief, click here.

Nebraska community revitalized with 1% sales tax

Rural communities that are struggling economically might take a lesson from Valley County, Nebraska, Julie Ardery of The Daily Yonder reports. From 2000 to 2008 the non-agricultural employment in the county increased 46 percent, compared to 7 percent statewide and 6 percent nationally over the same period. The current unemployment rate is 2.9 percent, less than a third of the national average. (Wikipedia map)

The city of Ord, the county seat, dedicated a 1 percent sales tax in 2001 to economic development countywide. Ardery writes that the "impacts have been dramatic" on employment, business, the arts, housing development, health care facilities and architectural preservation. The City of Ord, its Chamber of Commerce, Valley County and the non-profit Greater Loup Valleys Activities created Valley County Economic Development to provide loans from the revenue created by the tax to economic development projects. Director Caleb Pollard told Ardery these loans funded 38 business development projects over eight years, and 105 new businesses have opened since 2000. The additional tax brings in about $400,000 a year with an additional $180,000 coming from loan repayment.

The City of Ord was the first in Nebraska to spend revenues from city taxes countywide, but Pollard is proud of this fact, telling Ardery: "A rising tide raises all ships." The increase in revenue has drawn several Valley County natives back to the area to open businesses and caused "an epic shift in attitude," Pollard said. He told Ardery he's not worried about backlash from the "anti-tax crowd" when the issue is up for reauthorization in 2016 because there are many success stories as well has actual numbers to back up the relevance of the one percent tax. (Read more)

Occupy Main Street? It's happening in some places

The Occupy Wall Street movement rages on in New York and other major cities, but it has found its way onto Main Streets from Oregon to Alaska to Idaho to Missouri, The Art of the Rural blog reports. (Photo: The Hill N' Holler Review)

The rural demonstrations in Missouri tend to "offer a more coherent and to-the-point articulation of specific demands," the blog says. "Their proposed solutions are local, practical and eminently sensible."  Carroll Lucas of The Hill 'N Holler Review blog said about 25 people held up signs of protest outside the West Plains, Mo., branch of Bank of America because, as protest spokesman Dean Henderson said, the bank is a "symbol of big money." The protesters had a variety of ages and politics.

Rachel Reynolds of The Art of the Rural notes corporate influence affects many issues that directly affect rural people, such as environmental, energy and agricultural policies: "Many of the issues that we as rural Americans face, such as lack of access to broadband and adequate healthcare, can be directly tied to the fact that we are not a profitable investment." She also says rural communities have "the power to impart change" by removing their money from national banks and putting it into local banks and credit unions.

On a busy corner of U.S. 95 in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, residents demonstrated in a protest organized on Facebook. Jessica Robinson of Oregon Public Broadcasting reported that about 20 people of all ages attended. Diane McEachern, professor at the University of Alaska's Kuskokwim campus is "occupying" Bethel, Alaska, on the edge of the tundra, far from the road system. A photo of her and her dogs with her protest sign that reads "Occupy the Tundra" that she posted on the Occupy Wall Street Facebook page has been circulated more than 4,000 times. She told the Alaska Dispatch that she is holding vigil in the tundra to "voice things that were important to her," like the proposed Pebble Mine for minerals in southwestern Alaska. (Read more)

Rural paper's MLK front page dubbed best in nation

Rural newspapers often lack the reporting and editing resources needed to give their readers first-class journalism, which is the main raison d'etre of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog. But when it comes to giving readers a first-class front page, all it takes is a thoughtful, skilled paginator who is willing to think outside the box, an editor who recognizes his talent, and a publisher who is willing to let him show it: a head paginator like Ian Lawson, an editor like Mary Ann Kearns and a publisher like Bob Hendrickson of The Ledger Independent, circulation 8,000, in Maysville, Ky. Here's the front page Lawson designed for Monday:
Lawson's work was the best front-page treatment of Sunday's Martin Luther King memorial dedication, writes Charles Apple of the American Copy Editors Society, with credit to Associated Press photographer Cliff Owen. For his interview with Lawson, and more great pages from the Lee Enterprises paper in Rosemary Clooney's hometown, click here.

