Saturday, August 04, 2012

Drought one of worst in history, but not necessarily economic disaster, Kansas City Fed bankers write

"Severe drought has ruined one of the most promising harvests in U.S. history," but a weather disaster doesn't mean economic disaster, Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City Vice President Jason Henderson and economist Nathan Kauffman write in the latest edition of the bank's quarterly publication, The Main Street Economist.

Though the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently cut estimates of the corn crop by 12 percent and the soybean crop by 8 percent, but "USDA’s price and yield projections suggest that U.S. corn revenues could rise 12 percent above June estimates and approach last year’s record highs." (Chart based on data from Commodity Research Bureau.) "Similarly, total soybean revenues are now projected to increase 3 percent above June 2012 estimates. A similar revenue pattern emerged during the 1988 drought. Still, final revenue estimates for 2012 will hinge on future weather patterns, final production losses and price responses to harvest expectations."

Individual farmers' situations depend on their crop choices, marketing strategies, the weather and crop insurance, the report says, but livestock producers are worse off: "Estimates suggest that over 70 percent of all beef cows are in states with pasture conditions rated as poor to very poor. With two-thirds of U.S. hay production areas experiencing drought, alfalfa prices have jumped 15 percent since May. In an attempt to limit losses, ranchers weaned calves earlier than usual and increased the placement of feeder cattle into feedlots. Combined with the increased shipments of feeder cattle from Mexico, the influx of cattle into feedlots contributed to a 12 percent decline in feeder cattle prices since mid-June. . . . USDA expects feedlot operations to lose more than $200 per head this fall. . . . Hog and poultry enterprises are also bracing against rising feed costs and falling profits." But if short-term losses reduce livestock head count, prices are expected to rebound.

Henderson is the bank's vice president and Omaha branch executive. Kauffman is an economist. Their report also addresses the drought's effect on transportation, meatpacking, ethanol, food prices and all consumer prices. To read it, click here.

Friday, August 03, 2012

Michigan county's papers among many winners in National Newspaper Association's annual contest

Not only does Allegan County, Michigan (Wikipedia map), have more than one newspaper, it has two of the best, according to the judges in the National Newspaper Association's 2012 Better Newspaper Contest. And they think Jack "Miles" Ventimiglia of Warrensburg, Mo., is both a fine editorial and feature writer (and maybe a headline writer, too). Here are the winners in selected categories and circulation classes:

Best Local News Coverage
Circulation less than 3,000: Delano (Minn.) Herald Journal; second, The Commercial Record, Allegan, Mich.
Circ. 3,000‐5,999: Allegan County News, Allegan, Mich.; second, The Barrow Journal, Winder, Ga.
Circ. 6,000 or more: Washington (Mo.) Missourian; second, The N'West Iowa Review, Sheldon.

Best Investigative or In‐Depth Story or Series
Daily: Wyoming Tribune Eagle, Cheyenne, stories on Niobrara oil boom by Shauna Stephenson, Michael Smith and Angela St. Clair. The Grass Valley Union of Northern California won second place for a series on a bank that federal officials closed.
Non-daily, circ. 10,000 or more: Bill Rodgers, Rio Grande Sun, Espanola, N.M., for "Loopholes Plague State Sex Offender Registry."
Non‐daily, circ. 3,000‐9,999: Steve Ranson, Lahontan Valley News and Fallon Eagle Standard, Fallon, Nev., for "Destination Southwest Asia," about local troops in Afghanistan. Michael Higdon designed the pages.
Non‐daily, circ. under 3,000: Luige del Puerto, Arizona Capitol Times, Phoenix, for a series on birthright-citizenship legislation.

Best Editorial
Circ. 3,000‐5,999: Jack "Miles" Ventimiglia, Daily Star‐Journal, Warrensburg, Mo., for "State's obese House offers gobs of fat to cut."
Circ. under 3,000: Steve Haynes, Oberlin (Kan.) Herald, for "A whole lot of good ideas can threaten our freedom."

Best Editorial Page(s): Circ. 6,000 or more: Ellsworth (Me.) American; under 6,000: The Hinsdalean, Hinsdale, Ill.

Community Service: The Las Cruces (N.M.) Bulletin, "Las Cruces: A Photographic Journey;" second, The Barrow Journal, Winder, Ga., coverage of Barrow County budget crisis; third, The Blackshear (Ga.) Times, "The New War / Just One Pill / Bad medicine is big business / Drug net nabs ten / Twelve arrested in drug roundup." (The Times has a great motto: "Liked by many, cussed by some, read by them all.")

Best Agricultural Story under 6,000 circ.: Jack "Miles" Ventimiglia, Daily Star-Journal, Warrensburg, Mo., for "The Grape Depression; Raisin Hell: Heat destroys grape crop." Maybe the best headline, too? No, that's an overall award, and it went to the Wyoming Tribune Eagle. (There are no circulation or frequency divisions for headlines.) Second place went to the N'West Iowa Review, a weekly.

Awards for general excellence will be announced at the NNA convention in Charleston, S.C., in early October. But you might be able to calculate them from a list of all the winners, available here.

