Friday, April 27, 2012

TV political ad data will go online, but only in big markets in 6 months, and it won't be searchable

Endowment funded by severance-tax hike, and more broadband, would help Eastern Ky., leaders say

Ideas about how to transform the economy of Eastern Kentucky were discussed at the annual East Kentucky Leadership Conference in Prestonsburg yesterday. The region contains the largest cluster of Appalachian counties that the federal government classifies as economically distressed. Bill Estep of the Lexington Herald-Leader reports some ideas included a severance-tax hike to fund a permanent endowment for projects in coal counties, improved access to broadband Internet, clean water for every resident, and growing biomass for energy on former surface-mine sites.

Justin Maxson, president of the Berea-based Mountain Association for Community and Economic Development, said setting up the permanent endowment fund could help replace dwindling funds from the state's coal severance tax. The fund would stay in place, earning interest, with portions being used for economic and other programs each year. The state currently spends all coal severance money it receives, and in a MACED report, it's estimated the tax receipts from Eastern Kentucky will drop through the mid-2020s. If Kentucky raised the tax to 5.5 percent from 4.5, as West Virginia has done, it could create more than $700 million in a fund by 2035, the report shows.

Center for Rural Strategies President Dee Davis said new economic ideas are necessary because of the projected sharp decline in coal production in Central Appalachia, which maintains many jobs that "underpin" the region's economy, Estep reported. Davis said improving broadband access "would be a critical component in areas such as improving the economy, education and in keeping people abreast of changes in health care," Estep reports. Davis added that "we're still a long way from having the competitive infrastructure in our area." (Read more)

In North Carolina, the state's money from the national tobacco settlement is being used to extend rural broadband service by fiber-optic lines. For a press release on the project, click here.

Survey of Iowa towns shows they'd lose more than Postal Service would save if post offices closed

Closing small rural post offices would probably create economic loss among their customers five times as great as what the U.S. Postal Service would save, according to a study in Iowa. The survey of nine tiny towns took on the task that no one in the federal government has yet to tackle: the very real and costly side-effects on small towns, some with fewer than 200 residents.

The study, undertaken by Northwest Iowa Development, puts a fine point on a proposal added by U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu (D-La.) just this week to the postal-reform bill, which would require the postal service to determine the impact of closures or consolidations to small businesses.

The report indicated that residents of small towns would lose out economically because of their need to travel to other post offices to do business; a lose of productivity because of that travel; increase of postal costs because of a need to use other shipping venues such as FedEx and UPS; and a loss of jobs. The total loss from just the nine Iowa towns studied was estimated to be $735,335. The amount the postal service would save per year by shutting them down: $154,352. (Read more.)

Labor Department stops effort to rewrite rules on child farm labor in face of many objections

The U.S. Department of Labor is stopping its effort to revise child farm-labor regulations after backlash and pressure from farming advocates who said the rules would hinder family farming.

The rules would have banned children younger than 16 from using farm equipment, and those younger than 18 from working in feedlots, grain bins and stockyards. The department made it clear several times the rules would exempt children working on family farms owned and operated by their parents, and two months ago it said it would modify them in an attempt to satisfy opponents and perhaps broaden the exemption to accommodate farm-ownership structures that cross generations in families.

The department said its goal was to reduce child farm fatalities, and that it was merely formalizing a policy adopted in the Bush administration, but The Associated Press reports Republicans attacked the proposals, calling them "impractical, heavy-handed regulation that ignored the reality of small farms." Farm groups continued to complain the rules would "upset traditions" of children working on farms owned by other relatives, AP reports.

The department said it withdrew the proposal after receiving thousands of comments that expressed concern about the rules. "The Obama administration is firmly committed to promoting family farmers and respecting the rural way of life," a statement about the decision said. "Especially the role that parents and other family members play in passing those traditions down through the generations." (Read more)

The director of the National Children’s Center for Rural and Agricultural Health and Safety expressed disappointment about the decision. "Barbara Lee agrees that the parental exemption was confusing but the overall changes would have increased protections for children who are hired to work in farming," Julie Harker of Brownfield reports. Lee told her, "We’re disappointed in the fact that some of these updated changes that were proposed would actually affect 15 and 16 year olds who are hired in big production agriculture operations." (Read more or download a 9-minute audio interview)

Ky. Supreme Court lets environmental groups join case over water pollution from coal mines

In what could become a key case in regulation of mountaintop-removal coal mining in Eastern Kentucky, the state Supreme Court has ruled that four environmental groups and three private citizens can intervene in a lawsuit brought by the state against a mining company for thousands of violations of the federal Clean Water Act. Brett Barrouquere of The Associated Press reports the high court found that Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd "did not err" with his ruling granting intervention.