UPDATE, Oct. 22: Lawson and the Ledger continue to make newspaper news, this time with a horizontal front page, written up by Julie Moos of The Poynter Institute  (Newseum image):

Elouise Cobell dies; fought for Indian royalties

Elouise Cobell of the Blackfeet Indian Nation, who fought the federal government to gain restitution for long-term theft of mineral rights and royalties across Native American lands, passed away Sunday, Oct. 16. She was 65. (Photo: Louis Sahagun, Los Angeles Times)

When she became treasurer of her tribe in 1976 she noticed money was missing from government Indian Trust accounts that she later said were in "total chaos." She discovered a web of fraud and corruption that revealed more than a century's worth of withheld royalties from Native Americans by the federal government. She filed the largest class action lawsuit in American history in 1996, which demanded restitution for more than 500,000 Native Americans. This June, she and her fellow defendants won that suit and were awarded a $3.4 billion settlement, the largest payment ever proposed to Native Americans from the U.S. government.

She helped establish Blackfeet National Bank in 1987, the first bank founded by an Indian tribe on a reservation. In 1997, she received a $300,000 MacArthur Foundation grant, which she donated to the class action suit's legal defense fund. In 2000, her tribe declared her a warrior of the Blackfeet Nation and presented her with an eagle feather, an honor reserved for military veterans.

As word of her passing spread, memorials flooded Montana, where the Blackfeet Reservation is located. The National Rural Assembly remembered her as "the best kind of fighter" who could "brush off setbacks time and again, and still find the heart to win against long odds." President Obama released a statement that said Cobell's work "provided a measure of justice to hundreds of thousands of Native Americans." (Read more)

Monday, October 17, 2011

EPA chief tries again to quash farm-dust myth; episode illustrates how issues can be framed

Despite repeated denials from the Environmental Protection Agency that it intends to regulate farm dust, a Republican-sponsored bill to ban such regulation is steadily gaining support in Congress and was heard before a House committee Friday. Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota calls the flap a "made-up controversy" being used by some Republican legislators as a scare tactic, reports Tom Lawrence of The Daily Republic in Mitchell, S.D.

The House version of the bill is sponsored by Republican Rep. Kristi Noem of South Dakota, who says the intention is to block EPA from enacting "detrimental regulations," reports Ken Anderson of Brownfield Network. The bill would prohibit the EPA from revising national primary and secondary ambient air quality standards that protect both humans and environment from harmful air pollution. It would also exempt nuisance dust, which includes farm dust, from the Clean Air Act.

The bill seems to stem from a draft recommendation by EPA for stricter standards for particulate matter, some of which is found in farm dust, and a letter from an EPA official that was not fully responsive to farmers' concerns about it. (Read more, from Politico) The bill may have also been born from a 2009 court decision confirming the agency's authority to regulate farm dust and its attempts to do so in Maricopa County (Phoenix), Ariz., after it was determined the county failed to limit dust to allowable levels. Huge dust storms have recently occurred there. EPA also regulates farm dust only where the air is out of compliance with standards. (Read more) But when a farmer asked President Obama about the issue a few weeks ago, the president referred him to the Department of Agriculture, not EPA, giving the appearance of a runaround that probably increased skepticism.

Some news outlets have swallowed Republican claims whole and ignored EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson's denials, running headlines such as "EPA to crack down on farm dust." Mike McGraw of The Kansas City Star did a clarifying story last week, about the time the issue prompted Senate Democrats to change a key precedent to keep the issue from coming to a vote.

Today EPA released letters from Jackson to senators saying the agency would not try to regulate dust created by agriculture, Mary Clare Jalonick of The Associated Press reports. Sen. Mike Johanns, sponsor of the Senate bill, said he would not offer it as an amendment to an apppropriations bill this week. "EPA has finally provided what I've been asking for all along," Johanns said. "Unequivocal assurance that it won't attempt to regulate farm dust." (Read more) Jackson's move prompted headlines like The Des Moines Register's "EPA says it won't regulate farm dust," as if it ever planned to. That shows how issues can be framed when one side is more skillful than the other and journalists aren't careful.

