Saturday, January 07, 2012

Va. coal town turns to higher education for growth, puts a Walmart on top of downtown parking garage

After decades of decline in the local coal industry, Grundy, Va., has become home to a redeveloped and flood-protected downtown and, most notably, two professional schools -- and is about to get another, Brad Parke reports for the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and The Rural Blog. (Yahoo! map)

"Suffering a substantial outmigration, especially of young adults, local leaders are looking elsewhere for ways to establish sustainable economic development," Parke writes. "The steep topography and narrow valleys have contributed to several detrimental floods that devastated its downtown. Leaders knew they had to tame these waters for the downtown to remain viable and realize its potential, but realized they ultimately had to take a new approach: higher education."

In 1997, the Appalachian School of Law opened in Grundy. In 2005 came the Appalachian College of Pharmacy. And in 2013 the Appalachian College of Optometry is scheduled to open.

Recent improvements include "a floodwall topped by a four-lane highway bypass replacing a winding, two-lane road," Parke reports, and across the river is "the Grundy Town Center, which includes a new Walmart. The steep topography forced an innovative approach. The Walmart, which opened in September 2011, sits atop a two-level parking garage, enabling developers to avoid using the limited available flat land for a conventional parking lot."

"Similar rural communities should take note of this town’s innovative approach to development," writs Parke, a student at the law school. "If ultimately successful, Grundy may become not only a model for strategic economic diversification in Appalachia, but rural America." (Read more)

White evangelicals in urban areas show less aversion to voting for a Mormon, Mitt Romney

This week's Republican caucuses in Iowa, in which former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, right, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum finished in a virtual dead heat, showed that "White evangelical voters just aren’t as predictable as they used to be," Lisa Miller reports for The Washington Post. "It’s bound to be reflected in Republican primary results all over the country." (Photo by Charles Krupa, The Associated Press)

Romney won in urban areas, Santorum in rural, as detailed by Bill Bishop in the Daily Yonder. "In Iowa, where the vast majority of voters qualify as 'white evangelicals,' these results can only mean one thing," Miller writes. "Conservative Christians who reside in urban areas may have been taught in Sunday school that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is a heretical sect, but they’re willing to look beyond those teachings and cast a vote for a Mormon who was once pro-choice. Their brothers and sisters who reside in the country are not."

Miller says that is "very good news for Romney," because about 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas, but she does not address the possibility that continued reluctance on the part of rural evangelicals to vote for a Mormon could still cost Romney a state or two and the presidency. A test of that will come in the Jan. 21 primary in South Carolina, where three polls released yesterday showed him leading.

The new Romney supporters include Shaun Richburg of Florence, S.C., an office manager who originally supported Texas Gov. Rick Perry. “I know he’s Mormon, but that doesn’t bother me,” he told Adam Beam of The State newspaper in Columbia, “I just think he’s an honest person, and I know he’s a good businessman.” (Read more) Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman is also a Mormon.

Miller writes, "Following the same path as American Catholics and Jews and other once-insular groups before them, conservative Christians have joined the world," going to college more than before and going to work in cities and suburbs. "They made friends with their roommates and colleagues and neighbors who were Jews and Muslims and Mormons and atheists. . . . The result has been a growing flexibility in the political opinions of urban Christians."

Those factors were also in play in 2008, according to polls by the California-based Barna Group. “The more urban they were, the more coastal they were, the less evangelicals saw Romney’s Mormonism as a barrier,” David Kinnaman, president of the firm, told Miller. (Read more)

Friday, January 06, 2012

Increasing urban water demands concern rural residents and environmentalists in the West

Nevada is one of three Western states "debating a large-scale and polarizing water project" that could impact rural communities, Jim Malewitz of Stateline reports. The project would move up to 41 billion gallons of water from four valleys in the eastern part of the state to its "economic juggernaut," Las Vegas. Business owners in and around Las Vegas have supported the pipeline since it was proposed in 1989, but many farmers and environmentalists say the impact on rural Nevada would be too severe.

In a letter to Nevada's state engineer, Diane Chipman of Baker wrote, "If you steal our water . . . my well would run dry . . . . There are hundreds of people in peril. Do you have the right to say you are better than we are? That we are just the so-called 'Little People'?"