Intervention will allow Appalachian Voices, Kentucky Riverkeeper, Waterkeeper Alliance, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth and three citizens to submit comments in the suit brought against Frasure Creek Mining by the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet. In October 2010, the groups filed an intent to sue Frasure Creek and International Coal Group, two of the largest mountaintop removal mining companies in the state, alleging more than 20,000 violations of the Clean Water Act, some involving apparently falsified reports, which theoretically could result in as much as $740 million in fines. The state reached a settlement with the companies, but the groups wanted to intervene to oppose it, claiming the penalty levied against the companies was far too low.

Justice Lisabeth Hughes Abramson concluded Shepherd does have authority to allow the intervention: "Clearly the regulations contemplate citizen intervention in an agency's state-court enforcement action, such as this one, and to that extent these regulations would be meaningless if such intervention were pre-empted," Barrouquere reports. (Read more)

Senate Agriculture Committee passes its version of new Farm Bill

The Senate Agriculture Committee last night passed its version of the 2012 Farm Bill, which will change commodity programs and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly food stamps. Late revisions aim to appease Southern growers who were upset about what they saw as an unfair tilt toward Midwest corn growers. The vote was 16-5, with two former chairmen from the South and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky voting no.

The bill proposes to save an estimated $50.2 billion over the next 10 years by repealing direct cash payments and related commodity subsidies to farmers. Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., estimated the final bill would initially save about $23.4 billion, down from the originally proposed $26.4 billion in savings. The bill calls for investment of $29 billion in a new government-sponsored "shallow loss" insurance program to complement traditional crop insurance. Baseline spending for commodities would be reduced by about one third. Corn's share would drop by 25 percent, cotton and peanuts by 41, and rice by 70.

David Rogers of Politico reports passage of the bill "followed a long night of final adjustments in what proved a vain attempt to buy unity." Cotton got concessions on its revenue-protection program, but corn and soybeans appear to be the biggest winners, Rogers reports, in "what would be an historic shift away from direct cash payments and price supports in favor of new forms of subsidized crop insurance." Because of record farm profits recently, cash payments have been hard to defend. (Read more)

Growers of fruits, vegetables and other non-subsidized crops are happy with the bill because it includes more money for their industry, Bob Meyer of Brownfield Network reports.

According to a statement from Stabenow's office, the changes in SNAP would be: stopping lottery winners from continuing to get assistance, ending misuse by college students, "cracking down" on retailers and recipients engaged in benefit tracking, preventing liquor and tobacco stores from becoming retailers, and stopping gaps that result in overpayment of benefits. The bill now goes up for a vote in the full Senate, after which it would go to the House, where prospects are unclear because of Republican budget-cutting wishes.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Rural population slightly increased in some places, decreased overall from 2010 to 2011

Rural America slightly increased in population from 2010 to 2011, but most rural counties lost population during that time, according to new U.S. Census Bureau estimates as reported by the Daily Yonder. The nation's population increased by 2.26 million in the year, but 92 percent of that growth was in urban counties. Less than 2 percent of the increase was in rural counties, which saw an increase of 37,406 people. Of the 2,026 rural counties, 886 maintained or gained population, and more than 56 percent lost population.
Daily Yonder map: Dark blue shows population increase, dark red show decrease
The Southeast, Northeast and West lost the most people, while the Great Plains and parts of the Mountain West were able to hold onto people. Yonder co-editor Bill Bishop writes, "Rural America generally struggled to hang on to its population." Though there were 26,000 more births than deaths in rural counties, their populations tend to be older, and they had 21.3 percent of the nation's deaths, "a disproportionately large share," Bishop writes. Rural counties also lost the more than 91,000 people to domestic migration, but this was almost offset by international migration, which added just under 43,000 people to rural areas during that year.

Twenty-seven states had rural counties among those with the highest population gains. The states with the 10 rural counties that saw the largest percentage population increase are North Dakota, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Utah, New Mexico and Alaska. The state with the 10 rural counties with the highest percentage population decrease are Alabama, Idaho, Colorado, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia and California.  (Read more)

States' waivers will allow school accountability testing beyond math and science

Many states are seeking waivers for parts of the No Child Left Behind Act, and some may be allowed to consider more than math and reading test scores in accountability systems, on which some federal funding depends, reports Erik Robelen of Education Week. Seven of 11 states that won waivers in the first wave of requests, and about a dozen of those in the second wave have included such provisions in their waiver request. Schools intend to first ask for science to be added, then writing, then social studies.

Kelly Price of the Georgia Science Teachers Association said the group is excited about science being added because it has been neglected since NCLB was instated. Similar stories have been told in other states, including Kentucky, where teachers at one school reportedly didn't start teaching social studies until May, after the tests had been given. Kentucky is also one of several states, including Florida and South Carolina, that had separate state accountability testing which covered other subjects. Those states are asking to combine systems into a unified one.