Senate blocks drought disaster aid, presses for full-scale Farm Bill; House bipartisan rebellion stirs

The House's $383 million disaster aid package for some farmers and livestock producers in drought-riddled areas of the U.S. stalled in the Senate last night just before Congress' August recess. Democrats who control the Senate want the House to vote on the larger 2012 Farm Bill before the Senate will consider disaster relief.

"By refusing to bring up the Farm Bill, House leadership is doing what Congress always does -- kicking the can down the road instead of coming together to solve problems," said Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, right, chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee. "If Congress does not pass a farm bill, there will be no reform, direct payments will continue, we’ll lose the opportunity for major deficit reduction and we’ll deliver a real blow to our economic recovery."

David Rogers of Politico reports the "continued impasse . . . remains a serious liability" for Republicans, and quotes Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, ranking Democrat and former chair of the House Agriculture Committee, as saying the disaster package "is a sad substitute for what is really needed -- a long term farm policy." Stabenow, Peterson and other farm-state legislators met yesterday to determine how to move forward. Current farm law expires Sept. 30. (Read more)

Erik Wasson of The Hill reports that Stabenow and her House counterpart, Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., will try to write a compromise bill by Sept. 10. He also reports that "a bipartisan group of rural lawmakers" in the House is getting behind a discharge petition that could force a floor vote by mid-September on the Farm Bill approved by the House Agriculture Committee but blocked by House Republican leaders because of deep divisions in their party over the bill. If signed by a House majority of 218 members, the bill would be placed on the House calendar. (Read more)

Activists fight plans to build coal-haul railroads, ports in West and power plants on Asian coasts

Locals in rural communities across the West are concerned that some of the world's biggest coal and railroad companies will build rail lines through their backyards to haul Powder River Basin coal to the coast and on to Asia. They fear pollution, noise and congestion. Similarly, Asian activists don't want coal-fired power plants built next to traditional fishing communities.

As a result, world-wide environmental groups, grassroots groups in India and China, 300 doctors in Oregon and Washington, local governments in rural towns -- including Mosier, Ore., Edmonds, Wash., and Sandpoint, Idaho -- numerous Northwest Native American tribes and the city council in the port city of Bellingham, Wash., have all come together as allies in the worldwide fight against the international coal trade, reports Ray Ring of High Country News.

Ring reports that big coal companies, including Arch Coal Inc. and Peabody Energy, have shipped coal from the Powder River Basin to the Eastern U.S. for decades. But stricter regulations on burning fossil fuels and the natural gas boom have decreased the need for coal in Eastern power plants. Companies are selling to China and India, he writes, because those countries "are on a coal-fired power-plant building binge." Ring reports the opposition wants "thorough evaluations that weigh all the impacts" and public hearings around the Northwest. (Read more)

'Father of fracking' says it needs federal regulations to control small, independent drillers

You have probably never heard of George Phydias Mitchell, left, is one of the biggest names in natural-gas drilling and THE name in hydraulic fracturing, in which fluid is pumped into drill holes at high pressures to crack rock layers and release gas and oil. The technique has been used since the 1950s, but in the 1990s Mitchell, as head of Mitchell Energy & Development, pioneered use of the technique to get gas from deep, very tight shales that had previously been unproductive.

Mitchell who said last month that he favors more regulation of fracking. "The administration is trying to tighten up controls," he told Forbes' Christopher Helman. "I think it's a good idea. They should have very strict controls."

When Mitchell figured out that fracking could be very effective at breaking up shale and releasing gas, "This ultimately set in motion the boom in shale drilling that has spread across the country," Helman notes. More recently, innovations have led companies to horizontal hydraulic fracturing, in which a well turns horizontal to the surface to crack large sections of shale beds at once. Mitchell told Helman if companies don't frack the right way, "there could be trouble." He said there's no reason why they shouldn't do it right: "There are good techniques to make it safe that should be followed properly."

It's the smaller, independent drillers that worry Mitchell. They are "wild," he told Helman. Mitchell said most drillers follow the rules and are responsible and that costs to drillers to comply with federal regulations would be minimal. "After all," Helman wrote, "any extra costs associated with best practices ... would be passed on in the price of natural gas." (Read more)

Reporter finds Chick-fil-A debate very complex in South, where food is cultural

Chick-fil-A has recently found itself in the middle of a national debate about gay rights after the chain's CEO Dan Cathey Jr. made public statements opposing same-sex marriage. Perhaps, not since the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s has a restaurant been so embroiled in controversy. Kim Severson of The New York Times explores the complexities surrounding this issue in the South, where Chick-fil-A began in Atlanta in 1946.

Choosing to eat at Chick-fil-A "is not as simple as choosing sides in a national cultural war" for Southerners, Severson reports. Southerner Justin Breen told Severson the chain is "tradition," something she writes is "laced throughout daily life in the South." Locals tend to "be emotional about their food, which is a great defining aspect of the region."

