Friday, August 17, 2012

Rural districts face hurdles in applying for $400 million in federal Race to the Top grants

A little over two months remain for school districts to apply for $400 million in Race to the Top federal education grants. Michele McNeil of Education Week doubts that many rural districts will apply. "Not only is the 116-page application complex and demanding," she writes, but more than half the nation's districts are not eligible to apply on their own because their enrollments are too small. To apply, a district or a group of districts must have at least 2,000 students. Thus does the department continue to maintain its reputation as heavily favoring large, urban districts like the one in Chicago that was run by Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

"The latest data from the National Center for Education Statistics show that 47 percent of the nation's school districts had fewer than 1,000 students in 2009-10, McNeil writes. "Another 24 percent had between 1,000 and 2,499 students. . . . More than half of the nation's schools have fewer than 2,000 kids. And so these districts already face big hurdles in applying for the money." (Read more)

Is your district applying? Why or why not?

UPDATE, Aug. 20: The Department of Education will hold a webinar for potential applicants from noon to 3 p.m. ET. Space is limited, registration is required, and preference is given to school districts. Perhaps your district would let you sit in. For more information, click here.

Might our Asian carp problem might be solved by catching them and making them into, uh, hot dogs?

Asian carp, large and voracious fish that are making their way up the Mississippi River system toward the Great Lakes, where they could ruin the fishery, have long vexed those who want to find ways to keep the population in check. Ash-har Quraishi reports for PBS NewsHour that scientists think it's time to call in those who have been hankering for years to help: the area's commercial fishermen. (Photo by Nerissa Michaels, Great Lakes Fishery Commission)

Vic Santucci, the Asian carp specialist for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, said that while "the ultimate goal is to fish down the populations to prevent ecological damage, there have to be enough Asian carp left to make the business lucrative for commercial fishermen." The important thing, notes Quarishi, is reducing the population to reduce pressure on young carp to get through the electric barrier in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, the Army Corps of Engineers' last line of defense.

Carp leap after getting electric shock
Philip Willink, a senior research biologist at the John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, said the consensus among scientists is that the barrier works really well but is probably not perfect. That's why you need the fishermen. So far, 10 commercial fishermen have been allowed to fish these backwaters accompanied by state biologists. But big fish don't always translate into big money. Willink explained, "One of the problems with getting people interested in eating Asian carp is they happen to have a lot of bones in some strange places, so they're really hard to filet." Also, carp are not popular in the U.S. but are a staple in most other nations.

Shafer Fisheries in Thompson, Ill., a company that has been looking for ways to process and market the carp to U.S. and foreign markets stepped up offered its already percolating ideas such as carp salami, bologna, jerky and, yes, hot dogs. So sure is Schafer of its enterprise that they launched a proposal two years ago for a processing plant expansion at Wickliffe, Ky., where the Ohio River enters the Mississippi. The plant would use its waste products to make organic farm fertilizer. Tax credits to build the plant received preliminary approval from the Kentucky Economic Development Finance Authority in June. Read the transcript of the NewsHour report here. Listen to the report here.

Corn farmers, meat producers and biofuel makers argue over ethanol quota amid drought

A Kansas ethanol plant reecieves corn.
(NYT photo by Steve Hebert)
Three big agribusiness interests -- corn farmers, meat producers, and biofuel refineries -- are in a political fight to protect their interests amid the ravaging drought. At issue, reports John H. Cushman Jr. of The New York Times, "is whether to suspend a five-year-old federal mandate requiring more ethanol in gasoline each year, a policy that has diverted almost half of the domestic corn supply from animal feedlots to ethanol refineries, driven up corn prices and plantings and created a desperate competition for corn as drought grips the nation’s farm belt."