Jim Barbee, secretary of the Nevada Board of Agriculture, wrote in the board's public comments that the project "will unnecessarily and permanently destroy agriculture, the economy and the environment of Eastern Nevada as well as potentially create an irreversible health and safety debacle in the nature of dust particulate." A U.S. Bureau of Land Management study says water tables could be lowered between 100 and 200 feet over 75 years, resulting in the disappearance of several small springs and species, drying out of valley soil, and harm to shallow-rooted plants and irrigated agriculture.

The Southern Nevada Water Authority says it would leave plenty water for farmers and ranchers because the "withdrawals would not eclipse the rate of water recharge in the four valleys," Malewitz reports. Utah and Colorado are two other Western states considering pipelines. (Read more)

Do wolves help trees in Yellowstone flourish?

Gray wolves have caused problems for ranchers around Yellowstone National Park since their reintroduction in the mid-1990s, but their return has enabled other species to thrive in areas where they previously could not. They have curbed elk populations in the park, which has allowed aspen, willow and cottonwood trees to take root where the foraging herds once prevented their growth, Matthew Brown of The Associated Press reports.

Other factors such as changing climate and wildfires can play a role in new tree growth, but the wolf is the protagonist, says Oregon State University researcher William Ripple, who discovered the phenomenon. Ripple told AP that wolves "are more than just charismatic animals that are nice to have around. We're finding that their function in nature is very important." Wolves control the elk, trees grow in their place, and as a result there is more habitat for songbirds and more food for beavers, who in turn dam streams, creating ponds that attract fish, reptiles and amphibians.

Some scientist dispute Ripple's findings. Matthew Kauffman of the U.S. Geological Survey told Brown elk only slightly alter their behavior to avoid wolves, and herd numbers would have to drop even more for aspen populations to fully recover. Others say Ripple's work ignores factors such as drought and stream levels which also affect tree growth. (Read more)

Researchers say oil and gas industry's estimate of jobs in Ohio is overblown by a factor of 10

The claim that natural gas and oil drilling would create or support 200,000 jobs in Ohio "greatly overestimates the economic impact of the industry," according to an analysis by The Ohio State University and the Ohio Department of Agricultural, Environmental and Development Economics. Researchers say focusing on jobs and ignoring other factors related to drilling is "misguided," reports Farm and Dairy News. In reality, the industry would only add about 20,000 jobs in the state over the next four years.

Researcher Mark Partridge told Farm and Dairy the industry used a technique that is typically "not accepted best practices for such analyses" to obtain its estimate. Fellow researcher Amanda Weinstein said the energy industry is more capital-intensive than labor-intensive and Ohio shouldn't expect it to greatly impact job growth. In the analysis, employment and income growth in several Pennsylvania counties was examined. Researchers found per-capita income had increased in drilling areas, but job growth there was not always higher than in areas with no drilling.

Researchers told Farm and Dairy the most important thing to glean from the study is that oil and gas development carries "a real gold-rush mentality." It brings a sudden influx of money, but communities need long-term development that the researchers say does not come from energy booms. (Read more)

Lack of education apparently leading to rise in HIV and AIDS cases in the Navajo Nation

HIV infections drop or reamain steady in other parts of the country, but are rising sharply in the Navajo Nation, reports Stephen Ceaser of the Los Angeles Times. Poverty, poor education, alcohol abuse and a culture where talking about death causes it all combine to create an environment where the virus can spread, and where many know little about it until they contract it.

Ceaser reports the 35 new cases of HIV infection a year seems small when compared to the 173,600 people living on the reservation. However, that is three times the number of new cases recorded a decade ago. When the increase began in 2001, HIV cases were rare among Navajo, with cases coming from people contracting it in cities and returning home for treatment or to die. Then, Navajo began infecting other Navajo.

Many patients choose to mix modern medical treatment with traditional Navajo healing. Ceaser reports the Indian Health Service encourages this, out of respect for the Navajo and to make patients feel comfortable and optimistic about treatment. (Times photo by Barbara Davidson: Jerry Archuleta, left, and his partner, Emerson Scott)

HIV and AIDS are widely considered a "white man's disease," and those who contract it are often shunned in the Navajo Nation. However, a small number of Navajo are coming together to educate others about the dangers of the diseases. Emerson Scott and his partner Jerry Archuleta, both HIV positive, are two. Scott stands outside his local library handing out condoms and encouraging people to get tested, though no one has accepted his offers yet. Both volunteer with the Navajo AIDS Network and several support groups for HIV and AIDS patients, spending hours with those who consider suicide. (Read more)

Thursday, January 05, 2012

Agri-tourism shows promise for local economies as more farmers show interest

Farmers across the country are hoping agri-tourism, or the combination of locally grown food and lodging or entertainment, will bring in visitors and help boost local economies. The Associated Press reports farms from Idaho to Virginia are attempting to bring in customers by making farms a tourist destination.