"One of the most controversial stories I wrote was about tomato sandwiches," The Charlotte Observer's food editor Kathleen Purvis told Severson. Southerners are very "proud and fiercely protective of homegrown brands," she writes. University of North Carolina's Marcie Cohen Ferris said Southerners have strong associations with Southern-founded fast food chains because "they speak of industrialization and becoming a part of modern America, but still holding on to identity." (Read more)

Thursday, August 02, 2012

House passes drought-aid bill, as outlook for overall Farm Bill remains unclear

The House passed a disaster aid package today to help cattle and sheep ranchers who are running out of pasture and up against high feed prices. The vote was 223-197. While the $383 million measure "promises some political cover for Republican candidates in farm states," reports David Rogers of Politico, the standoff over the five-year Farm Bill "remains a serious liability for the GOP going into November’s elections."

The current Farm Bill expires at the end of September, when Congress is likely to recess for campaigning. Congress has relatively little time to legislate before that, because it is starting a recess that will run through Labor Day. The chairmen of the House and Senate agriculture committees were scheduled to meet tonight "to begin negotiations toward a potential compromise that could be called up in September if the political winds shift enough in favor of action," Rogers writes.

Northern and Central Appalachia, Corn Belt localities would bear brunt of shorter post-office hours

The folks at USA Today have come up with vivid illustrations of the geographic impact of the reduced hours that the Postal Service is imposing on more than 13,000 rural post offices, as an alternative to its initial plan to close 3,700 of them. Meghan Hoyer reports that many of the communities are "places where businesses depend on the mail and residents use mail delivery for everything from prescriptions to correspondence" because they lack broadband Internet and reliable cell-phone service.

The interactive maps with Hoyer's story show offices that the USPS proposes to open two, four and six hours a day. Here's the composite map (click here for interactive version):
"The cuts would strike a line through Appalachia," Hoyer notes. "The states with counties that have the highest concentration of affected offices are on the Appalachian Trail: Maine, Pennsylvania, New York, Vermont and West Virginia. In Alaska and some Plains states — Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas — more than 60 percent of offices are on the block for reductions as counter service drops to six, four or two hours a day. Most urban areas are not slated to be affected." (Read more)

Coal mining whistleblower gets his own folk song

The legend of Kentucky's Charles Scott Howard grows. And like every great legend, the brave, truth-telling working man, coal miner and whistle-blower, well, he's got himself a rousing, Woody-Guthrie-style folk song. The song, "Big Coal Don't Like This Man At All," tells the story of how Howard became a committed safety activist by taking shocking video of his workplace conditions to U.S. government hearings. The song can be seen and heard on YouTube by clicking here.

Howard's courage as well as his subsequent injury on the job, post-grievance, and later firing were so remarkable as to make national news. This has meant more scrutiny, lawsuits and recriminations, all of which haven't made Howard the most popular man in eastern Kentucky. Add to that his health problems following what some consider the suspicious mine injury and Howard's attorney, Tony Oppegard, says that any message of support shown on the YouTube site would "mean a great deal to Scott as he continues on his road to recovery" and continues his battle for safe working conditions in America's coal mines. (Huffington Post photo by Dave Jamieson)

The tribute to Scott was written by Raymond Crooke. Here's a sampling of the lyrics, all of which can be found on the YouTube site:
"Mr Charles Scott Howard, he says what he feels.
They shouldn't be allowed to build old, crappy seals.
It's an awful shame them fellers had to be smothered to death;
For the safety of the miners, I'll fight till my last breath."

The link to a Huffington Post story on which the song is based is here. A follow-up on his reinstatement is here.

Rural hospitals urge Congress to save two Medicare programs that help them

A coalition of rural hospitals are lobbying Congress to keep two Medicare programs that the National Rural Health Association says are vital to keep hundreds of smaller hospitals going. The Medicare Dependent Hospital designation and the Low-Volume Hospital Adjuster, which date to the 1980s, help keep low-volume rural hospitals' doors open with the Medicare payment adjustments they provide, according to the NRHA.

Both programs could end Oct. 1 without Congressional action. "Rural facilities do not have the financial background to weather all of these cuts," said Lance Keilers, NRHA president and administrator of Ballinger Memorial Hospital in San Angelo, Tex., told Brendon Nafziger of DOTmed News, an online magazine serving the medical and medical equipment industry.

More than 200 hospitals have the Medicare Dependent designation. To qualify, a hospital must have fewer than 100 beds and Medicare patients must make up 60 percent of its inpatient days or discharges. Low-volume hospitals must be at least 15 miles from another hospital and provide care for fewer than 1,600 Medicare beneficiaries a year. (Read more)

More than half of U.S. counties have been declared disaster areas, 90 percent due to drought

More than half of U.S. counties are now disaster areas, 90 percent because of the ongoing drought that has been brutalizing the nation. That brings this year's total to 1,584 counties in 32 states, reports Michael Muskal of the Los Angeles Times. The latest disaster designations, made Wednesday by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, were in Arkansas, Georgia, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee and Wyoming. (Hays Daily News photo by Steve Hausler)

Vilsack also announced that the federal government will be concentrating on helping beleaguered farmers and ranchers by opening up approximately 3.8 million acres of conservation land for grazing and haying. Further, he said, crop insurance companies have agreed to provide a grace period for farmers who need more time to pay insurance premiums. Muskal reports that farmers will have an extra 30 days to make their payments without having to pay a penalty.