Meat producers, writes Cushman, "are demanding that the Obama administration waive the ethanol quota to ease rising feed prices. But ethanol producers worry that the loss of the quota will undermine the ethanol industry and do little for corn farmers but drive down the price of their stunted harvest. The meat industry, backed by several governors, lawmakers and even international food agencies, argues that the quota has distorted grain markets by sucking up corn when ranchers can least afford it. But the ethanol industry says that its corn consumption is down 12 percent since the start of the summer and that weekly ethanol production is at a two-year low. As corn prices have risen, refineries have scaled back production, idled dozens of plants and sold ethanol inventories. As a result, the industry may consume 10 percent less of this summer’s crop than last year’s, government and industry officials said." (Read more)

Tribe divided over tapping their lands' resources

There is great beauty on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana, writes Jack Healy of The New York Times. "But there is also oil, locked away in the tight shale thousands of feet underground," and tribal leaders of the Blackfeet Nation "have decided to tap their land’s buried wealth. The move has divided the tribe while igniting a debate over the promise and perils of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in a place where grizzlies roam into backyards and many residents see the land as something living and sacred. All through the billiard-green mesas leading up to the Rocky Mountains are signs of the boom."(NYT photo by Rich Addicks)

"Oil exploration here began in the 1920s, largely on the plains along the eastern edge of the reservation, but it died off in the early 1980s. Over the last four years, though, new fracking technologies and rising oil prices have lured the drillers back, and farther and farther west, to the mountains that border Glacier National Park," Healy reports. "It is an increasingly common sight for tribes across the West and Plains: Tourist spending has gone slack since the recession hit. American Indian casino revenues are stagnating just as tribal gambling faces new competition from online gambling and waves of new casinos. Oil and fracking are new lifelines. One drilling rig on the Blackfeet reservation generated 49 jobs for tribal members — a substantial feat in a place where unemployment is as high as 70 percent. But as others watched the rigs rise, they wondered whether the tribe was making an irrevocable mistake."

 “These are our mountains,” Cheryl Little Dog, a new member of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, the reservation’s governing body, told Healy. Pauline Matt told him, “Ity threatens everything we are as Blackfeet.” But tribal leaders think "Oil wealth could be more lucrative and reliable than any casino," Healy reports. But to find the opposing view, Healy drove just five miles toward the mountains. The divisions are more than disputes over the economy and environment — they represent two visions of the land where Blackfeet members have lived for centuries. It is a division without compromise. (Read more)

Coal exports head for new high; India latest buyer

As U.S. coal exports head for a new record, a New Jersey energy company has signed a deal to sell Kentucky and West Virginia coal to India. Under the deal, Kentucky coal companies will export about 9 million tons of coal annually for 25 years to India.

The deal between India's Abhijeet Group and FSJ Energy LLC comes on the heels of a massive two-day power failure across India in late July when 600 million people lost electricity. The blackout was attributed to the collapse of three regional grids. UPI reports that about 70 percent of India's electricity comes from coal-fired power plants and while India does produce coal, domestic production cannot keep up with demand. (Read more) See the story as reported from FirstPost, an Indian newspaper, here.

U.S. coal exports "are rising because U.S. demand for coal is falling as electric utilities burn more natural gas, which has plummeted in price, instead of coal," CBS Money Watch reports. "At the same time, demand for coal is rising in developing countries such as China and India as those countries work to bring electricity to millions who don't have it." (Read more)

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Postal Service deal with mass mailer could cut into newspapers' already bleeding revenue

The U.S. Postal Service is proposing a rate cut for one of the country's largest direct marketing companies, which could have a direct impact on the weekend advertising bundles in newspapers, the industry's biggest source of revenue. The USPS says it would make $15 million over three years by cutting what it charges Valassis Communications, because the company has promised to send even more under the proposal, Ryan Nakashima of The Associated Press reports.

The deficit-laden USPS would give Valassis a discount of up to 34 percent, and the company has agreed to pay a penalty if it doesn't boost its number of mailings. Valassis reaches 100 million homes every week and would be able to cut prices for advertisers, including Home Depot, Lowe's and JC Penney, which could pull business from Sunday newspaper inserts and into its midweek bundles, known as RedPlum.