These plans are coming to light as Arizona State University professor Eugene Judson completes a study revealing that states with science as part of their accountability calculations "see significantly higher achievement gains over time at the fourth grade in the subject than states that do not," Robelen reports. Judson also found that extra attention on science doesn't take away from math or reading. The waivers will be good through the end of the 2013-2014 school year. (Read more)

Survey shows high-school texts cast rural America in an unfavorable light

If image and perception can be reality, rural America has a problem. And it's one that Daily Yonder contributors Aimee Howley, Karen Eppley and Marged Howley have traced back to an insidious source: high school textbooks.

The authors surveyed six high-school history books widely used between 1956 and 2009, and found that rural America got a well-deserved nod in the direction of "individualism and community spirit, stability and adventurousness" 50 years ago, but the last 20 years of text haven't been so kind. They found that rural America is now depicted as lacking, with common references to ignorance, recklessness and despair. The life of rural Americans was, in turn, seen as "harsh and demoralizing" and "in need of regulation."

Such characterizations, the authors argue in their piece, which is a condensed chapter of a forthcoming book, present what students then come to think of as truth, reinforcing "dominant ideologies that sustain prevailing power relations." There is time, they write, to correct this, making for more honesty, and a more connected future, more in league with the natural world, with all its complexities.

Oklahoma couple who run a great weekly paper enter state's Journalism Hall of Fame today

John and Faith Wylie, publishers of one of the best weekly newspapers in America, the Oologah Lake Leader, are joining the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame today, "along with eight other outstanding journalists," the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors reports in its April newsletter. "The Wylies represent the best of quality journalism in Oklahoma," said Dr. Terry Clark, director of the hall and journalism professor at the University of Central Oklahoma.

John M. Wylie II, who studied at Grinnell College in Iowa, was part of the Kansas City Star team that won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the Hyatt hotel disaster in 1982. He and his wife bought the weekly Leader in 1984. "His investigations for the Leader and national and international publications of McGraw-Hill have concentrated on energy regulation, attracting national attention," ISWNE reports. He has won hundreds of prizes and the leader has won eight first prizes from the National Newspaper Association. Faith Wylie has a degree in graphic design from the University of Kansas.

The Wylies have also been civic leaders and have received several local awards. John Wylie discussed their civil service and their approach to publishing in remarks prepared for the 2007 National Summit on Journalism in Rural America, titled "Independent Publishing Today: Thriving in a world of box stores and chain papers." He wrote, "Work for the economic prosperity of your community the right way. Don’t trust the economic gurus. Run, don’t walk, from the folks who tell you that this private prison or that hazardous waste dump is the key to the future. They aren’t. Build a real community based on real community values and a strong economic base, and your economic future will be secure."

As for publishing, he wrote, "Some publishers believe that the local newspaper should carry only good news and never offend anyone. We say a good local newspaper should carry all the news, and provide quality coverage of the good, the bad and everything in between. . . . You are the only newspaper in the world that gives a diddly about your town. Act like it. Your town includes the preacher and the pauper; the millionaire and the welfare mom; the teacher and the mentally handicapped child. Speak for all of them, meet their needs, help them realize their dreams and you will prosper." (Read more)

For information on the other winners, and more on the Wylies, see the ISWNE newsletter in PDF form here. UPDATE, June 20: For the Wylies' remarks, in the June ISWNE newsletter, go here.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

U.S. beef industry optimistic about global sales despite a case of mad cow disease

The beef industry is optimistic about its prospects, despite the Tuesday discovery of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, in a California dairy cow at a rendering plant, Agri-Pulse reports.

"U.S. trade officials believe Washington has a narrow window of opportunity this year to negotiate additional beef market openings in key Asian countries this year worth approximately $3 billion annually to American producers," the Washington newsletter reports. Department of Agriculture Deputy Undersecretary Darci Vetter said expansion could happen in Japan, China and South Korea. The Koreans expressed the most wariness about the mad-cow discovery, details of which are here.

It was the first U.S. case of mad-cow disease since 2006, and the fourth ever in the country. The cow died at a dairy farm and was sent to a pet-food plant, where it was tested based on USDA guidelines: older than 30 months and a fresh corpse. A plant official said the cow showed no outward signs of the disease and testing was a random sample. Test results revealed the cow had atypical BSE, which means it was spontaneous and likely a genetic mutation, not an infection. Dead cows are never slaughtered for human consumption.

Agri-Pulse reports the finding "will not have any impact on the United States 'controlled risk' BSE classification through the World Organization for Animal Health and should not affect access for U.S. beef products in international markets, according to the U.S. Meat Export Federation." USMEF President Philip Seng said the organization is reaching out to global trade contacts to assure them "the most important message is that U.S. beef is safe."