Here's the drought map issued this morning. Click on the image for a larger version.

Pennsylvania doctor files suit over gag rule in fracking-chemical disclosure law

A Pennsylvania physician has filed a federal lawsuit claiming that the state's new oil and gas drilling law will force him to violate ethical rules in treating his patients. Kidney specialist Alfonso Rodriguez  argues that if one of his patients was exposed to, and potentially sickened by, fluids used in hydraulic fracturing, the law's confidentiality requirements would compromise his ability to discuss the chemicals with the patient.

His attorney told Sandy Bauers of The Philadelphia Inquirer that Rodriguez frequently treats such patients, including well workers exposed to fluids in a blowout. "He is the doctor fracking-fluid exposees go to," Paul Rossi said. "It's not hypothetical that he's going to need to make use of this law. He may have to go to the gas companies to get information on an ongoing basis." Because of the vagueness of the law, he said, Rodriguez has hired an attorney to draft a letter to his patients notifying them that "his ethical obligation to communicate with them may be curtailed." (Read more)

The suit was filed last week in Scranton. It asks that the medical provisions of the law be suspended until the state drafts regulations to clarify it. The suit names as defendants state Attorney General Linda Kelly, Environmental Protection Secretary Michael Krancer, and Public Utilities Commission Chairman Robert Powelson. 

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Lacking votes to pass it, Republicans pull 1-year Farm Bill extension, replace with drought package

Facing certain defeat, not to mention near-universal displeasure from farm groups, Republicans pulled their one-year Farm Bill extension from the House docket late Tuesday in favor of a narrower $383 million disaster aid package to address the immediate needs of drought-stricken livestock producers. (Agri-Pulse graphic)

The abrupt turnaround, writes David Rogers of Politico, "came just minutes before the House Rules Committee had been slated to take up the extension in anticipation of floor votes Wednesday. Within hours, the slimmer 22-page disaster bill had been filed with the promise of floor votes Thursday. The action shows how much the GOP leadership — having boxed itself in by refusing to take up a five-year Farm Bill — is scrambling now to find something the party’s candidates can take home to farm states in August given the severe drought plaguing much of the country."

The substitute disaster bill will restore livestock indemnity and forage programs that have expired in the current farm program, with some assistance also for specialty crops. To keep down costs, the aid will apply only to 2012, while offsets will come from imposing caps on two conservation programs much as the House Appropriations Committee has already proposed. Early estimates indicate the net savings would be about $256 million. (Read more)

New level of dental professionals – therapists – could provide care to Medicaid-eligible kids, save a bundle

Research at the University of Connecticut suggests that adding a new kind of health professional – dental therapists – to clinics designated as Federally Qualified Health Centers could significantly expand the availability of care for millions of American children, many of them in rural areas. (Pew Center for the States photo)

The white paper from the Pew Center on the States notes that, "in particular, by including dental therapists as providers in school-based programs operated by FQHCs, the researchers estimated states could provide access to care for 6.7 million Medicaid-eligible children, nationwide." The analysis also suggests that this significant increase in access could be realized for a cost of approximately $1.8 billion, or just one half of 1 percent of combined state and federal 2009 Medicaid spending. To read the full Pew report, go here. 

Nationwide, 830,000 emergency room visits in 2009 were due to preventable dental problems, according to the center. Most of the children lacking care don't have insurance, live in areas without enough dentists or can't find doctors who accept Medicaid. Problems accessing dentists could grow in 2014, when 5 million more children are expected to get dental insurance under the federal health reform law.

Despite the undisputed need, not everyone is behind the concept. The American Dental Association argues that dental therapists lack the training and education needed to perform irreversible surgical procedures and to identify patients' other medical problems, writes Anna Gorman in the Los Angeles Times. Shelly Gehshan, director of the Children's Dental Campaign, said the therapists would be properly educated and would help close vast gaps in care that can lead to costly emergency room visits for dental problems.

In 2005, Alaska became the first state to try out the new dental-care model, when therapists began treating native populations. Minnesota authorized the new tier of practitioner in 2009, and the first graduates of dental therapy programs began practicing last year.

Rural incomes are lower because jobs in rural areas require fewer skills, researchers confirm

Rural residents have lower incomes than those employed in the cities. The Daily Yonder's Bill Bishop reports that three economists, working through the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, have figured out why, at least in part. As you might expect, they have concluded that the occupations found in rural areas require fewer skills than those found in the cities. (Detail of Diego Rivera mural, Detroit Institute of Art)

“We find that the occupation clusters most prevalent in urban areas — scientists, engineers, and executives — are characterized by high levels of social and resource-management skills, as well as the ability to generate ideas and solve complex problems,” write Jaison Abel, Todd Gabe and Kevin Stolarick. “By contrast, the occupation clusters that are most prevalent in rural areas — machinists, makers, and laborers — are among the lowest in terms of required skills. These differences in the skill content of work shed light on the pattern of earnings observed across the urban-rural hierarchy."