The move could take $1 billion of annual revenue from the newspaper industry, which gets about $24 billion a year from ads, much in weekend inserts and advertising fliers sent weekly to non-subscribers. That's down from $49 billion in 2005, and "The outlook isn't promising for newspapers," Nakashima writes. "The commission has never in its 42-year history denied an application for a so-called 'negotiated service agreement' related to its mail delivery monopoly," according to a Postal Regulatory Commission spokeswoman. "Critics say the discounts don't always produce the intended boost in mail volume and profits. . . . The eight negotiated service agreements in effect from 2007 to 2011 have lost money instead of generating new income."

PRC Chair Ruth Goldway said the commission is "reviewing the proposal with a critical eye," because the USPS hasn't been "very good at predicting the negative consequences of its actions," Nakashima reports. But the newspaper industry is worried about another quote from Goldway: "Even if we only make $15 million, but we increase the amount of volume in the mail and we get various businesses to think positively about using the mail in the future, then this is something good to do." (Read more) If newspapers lose the case, they could appeal to the courts and Congress.

Would Obama's order to Pentagon to buy more meat raise prices for producers? Analysts disagree

The Obama administration has ordered the Pentagon to buy more beef, pork and lamb to try and help ranchers through the severe drought, prompting the Defense Department to determine whether it can afford to buy more. The military buys millions of pounds of meat every year to feed troops around the world.

Some analysts say the move would only help Obama politically, but others say it could be an opportunity for the Pentagon to pay less for meat it will eventually need and can freeze. Drought has forced up the price of corn, which livestock producers use as supplemental feed, and since they aren't able to make livestock heavier faster, they are forced to sell sooner than usual, Jennifer Rizzo of CNN reports. This causes more meat to be available, making prices drop, which also reduces the profit that ranchers have available to buy feed. Rizzo reports the mandate to buy more meat is an attempt to raise prices by taking more meat off the market.

Iowa State University economist Bruce Babcock told Rizzo the impact of these purchases is suspect. "The purchase is delaying the day of reckoning because ... it will raise their prices somewhat now and it will allow them to purchase more feed, but that feed cost isn't going to go down for a year," Babcock said. The livestock industry has to shrink by reducing herd sizes in order to afford corn in the future, he said. American Farm Bureau Federation economist Bob Young told Rizzo that even though the purchase would only make a small dent in the market, the move will ultimately help ranchers. (Read more)

Poll: Rural Nebraskans support Keystone pipeline, but want it away from Sandhills, Ogallala Aquifer

Most rural Nebraskans are in favor of building the Keystone XL pipeline, but want it to avoid the ecologically sensitive Sandhills region and the Ogallala Aquifer, according to the latest Nebraska Rural Poll.

Of the more than 2,000 people polled, 65 percent said the pipeline should be built away from the Sandhills and the aquifer, Art Hovey of the Lincoln Journal Star reports. About 61 percent said the environmental risks of building it would not outweigh the economic benefits. Keystone XL builder TransCanada, initially proposed a route that would cross the Sandhills and the aquifer, but after much push-back, changed the route to avoid most of both areas. The proposal is still being reviewed by the U.S. State Department and the Nebraska Department of Environmental Quality. (Los Angeles Times map)
Though the poll only surveys Nebraska residents, the impact of the Keystone pipeline, if built, would reach rural residents from the Canadian border to the Gulf of Mexico. The survey was conducted by the Center for Applied Rural Innovation at the University of Nebraska. (Read more)

As drought keeps expanding, state officials try to help people with dried-up wells

Here's a follow-up to our report this week about the crippling Midwest drought drying up water wells used by people living in rural areas. There's no official number of wells that have gone dry, David Mercer of The Associated Press reports, but state and local government officials, well diggers and water haulers across the Midwest say there are many more dry wells than in previous summers. Drought has caused wells that typically go dry in late August or September to stop producing in June.

