Friday, March 02, 2012

Vilsack helps Rural TV make its official start

Rural TV, "billed as television for a growing world," went on the air in January, but it was a soft launch, not heavily promoted. To help kick off the station's official start, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack conducted a town hall meeting last night in the Nashville RFD-TV studio.

Vilsack gave his perspectives on rural development, biofuels and the farm bill, DTN Progressive Farmer Agriculture Editor Chris Clayton reports. Vilsack challenged Congress to "think boldly" on the farm bill, and answered a Tennessee State University student's question about USDA Rural Development programs by saying that 40 different programs aren't needed. He said the programs should be flexible and change for specific regions, placing emphasis on outcome of jobs and development, Clayton reports.

Daytime programming covers "the business of rural America and the rural world," said Patrick Gottsch, founder and president of the network's parent company, Rural Media Group, best known for RFD-TV. He said it could be compared to CNBCBloomberg and Fox Business News, but focusing on commodity markets. Rural TV's daily programming starts at 9 a.m. with "Market Day Report," followed by five hours of live coverage of agribusiness news, weather reports and commodity markets updated every 30 minutes. Broadcasts of auctions of cattle, horses, farm equipment and rural real estate will take up the evenings, and "Rural Evening News" will end the prime-time lineup. News bureaus in Washington, Chicago, Brazil and the United Kingdom are primary news sources. (Read more)

Extension services increase beginning-farmer classes in urban areas to meet demand

Over the years, many university agricultural extension programs have adapted to changing times, sometimes overshadowing farming with classes about sciences and humanities, but now continuing education extension classes are returning to farming because people living in cities, towns and suburbs are increasingly interested in small-scale farming, reports Phyllis Korkki of The New York Times. Extension agents have been offering beginning-farmer classes in response to demand, which require a different lesson plan than classes for seasoned farmers. (NYT photo by Jim Craven: Oregon small-scale urban farmer Aluna Michelle)

Students in urban agriculture range from seasoned gardeners to people seeking to make a career of it. They learn how to maximize time and space, how to farm organically and the fundamentals of entrepreneurship and marketing, including "the ins and outs" of farmers markets.

Dennis Lukaszewski, University of Wisconsin Extension urban agriculture program coordinator in Milwaukee, told Korkki that small-scale gardening on at least one acre of land can provide a significant boost in income. He said it's possible to make $7,000 to $8,000 a year in the area if a gardener puts in 20 hours a week. University of Florida agent Robert Kluson helped set up "Annie's Project," which is for women who want to be "agri-preneurs." He also helps students deal with zoning laws, and has started to network of small farmers "because he found that many of them fell prey to isolation," Korkki reports. (Read more)

Commodity groups want new Farm Bill that stresses crop insurance, but disagree on details

Four national commodity groups released a joint statement about the 2012 Farm Bill just before the annual Commodity Classic in Nashville this week. They agreed a new Farm Bill should be passed this year and that crop insurance is their top priority, but disagreed about the details of it and other risk management programs, reports Sarah Gonzalez of Agri-Pulse.

"Our organizations agree that an affordable crop insurance program is our No. 1 priority," the statement reads. "We also stand ready to work with House and Senate Ag Committee leaders to create farm programs that provide risk-management told to growers when they are facing a loss beyond their control." The presidents of the National Corn Growers Association, National Association of Wheat Growers, American Soybean Association and National Sorghum Producers signed the statement. NCGA President Garry Niemeyer said the Aggregate Risk and Revenue Management Program would cover "gaps" left in crop insurance "in the event of multiple year decreasing price yields," reports Gonzalez. He added this type of event is "could be just around the corner."

ASA President Steve Wellman said his organization supports a commodity-specific, revenue-based program. This approach will have less impact on planting and production than a fixed target price program "since any payments would be based on actual revenue losses rather than a decline in prices from fixed support levels," he said. He added his group would be open to an alternative to revenue-based programs, though.

The statement was released just as the House Agriculture Committee announced four more hearings about the farm bill, reports Forest Laws of Delta Farm Press. The first will be March 9 in upstate New York. Other stops are scheduled in Illinois, Kansas and Arkansas. The press release says "the hearings will give members of the House Agriculture Committee the opportunity to hear firsthand how U.S. farm policy is working for farmers and ranchers in advance of writing legislation." (Read more)

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Bills to protect farmers from animal-rights activists are headed to law books in Iowa, and maybe Utah

Photo by Al Hartmann,
Salt Lake Tribune
Legislation known as the "ag gag" bill, which would punish anyone who "makes false statements to gain access to a farm or misrepresent themselves on an employment application" is headed to Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, who is expected to sign it. The bill is designed to "crack down on undercover stings in livestock operations," Ken Anderson of Brownfield Ag News reports. Supporters say it's about misrepresentation and securing the food supply, but opponents say it will discourage whistleblowing, hinder free speech and endanger food safety. The bill would make "agriculture production facility fraud" a misdemeanor and penalize groups who "aid or abet those individuals in their undercover efforts."