Their findings further explain why young people with college degrees are reluctant to move back to rural communities. Jobs in those communities simply do not pay what can be earned in central cities. Still, compensation favors these city occupations, the economists find. Executives earn the most in the cities, far more than engineers or scientists. Executives living in rural areas don't earn the same premium. In fact, notes Bruce Ross of The Record Searchlight after looking at the data, "for each high skill occupation, wages fell as the community became more rural. Every occupational group had lower wages in rural areas than in cities, but the rural penalty was higher among the most skilled jobs."

The economists finally add that there is something about urban areas that facilitate high-skilled employment and higher wages: “The dimensions of social and complex problem-solving skills are apt to benefit from the flows of ideas and knowledge that are facilitated by dense urban environments.” The economists' report is here.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Judge strikes down 'guidance' that EPA used to block many mountaintop coal mining permits

The Environmental Protection Agency exceeded its authority by setting a standard for water quality downstream from surface coal mines in Appalachia, U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton ruled today in a lawsuit filed by coal interests and states.

Walton said EPA has "only a limited role" in setting specific standards for states that have the authority to enforce federal water-pollution and strip-mining laws. EPA had used electrical conductivity, which increases with the amount of salty minerals in water, to block permits for dozens of mines in Kentucky and West Virginia. It did not go through the usual process of writing a regulation, instead issuing a "guidance" to state agencies and the Army Corps of Engineers, which also enforces the Clean Water Act.

The ruling was "another blow to the Obama administration's crackdown on mountaintop removal" coal mining, writes Ken Ward Jr. in The Charleston Gazette. "In January, Walton threw out EPA's plans to work with other agencies to more closely scrutinize certain mining-related water pollution permits for valley fill waste piles. And in March, U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson, also in the District of Columbia, overturned EPA's veto of the largest mountaintop removal permit in West Virginia history. EPA is appealing Jackson's ruling." It is likely to appeal Walton's too, reports Manuel Quinones of Environment & Energy News.

Ward says Walton "noted the obvious: that it was unlikely his decision would end the growing debate over mountaintop removal's impact on the environment and public health, or on the future of coal in the region. Walton said it was not for him to decide "how to best strike a balance between, on the one hand, the need to preserve the verdant landscapes and natural resources of Appalachia and, on the other hand, the economic role that coal mining plays in the region." (Read more)

One story of health insurance and health reform, doable in any American community

Here's a story for every news outlet in the United States, no matter how small or large: Randall Patrick of The Kentucky Standard in Bardstown shows how the federal health-care reform law is having an effect at the individual level by telling the story of Bonnie Varnell, right, a local resident who was uninsured and is more than $65,000 in debt due to her fight against cancer.

For 18 years, Varnell worked at a daycare that didn't offer health insurance. She wasn't able to buy individual coverage because she had pre-exisiting conditions as a result of surgeries. She is only 59, so does not qualify for Medicare, and she didn't qualify for the federal law known as COBRA, which "allows workers to keep their company group health insurance benefits for up to 18 months after leaving their jobs, as long as they pay the entire premium," Patrick explains.

As a result, the bills kept mounting, despite hospitals giving the Varnells reduced rates through charity care. "I've been trying to pay something on every one," Varnell's husband Ed said of the bills he receives and has to delay paying in full. "It's really frustrating. We had never been late a day in our lives."

Now, Varnell has health insurance through a program created under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. "It costs her $315 a month and covers most of her costs after the deductible is met, but the law stipulates that a person with a pre-existing condition must be uninsured for at least six months before she or he can be eligible," Patrick explains.

Varnell's fear now is the program will be taken away if the Affordable Care Act is repealed after the November election. Patrick gives opponents of the law their say. (Read more)

Varnell is among the estimated 15 percent of people in her county who didn't have health insurance in 2009, the last year for which estimates are available. For the Census Bureau website with estimates for every county, go here

'Green ranchers' could redefine their trade

"A new breed of cowboy ... is changing how ranching is being done in the American West and might -- just might -- alter the dynamic in the 'range wars' that have engulfed the region for more than half a century," Todd Wilkinson of The Christian Science Monitor reports. The "green cowboys" are not "new arrivals carrying out green techniques for the feel-good sake of being green," though. They are real ranchers managing their land in "benevolent and environmentally sensitive ways because they think it will help them survive -- and make money," Wilkinson reports.

Rural Landscape Institute director Bill Bryan told Wilkinson that the old way of ranching is "giving way to a new paradigm," one that says raising animals to eat doesn't have to be at odds with protecting the environment. Wilkinson reports some of the biggest landowners in the West, including Ted Turner and John Malone, who own a combined 4.3 million acres, are embracing aspects of this paradigm. The "sustainable ranching movement" now has members in every Western state, Wilkinson reports.

Zachary Jones, right, manager and rancher of Twodot Land and Livestock Co., gave one example of his departure from the old ways of ranching: Rather than allowing cattle to graze on pastures unattended until vegetation is nearly gone, which can lead to greater dependence on expensive hay, antibiotics and pesticides, Jones fences his cattle into smaller areas with portable electric fences and only allows the cows to chews grass to a certain height, then shifts them to another areas.