Agri-Pulse is available by subscription only, but a four-week free trial can be obtained here.

UPDATE: Rita Gabbett of Meatingplace reports international government officials will still import U.S. beef, but more closely inspect it. Agriculture officials in South Korea are implementing emergency measures, including tightening quarantine checks on U.S. beef imports. U.S. Meat Export Federation spokesman Joe Schuele said Japan, which is America's second-largest market, plans to continue imports, as well as Mexico, the largest market for U.S. beef. A similar tone came from Canada, Taiwan and Europe.

Farm Bill delayed as Southern coalition splits

UPDATE: The Senate Agriculture Committee will meet at 10:30 a.m. today, Thursday, April 26, to officially amend and modify its version of the 2012 farm bill. This is the final step before the bill is sent to the Senate floor for a vote, which will send it on to the House.

The Senate Agriculture Committee postponed today's scheduled hearing on its new draft Farm Bill late Tuesday evening after more than 40 Southern commodity groups sent a letter to the committee asking for the delay, reports David Rogers of Politico. The draft proposes an end to direct entitlement payments to farmers, but promises cotton producers a $3 billion income protection program. That has upset peanut and rice producers, who have been allied with cotton growers in opposition to a proposed strong shift from direct payments to crop insurance.

Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said in a statement the committee has made significant progress on the bill, which has much bipartisan Senate support. But Rogers reports Stabenow's change in signals "testifies to the power still of these commodity lobbies," and that she has a vested interest in "finding a solution." Stabenow would be in "much stronger position if she can first hold the farm coalition together" before the bill is brought to the Senate floor for a vote. (Read more)

Senators representing other commodity interests "made demands regarding the baseline impacts on their crops, adding even more fuel to the growing Southern revolt that was building at the 11th hour," Agri-Pulse reports. The Senate is likely trying to move on the Farm Bill to make the House, which usually takes the lead on the bill, take action on it. Agri-Pulse reports some sources say even if Stabenow continues bipartisan momentum for the bill, Majority Leader Harry Reid "has little motivation to move a Farm Bill on the Senate floor until after the House takes action." Agri-Pulse is available by subscription only, but a four-week free trial is here.

Pooling laws that allow gas drilling even if landowner objects draw fire in gas-boom states

As the natural gas boom and its heavy reliance on hydraulic fracturing moves closer to more populated areas, there is debate about laws that give drillers the ability to drill on a landowners' property over their objections if enough neighbors agree to the drilling.

Marc Levy of The Associated Press reports the laws are drawing criticism in the heavily drilled areas of the Northeast, including Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York. Many of those states have been revisiting drilling laws to better handle the gas boom.

Mandatory pooling laws were created to assure that profits from drilling were shared among both unwilling and willing property owners, said John Keller, a lawyer representing Ohio drillers. "The arrangement prevents neighbors from allowing drillers to suck resources from under another's land without compensation, while allowing interested landowners to exercise their mineral rights," Levy reports. Pooling laws have long been mandatory in Texas and other major oil states. After the Northeast gas boom started in 2008, pooling laws were the top priority of gas-industry lobbyists in Pennsylvania. No legislation has been introduced, though, and Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, who is an industry supporter, opposes the law, saying it's "tantamount to private eminent domain."

Citizens have a hard time fighting the laws, Levy reports. The Technical Advisory Council is the regulatory body that makes decisions about pooling laws in Ohio, but an AP investigation revealed the council has sided with the industry 43 out of 56 times since 2009 in cases where private landowners opposed drilling on their land. The council recommended only three industry mandatory pooling requests. Six of eight members represent oil and gas producers, and all members are appointed by the governor. (Read more)

Obama's foes continue to confuse the facts in the debate over child labor on family farms

ANALYSIS By Amy Wilson
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

It's bad enough that politicians want to make you think the government is trying to stop your kids from hauling hay to your own barn, but now some journalists are adding fuel to this non-existent fire.

In mid-March, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney said President Obama's overzealous Labor Department is trying to prevent farmers' own children from doing chores on their farms. A quick fact check showed that was not true; in fact, the department was trying to formalize a policy the Bush administration had put in place around 2002, limiting the exemption to farms "wholly owned" by the child's parents. After criticism, the department withdrew the rule and said a revised version would take into account the various business structures farmers use among families and generations.

The well-regarded conservative blog, The Daily Caller, this week seemed not to care about those facts. A story reported criticism that the administration is getting from some rural members of Congress, and from children. The story (read here) quotes a college student saying she fears losing her 4-H and FFA projects because she would be prohibited from handling livestock at her home. That is not true.
Here is paragraph three of the proposed change in the Fair Labor Standards Act: "The proposed agricultural revisions would impact only hired workers and in no way compromise the statutory child labor parent exemption involving children working on farms owned or operated by their parents."