UPDATE: Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad signed the "Agricultural Production Facility Fraud" bill into law yesterday, March 6.

State Sen. Joe Seng supports the bill and said animal rights "activists with an agenda" gain access to facilities under false pretenses and can expose livestock to disease. He added they are "trying to bring down this business," reports O. Kay Henderson of Radio Iowa. Sen. Matt McCoy opposed the bill, saying it would turn whistleblowers into criminals at the expense of public health. "This is the way . . . to give immunity to big agriculture so they can do whatever they please," he said. Sen. Herman Quirmbach also opposed the measure, saying it would endangers food safety and public health: "Passing this bill will put a big red question mark stamped on every pork chop, every chicken wing, every steak, every egg produced in this state because it will raise questions of: What have you got to hide?"

Legal scholars said yesterday the bill will "almost certainly face a constitutional challenge claiming it violates free-speech rights," reports Jason Clayworth of the Des Moines Register. A spokesman for Iowa's attorney general said the office worked with legislative leaders to draft a bill that could stand up in court, but a constitution al-law scholar at Drake University said the bill faces a big hurdle of "prior restraint," or efforts to halt speech before it can be spoken. He said courts have considered it the most "sweeping kind of free-speech restriction." In addition, it's general consensus among scholars that lies are protected free speech. Courts have also usually sided with news organizations whose members have "gone undercover to expose wrongdoing," Clayworth reports. (Read more)

In Utah, the House has passed 60-14 and the Senate is considering "a bill that would make it a crime to videotape or photograph agricultural operations without permission from owners," writes Dawn House of the Salt Lake Tribune. House Bill 187, supported by the Utah Farm Bureau, would make violations punishable by up to a year in jail. "The bill is so flawed, said National Press Photographers Association attorney Mickey Osterreicher, that someone taking photographs on public lands could be found in violation." (Read more)

Two high school basketball teams choose to forfeit during tournaments for very different reasons

When high school basketball teams get into state tournaments, they usually try very hard to stay in them for as long as possible. But two teams in Texas and Georgia voluntarily opted out of their state tournaments for two very different reasons. Retired weekly newspaper editor and educator Harry Hix, who was president of International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors, outlines the two situations on his blog, writing, "I find one reason compelling; the other saddens me."

Houston's Beren Academy, an Orthodox Jewish school, forfeited one game away from the championship because the late Friday afternoon game time conflicted with the Jewish sabbath, during which the team does not compete. The school asked the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools to swap times with another game, but the TAPPS executive board voted unanimously to deny the appeal, reports Angel Verdejo of the Houston Chronicle. (Chronicle photo)

The team had avoided the situation twice, when opponents agreed to reschedule games, Hix writes. The TAPPS athletic director said the school was aware when it joined the organization that tournament games were only played on Fridays and Saturdays. "No TAPPS teams are allowed to play sports on Sundays, when Christians traditionally worship," Hix notes.

UPDATE, March 2: "Some Beren players and parents filed a lawsuit," Hix reports, and "Rather than contest the matter, TAPPS Executive Director Ed Burleson opted to amend the game time to accommodate Beren’s Jewish Sabbath observance. If Beren wins today and advances to the championship game, that game will be played at 8 p.m. or later Saturday to avoid conflict with the Jewish Sabbath."

Warren County High School in Georgia forfeited its regional tournament game with Hancock Central High School, a move that prevented the school from competing in any postseason games. Superintendent Carole Jean Carey said it was "one of the most gut-wrenching decisions we have ever made," reported Wayne Staats of The Augusta Chronicle. In October, a brawl broke out between the two schools after a football game, and the Warren County coach was beaten with a helmet and had to undergo "major surgery," Hix writes. Carey said she feared the violence would recur.

Politics influences feelings about global warming

Recent Gallup polls show that Americans' concerns about global warming fluctuate. In 2004, 25 percent worried "a great deal" about climate change. In 2007 that number rose to 41 percent, but in 2010 it dropped to 28 percent, John Wihbey of Journalist's Resource reports.

Why this fluctuation? According to a 2012 study by Drexel University, McGill University and Ohio State University, "The most significant driver of public opinion on climate change was a battle between partisan elites over the issues," Wihbey writes. And an investigation of weather events revealed weather events had no "significant effect on public concerns about global warming," Wihbey reports.

USDA launches online tool to connect farmers and ranchers with nearby consumers

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has unveiled its newest tool to promote local food systems, an online instrument that lets viewers see what local and regional food projects are under way in their area and read case studies, watch videos and see pictures from the field.