While it may seem like just a fad connected to the overall "green movement," Wilkinson reports sustainable ranching "has been practiced in the region since the conquistadors." As Jones told Wilkinson: "Being a smart rancher – one who's still going to be here in another 50 years ... comes down to how you treat the land and build resilience over time that matters. In particular, it's about how well you manage grass and water." (Read more)

State and tribal courts report success in joint effort to help Native Americans get sober

A collaboration of state and trial courts in northern Minnesota to combat drug and alcohol addiction among Native Americans is reporting success, according to The Crime Report. Judges Korey Wahwassuck of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Tribal Court and John Smith of Cass County Court addressed the National Criminal Justice Association National Forum about the partnership, known as Wellness Court, last week.

The Leech Lake court is working with courts in Cass and Itasca counties on the program, a variation on drug courts that exist in many counties across the U.S. in which participants are helped through a series of programs to curb their addiction. (Minnesota Indian Affairs Council map: Leech Lake Reservation and emblem)

The judges presented two success stories. One involved a mother of four who said she is now "an inspiration to her kids," and a father who had previously been through a dozen treatment programs, none of which worked except Wellness Court, which has kept him sober for 18 months. Wahwassuck said there's been a major "climate change" in his tribe. Members now talk about sobriety and recovery more than about heavy drinking. (Read more)

Women outnumber men in ag-related programs

Women enrolled in agriculture-related programs at the 67 U.S. land-grant universities outnumber the men, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Agricultural Education Information System.

Men outnumbered women in 2008-09, but the number of women enrolled in agriculture programs has increased almost 20 percent since then. Male enrollment is still higher in ag economics, ag engineering and plant sciences, but women outnumber men in animal sciences, food science and technology and agricultural public services.

Farm Progress reports the increasing number of women in agricultural programs "draws comparisons to the number of female farm operators, which has risen 19 percent between 2002 and 2007, according to the 2007 Census of Agriculture," the most recent available. It found that 14 percent of farm operators are women. For the full report, go here.

Index of rural bankers lowers economic forecast for Plains states because of drought

This month's Rural Mainstreet Index from Creighton University in Omaha fell to its lowest level since September 2010, breaking a 10-month streak of being above growth-neutral, Marc Schober of Farmland Forecast reports. The RMI is now 47.9, down from 56.7, and persistent drought is believed to be the main culprit. The index comes from a survey of community bank presidents in rural areas of a 10-state region including from Missouri to Wyoming. it focuses on about 200 rural communities with an average population of 1,300.

Creighton Economist Ernie Goss told Schober, "The drought is putting a dent into the economies of the agriculturally dependent areas of the 10-state area ... We are now detecting warning signals of a significant economic reversal for rural areas." Goss added that weaker economic conditions are slowing farmland-price growth, and that farmers are reducing the amount of equipment they are buying.

The farmland price index decreased slightly in June, but remained above growth-neutral. The farm equipment sales index decreased "significantly," Schober reports. It's down to 46.1 from 54.7 since June, its lowest level since 2009. Bankers weighed in on the impact on ethanol and biodiesel production and of those with plants in their areas, 64 percent reported negative impacts, 21 percent indicated plant closures and 42 percent reported operations cutbacks. To read the full RMI report for this month, click here.

In southern W.Va., 5% of land has been mountaintop mined, but 22% of streams show harm from mining

About 5 percent of southern West Virginia has been excavated by mountaintop-removal coal mining, but 22 percent of the region's streams show significant harm to aquatic life, according to a study by Duke University researchers. The study could have implications in other areas with high rates of surface mining. (NASA satellite image: mine in Boone County)

Researchers say large amounts of minerals leach into streams from valley fills that have been filled with rock blasted from the mountaintops and ridges above. Sara Peach of Chemical and Engineering News reports that researchers have previously documented water pollution near individual mines, but have not been able to detect how far the pollution traveled, study author Emily Bernhardt said. Her study found harm to aquatic life in more than 1,700 miles of streams in southern West Virginia.

Bernhardt and her co-authors mapped chemical and biological data from 223 streams sampled by the state Department of Environmental Protection between 1997 and 2007, and found that salinity and mineral levels in the region's streams increased with the total area of mountaintop mines. They also discovered that as the number of mines increased, fewer sensitive insect species were found downstream. Substantial declines in insect populations were seen with just 1 percent of upstream land mined. In areas where 5 percent of upstream land has been mined, so many species have disappeared that the streams would qualify as biologically impaired, a designation that would place the streams on a list of waterways that states have to rehabilitate. (Read more)

Physician group wants milk out of school lunches

A nonprofit group that promotes a vegan diet is calling on the U.S. Department of Agriculture to recommend that Congress remove milk from school lunches because it is contributing to childhood obesity. (Photo by Kathleen Flynn, Tampa Bay Times)

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine calls milk an "ineffective placebo" and says a large body of research shows that drinking dairy milk doesn't improve bone health or prevent fractures in children. The group also says milk is "the number one source of saturated fat in children's diets," Feedstuffs reports. "We are asking Congress and the USDA to put children's interests above the interests of the dairy industry," said Susan Levin, PCRM's nutrition education director. She said focusing on milk as the most important source of calcium in children's diets "distracts schools and parents from foods that can actually build bones, like beans and leafy greens."