Some Virginia farmers hope legislation to help agri-tourism operations will pass into law, AP reports. In Arkansas, some are using agri-tourism to reverse the decline of small- and medium-sized farms. A fourth-generation rancher in Montana is trying to turn traditional farm work, like chopping wood, feeding chickens and herding cattle into a vacation. In Idaho, bed and breakfasts are drawing people in from neighboring states with locally produced wine.

The Idaho Division of Tourism is developing year-round culinary events and deals and in 2013 will launch several measures promoting agri-tourism, like an online scenic byways web page that will show where local restaurants, hotels, you-pick farms and farmers markets are located. (Read more)

FDA limits use in animals of a type of antibiotic

The Food and Drug Administration announced yesterday that farmers must restrict use of certain antibiotics in cattle, pigs, chickens and turkeys because overuse may have contributed to development of bacteria strains resistant to the antibiotics, which are also used in humans. The medicines targeted by FDA are cephalosporins, and are most commonly prescribed to treat pneumonia, strep throat and skin and urinary tract infections. They are also popular among pediatricians.

The rule only restricts some uses of cephalosporins, allowing veterinarians to continue using them to treat sick animals in ways the FDA hasn't approved, reports Gardiner Harris of The New York Times. This rule only restricts direct injection of the drug into chicken eggs and large and lengthy dosing in cattle and pigs. A similar rule was proposed in 2008, but Dr. Christine Hoang, assistant director of scientific activities at the American Veterinary Medical Association, told Harris the latest rule is a "vast improvement" from the first proposal. “We thought the original order was too broad and unnecessarily prohibited uses that were not likely to cause problems for human health,” Dr. Hoang told Harris.

When antibiotics were developed, farmers were "enamored" with the effects on their cattle, chickens and pigs, and added the drug in bulk to animal feed and water, Harris reports. By the 1970s, public-health officials worried that overuse in animals was creating "killer infections resistant to treatment." Now, many microbiologists say the drugs' use in agriculture has led to thousands of human deaths because of drug resistance. Last year, the FDA banned use of fluoroquinolones, a powerful class of antibiotics. Harris reports Wednesday's announcement is another step to limit farmers' use of antibiotics. (Read more)

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Postal cutbacks will delay delivery of weekly papers

For months, the U.S. Postal Service has announced post-office and processing-center closures in mostly rural communities as a way to get out of billions of dollars in debt. Much has been said about how these closures will affect rural residents' mail-order prescriptions, bills and business; however, mail processing centers closures have been less discussed and some advocates say the impact on weekly newspaper circulation would be dire.

Save the Post Office, a website owned and operated by literature professor Steve Hutkins of the Gallatin School of New York University, reports the Postal Service admits consolidation of processing centers will slow mail delivery, but aren't revealing the severity of the situation. "One thirty-year-veteran mail clerk ... said the closure of the processing center would result in 'massive mail failings,' and would be a killer for weekly newspapers, which could be delayed several days. If that happens, he said, 'You start producing a history, not a newspaper.'" The impact would be primarily on newspapers mailed outside the paper's home county, since they can deliver papers to local post offices for direct delivery.

Montana Rep. Denny Rehberg writes in the Whitefish Pilot that he's "fighting hard" against processing center closures because "timely news and announcements, and the latest sale at the local hardware store, are important to a community’s vitality..." He said he's delivered thousands of comments from Montanans to the Postal Service and spoken with the U.S. Postmaster General Pat Donahoe about how closures would negatively affect rural places. "Rural communities shouldn’t have to shoulder the majority of the burden in getting the post office back in the black," he writes. (Read more)

Alternative newspaper in Oregon goes far afield to report about rural environmental issues

Eugene Weekly readers are used to seeing news about Eugene nightlife and the University of Oregon in the alternative newspaper, but it also covers the surrounding rural area, unlike most alt-weeklies. Reporter Camilla Mortensen went 20 miles southeast of the city to rural Dexter for a three-part series about the town's struggle against an illegal gravel-mining operation. For over a year, Lost Creek Rock Products has logged and mined Parvin Butte, a natural Dexter landmark, without proper permits. Mortensen says in an e-mail that the paper is filling a hole left in rural environmental coverage after budget cuts at traditional papers forced those stories to the back burner. (Mortensen photo)