Many are forced to dig deeper to find water, and the deeper the well, the more expensive it is. Mercer reports the cost ranges from several thousand dollars to tens of thousands for more extreme cases. He also writes that laws in at least two Midwestern states are determining how residents can regain running water. In Indiana, the Department of Natural Resources is going to determine the extent to which large water users are responsible for residents' wells drying up and make them proportionally share costs of repair. Missouri state officials will help farmers pay to keep their wells wet. They've already agreed to spend more than $18 million on 3,700 wells. (Read more)

The drought continues to expand. (Click on map for larger image)

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Public-private battle in rural Minn. over broadband service is case study in a nationwide struggle

Cable companies weren't interested when the federal government dangled millions of dollars to expand broadband Internet service and boost economic opportunities in Lake County, Minnesota, on Lake Superior (Wikipedia map). But "They didn't want anyone else to build a system, either," report Jim Spencer and Larry Oakes of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. "That would mean competition in small parts of the county they already serve, even if it would leave thousands of northeastern Minnesota residents and businesses without broadband. So in 2010, when Lake County applied for federal stimulus funds to build a countywide network, it ran straight into a challenge from industry giant Mediacom and the Minnesota Cable Communications Association. The conflict that ensued is part of a national struggle," one that is repeated over and over in communities across the country, perhaps one you know or cover.

"Public officials and some of their constituents argue that rural broadband is like rural electrification: It's a lifeline for small-town America that the free market will not extend. Economics are at the center of the debate, since both sides acknowledge that running broadband exclusively into remote areas won't pay for itself," the reporters write. "Cable and Internet providers argue that government-backed programs should run broadband only into unserved areas, not locations where private providers already operate. They have lobbied extensively to cut broadband initiatives from the federal budget."

In Lake County, the battle grinds on. Mediacom has charged that "county officials illegally inflated statistics, U.S. senators improperly meddled to keep the project alive," and the Rural Utilities Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture was negligent. "County officials, the senators and the USDA deny those claims, and an inspector general's investigation found them to have no merit. Yet the fight has moved from the rural shores of Lake Superior to a hearing room on Capitol Hill. It shows no signs of ending, even as Lake County begins to run fiber-optic cable." (Read more

Rural Oregonians fear harmful effects of a timber herbicide that has been found in their bloodstreams

Rowan King, 11, tested positive for the
dangerous chemicals used in spraying
timber (CIR photo by Serene Fang)
Six years ago, Eron King, an artist and young mother, moved from the edge of Eugene, Ore., to a creekside plot of forest valley so her two boys could grow up raising hens and Toggenburg goats. She wasn’t na├»ve about rural life in the Coast Ranges, where she’d lived for nine years, writes Ingrid Lobet for the Center for Investigative Reporting, but she encountered the unexpected.

"The state’s western third is timber country. The tractor-trailer rigs hauling logs – some as thin as poles, others as fat as pier pilings – were no shock to her. 'I knew clear-cutting happened,' she said in a cadence that signals comfort with the realities of a life outdoors. But like many residents of the region, King was unaware that major timber companies – Weyerhaeuser, Roseburg Resources, Stimson Lumber, Seneca Jones and others – have been spraying millions of pounds of herbicide on their private forestland in Oregon. Some of it, she believes, is carried by the winds and lands on her property. Her worry about the spraying has turned into genuine alarm. King and her two children, along with their father and 37 other residents, last year submitted their urine for laboratory testing. The results were startling: Every person tested positive for the compound 2,4-D – made famous as an ingredient of Agent Orange – and for the chemical atrazine."

Lobet notes that while as many as 100,000 residents live near privately owned forests in rural Oregon, the herbicide is an essential tool for the timber industry. Without it, much forestland would not be profitable. Still, Terry Witt, who for 25 years was executive director of Oregonians for Food and Shelter, a trade group for the timber, agriculture and chemicals industries, said: “If there's data that shows that the practices need to be altered or changed, the industry is more than willing to look at what recommendations or change in practices could be employed.” But Witt added: “We believe that if it’s done responsibly and legally, it does not represent unreasonable harm.” Greg Miller of Weyerhaeuser said skilled personnel know how to take into account conditions such as temperature and wind. The applications are done according to the law, Miller claims. But those words have not placated the rural Oregon residents who are convinced -- with scientific proof in their hands and a federal forest system that stopped the spraying practice 20 years ago as precedent -- that the industry can do more to protect them. (Read more)