National Milk Producers Federation President and CEO Jerry Kozak said in a statement, "Milk is the single largest contributor of nutrients in kids' diets," including calcium, potassium, phosphorus, protein and vitamins A, D and B12. (Read more)

Monday, July 30, 2012

Farm Bill extension would get most cuts from conservation programs, drawing much opposition

UPDATE, July 31: David Rogers of Politico reports "signs that House Republicans may pull back from a one-year extension of farm programs and focus instead on the immediate needs of drought-stricken livestock producers," partly because of Democratic and commodity-group opposition. Rogers calls the extension "highly divisive." (That's true of the Farm Bill itself, which is why GOP leaders are not taking it to the full House.) As for the extension measure, Rogers reports, "Fiscal conservatives and taxpayer groups are upset that the bill walks away from earlier promises to end costly direct cash payments to farmers. Environmentalists are agitated by the fact that the greatest share of the cuts to pay for the disaster aid would come from conservation programs."

Bob Meyer reports for Brownfield, "There are growing indications there are not enough votes in the House and Republican leadership may pull the bill before it is scheduled to come to the floor Wednesday." Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, wants the extension only as a path to a conference on a five-year bill, but tea-party Republicans oppose that strategy. (Read more)

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office says one-year Farm Bill extension that House Republican leaders will try to pass this week, probably Wednesday, would reduce direct spending next year by $400 million, mainly by cutting conservation programs, "while disaster assistance programs to help livestock producers with the drought would receive increases in the short term," Amanda Peterka reports for Environment & Energy News, a subscription-only service.

Extending the cuts for 10 years, as is done in most federal budget estimates these days, would take $759 million from conservation programs. The Environmental Quality Incentives Program would be cut $350 million, with most of the cuts front-loaded to the near-term; the Conservation Stewardship Program would be reduced by $289 million, $31 million in most years.

Direct subsidy payments to farmers, which would be eliminated under farm bills approved by the House Agriculture Committee and the Senate, would be cut "$29 million a year starting in fiscal 2014, for a total reduction of $261 million over the next decade," Peterka reports. "Disaster assistance would increase by $365 million in fiscal 2013, $235 million in fiscal 2014 and $21 billion in 2015 to help farmers and ranchers devastated by the drought." For the CBO report, click here.

Lists of post offices being 'optimized' and those with expiring leases bear watching

Worried about the future of your post office? The Save The Post Office blog is doing some recon for you. It reports that you need to be concerned your post office is closing if the U.S. Postal Service is moving carriers to another facility — that’s called Delivery Unit Optimization (DUO) — or if its lease will expire in the next year. If both are happening, the blog suggests, you don't hold your breath for great postal service in the future. About 58 post offices are being DUOed this summer and also have leases expiring in the next 12 months, Save the Post Office reports. The list is here.

The blog also notes "that 38 of the 58 post offices being DUOed and with a lease expiring soon are also on the POStPlan list. It’s very likely that in many of these cases, the Postal Service is moving the carriers not in preparation for closing the post office, but because under POStPlan there won’t be a full-time postmaster to supervise the carriers."

The USPS website explains, “Delivery Unit Optimization involves relocating letter carriers out of local post offices, stations and branches and consolidating them into centralized delivery offices that will continue to be served by the same processing and distribution center. The existing retail operation will require less space and the office could then be downsized to a smaller space nearby."

Save The Post Office suggests that those interested should keep an eye on the list of those being DUOed with a lease expiring soon, and to see how many of them "end up being suspended, closed, or relocated. It will be a good indication of whether the Postal Service really plans to preserve post offices under POStPlan, or if it's just a distraction while the Postal Service continues to close them." (Read more)

Analysts blame market, not feds, for coal layoffs; say mid-Appalachia at start of long production drop

Coal train at Cumberland, Ky.
(Herald-Leader photo by Charles Bertram)

The prevailing opinion in Central Appalachia seems to be that federal anti-pollution rules are to blame for the loss of coal jobs — the "war on coal" that officials in the region decry — but independent analysts of the industry say market factors have been more responsible for recent, large layoffs.

Most notably, Bill Estep reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader, they "pointed to historically low prices for natural gas and the unseasonably warm winter, which left power plants with stockpiles of coal. Other factors, such as the slow recovery in manufacturing and the broader economy, also have played parts in the drop in demand for coal." And while that is bad enough news for the region, analysts now say that Central Appalachia is at the front end of a steep, long-lasting drop in coal production. "Some of these mines are not going to come back," said Michael Dudas, a managing director at investment firm Sterne, Agee & Leach, Inc. who follows the coal industry. 

Changes in drilling technology allow companies to unlock vast new sources of natural gas, sending supplies up and prices sharply down. The May price for gas was 43 percent lower than just a year earlier, said Manoj Shanker, one of Kentucky's Education and Workforce Development Cabinet economists. Many U.S. utilities have switched from coal to natural gas for electricity generation as a result.