Mortensen said Eugene Weekly's owners, Art and Anita Johnson and Fred Taylor, former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, "have always had a strong environmental focus and with cutbacks at other papers, both The Register Guard (Eugene's daily newspaper) and around the state, there's a lot of rural and environmental issues that aren't getting attention, like this mine." She also reported on a proposed uranium mine about 200 miles from Eugene, saying "It's in a very rural area where it just wasn't going to get newspaper coverage so we decided I should go ahead and write about it so it didn't fall through the cracks and was a done-deal before people knew about it."

Parvin Butte was slated to become a gravel mine, though residents who live within yards of it didn't know this until mining had already begun. Mortensen reports in the first part of the series that Lost Creek Rock Products obtained a logging permit from the Oregon Department of Forestry and a mining permit from the Oregon Department of Geology and Minerals but failed to go through the Lane County site review process that allows the public to comment on the proposal.

The second part of the series focused on efforts to protect Lost Creek, which "is unobstructed by dams and offers some of the last remaining habitat for spring Chinook in the Middle Fork basin," and runs through the property being mined. Finally, Mortensen wrote about the state Department of Geology and Mineral Industries permit for the site and reported that Lane County officials issued a notice of violation to mine operators, though production continues. She also reports the fines levied against the mining company. Most recently, county officials asked the state to revoke the permit.

After Mortensen's first story was published, The Register Guard reported on the mine. That article can be found here.

Lack of staff closes an rural emergency medical service; another gets grant for recruitment ads

Many rural emergency medical services, like Bagaduce Ambulance in Castine, Me., are struggling to recruit volunteers and remain open. The rural coastal community shuttered its EMS service on New Year's Day after 35 years because of "staffing challenges faced by volunteer fire and rescue crews across Maine," Kevin Miller of the Bangor Daily News reports.

A private EMS provider already serving nearby towns responds to Castine emergencies, lengthening response time by 20 to 30 minutes, but some former Bagaduce members are trying to set up a "first-responder" program to help. Miller reports, the closure is also a blow to the community because it "represents a loss of a local institution that has been part of the literal lifeblood of Castine." (Read more)

In other parts of the country, struggling emergency service providers are trying new tactics. In Minnehaha County, S.D., Jeff Rusack of KDLT-TV reports the county Fire Chiefs Association received a $200,000 Federal Emergency Management Agency grant to broadcast volunteer firefighter recruitment commercials over the next two years. FCA president Mike Harstad said fresh recruits are needed to help with increased calls to the local fire department, and hopes the commercials will bring in recruits "by the truckload." The ads will tell potential volunteers about the benefits of helping their community. (Read more) (Wikipedia maps)

Organic produce may not always be sustainable

You may believe in the ideal that organic produce is locally grown in an environmentally sustainable way, but Elisabeth Rosenthal of The New York Times reports that much of America's organic produce is imported from Mexico and Central America where crops are increasingly raised through methods that can damage water tables, empty wells and put produce into an energy-intensive global supply chain.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a long list of requirements that farms must follow to label produce as organic. The use of fertilizer, pesticides and hormones is prohibited, but there are no environmental sustainability guidelines. Experts say organic farms are less ecologically harmful than conventional farms, but sustainable-agriculture scientist Michael Bomford of Kentucky State University told Rosenthal organic agriculture is not always sustainable, as it was in the past. He notes such farming has stressed California aquifers in the same ways as those in Mexico.

Rules may soon change, because "Organic standard setters are beginning to refine their criteria so that organic products better match their natural ideals," Rosenthal reports. This includes requiring use of renewable energy for buildings and allowing milk cows to graze instead of confining them to feedlots. However, she says each narrowing of "organic" leads to a political tug-of-war between farmers, food producers, supermarkets and environmentalists. (Read more)

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Louisiana editor and weekly win Gish Award for courage, integrity and tenacity in rural journalism

Stanley Nelson at The Concordia Sentinel
Stanley Nelson and the weekly newspaper he edits, the Concordia Sentinel of Ferriday, La., are the winners of the 2011 Gish Award for courage, integrity and tenacity in rural journalism given by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog. The Institute presents the award in honor of Tom and Pat Gish, who published The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky., for more than 50 years. Tom Gish, who died in 2008, and his wife Pat were the award's first recipients.