Another aspiring farmer bemoaned the loss of the work ethic and love of agriculture because of what he perceived to be Obama's desire to have children stop working on the farm. That was clearly a misreading of the situation, and the Daily Caller did nothing to clear up the confusion. This, even after Tennessee's senior Senator Lamar Alexander, who co-sponsored the bill to stop the revisions, a bill called "Preserving America's Family Farm Act," was called up short by PolitiFact Tennessee in The Tennessean.
 Much of the debate about the regulations has centered on the wide range of ownership options for farms. What constitutes a family farm anymore? Does it include grandparents, uncles, aunts, nieces and nephews? These are legitimate issues for discussion, and even partisan or ideological news sources should keep their facts straight and avoid misrepresentations.

Job loss puts Appalachian men more at risk for suicide, and their culture inhibits help-seeking

The suicide risk among middle-aged men in Appalachia has increased recently because of the downturn in the economy, according to the dean of the Zanesville and Eastern campuses of Ohio University, reports Jennifer Manfrin of The Zanesville Times Recorder.

Dean Richard Greenlee, who has provided training to Appalachian mental health agencies, said several factors contribute to the high suicide rates: "Independence, self-reliance, a strong work ethic and pride in accomplishments are common characteristics of men in the Appalachian culture." Suicide rates are high in rural areas where there is little access to mental health facilities and where the people tend to believe in being independent and not asking for help.

Many Applachian men have recently lost jobs they've had for 20 or more years, Greenlee said, which often leads to legal, financial and relationship issues, causing individuals to turn to alcohol or drugs to cope. He said tragedies occur when individuals facing these losses do not seek help: "One of the things that Appalachian men have problems with is breaking through their toughness and emotional strength. What they often do not realize is that the problems they are facing after job losses are too much for anyone to handle without seeking help." (Read more)

Another newspaper with rural interests closes its news bureau in the nation's capital

The trend of fewer reporters in Washington covering news for mainstream news outlets, especially those with rural interests, continues.

Agri-Pulse reports, "Marc Heller, who has been setting the pace for coverage of dairy legislation daily , who has been setting the pace for coverage of dairy legislation for daily newspapers over the last 15 years, closed the Washington bureau of New York’s Watertown Daily Times at the end of last month. Alan Emory opened the bureau in 1950. Heller covers agricultural issues for BNA publications." That's the Bureau of National Affairs, which provides specialized, detailed reporting on issues and has hired many journalists who have seen their jobs at mainstream media outlets disappear.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Senate backs 1-year ban on closing rural post offices; pro- and anti-Sat. mail measures both lose

UPDATE, April 26: The bill passed, with "$11 billion to offer buyouts and early retirement incentives to hundreds of thousands of postal workers and to pay off its debts," Ed O'Keefe reports for The Washington Post's Ed O'Keefe reports. "The measure also would permit the end of Saturday mail deliveries in two years and only after USPS determines it is financially necessary." A rival bill by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., would let the postal service "quickly close unprofitable post offices and processing centers," O'Keefe notes. Issa’s measure would allow Saturday mail delivery to end. The National Newspaper Association supports the Senate bill; USPS grumbled about it.

The Senate voted tonight to prohibit the U.S. Postal Service from closing rural post offices for a year unless no one from the community objects. The measure, an amendment to an omnibus bill designed to shore up the debt-burdened service, would affect post offices outside metropolitan areas.

"After one year, the mail agency would have to take rural issues into special consideration, including economic impact, the quality of Internet broadband service and location, " The Associated Press reports. "Post offices would generally be shielded from closing if the next closest mail facility was more than 10 miles away."

The amendment, approved on a voice vote, was sponsored by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who said, “Protecting our rural post offices is about more than just maintaining brick and mortar — our post offices are the lifeblood for towns across our state and a source of good-paying jobs in areas hard-hit by the economic downturn.”

Senators defeated amendments that would have eliminated or guaranteed Saturday mail delivery. A final vote on the bill could come Wednesday.

Discovery of link between beehive collapse and pesticides falls on 50th anniversary of Silent Spring

Recently, scientists have linked colony collapse disorder in honey bees to use of neonicotinoid pesticides. It's the first time pesticide use has been linked to the disorder, which disorients bees so they can't find their way back to their hive, and subsequently kills them. Elizabeth Kolbert of The New Yorker provides a round-up of the recent pesticide studies, and reminds us that the latest discovery falls on the eve of the 50th anniversary of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, which first alerted the world to the harmful effects of another pesticide: DDT. (New Yorker photo)

Three studies, one British, one French and one American, have all found that bees given doses of neonicotinoids were significantly less likely to return to their hives, and most died. Pennsylvania beekeeper Dave Hackenberg was one of the first to draw attention to CCD, and one of the first to suggest a link between the disorder and pesticides. Kolbert asked him what he thought about the recent study findings. "This more or less proves what we thought all along," Hackenberg said. "I think we've got a toxic mess."