The "Food Compass" is the latest effort in the "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" project, meant to expand the number of small, local farmers and ranchers who serve their communities. An interactive map lets viewers see USDA-supported projects related to local food systems in place across the country. That includes information about access to local meals, careers in agriculture and access to healthy food.

The written section includes stories about local food system projects, whether that pertains to farm-to-school, farm-to-hospital and farm-to-institution programs; local meat processing; hoophouses; urban farms; organic farms; and school gardens. Readers can see how people are putting their USDA funds to work to connect to their communities.

The compass notes that buying and selling food at the local, rather than mass consumer, level is a growing trend. In 2011, more than 85 percent of customers asked by the National Grocers Association said they chose to shop at a grocery store based in part on whether it carries food grown from local producers. More than 2,000 schools across the country have farm-to-school programs, and more than 7,000 American cities and towns have farmers' markets. The growing trend is a positive thing since it is "spurring job growth, keeping more farmers on the land and more wealth in rural communities," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. To view the compass, click here.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Dentist shortages in rural places contribute to rise in emergency-room visits for tooth trouble

The number of emergency-room visits for patients seeking dental treatment has increased, mostly because of problems that could have been prevented with regular dental visits, according to the Pew Center on the States. Most cases are in rural areas, which have a shortage of dentists. Nationwide, the number of ER dental visits increased 16 percent from 2006 to 2009, and the center suggests the trend is continuing. (New York Times photo by Stephen Crowley: A student in Barbourville, Ky., gets ready for a free exam through Kids First Dental, a mobile clinic.)

Visiting the ER for dental treatment can be 10 times more expensive than preventive care. Many visits involve the same patients seeking more care because emergency rooms aren't staffed by dentists. Doctors can offer pain relief, but not much more, and many patients can't afford follow-up treatment or can't find a dentist. "Emergency rooms are really the canary in the coal mine. If people are showing up in the ER for dental care, then we’ve got big holes in the delivery of care," said Shelly Gehshan, director of Pew’s child-dentistry campaign. "It’s just like pouring money down a hole."

The center analyzed information from 24 states, the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality and dental care studies. It found that in 2009, 56 percent of children with Medicaid didn't receive dental care, ER visits for dental care increased by almost 60 percent in South Carolina, and there were 55,000 dental-related ER visits in Tennessee hospitals. Part of the problem is that few dentists participate in Medicaid programs, The Associated Press reports. The center is working with states to develop dental hygienists training programs and train non-dentists to treat cavities and other uncomplicated procedures. (Read more)

Animal control agencies in Central California overwhelmed by increase in neglected horses

Rising hay prices, tough economic times and other factors have made it difficult for some horse owners to care for their animals, leading to an increase in abandoned horses. That led to the lifting of a ban on federal inspectors in horse slaughterhouses, a business about to be revived in the U.S., and much discussion about fair treatment of horses. Marc Benjamin of The Fresno Bee reports horse-neglect cases have increased in places hardest hit by the housing crisis and job losses, and that animal control agencies, already struggling with budget cuts and shrunken staffs, are "hard-pressed" to care for horses. (Fresno Bee photo by John Walker)

Shelters are already burdened by higher numbers of small animals, and by the time most neglected horses come in, their health is so bad they require extended veterinary care before adoption. The Central California Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is caring for 37 horses because of recent seizures. It's cared for about 60 horses since July, almost double the amount cared for a year earlier. A Central California SPCA spokeswoman said before 2010, the society cared for about five to six horses annually. The shelter has put expansion of a veterinary hospital and stray dog and cat buildings on hold to care for the horses. (Read more)

Ky. seminar on forest management set March 27

Woodlands are not often thought of as a place for investment, but the University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service and Department of Forestry are partnering to present a seminar, "One Acre at a Time," addressing how proper forest management can pay dividends to landowners, according to a press release from the College of Agriculture.

"Kentucky’s woodlands produce some of the world’s most valuable hardwood trees, and they are a renewable product. Any land that has trees growing on it can continue to produce after a managed harvesting operation," said extension forester Billy Thomas. The press release says participants "will come away from the seminar with clear directions on how to reap the benefits from their property."

The seminar will be held at the John W. Black Community Center, 1551 North Highway 393 in LaGrange, Ky., on March 27 from 6 to 8:30 p.m. Registration will begin at 6 p.m. and cost $5. Preregistration is encouraged and can be made in advance at an extension office in Oldham, Bullitt, Henry, Jefferson, Shelby, Spencer and Trimble counties. For more information, call the Oldham County office at 502-222-9453 or UK Forestry Extension at 859-257-7597.