Family-farm advocates say new child farm-labor rules would destroy farms' generational structure

The Department of Labor released proposed revisions to child farm labor laws in early September that would restrict farm work by youth under 16. Exemptions for children working on a family farms were included in the proposal, but family farm advocates say the exemptions are a ruse. (Photo: Michigan Farm News)

Craig Anderson, agriculture and labor safety services manager at Michigan Farm Bureau, calls the details about youth working on family farms "downright oppressive," and says the new rules would require children under 16 would to live with their grandparents for more than a month in order to legally work for them. He told Paul Jackson of Michigan Farm News, "The DOL assumes that youth under age 16 lack the 'cognitive ability' to herd animals on horseback, use battery-powered drills, put hay bales on a bale elevator or use any equipment except if powered by hand or foot."

The overarching reason for these updates is safety. Since the law was last amended over 40 years ago, most child injuries on farms have been suffered through use of machinery and dealing with farm animals. Jackson says the new provisions would disqualify youth farm-safety training received through 4-H or extension services, greatly reducing youth ability to participate in fairs or auctions. They would also not be allowed to treat or care for sick or injured animals.

The actual proposal paints a less severe picture and says the proposed revisions have been suggested after careful review of research, facts and recommendations from other agencies. It says research shows youth have not yet developed the "cognitive ability" to safely operate machinery without unnecessary risk-taking. The Labor Department found training through 4-H and extension to be insufficient because it usually only trains individuals how to use a single piece of equipment during a particular season. The department says  year-round training on various types of equipment would be necessarily to properly prepare youth for farm work.

Since the last revision of the law, 20 percent of child injuries on farms have been caused by working with animals. To curb this, the department accepted recommendations from the National Farm Medicine Center which showed youth have not yet developed cognitive ability to deal with animals who may be in a compromised state. The proposals say youth should not work with uncastrated horses or bulls; brand, breed, dehorn, vaccinate, castrate or treat sick animals; or, herd animals on horseback.

Jackson writes, "The document betrays an attitude in government that, perhaps unconsciously, would destroy the generational family structure commonly found on farms." Another Michigan Farm Bureau employee says the rules would rob youth of valuable lessons they would carry with them throughout life. Advocates are urging farmers to submit comments about the proposed revisions until Nov. 1, when the comment period closes. (Read more)

Coal companies can't find enough qualified people to become deep miners, especially in Appalachia

Coal companies continue to have difficulty finding qualified miners, and with prices and exports at an all-time high, government data shows underground mines will have to hire 17,000 miners by 2018 to keep up with demand. Salaries can climb into six figures with overtime, but many young people have been steered away from the profession by family members and fear of early death or serious injury. (Photo by Stephen Wilkes, GalleryStock)

Appalachian mines are having the hardest time recruiting new miners, reports Mario Parker of Bloomberg Businessweek. The region will lose many of its current miners to retirement as an increasing number of baby boomers are hanging up their hard hats. Consol Energy, Appalachia's No. 2 coal producer, is preparing to lose over half its employees to retirement, spokeswoman Michelle Buczkowski told Parker. She said many young people don't want to accept a life of hard work underground that requires them to be responsible for the lives of their co-workers. Drug use in some coal-mining areas is also limiting recruitment of qualified individuals.

Filling the hiring gap is becoming a pressing issue for companies since U.S. coal exports could reach 99 million tons this year, and according to Energy Department figures, the global consumption of coal will continue to climb to 209 quadrillion British thermal units by 2035. However, young people from Appalachia are more willing to take a job that pays far less than mining because they think the risks outweigh the benefits. As Logan, W. Va., teen Deyonta Coleman said about taking an underground mining job: "I might die on the first day." (Read more)

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Wyoming paper tops small classes in Inland contest; it and Pittsburgh paper looked at energy issues

The Inland Press Association, which serves mainly smaller daily newspapers, has announced the winners of its annual newsroom contests in Community Leadership, Editorial Excellence, Front Page, Local News Writing and Photography (including Multimedia, new this year). The winners in the two smallest newspaper divisions are listed below, but we also call your attention to reporting projects by larger papers that provide good examples, ideas and sources for rural journalists.