Small towns watch as lower Mississippi's heavy traffic is slowed by near-historic low water levels

A year after near-historic flooding affected some of America's legendary small towns, water levels on the lower Mississippi River are at near-historic lows. In July, water levels in Vicksburg, Miss., Memphis, Tenn., and Cairo, Ill. (at the confluence with the Ohio), dipped below those of the historic drought of 1988. That’s affecting everything from recreation to commerce on the maritime superhighway to rthe drinking water in Louisiana. The biggest impact, reports NBC News, may be on shipping. “It’s getting near critical,” said Austin Golding, a third-generation co-owner of Vicksburg-based Golding Barge Lines. “Without more rain, we’re heading into uncharted territory.” (Associated Press photo, near Vicksburg Aug. 6)

Barges on the lower river carry about $180 billion worth of goods and 500 million tons of the basic ingredients for much of the U.S. economy, according to the American Waterways Operators, a trade group. The river carries 60 percent of the nation’s grain, 22 percent of the oil and gas and 20 percent of the coal, according to the trade organization. The low water levels force barge companies to lighten their load by about 25 percent so barges ride higher in the water. In some places, the Mississippi is a one-way river, as barges heading north have to wait for traffic headed south, adding to the costly delays. The result: Millions of dollars in higher shipping costs, ultimately paid by consumers. (Read more)

Who can speak for Appalchia? A recent transplant is figuring out that it might be OK if it's him

Local citizens gathered 'round the
microphone at WMMT in Whitesburg,
Ky., where Parker Hobson works.
The Appalachian hills are the world's oldest, according to real geologists, but another old question is the one that Parker Hobson found himself mulling this week in The HillVille, the weekly online magazine of urban Appalachia, a literary meeting place where Appalachian city folks meet with Appalachian rural folks and come to an understanding. Hobson, a native of Louisville who has been living in the mountains for all of eight months, writes that he went back to the city for a festival and when people asked him where he was from, he got to thinking closely about his answer. Then he came home and wrote this:

"I kept thinking back to an article I read this past April. It was, on the whole, a well-written history of the Louisville-Kentucky rivalry and basketball in the state, but a passage near the end grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. After describing driving along Letcher County’s [Kentucky] Route 7 and meeting a 'rawboned' man on a front porch, the author went on to write of Appalachian Kentucky: . . . Communities [here] long have been victimized and exploited . . . More often than anyone wanted, Kentucky’s basketball success became the natives’ only source of pride. As exciting as it was to see Route 7 garner a national shout-out, I couldn’t get past that last sentence.

"A theory began to take hold among sociologists in the 1960s that Appalachia had been treated in many ways like an 'internal colony' of the United States. Whether or not you, reader, buy this specific notion, the fact stands that southeastern Kentucky’s resources have generated incredible wealth over the past century, and very little of that wealth has remained in the region. Kentucky’s coalfield district, in fact, was recently rated by Gallup as having the absolute worst overall quality of life of any of the 436 [congressional] districts in the entire United States. In this context, the use of 'natives,' particularly in support of such a questionable conclusion -- there has existed nothing for the 'rawboned' 'natives' of southeast Kentucky to be proud of save the results of basketball games played hundreds of miles away? -- seemed fairly demeaning and wholly unnecessary. Was . . . this easy characterization of Appalachian folks as simple, different, and somehow apart not in some way responsible for the very sort of exploitation the author mentioned? So that should have been it, right?