At least four states consider deer-farming bills

A bill moving through the West Virginia Legislature would classify white-tailed deer as livestock, allow farm-raised venison to be sold in grocery stores and restaurants, The Associated Press reports. At least three other state legislatures are considering similar bills: Mississippi, Tennessee and Georgia. Critics say the bill would make wild deer more vulnerable to chronic-wasting disease and threaten states' hunting and tourism industries. (AP photo)

Lobbyists for the National Deer Farmers Association say West Virginia deer farmers, who typically raise the animals for shooting preserves, have tried for a decade to get the legislature to designate their animals as livestock so they can sell the meat. Deer deemed unfit for preserves are usually euthanized because the state limits the number farms can maintain. "The public has told us they would love to buy it. It's a good, healthy meat, low in calories and low in cholesterol," NDFA spokesman Marcel Fortin said.

The bill would give the U.S. Department of Agriculture authority over the farms, replacing the state Department of Natural Resources, which opposes the bill. DNR Supervisor of Game Management Chris Ryan said confined deer can contract disease that can spread to native herds, especially if laws are changed to allow interstate transport of deer. (Read more)

House considering bill to make federal education funding fairer for rural school districts

The federal education funding foprmula has long been skewed against rural schools, making it hard for schools with high percentages of poor students to receive proportionately as much as large schools with low rates of poor students. But the U.S. House Education and Workforce Committee is considering a bill that would change the formula. Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Glenn Thompson introduced the "All Children are Equal Act" last July, and it has been added to the "Student Success Act" being considered by the committee.

Allocations under the Title I formula, "are the largest source of federal funding to school districts and aim to improve the achievement of disadvantaged children," Agri-Pulse notes. Poverty indicators are calculated through number and percentage weighting brackets to determine amounts. The bracket that yields the highest per-pupil allocation is the one used to determine the amount. Hampton, Ark., district Superintendent Jimmy Cunningham told the committee "the number weighting bracket is mathematically far more powerful than the percentage weighting bracket, meaning that money is diverted away from smaller, poorer districts."

The "All Children are Equal Act" would make a gradual correction in the weighting factors used to allocate funds over four years. The American Farm Bureau Federation says ACE will make the Title I formula fairer and more effective. "Approving this legislation ... will benefit students living in poverty, whether they reside in rural, small-town America or in an urban setting," said President Bob Stallman. Agri-Pulse is available by subscription-only, but a four-week free trial is available here.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Twice-weekly rural newspaper doing series on mental illness, which affects one in five adults

The Morehead News, a twice-a-week newspaper in northeastern Kentucky, is publishing an eight-part series on mental illness, written by Noelle Hunter.

With Part 1 largely an introduction to the project, running on Tuesdays, Part 2 gets into the facts and figures of the disorders that fall under the mental-illness umbrella. Part 3 profiles a woman living with bipolar disorder; Part 4 will report on the views of clinicians and therapists; Part 5 will profile a man living with bipolar disorder; Part 6 will profile a person living with schizophrenia; Part 7 will focus on the effects on families; and Part 8 will look at treatment options and recovery.

Mental illness is a worthy topic for any news outlet. According to the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration, 45.9 million American adults — one in five — experienced some mental illness in the past year. In Kentucky, 180,000 people live with a serious mental illness, which includes schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, panic disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. Though there have been advancements in treatments these disorders, most in the way of medication and therapy, there is still much that is unknown, Hunter reports.

That comes with larger cultural ramifications. In 2008, about 5,100 adults who have a mental illness were incarcerated in Kentucky prisons and almost 700 adults committed suicide, "almost always a result of untreated mental illness," Hunter reports. Follow the series on the website of the newspaper, part of Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., here.

Could farming be attracting baby boomers?

The number of farmers over 55 has increased while the number of younger farmers has decreased over the past decade, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The trend was only tracked from 2002 to 2007 but "may be an indication that new opportunities are making farming a more attractive profession for retirement-aged baby boomers," Agri-Pulse reports. The number of people 55 or older who had been farming two years or less in 2007 was 9,865, compared to 9,303 in 2002. The number of people age 35 or under farming two years or less decreased over the same period, from 9,199 to 6,900.

Many agriculture officials and politicians say this proves the need for more young farmers. Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow said she's concerned about the declining number of young farmers and that young farmer programs, including the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, are very important for recruiting young people to farming. She said she wants to expand on beginning farmer programs included in the Farm Bill. Gary Matteson, vice president for young, beginning and small farmer programs and outreach at the Farm Credit Council, told Agri-Pulse that council members made 65,000 loans to beginning farmers in 2010, so beginners "are out there."

The USDA created a "Farmers by Age" fact sheet based on the 2007 Agriculture Census. Agri-Pulse is available through subscription-only, but provides a four-week free trial here.

USDA to unveil local-foods tool in webinar tomorrow

An online tool that features the local and regional food projects in the works across the country, as well as case studies that show successful partnerships between producers, businesses and communities, will be unveiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in a webinar at 2 p.m. tomorrow.