In April, the national share of electricity generated using natural gas matched coal's share, at 32 percent, for the first time since the U.S. Energy Information Agency began keeping such records in 1973. "The Central Appalachian coalfield, made up primarily of Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia, faces other challenges as well, including competition from cheaper Wyoming coal and relatively high production costs," Estep writes. "It also costs more to produce coal in Eastern Kentucky, in part because the area has been mined for a century. Companies naturally went after the best seams first; those that are left are harder to get at, meaning higher mining costs and lower productivity." (Read more)

Health reform's expansion of insurance means doctor shortages are about to get worse

Doctor shortages are most chronic in rural America, but now even places with growing populations like Southern California's Inland Empire are feeling the considerable pinch of not having enough doctors to provide care for a growing number of patients. Thus, some medical crises that face California's Riverside County or suburban Phoenix mirror those found in places like the Mississippi Delta, where there are too few specialists, too few doctors willing to take Medicaid and all are overworked because 9 percent of the nation's doctors take care of 20 percent of the country's population, report Annie Lowrey and Robert Pear of The New York Times. (NYT chart)

The problem is expected to spread under federal health reform, they write. With the expansion of insurance coverage and aging baby boomers driving up demand, "The Association of American Medical Colleges estimates that in 2015 the country will have 62,900 fewer doctors than needed. That number will more than double by 2025," Lowrey and Pear report. "Even without the health-care law, the shortfall of doctors in 2025 would still exceed 100,000." In addition, Medicare officials predict their enrollment will surge to 73.2 million in 2025, up 44 percent from 50.7 million this year because of the baby boomer demographic hitting their golden years. “Older Americans require significantly more health care,” said Dr. Darrell G. Kirch, the president of the medical-college association. “Older individuals are more likely to have multiple chronic conditions, requiring more intensive, coordinated care.”

Medical-school enrollment is increasing, but not as fast as the population. The number of training positions for medical-school graduates is lagging. Younger doctors are on average working fewer hours than their predecessors. And about a third of the country’s doctors are 55 or older, and nearing retirement. (Read more)

A leading climate-change denier switches, says earth is warming and humans are the main cause

In what is being described as both "a bombshell" and "a man-bites-dog" story, a leading skeptic of climate change has dramatically reversed his position after a study he conducted with money from an even larger critic of climate science, the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation. On the opinion pages of The New York Times, Richard Muller, left, is unequivocal about his new position: "Call me a converted skeptic. Three years ago I identified problems in previous climate studies that, in my mind, threw doubt on the very existence of global warming. Last year, following an intensive research effort involving a dozen scientists, I concluded that global warming was real and that the prior estimates of the rate of warming were correct. I’m now going a step further: Humans are almost entirely the cause."

He continues: "The careful analysis by our team is laid out in five scientific papers now online at That site also shows our chart of temperature from 1753 to the present, with its clear fingerprint of volcanoes and carbon dioxide, but containing no component that matches solar activity. Four of our papers have undergone extensive scrutiny by the scientific community, and the newest, a paper with the analysis of the human component, is now posted, along with the data and computer programs used. Such transparency is the heart of the scientific method; if you find our conclusions implausible, tell us of any errors of data or analysis." Muller's opinion page piece is here.

Michael E. Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State, said Muller’s conversion might help shape the thinking of the "reasonable middle" of the population "who are genuinely confused and have been honestly taken in" by attacks on climate science. The Los Angeles Times's Neela Banerjee writes that Koch Foundation spokeswoman Tonya Mullins said the support her foundation provided, along with others, had no bearing on results of the research. "Our grants are designed to promote independent research; as such, recipients hold full control over their findings," Mullins said in an email. "In this support, we strive to benefit society by promoting discovery and informing public policy."

Regional network suggests Appalachian coal states put some severance tax dollars into endowments

A coalition of citizens' groups in Central Appalachia is recommending that Eastern coal states follow the example of their Western counterparts and put part of their severance-tax revenue into endowments that would permanently provide earnings to help their regional economies. Seven states in the West "use severance taxes to create permanent trust funds that can help state economies in the future," reports Paul J. Nyden for the Sunday Gazette-Mail in Charleston, W.Va. "Many of those funds add up to billions of dollars."

A study by the Central Appalachia Regional Network notes that severance taxes represent a significant portion of state government income in two Central Appalachian states: nearly 9 percent of state revenues in West Virginia and 3.3 percent in Kentucky. In four other states covered by the group -- Maryland, Ohio, Tennessee and Virginia -- severance taxes generate less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the states' total revenues.

CARN, a diverse group of regional organizations assembled and funded by the W.K Kellogg Foundation, proposed that a minimum of 1 percent of all severance taxes be placed into permanent endowments in each state. "This would not only help these states meet many of their economic challenges but ensure that future generations benefit from the mineral wealth that is in their communities," said Ted Boettner, executive director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy. The CARN study is available here.

The Kentucky-based Mountain Association for Community Economic Development, which is not part of CARN, earlier this year suggested a similar plan financed by an increase in the severance tax. If Kentucky raised the tax to 5.5 percent from 4.5 percent, it could create more than $700 million in a fund by 2035, MACED said.