Nelson and the Sentinel showed courage and unusual tenacity in investigating an unsolved murder from the era of conflict over civil rights, and in January 2011 named a living suspect in the 1964 killing of African American businessman Frank Morris. A grand jury was convened and continues to investigate. A prosecutor on the case, David Oppeman, told James Rainey of the Los Angeles Times, “I told Stanley the other day he is the hub in this and everybody else is just a spoke. He did the work that needed to be done.”

The newspaper showed integrity and courage in the face of reader resistance to its dogged, detailed reporting in more than 150 stories. “The owners of the Concordia Sentinel never hesitated in following the story,” Nelson wrote in the fall edition of Nieman Reports, of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University. "While most readers read the stories with interest and outrage over what happened so many years ago, many of the most vocal were those who detested the coverage and who questioned our motives," Nelson told the Institute for Rural Journalism. “We knew some would be angered to read about the parish's ugly racial past,” he wrote for Nieman Reports. “Some canceled subscriptions. We were threatened. Our office was burglarized. One irate reader called to find out my ultimate goal. ‘To solve a murder,’ I said. ‘You can't do that,’ she snapped. ‘You're just a reporter!’ She hung up. We pressed on.”

For much more on Nelson, the Sentinel and the Gish Award, click here.

Remote Kansas hospital gives employees time off for mission work to attract, keep medical staff

Ashland Health Center in a remote area of southwestern Kansas is taking an "unorthodox approach" to getting and keeping doctors, Roxana Hegeman of The Associated Press reports. The center now gives all employees eight paid weeks off annually to do missionary work in other countries. The hope is that people willing to care for others in developing nations will be "content" in a town of 855 people. (Google map)

The approach seems to be working. The hospital staff now includes a chief medical officer, a medical technologist, a nursing director, a nurse practitioner and other staff, Hegeman reports. There is still a need for nurses, a dentist and a physical therapist.

The hospital promoted its new benefit in Christian publications and at Catholic-run medical schools, but employees can use the eight weeks for any volunteer work, not just mission work, Hegeman reports. Faculty at the private Via Christi medical residency program in Wichita, part of the nonprofit Catholic health care system, helped develop the hospital's recruitment model. (AP photo by Orlin Wagner)

"Everywhere in the country we have problems with health care," Dan Shuman, left, a 43-year old family physician that moved his family from Georgetown, Tex., to Ashland for the mission opportunity, told Hegeman. "But this was a place that was really seeking to make a difference." And the program has, according to Clark County Deputy Sheriff Robert Canton, who was treated for heart problems at the emergency room. Canton used to tell friends not to send him to the local hospital but now he tells his fellow deputies, "take me there." (Read more)

Arizona community newspaper examines legal tool developers use to subsidize projects

Residential and commercial developers in Arizona rely on commercial financial districts to finance public improvements, which allows them to sell homes for less while municipalities deal with obtaining streets, water and sewer lines and other public infrastructure. In Prescott Valley, Ariz., CFDs were created during development of three subdivisions and a commercial corridor along a highway. In a three-part series, Ken Hedler of The Daily Courier in Prescott (A on Google map) "examines the residential CFDs, where bonds issued by the districts finance water and sewer lines, and other improvements," and explores the pros and cons of CDFs.

The first part of the series discusses CDFs' financing of improvements in subdivisions, for which homeowners will pay long-term through property taxes. Hedler reports two Prescott Valley subdivisions with CDFs went out of business and a third sold out to another developer. The second part explains how laws govern CFDs, and the third part is a response from Prescott Valley town officials who told Hedler they are "unlikely to approve community facilities districts for master-planned communities in the foreseeable future" because of the continuing housing slump and previous problems with CDFs.