Neonicotinoids were introduced in the 1990s, and are a neurotoxin to insects. Kolbert writes they are known as systemic pesticides because seeds are treated with the chemical that is later taken through the plants vascular system. The Pesticide Action Network says at least 140 million acres, or an area larger than California and Florida combined, of crops were planted with neonicotinoids in 2010. (Read more)

Wendell Berry, in national lecture, calls for affection to community to counter pillage by 'industrialism'

Wendell Berry is a farmer, author, essayist and poet, and seems comfortable with those labels, but not so much with "philosopher." In last night's Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., he sounded very much like a philosopher, yet still grounded firmly in the hills along the Kentucky River in the Outer Bluegrass.

The National Endowment for the Humanities couldn't have picked a better speaker this year, reports Scott Carlson of the Chronicle of Higher Education, because Berry is the perfect person to be an eloquent, yet scathing, critic of the world's current industrial economy after the recent global economic crisis, unrest in society, and deterioration in the world's ecosystems. Berry said in his lecture that industrial society has taken "its toll on humanity."

"The two great aims of industrialism -- replacement of people by technology and concentration of wealth into the hands of a small plutocracy -- seem close to fulfillment," Berry said. "At the same time the failures of industrialism have become too great and too dangerous to deny. Corporate industrialism itself has exposed the falsehood that it ever was inevitable or that it ever has given precedence to the common good."

Berry also spoke of place and community during the lecture, saying that "affection and its power bind people to community." Carlson writes that Berry's speech was "a meditation on place and those who 'stick' to it as caretakers and curators." Berry said "we find the possibility of a neighborly, kind, and conserving economy" in affection. He called the opposite of a "sticker" a "boomer," or someone who comes into a community to profit and then leave. But he said it's not just the boomers who are responsible for the state of our economy: "We all are implicated."

The cure for our diminishing relationship to the land and to community is affection, connection and a broader definition of education, Berry said. He said we should appreciate "economy" for the original meaning of the word: household management, and that education should be broadened to include study and appreciation for practical skills, including land use, life support, healing, housekeeping and homemaking. "I am nominating economy for an equal standing among the arts and humanities," he said. "The making of the human household upon the earth: the arts of adapting kindly the many human households to the earth's many ecosystems and human neighborhoods. This is the economy that the most public and influential economists never talk about, the economy that is the primary vocation and responsibility of every one of us."

UPDATE, April 25: For Brad Bowman's story on the speech in the Henry County Local, Berry's hometown paper, click here. Mark Bittman reports on a visit to Berry's place, on the Opinionator blog of The New York Times:

"There is something about his attachment to nature — it’s not just the land but everything on the land — that is so profound that his observations and his judgments (Wendell is a kind but very judgmental man) can be jaw-dropping. If you read or listen to Wendell and aren’t filled with admiration and respect, it’s hard to believe that you might admire and respect the land or nature, or even humanity. . . . I doubt there is a more quotable man in the United States."

Bittman asked the big questions: “How are we going to change this?” and “What can city people do?”

Berry said change will come from “people at the bottom,” city and country, doing things differently. “[N]o great feat is going to happen to change all this; you’re going to have to humble yourself to be willing to do it one little bit at a time. You can’t make people do this. What you have to do is notice that they’re already doing it. . . . The main thing is to realize that country people can’t invent a better agriculture by ourselves. Industrial agriculture wasn’t invented by us, and we can’t uninvent it. We’ll need some help with that.” (Read more)

What is the life expectancy in your county, and how does it compare? New study tells you

The average life expectancy in some U.S. counties is the same as in some of the healthiest countries in the world, but in others -- mostly rural counties in the deep South, Central Appalachia and Western Native American reservations -- average life expectancy is lower than in some of the world's poorest countries, according to a new study by the University of Washington Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. An interactive map of county life expectancy data can be found here; a static image appears below.
Life expectancy, 2009; dark green counties had the highest, red the lowest
The researchers used death records from 1989 to 2009 to track life expectancy by age, gender and race, when possible. They found huge disparities, even within single states, reports Kristi Nelson of the Knoxville News Sentinel. Researcher Ali Mokdad said data show that counties where people have less money and less education have lower life expectancies. He said the study is "a wake-up call for everyone in the U.S." because more than 16 percent of the gross domestic product is spent on health care, more than in other countries with longer life expectancies. He said the biggest reasons for disparities among counties are "preventable causes of death," including tobacco and alcohol abuse, high cholesterol, high blood pressure and obesity.