"It’s pretty easy to take offense to things—you come upon something, you get the old hackles raised, and presto! You’ve taken offense! People do it every day! I began doubting myself, though. Was it even my place to take offense? What did I even really know about this place? Who was I to speak for anyone here? I suppose I’m still not sure. The more that I’m learning and the longer I live here, I’m slowly becoming more comfortable advocating for Appalachia as an objectively incredible, important and downright inspiring place, but I still feel uneasy speaking for it. . . . This place is worth fighting for, and not just because of the vast, deeply-woven, uniquely American traditional culture that has managed to survive here, or just because these mountains contain a beauty of which I had no idea Kentucky was even capable. There are people here who have been overlooked and under served throughout Kentucky’s history, and remain so today.  . . .  This is a long-simmering crisis of human rights and elected sloth, and the people of this region certainly deserve better. No matter where I’m from, how long I’ve been here, or what you want to call me, I’ve got no problem saying that." (Read more)

Delaware, Maryland entice and train young farmers with grants and no-interest loans

Cara and Philip Sylvester, on their farm
in Delaware (State photo)
Two states have recently introduced programs that make it easier for young people to start farming.

In Maryland's Montgomery County, this month County Executive Isiah Leggett announced an initiative that will train young farmers and place them on privately owned land to grow sustainable crops and livestock for five years or more. The Washington Post reports that county officials hope to approve five to 10 participants this winter and prepare them to farm in the spring. Funded by a federal Small Business Administration grant, the New Farmer Pilot Project aims to help build small farms at a time when the county is struggling to preserve farming. (Read more)

In Delware, 10 young farm families and individuals are on their way to owning their dreams with help from an economic development program designed to boost agribusiness in The First State. The farmers from Kent and Sussex counties all received help purchasing land – nearly 900 acres total – from the Delaware Young Farmers Program, marking its first year. The no-interest loan program was launched in July 2011 by Gov. Jack Markell as a way to reduce the capital investment for young people looking to set up agribusiness operations. It was funded through $3 million in the fiscal 2012 budget. (Read more)

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Romney alleges 'war on coal' at a backer's mine while Obama defends tax credits for wind industry

UPDATE, AUG. 28: The miners who stood behind Romney were told by mine officials that attendance was mandatory and they would not be paid for the day because their mine was shut down, reports Sabrina Eaton of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland. "No one was forced to attend," Murray Energy Chief Financial Officer Rob Moore told David Blomquist of WWVA Radio in Wheeling. He said federal election law doesn't let companies pay workers to attend political events. (Read more)

Seeking votes in Ohio coal country today, Mitt Romney echoed the coal industry's contention that the Obama administration is "waging a war on coal." Meanwhile, President Obama, still in Iowa, planned to criticize Romney's support for repeal of wind-energy tax credits, and fresh attention was focused on the coal industry's role in the election. (Associated Press photo by Mary Altaffer)

Romney pledged that by the end of his second term, North America would be energy-independent. "If you don't believe in coal, if you don't believe in energy independence for America, just say it," Romney said at Murray Energy's Century Mine in Beallsville, about 25 miles southwest of Wheeling, W.Va. "If you believe the whole answer for our energy needs is wind and solar, then say that." The Obama campaign responded by noting that Romney supported anti-coal regulations as governor of Massachusetts, and said a coal-fired power plant "kills people." A story by Joe Vardon and Joe Hallett of The Columbus Dispatch is here.

The mine "is in a slice of Appalachia whose culture is more akin to neighboring West Virginia and rural Pennsylvania than to urban islands like Cleveland and Toledo," Stephen Koff of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland wrote in a scene-setter that also noted the "company’s colorful chief executive," Bob Murray, left, who "became famous after a collapse at the Crandall Mine in Utah, which his company co-owned, killed six miners in 2007. Murray was on the scene constantly and disputed claims about safety violations, although his company was ultimately fined." (Read more)

Murray, Joe Craft of Alliance Resource Partners and Richard Gilliam of Cumberland Resources Corp. are among a group of coal executives who "have been among the most prolific donors to Republican candidates for office in what they see as an existential fight for survival," Manuel Quinones of Environment & Energy News reports, noting that the industry's contributions "have doubled since the 2008 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. . . . This week a group of coal boosters from several producing states unveiled the COALition for Romney." (Read more)

The United Mine Workers of America isn't planning to endorse for president, apparently because of Obama's stands on coal, but former UMWA President Richard Trumka, now president of the AFL-CIO, stars in a direct-mail piece the labor federation is sending to 100,000 Ohio households. The piece identifies him as a "UMWA member." For a copy, via Politico, click here. Meanwhile, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity released a video of "two small business owners whose livelihoods depend on the survival of the coal-based electricity industry."