W. Va. county hopes national pilot project will revitalize its failing schools and communities

It may take a village to raise a child, but in McDowell County, West Virginia, officials hope a nation can revitalize the school system. The American Federation of Teachers, a union that typically represents teachers in urban areas, has initiated an "unprecedented experiment" bringing together more than 40 public- and private-sector groups to develop an education plan for the county. A five-year project called Reconnecting McDowell will address issues like poverty, technology and transportation that limit educational opportunities in the county. AFT hopes the project will be a successful model for rural districts across the country. (Wikipedia map)

Poster at abandoned school in Iaeger, W.Va.
Washington Post photo by Michael Williamson
Amy Harris of The Charleston Gazette reports the state Education Department took over McDowell's schools in 2001 to fix its high rates of dropout, shortage of qualified teachers, very low reading and math scores and the "deplorable filthy, unsafe and disgusting" schools that were damaged by flooding, but are still in use. The department consolidated schools, hired new superintendents and built new facilities but failed to improve test scores. "There are issues in McDowell that go beyond the school system and get to ingrained cultural feelings about education and a number of economic problems," State Board of Education member Gayle Manchin told Harris. The wife of U.S. Sen. and former Gov. Joe Manchin sought AFT's help for such a project. (Read more)

Lyndsey Layton of The Washington Post reports the project's overall cost is unknown, but AFT has already committed staff time and $100,000 to the planning phase. Investments will directly affect schools, with companies including Cisco Systems, coal company Alpha Natural Resources and Frontier Communications pledging to improve the county's technology, Internet access and broadband service. Nonprofits have agreed to provide books, and the Rahall Appalachian Transportation Institute will work on that infrastructure. Other groups have offered to give families better access to health care, drug prevention and treatment and more recreation. Layton reports a similar initiative created the "Harlem Children's Zone" and has been very successful, but these types of services in McDowell County must be built from the ground up because they don't currently exist. (WIlliamson photo: Students at Bradshaw Elementary, which doesn't have enough computers or Internet bandwidth)

Methamphetamine use is down, but it continues to plague rural areas

Even though the use of methamphetamine has decreased nationwide, many rural areas continue to grapple with it, and police departments are losing resources they say are necessary to fight the problem. Meth use appears to be most severe in Missouri, where 1,744  meth labs were found in 2010, reports Judy Keen of USA Today. Rounding out the top 10 states were Kentucky, Indiana, Oklahoma, Illinois, Michigan, North Carolina, Iowa, Mississippi and Arkansas. (USA Today photo: An ephedrine test is conducted to determine if the substance in the dish is meth.)

Keen writes, "Meth continues to plague communities across the nation despite getting scant attention, says UCLA psychiatry professor Richard Rawson. 'You'd think there's no meth problem, he says, but in many economically depressed rural areas it's still used 'to cope with … difficulty and poverty.'"

Two states now require a prescription for pseudoephedrine, a key meth ingredient found in cold medication. Oregon and Mississippi report big decreases in meth lab seizures since the laws passed there. Law enforcement officials told Keen meth labs are hard to find because the drug is manufactured by individuals and isn't large-scale. There's also a network of people who buy pseudoephedrine to sell to meth "cookers," thwarting electronic tracking of buyers, and cookers now make meth in easily transportable two-liter bottles. (Read more)

Monday, January 02, 2012

Rising crop and land prices, technology are putting more land to the plow in Iowa and the Midwest

This Iowa golf course has been plowed under.
"Across much of the Midwest the sharp increase in farm earnings has driven the price of farmland to previously unimaginable — and, some say, unsustainable — levels," A.G. Sulzberger reports for The New York Times. "But in the process, to much less fanfare, the financial rewards have also encouraged farmers to put ever more land into production, including parcels that until recently were too small or too poor in quality to warrant a second glance." Those include golf courses, old family homesteads, farmland that had been idled and awaiting development, and land that had been idled or converted to pasture in return for payments from the federal Conservation Reserve Program. (Times photo by Eric Thayer)

The push to plow worries environmentalists and conservationists concerned about soil erosion and water pollution, but in Iowa, "the nation’s biggest producer of corn and soybeans, farmers insist that they are simply getting more value form their land," Sulzberger reports."The force pushing more land into production is the rise in crop prices: in the past five years corn prices tripled and those for soybeans doubled because of swelling worldwide demand, including demand for ethanol production. At the same time yields have spiked because of genetically engineered crops and improvements in farming technology, which are also allowing farmers to grow in previously inhospitable areas. In turn farmers, flush from the most profitable years in decades and looking for better places to store money than low-interest savings accounts or a turbulent stock market, are putting their money in land." (Read more)

Evidence grows that oral health is strongly linked to overall health

"The eyes may be the window to the soul, but the mouth provides an even better view of the body as a whole," The Wall Street Journal's Melinda Beck writes in her Health Journal column. "Some of the earliest signs of diabetes, cancer, pregnancy, immune disorders, hormone imbalances and drug issues show up in the gums, teeth and tongue—sometimes long before a patient knows anything is wrong. There's also growing evidence that oral health problems, particularly gum disease, can harm a patient's general health as well, raising the risk of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, pneumonia and pregnancy complications." (WSJ graphic; click on it for larger version)
Beck adds, "Such findings are fueling a push for dentists to play a greater role in patients' overall health. Some 20 million Americans—including 6 percent of children and 9 percent of adults—saw a dentist but not a doctor in 2008, according to a study in the American Journal of Public Health this month."