The "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" compass is an interactive document and map. During the webinar, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan will discuss the instrument, as well as how local and regional food systems make money for local farmers, ranchers and food entrepreneurs. They will also discuss how responsible food systems increase the number of farms in the country and expand access to healthy food.

Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food was launched in September 2009. The initiative is meant to coordinate USDA resources and expertise on locally grown food.

To watch the webinar via live streaming, click here. Participate live by asking questions on Twitter to @usda and using the hash tag #KYF2. (Read more)

Small towns breed more diverse friendships, research suggests

According to a new study by researchers from Wellesley College and the University of Kansas, the size of a community influences the scope of friendships. The study was done on college campuses, but  Julie Ardery (right) of the Daily Yonder writes that it matches her experience in small and large towns in Texas. The smaller the town, the broader a person's criteria for friend selection, and the more diverse their friends, she says. In other words, people in small and rural towns are more likely to form friendships with people less like themselves, contradicting the belief that small towns suppress diversity.

The researchers call the study of these relationships "social ecology." To test their hypothesis, researchers compared friendships of college students at the University of Kansas with those at four smaller colleges in eastern and central Kansas. They handed out surveys to pairs of students they found in public places that asked about their attitudes concerning various social issues. Researchers then looked at similarities between the friends at all schools and concluded that because people at larger universities are able to "choose among greater variety, they will also be able to match their interests and activities to partners more closely" than people at smaller schools. They hypothesized: "Greater human diversity within an environment will lead to less personal diversity within" human pairs.

Ardery writes that social ecology is an exciting field of research that is "of special interest to those of us trying to understand what, for good and ill, characterizes life in rural places." She makes her own observations from life in Smithville, Tex., where everyone "assumed diverse roles and dual occupations" that were both seen as legitimate by locals. She wonders if social ecology of small communities leads to greater inner diversity. "With many roles to fill and fewer people to assume them, small towns may tolerate or actually encourage dual working identities, even when such identities clash." (Read more)

Ardery's piece directly relates to the excellent book published in 2008 by her husband, Bill Bishop: The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing us Apart. The introduction of the book describes how Ardery and Bishop picked a neighborhood in Austin, Tex., "filled with Democrats" like themselves without even trying. The book explains how and why millions more Americans have done likewise.

Appalachian photographer's images stir debate

Shelby Lee Adams has been documenting life in Eastern Kentucky through photography over the last seven years, and this Thursday an exhibit of this work, which has been compiled in his new book Salt & Truth, will open at the Paul Paletti Gallery in Louisville. His "arresting photographs" show residents of small mountain towns in black and white, often "in rural settings that haven't changed much in a hundred years," writes Matt Frassica of The Courier-Journal. (Photo: Adams with James Napier, Leatherwood, Ky., 2008)

Adams is from southeastern Kentucky's Letcher County but now lives in western Massachusetts. He's been traveling back to his native region to document Appalachian culture and "show a very specific, isolated segment of the culture, that's also disappearing and changing," he said. He calls his method of photography "an open dialogue," in which he discusses with his subjects what they want to wear, where they wish to be photographed and with which props. He involves the people in every step of making the photograph, he said, and when he returns the following year, brings prints for them to see.

Some critics say his work perpetuates stereotypes of Appalachian Kentuckians. University of Kentucky sociology professor Dwight Billings objects to the "Southern Gothic" style of the photographs that have an emphasis on "the grotesque, frightening, bizarre and spooky." Beth Newberry, co-publisher of The Hillville, a blog documenting urban Appalachia, told Frassica it's up to the viewer to determine the interpretation. Silas House, interim director of the Loyal Jones Appalachian Center at Berea College, said he is more ambivalent about it, saying he thinks the subjects deserve to have their stories preserved, but he also fears the pictures may make people unfamiliar with life in Appalachia "react with pity rather than sympathy," Frassica reports.

Adams says he's creating art that is true to himself, which actually dispels stereotypes: "I think Appalachian culture sometimes has an ideal view of itself. In order to dissolve the stereotype, you need to look at what you come from more clearly, without all those idealized images." He said his work is often taken out of context because he doesn't consider himself a documentary photographer; he considers himself an artist, and he said "that kind of bothers people." He will be at Carmichael's Bookstore in Louisville on Saturday at 4 p.m. to sign copies of Salt & Truth, and at a reception at the Paul Paletti Gallery from 6 to 8 p.m. on Thursday. Both events are free. (Read more)

West Virginia nonprofit hopes to build network of solar energy programs in other places

The founders of New Vision Renewable Energy, a rural nonprofit in Philippi, W.Va., hope to build a national network of community teams that bring solar panels to other rural places where renewable sources "often are seen as anti-patriotic or as a way for tree-hugging elitists to pat themselves on the back," reports Erich Schwartzel of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Ruston Seaman and John Prusa (Post-Gazette photo by Andrew Rush) joined forces to build solar panels for the community, which is two hours south of Pittsburgh and has 20 percent of its residents living below the poverty line. New Vision hopes to outfit 10 homes this spring with panels.