West's timber industry booming, mainly via exports

The timber industry is making a comeback in Western states, and boosting the economies of rural towns in the process. Demand for timber used in construction plummeted when the housing market crashed in 2009, and it's been slow to recover. But, as Justin Scheck of The Wall Street Journal reports, the "boom-trend" is "part of a West Coast logging rebound" driven mostly by exports.

Overseas wood shipments more than doubled from 2008 to 2011, according to RISI International Wood Markets Group, a timber research group, and U.S. Forest Service data shows log exports increasing by 5.3 percent in the first quarter of 2012, Scheck reports. The increase has reopened some sawmills, raising employment in rural areas and causing "an uptick in local spending and new stores," Scheck reports. (Read more)

Lawyer has become rural America's 'new antitrust cop,' filing suit against agribusiness concentration

Kansas City lawyer Dan Owen, left, could have a major impact on the agriculture business if the antitrust suits he's filed are successful. Bill Bishop of the Daily Yonder reports two suits are "aimed at both the economics and politics of the food industry." A potential third suit would "challenge the way meat packers are buying live cattle at auction."

The Obama administration appeared ready to challenge the increasing centralization and concentrated of agricultural production by large companies with industrial-style farms,  announcing it would conduct a "wide-ranging investigation" to see if it violated antitrust laws. Hearings were conducted and speeches made, but nothing of substance ever happened, Bishop reports. Activists turned to the private sector for help, and no one, Bishop writes, "has taken up the cause more fervently than Owen." He has become "the new antitrust cop on the beat in the food business."

His first suit seeks to keep money collected through the beef checkoff program from going to the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. For 26 years, the Department of Agriculture has collected $1 per head of cattle sold for a fund to promote beef industry, and almost all of the $1.6 billion collected has gone to the NCBA, which Owen claims has violated the terms of the  program.

The second suit concerns price fixing in the fertilizer business, particularly among potash producers. Five companies control 70 percent of the world's potash supply, and prices have increased to $1,000 a ton from $140. Owen's suit claims potash companies "conspired to close mining operations in order to manipulate supplies and prices," Bishop reports.

Bishop reported last week that the USDA issued a report concluding that "there are so few cattle sold at auction that there was no way to determine a fair price for beef." Most cattle raisers were selling according to a formula created by meat packers, which left prices up to large companies. "The report says, to us, that cattle raisers no longer have power in the markets. ... Instead of a competitive market, there is a 'dictatorship,'" Bishop wrote.

Owen said he's started investigating the way livestock is purchased. He received complaints from cattle raisers who said they were receiving only one bid at auction, Bishop reports, and Owen said he's investigating "whether packers are avoiding bidding against each other by divvying up feed lots." He's discovered a study in Utah that concluded half of all feedlots sold to one buyer, and is continuing to investigate. (Read more)

To help livestock producers and limit meat prices, U.N. wants feds to halt mandated ethanol production

The United Nations is calling on the United States to halt its mandate for ethanol production in order to lower corn prices, which would help struggling livestock producers and mitigate increases in meat prices. Recent oppressive drought caused the U.S. Department of Agriculture to estimate a large decrease in the size of the U.S. corn crop last week, which forced prices to almost $9 a bushel.

About 40 percent of U.S. corn will be used for ethanol production as part of the government mandate, Javier Blas and Gregory Meyer of the Financial Times report. But UN Food and Agriculture Organization Director-General Jose Graziano wrote in a Financial Times opinion piece that a temporary suspension of ethanol production "would give some respite to the market and allow more of the crop to be channelled towards food and feed uses." (Read more)

Heavily obese states have large rural populations

At least 30 percent of adults in 12 states are considered obese, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. Previously, only nine states had such high obesity rates. More than one third of adults, and almost 17 percent of youth, were obese in 2010.