Beck urges her readers not to be fooled by shiny white teeth. "In fact, many dentists worry that people who whiten their teeth may have a false sense of complacency, since their teeth can still be harboring tooth decay and serious gum disease," she writs. "Even people who have no cavities can still have inflamed and infected gums." She quotes Mark Wolff, an associate dean at the New York University College of Dentistry: "Whiteness and the health of your teeth are totally unrelated." (Read more)

Earthquakes prompt cessation of injection of fracking brine into Ohio injection wells

UPDATE, Jan. 7: "Geological experts . . . expect more earthquakes to come as the industry continues to expand across the eastern United States," Eric Niiler of Discovery News reports.

Recent earthquake activity in Ohio is related to the injection of wastewater into the ground near a fault line, creating enough pressure to cause seismic activity, but "The seismic events are not a direct result of fracking," the short term for hydraulic fracturing, which produced the wastewater, state Natural Resources Director Jim Zehringer told reporters Saturday. (WKBN image: wellhead)

The day before, the department announced that the owner of the injection well near Youngstown had agreed to stop injecting the brine "so that any potential links with earthquakes can be further assessed," Ann Sanner of The Associated Press reported."Ten minor earthquakes have occurred this year within 2 miles of the well, the department said. Each registered at 2.7 magnitude or lower."

Saturday, there was a 4.0 quake, just at the threshold for causing damage. "Area residents said a loud boom accompanied the shaking. It sent some stunned residents running for cover as bookshelves shook and pictures and lamps fell from tables," the AP reported. On Sunday, state officials said four other injection wells drilled in the area would be indefinitely prohibited from being opened and taking fluid, CNN reports.

Court delays EPA rules on interstate air pollution

A federal court in Washington has delayed implementation of the Environmental Protection Agency's rules on interstate air pollution, which were supposed to take effect yesterday. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled Friday, Dec. 30, on "a request by electric power producers and other challengers to delay the deadline for plants in 27 states to begin reducing emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide while the court considers the rule’s legality," Tom Schoenberg of Bloomberg Business Week reported.

"More than three dozen lawsuits in the Washington court seek to derail the EPA’s Cross-State Air Pollution Rule, which was issued in July and revised in October," Schoenberg wrote. "The court hasn’t scheduled a date for argument, though today’s order suggested the judges would hear the case by April." (Read more

Project to build houses in Ky. houseboat factories completes prototypes, looks to expand

Early last year we reported that a home-grown rural industry, houseboats in Southern Kentucky, could be revived by a project to have the idled plants turn out modular units for houses on land. Now two prototypes have been built and the next step is refining the process to reduce costs and make the approach economically feasible, reports Bill Estep of the Lexington Herald-Leader. (H-L photo: Half of a modular house was put on its foundation last month.)

The idea was conceived by Kentucky Highlands Investment Corp., a nonprofit venture-capital firm working in southwestern Kentucky, and was refined by the University of Kentucky College of Design, with help from UK's Center for Applied Energy Research. One goal is "to promote development of energy-efficient homes that could appreciate in value, as an alternative to aging houses and mobile homes in rural Kentucky that are not efficient, resulting in high electricity costs for owners," Estep reports. "Federal grants totaling $1.25 million helped finance the design and construction of the prototypes."

The modules were built at the Stardust Cruisers houseboat factory near Monticello, a town near Lake Cumberland that promotes itself as the "Houseboat Capital of the World" but has seen employment in the industry plummet during the recession. "The factory had 12 full-time and 12 contract workers in 2009 when the project started; it had 56 full-time employees in early December, Kentucky Highlands said in a news release," Estep reports. "Not all that growth resulted from the energy-efficient housing project."

As the project tries to meet its goals of $100,000 cost per house and $1 a day in energy costs, it is exploring other products such as multifamily structures, temporary classrooms, "military housing, disaster-relief housing and vacation homes," Estep reports.