The pair built their first homemade solar panels with shower doors and caulking. They've since moved on to better materials, though they still "come cheaply." New Vision is affiliated with Seaman's church, Peoples Chapel, and doesn't have much funding as a result. Seaman and Prusa say the panels eliminate three major expenses: electricity, gas and heat, paying for themselves in utilities savings in less than 10 years. Energy independence is an added bonus to the lower bills, they say.

In the process of outfitting homes, they've created "an entire mini-economy that recirculates money among families receiving panels and allows currency to come in the form of volunteer hours." The cost of outfitting one home can be from $7,000 to $10,000. Families volunteer time installing panels on other homes to help pay back expenses. Savings from electric bills go into a general community fund that finances more solar panels on more homes.

New Vision is training leaders from other communities who want to take the system home with them. Groups from Detroit, southern West Virginia and Yoakum, Tex., recently completed the training program, which trains a solar-panel technician, project leader and volunteer coordinator in each group. Some say they've faced push-back from those who see conserving energy as unpatriotic. The executive director of Almost Heaven Habitat for Humanity in Franklin, W.Va., said her group doesn't receive any flak from those they help, whose electricity bills can be quadruple their monthly rent. (Read more)

Ohio radio station focuses on fracking during live call-in show tonight at 8 EST; will be online

The public radio station serving southeastern Ohio, WOUB-FM of Athens, is broadcasting a live call-in show tonight devoted to the issue of hydraulic fracturing for natural-gas production. The show, part of the station's "Fracking Frenzy" series, will air and go online at 8 p.m. EST.

WOUB reaches most of Appalachian Ohio and bordering areas of West Virginia and Kentucky, where natural-gas exploration and drilling has boomed in recent years.

The call-in show will include a panel of regional experts on the issue, including the executive director of the Ohio Petroleum Council and professors from Ohio University and Marietta College.

The scheduled host of the show, Terry Smith, is editor of The Athens News, the twice-weekly newspaper in Athens. The News has provided extensive coverage of gas leasing in the region, including an article Monday reporting that numerous leases in southeastern Ohio were being offered for sale at an industry exposition last week in Texas. The newspaper's opinion section also has been a dominant forum for debate over the divisive issue.

WOUB is the public broadcasting center at Ohio University, where the author of this post works. The author is not involved in the program.

Monday, February 27, 2012

NPR has new ethics handbook, redefining fairness

National Public Radio has adopted a new Ethics Handbook as it takes "steps to safeguard against some of the ethical dilemmas it’s faced in the past," such as firing commentator Juan Williams for telling Bill O’Reilly that he was uncomfortable sitting next to Muslims on airplanes, writes Mallary Jean Tenore of the Poynter Institute. The 72-page handbook can be a guide for any journalist, and is a glimpse of the evolving nature of our craft at a critical time.

It gets a thumbs-up from New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen in his popular PressThink blog. NPR "commits itself to avoiding the worst excesses of 'he said, she said' journalism," Rosen writes. "It says to itself that a report characterized by false balance is a false report. It introduces a new and potentially powerful concept of fairness: being 'fair to the truth'." He cites his favorite passages and italicizes some:
In all our stories, especially matters of controversy, we strive to consider the strongest arguments we can find on all sides, seeking to deliver both nuance and clarity. Our goal is not to please those whom we report on or to produce stories that create the appearance of balance, but to seek the truth.
At all times, we report for our readers and listeners, not our sources. So our primary consideration when presenting the news is that we are fair to the truth. If our sources try to mislead us or put a false spin on the information they give us, we tell our audience. If the balance of evidence in a matter of controversy weighs heavily on one side, we acknowledge it in our reports. We strive to give our audience confidence that all sides have been considered and represented fairly. (Read more)

Ky. sheriff finds more than friends on Facebook; captures two fugitives on run for 4½ years

An Eastern Kentucky sheriff got help from Facebook in finding two fugitives. Jerry Lee Callahan and his wife Rebecca had been on the run for five years after posting bond and being released from jail in Clay County in October 2007. There were arrested in August 2007 on a combination of 20 counts of rape, sexual abuse, sodomy and incest. In Kentucky, a person must be formally charged or indicted within 90 days of arrest, but because this case was complicated with involvement of minors, the indictment wasn't returned until November, Paige Quiggins of WYMT-TV in Hazard reports.