The study revealed some notable trends. African Americans are living longer than before, but mainly  in urban areas, and are still living shorter lives than white people in most places. In 661 counties, women's life expectancies have stayed the same or decreased since 1989, but that is true for men in only 166 counties. (Read more)

Crime boom follows oil, gas boom in Northern Plains

"Booming oil production across a wide expanse of the Northern Plains is forcing law enforcement from the U.S. and Canada to gird for a spike in crimes ranging from drug trafficking and gun offenses to prostitution," Matthew Brown of Bloomberg Businessweek reports. Officials are preparing for an estimated 30,000 new workers to come to the Bakken Shale oil field (right) in Montana, North Dakota and Saskatchewan in the next few years. The region is emerging as one of the top oil producing areas in North America.

In the wake of the murder of Sidney, Mont., teacher Sherry Arnold, federal prosecutors are hosting a retreat Monday and Tuesday for law enforcement to create a strategy to deal with rising crime in the region. Assaults, traffic offenses and other crimes are rising with the increase in drilling in rural communities like Sidney and Williston, N.D., Brown reports. The situation is exacerbated by a housing shortage which made "man-camps" necessary to house hundreds of migrant workers from other states.

Industry representatives say they try to hire workers who "won't cause any trouble." North Dakota Petroleum Council spokeswoman Kari Cutting said drug tests and background checks are standard at most companies, adding that lack of housing can "deter would-be workers who show up without a position already secured." (Read more)

Let's be clear: Fracking has not been shown to cause significant earthquakes

U.S. Geological Survey scientists have confirmed that small earthquakes can be caused when wastewater from hydraulic fracturing is injected deep into the earth. But Mike Soraghan of Energy and Environment News reports the news media and foes of fracking have confused the public into thinking it's fracking itself that causes the quakes. That is frustrating, said Senior USGS geophysicist Bill Ellsworth, who is leading research about wastewater injection wells and earthquakes. He said terms are being misused by the media, which adds to the public's confusion.

"Ellsworth has stumbled upon a key fault line in the nation's debate about its onshore oil and gas boom," Soraghan writes. Industry use the term "fracking" to describe just one part of the whole extraction process, but critics use the term "fracking" to describe all aspects of drilling into deep shales, while critics "apply the 'fracking' moniker to all aspects of shale drilling -- from the first truck that shows up at the well pad all the way through to waste disposal and plugging." In the middle, Soraghan writes, are the media, which have only "a passing interest" in the matter.

Ellsworth says he and other seismologists have a responsibility to "set the record straight" on fracking, deep wastewater injection and earthquakes. "As scientists we have an obligation to try to give people the benefit of scientific understanding," Ellsworth said. "The public has legitimate concerns for which it needs good information." (Read more)

Monday, April 23, 2012

Rural radio reporter digs into details, arguments of proposed new rules on child farm labor

Young people working on farms suffer much higher rates of injury and death than those working in any other industry, and when faced with those statistics, the U.S. Department of Labor attempted to change child farm labor laws to limit the types of farm work youth are allowed to do. The agency faced push-back from farm lobbies, who said the department was taking away the ability of children to complete chores on family farms. Brian Mann of North Country Public Radio provides a good round-up of the issue. (New York State Dept. of Health photo)

Many farmers and some members of Congress say the regulations should be scaled back or eliminated, arguing they are vague and could restrict such activities as washing trucks, if interpreted to be hazardous. The debate has entered the presidential race.

Mann reports the biggest concern is "these rules could affect family farms, restricting the ability of a young person to work for their parents or relatives without government meddling. The New York Farm Bureau’s website accuses federal officials of trying to 'tell us how to raise our kids.'"

At issue is the definition of farm ownership. The Labor Department has backed off its original proposal, which would have exempted children only when working on farms wholly owned by their parents, but "Farm worker advocates like Virginia Ruiz, with a group called Farmworker Justice, say the agriculture industry has used the family-farm issue to try to block common-sense protections for kids, protections that other industries have had in place for decades."

It's more complicated than that, Kelly Young of the state Farm Bureau said: "We're getting to really specific [questions of] who is that business and who is the owner of that farm and it's not a person anymore. Times have changed and farms are organized in LLCs and S-corps and C-corps," types of businesses defined by federal tax law. "That's not covered by the exemption."

Mann notes, "researchers say roughly two dozen teenagers die while working on farms every year. Of those, roughly 40 percent are paid employees who would be covered by these regulations as currently written. The other 60 percent are family-members who will likely be exempt." (Read more)

Payments to timber counties could continue if Congress keeps them in bill to extend road funding

Federal subsidies paid to timber-producing counties could be extended if the Senate's version of a proposed transportation bill is combined with the House's temporary extension of transportation funding, reports Jeff Barnard of The Seattle Times. Counties with national-forest land have received subsidies since 2000 to recover their share of federal timber revenues that dropped when logging in the forests was cut more than 80 percent. The subsidies have now run out.