One good example of that is the reporting of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review about the development of the Marcellus Shale gas play in Appalachia and its environmental and economic impact. It won first for investigative reporting among papers with circulations larger than 75,000. Among papers with circulations of 10,000 to 25,000, the Wyoming Tribune Eagle in Cheyenne won second in explanatory reporting for its look at changes in the Niobrara oil field, a topic that helped it win first place in Editorial Excellence.

The Cheyenne paper and the Southeast Missourian of Cape Girardeau, the hometown paper of Rust Communications, both won two first places and two seconds for writing, but Cheyenne did best overall among smaller papers by winning several photography awards. The contests are divided by circulation classes: Under 10,000, 10,000-25,000, 25,000-75,000 and more than 75,000, Each contest is judged by a journalism school. Here are the judges and small-newspaper winners in each contest, with the larger division listed first:

Editorial Excellence (University of Kansas)
The Wyoming Tribune Eagle won first "for its compelling editorials, especially in support of public-education reform, and open meetings and access to public records." Two neighboring Indiana papers won second and third: The Herald-Times of Bloomington and The Republic of Columbus.
The Daily Star-Journal, Warrensburg, Mo., won the smallest division for an editorial against school vouchers that "translated an inflammatory, complex topic into easily understood terms," the judge(s) said. "The writer was able to seamlessly mix an appeal to reason with an appeal to emotions. Readers could, no doubt, put themselves and their families into the editorial and clearly see a reason for action. The writer clearly knew the line between being a good editorial writer and trying to be a policy decision-maker or “one truth” solution provider." Second place went to the Lahontan Valley News of Fallon, Nev., for an editorial saying a local university had mounted an "assault" on agriculture; third place went to the Martinsville Reporter-Times of Indiana for an editorial about the "broken" local fire and ambulance system.

Community Leadership (University of Missouri)
The Daily Journal of Franklin, Ind., won for a campaign for breast cancer awareness that "truly engaged its community," the judges said. "Beyond printing stories that described the impact of cancer and ways to fight it, the newspaper got the community involved in a fun way. Businesses decorated their buildings in pink, a fundraising drive was held and the newspaper was printed in pink. . . . Funds were given to a local institution that provides mammograms to the poor, and the community is now engaged on an important topic. Most important, the effort looks sustainable."
The Sierra Vista Herald won the smallest division by responding strongly to a severe fire and flood that devastated the Arizona town last summer. It used SMS updates to tell readers about bridge and road closings and warn them away from dangerous areas. The paper "was a gathering place for information, comfort and advice," the judges said. "The Herald provided extraordinary coverage, and the leadership that’s needed when tragedy overtakes a community."

Local News Writing (University of Kentucky)
Investigative Reporting: The Herald-Times; second, Southeast Missourian; third, Rio Grande Sun, Espanola, N.M. Smallest papers: Havre Daily News, Montana; second, Lahontan Valley News.
Explanatory Reporting: Southeast Missourian; second, Wyoming Tribune Eagle; third, Kane County Chronicle, St. Charles, Ill. Smallest papers: The News Sun, Kendallville, Ind., second, Paulding County Progress, Ohio; third, Lahontan Valley News.

Front Page (Northwestern University)
Larger papers: Wyoming Tribune Eagle; the Southeast Missourian; third, the Daily Journal.
Small papers: First, Cape Coral Breeze, Florida; second, Andover Townsman, Massachusetts; third, Hi-Desert Star, Yucca Valley, and The Desert Trail, Twentynine Palms, Calif. (sister weekly and daily).

Photography (Indiana University): This contest has nine divisions but is not divided by circulation. For the winners of this competition and all the others, click here.