The pair had been chatting with friends on Facebook, which enabled Clay County Sheriff Kevin Johnson and deputies to track Internet-protocol addresses to Victoria County, Texas, where they discovered the fugitives had applied for driver's licenses. Johnson and another official flew to Texas last Wednesday to apprehend the suspects and return them to Clay County. Johnson credits the capture to the use of Facebook. "Even if you are on the run you are going to stay in contact with friends and family, which in the future it is going to be a tool that law enforcement will use and has used and will be continuing to use," he told the Hazard TV station. (Read more)

In another Kentucky town, Maysville, police are using Facebook to help them solve crimes, Wendy Mitchell of the Ledger Independent reports.

Farmland price boom sparks worries of a bust

Farmland has been rapidly selling at premium prices, and though some have feared a farmland price bust similar to the housing industry bust of the past decade, high prices of corn, wheat and other crops, low interest rates, investors seeking higher returns and predictions about demand for food in Asia and elsewhere keeps buyers from borrowing more than in the 1970s and '80s when there was a "massive exodus of bankrupt farmers," reports Chuck Raasch of USA Today.

Wealthy investors say they've "lost faith" in the stock market and are instead putting money into farmland. While the market struggles to recover, average farmland price increased by 31 percent from 2006 to 2011, more than $3,000 an acre, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In some places from Ohio to Iowa, the Eatsern Corn Belt, prices doubled to $10,000 or more an acre. As a result,  USDA predicts net farm income this year to be the second-highest ever, at $91.7 billion. Farm economists say most buyers are life-long farmers who want to expand production, not get rich buying and selling land.

Some experts are urging caution. Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation Chair Sheila Bair said during an FDIC conference last year that the farmland boom "should not dissuade us ... from asking hard questions and articulating our concerns before a crisis is upon us." Land-auction veteran R.D. Schrader said talking about a bust might help prevent one. "Right now, the moon and the stars are lining up in favor of farmland values. Odds are that will change in the future. When that correction comes, it is tough to say." (Read more)

Most states provide tax breaks to make movies, but most of them won't say who got how much

George Clooney and Shailene Woodley in The Descendants
Almost 40 states offer some form of tax credit, rebate or other incentive to film and TV producers to create jobs, often in rural areas, but few state film offices will reveal exactly how much they give, Will Wilson reports for Stateline.

Of the nine films nominated for best picture at last night's Academy Awards, five got tax breaks. The Descendants, filmed in Hawaii, caused Gov. Neil Abercrombie to ask that the state's temporary tax credit become permanent, but the tax credit program's director won't reveal the exact amount of subsidy the film got. In Texas, where The Tree of Life was filmed, the head of the state's film commission gave the exact amount: $434,252.79.

State film commissions often reveal aggregate numbers that show total tax breaks in a year, Wilson reports, and it's not hard to find out if a production got help from a state. But only one-third of states that offer incentives reveal how much they give individual productions, according to Good Jobs First, a watchdog group that keeps track of state economic-development subsidies. Many in the film industry view the information as a trade secret, fearing competitors can "do a back-of-the-envelope calculation to figure out key details about the studio's cost structure." They say if states reveal incentive figures, productions will likely move to states that won't.

Massachusetts state Sen. Ben Downing pressed for disclosure of the identity of those receiving the tax credits and the amount each got. He said states "need to know exactly what they're getting for their money" and compare that with other economic development programs. Recent scandals have shown these credits can be abused; film producers and the head of Iowa's film office were found to be misusing funds, and director Daniel Adams was indicted in December for allegedly inflating expenses to receive more tax breaks in Massachusetts. (Read more)

E15 ethanol blend one step closer to your pumps

News reports have suggested E15 blends, which use half again as much ethanol as the longstanding 10 percent blend, is on the verge of commercial availability, but industry and regulatory sources say it will be a little longer before the blend is ready for commercial sale, reports Agri-Pulse. Still, the Environmental Protection Agency's approval of industry-sponsored testing on the health effects of E15 is a major step toward commercialization, the Washington newsletter reports.

Manufacturers can now submit applications to register their products with EPA, but must also submit product and manufacturer identification, specific compositional data and total annual production volume. Registration doesn't mean E15 can be sold immediately. Waivers allowing E15 distribution were granted conditionally, limiting its use in cars of model year 2001 and newer. The Renewable Fuels Association has submitted a misfueling-and-mitigation plan to EPA to serve as a model for retailers. E15 can be sold to EPA-approved vehicles at stations prepared to sell it once the plan is complete and manufacturers register with EPA.

Other federal, state and local requirements, including equipment compatibility, also have to be addressed before commercial sale can begin. Some states restrict the sale of some ethanol blends, and laws may have to be changed before E15 can be sold there. Agri-Pulse reports the industry is anxious to introduce E15 to break through a "blend wall" saturation of E10 blends, which are mostly exported. The U.S. is the largest exporter of ethanol, which advocates have billed as the solution to the country's reliance on foreign oil. Industry representatives say the breakthrough would keep more of it at home.