Oregon is being hit hard by the end of subsidies. Josephine County, which has long depended on timber payments, is struggling with a $12 million budget shortfall. Officials are considering quadrupling property taxes, and say they will have to lay off 125 people if the funding extension doesn't happen. The general fund is falling by 25 percent in Lane County, which receives the highest amount of timber payments.

The Senate proposal would distribute $346 million to 700 counties in 41 states, which would be a 5 percent drop from 2011 payments. Congress isn't likely to vote on the proposals before May 15. Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden said if no one in the House actively opposes the timber payment extension, the measure could be in the final bill. (Read more)

China buying more U.S. breeding hogs, but critics fear long-term decline of pork export market

In order to keep up with increasing demand for a protein-rich diet, China is buying millions of hogs raised in the U.S. as breeding stock and capitalizing on decades of U.S. agricultural research, P.J. Huffstutter and Niu Shuping of Reuters report. Americans are eating the least meat in 20 years, but the Chinese are eating almost 10 percent more than five years ago and pork is a staple of their diet. U.S. experts say China's purchases will shift its small-scale, backyard farm culture to large, consolidated operations to keep up with demand.

The U.S. exported $644 million worth of breeding livestock and genetic material in 2011, an 82 percent jump in two years, but concerns are being raised. While U.S. consumption falls, the price of producing protein is rising, which shrinks producers' profit margins.

Some critics say the short-term gains of exporting breeding stock will mean long-term loss of a key export market for producers because China has a history of importing technologies, apply them cheaper and emerge as "an aggressive competitor in the global market," report Huffstutter and Shuping.

China isn't the only country taking advantage of breeding exports. Russia and Turkey bought the most U.S. breeding exports last year. But, China was the biggest buyer by volume, with about 14 percent of all U.S. live animals were sent there. Huffstutter and Shuping report the impact of the market in China would have a great global impact. (Read more)

Senate committee releases draft of new Farm Bill

The Senate Agriculture Committee released its draft of a new Farm Bill on Friday. As expected, it calls for spending cuts of $23 billion over 10 years, repeal of direct-payment subsidies to farmers, which are paid regardless of need, and a new "insurance-like program to compensate grain and soybean growers when crop revenue is 11 to 21 percent below the five-year average with a maximum payment of $50,000," Charles Abbott of Reuters reports.

Under the new program, Agriculture Risk Coverage, farmers would be required to practice land, water and wildlife stewardship to qualify for payments, and revenue protection would respond to low prices and poor yields. The previous program only responded to low prices, Abbott reports. The Senate draft would also cut conservation by 10 percent and crop subsidy outlays by 19 percent. Nutrition programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly food stamps, would be cut by $4 billion. Farmers making more than $900,000 wouldn't be eligible for subsidies. The previous earnings limit is $1.25 million.

The full Senate committee will vote this week on whether or not to pass the draft on to the House. But Jim Abrams of The Associated Press reports Senators have to satisfy many different groups first, including Northern corn growers, Southern cotton farmers, insurance companies, banks, nutrition groups and environmentalists. The most difficult hurdle to pass, though, will be "narrowing the gap between the Democratic Senate and House Republicans taking aim at the food-stamp program that comprises some 80 percent of the bill’s spending." House Republicans have vowed to cut the program by $13 billion a year, and some Democrats have said that plan is likely to keep a new Farm Bill from passing this year. (Read more)

Wendell Berry, author, farmer and intellectual, to give prestigious Jefferson Lecture tonight; online

Poet, essayist, novelist, farmer and conservationist Wendell Berry will deliver the 2012 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities tonight at 7:30 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. The National Endowment for the Humanities will be video-streaming the lecture live. The annual lecture is the most prestigious honor the federal government bestows for intellectual achievement in the humanities. (Photo by Pam Spaulding)

Berry, of Port Royal, Ky., has been described as a "21st century Henry David Thoreau" and has "spent his career meditating on our relationship and responsibility to the land and community," according to the NEH website. He has written more than 40 books of poems, essays, short stories and novels. His Jefferson Lecture, "It All Turns on Affection," inspired by a passage from E.M. Forester's Howard's End, will focus on our ties to place and the environment as expressed through literature and history. Berry is delivering the 41st lecture.

For more information about Berry and the lecture, click here. The live-stream will be available here.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Summary story on fracking includes a nice graphic

Agence France-Presse, an international news service based in Paris, has distributed a story about hydraulic fracturing in natural-gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale region of New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The story by Veronique DuPont will add little to regular Rural Blog readers' knowledge of the subject, but is a good summary of concerns about the phenomenon and includes a good graphic diagram of it. Click on it for a larger version.