Agri-Pulse is available only by subscription, but offers a four week free trial.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Maple industry booming, due to Quebec-set prices

The maple-syrup industry is undergoing a "dramatic expansion" in the Northeast, thanks to high prices set by Canadians, reports Steve Taylor, who returned to his former pursuits of sugaring and journalism after many years as New Hampshire agriculture commissioner.

"Ground zero" for the boom is Franklin County, Vermont (Wikipedia map), "where all of the major manufacturers of maple equipment have their operations and where producers are expanding at a brisk pace, some with up to 20,000 new taps coming on line this year," Taylor reports, quoting Brad Gillilan, an executive of Leader Evaporator, the nation’s largest manufacturer of sap evaporators: “The industry in the U.S. is as big as it’s ever been, and it’s growing all over.”

"Syrup production the United States has been expanding at the rate of 10 per cent per year over the past five years from new taps coming on line, and then there’s another five percent increase in production coming from the aggressive adoption of new technologies, including improved tubing systems, higher vacuum, more powerful reverse osmosis equipment and new evaporators with far greater fuel efficiency," Taylor reports in a story first written for Lancaster Farming.

Photo by John Russ, Bangor Daily News
He writes that syrup prices are "buoyed" by the Quebec provincial maple board, "which controls the pricing and sets quotas for how much all maple producers in the province can make." That, in effect, establishes a floor price for all of North America because about three-fourths of the maple syrup produced on the continent comes from Quebec.

The market opened earlier because of the unusually warm winter. "This winter’s strange weather pattern has oldtime maple producers scratching their heads, unable to recall an earlier full-throttle start to the sap flow," Taylor reports. In some locales sap ran well during warm spells in January."

Looking ahead, Taylor sees "tightening of food safety laws, which could force many maple operations to upgrade their facilities." Citing Bruce Bascom of Acworth, N.H., "one of the largest producers, packers and distributors of maple products in the Northeast," he writes, "Vermont’s new voluntary sugarhouse registration program points the way toward inspection requirements that will have to be met before a producer’s crop will be accepted for purchase." (Read more)

Oscar-winning film comes from state-started studio in 'a little too small town' in La., not L.A.

The most important movie people rarely recognized at the Academy Awards are those who finance motion pictures. That's perhaps to be expected, because it's a private business, but the primary investor in one movie on of tonight's winners, list of nomineesThe Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore (left), is from the public sector: the state of Louisiana.

"Forty states offer film production tax credits, trying to draw producers and studios and the trickle-down effects of a big-budget picture. Louisiana took a slightly different approach," reports Markeplace of American Public Media, presenting a story by Kate Archer Kent of the Bayou State's Red River Radio.

State Economic Development Ssecretary Stephen Moret "wanted to show off Louisiana's creative talent," Kent reports. "So the state gave seed money to open an animation studio in Shreveport. It's called Moonbot Studios. The state shelled out nearly $700,000 for the studio's first film. . . . It's a wordless, whimsical story that portrays the power of books. Moret says with an Oscar nod, Louisiana hit the jackpot." A clip from the film appeared on CBS's "Sunday Morning" today. UPDATE, 10:45 p.m.: The film won the Oscar for best animated short film.

Moonbot attracts young animators like Beavan Blocker, right (photo by Archer). "Blocker says sometimes Shreveport feels a little too small town," compared to the West Coast, for example, Archer reports. "So is propping up the industry worth the investment? Cornell University professor Susan Christopherson studies how states use incentives to lure film projects. She says doling out millions of dollars to producers each year isn't a prudent way to spend public money." (Read more)

USDA to speed review of genetically modified seeds

Seed companies "will get speedier regulatory reviews of their genetically modified crops under forthcoming rule changes" by the Department of Agriculture, Jack Kaskey reports for Bloomberg News after interviewing Michael Gregoire, a deputy administrator for USDA. "Approvals that took six months in the 1990s have lengthened because of increased public interest, more legal challenges and the advent of national organic food standards, Gregoire said. U.S. farmers worry they may be disadvantaged as countries such as Brazil approve new technologies faster, said Steve Censky, chief executive officer of the American Soybean Association."

USDA plans to invite public comments "as soon as seed developers such as Monsanto file a complete petition for deregulation of a biotech crop, rather than waiting until the end of the review," Kaskey reports. "The Center for Food Safety, a Washington-based non-profit group that has successfully challenged approvals of Monsanto’s Roundup Ready sugar-beet and alfalfa crops, said the rule change is aimed at preventing opponents of modified crops from voicing criticism of the agency’s methods." CFS analyst Bill Freese called it "a rubber-stamp system. A real regulatory system will occasionally reject something." (Read more)