Most of the states have relatively large rural populations. Mississippi had the highest rate at almost 36 percent. (Read more)

Monday, August 13, 2012

Week's start on drought news: Wells dry up, crop insurance helps, pot shrivels, some areas gain

A cornfield in Bloomsdale, Mo., where wells
wells are going dry. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch)
"Everyone, most everything, needs water," Rick Montgomery of The Kansas City Star wrote Sunday in the first installement of his three-part series, "Chasing the Drought." "We just can’t always expect it to be there, not as the world’s population grows and its moisture content stays the same."

So begins the week's reporting on what is fast becoming the topic none of us can escape.

“This year’s drought is a great opportunity to look at the plans in place and better prepare for the next drought,” Michael Hayes, executive director of the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska told Montgomery. The reporter has traveled through seven Midwest states and "met with farmers, beef producers, worried weather experts, park managers and policy wonks" to find out how each would try to avert some of this pain down the road, if it can be averted. (More here)

Abandoned Main Street in post-irrigation
Happy, Texas (Scott Tong photo)
How much impact? Today, 36 states are projecting water shortages next year. For regulators, it's hard to limit the use of the essential resources, especially in states like Texas, where groundwater is part of your private property. American Public Radio's Marketplace visited Happy, Tex., a small town in the Panhandle that knows what it's like to run out of water. (Read more)

You can add residential water wells to the list of casualties claimed by the Drought of 2012, reports the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "For months, farmers have been forced to drill deeper wells to water parched crops and feed livestock. But in recent weeks, homeowners across the state have reported that they can't perform basic tasks such as doing laundry or washing dishes, let alone even think about watering their flower beds. It's a difficult problem to quantify, because most private wells go unmonitored."

While the government has slashed its estimate of the soybean yield, made only a month ago, to the lowest level since 2003 and its estimate of the corn yield to the lowest level since 1995, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says 85 percent of farmers are covered by crop insurance, The New York Times reports.

It's safe to bet that these farmers aren't covered: Lauren Pack of the Dayton Daily News and John Caniglia of The Cleveland Plain Dealer report that the state's marijuana crop has suffered horribly in the drought. "The potent plant that thrives in fields and wooded acres across Ohio has suffered through an unusually brutal summer," he writes. In many places, plants are a fraction of the 4- or 5-foot height that is normal for this point of the growing season. Give it time; it's a weed, remember? (Photo from KEVO-TV, Brownsville, Tex., with story by Tina McGarry)

Of course, the drought is good news for farmers in places where it is absent, because it has driven up prices, but those effects can be broader and indirect, in areas where grains are not major crops. In western North Carolina, award-winning editor Jonathan Austin of the Yancey County News found a way to make the national story local in a region that is getting plenty of rain: "Some area farmers may want to consider taking a chance by buying some of the cattle flooding the market in the Midwest. The impact of the drought on food prices could also lead more residents to begin shopping locally," according to North Carolina State University's Arnold Oltman, a professor of agriculture and resource economy. Austin also reports the region's "availability of water may prove to be an economic boon to microfarmers, beef growers and others who look to the land for at least some of their income." (Read more)

Farm Bill politics: Obama says U.S. will buy meat, blames Ryan for lack of bill; incumbents feel heat

Obama speaks in Council Bluffs today.
(Register photo by Bryon Houlgrave)
President Obama is announcing today that the Department of Agriculture intends to buy up to $170 million of pork, lamb, chicken and catfish to help support farmers suffering from the drought. The food purchases will go toward "food nutrition assistance" programs such as food banks. Reuters reports "The president will also direct the Department of Defense to encourage its vendors to speed up purchases of lamb, pork and beef and freeze it for later use." (Read more)

Today in Iowa, a key swing state, Obama gave U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan partial blame for Congress' failure to pass a Farm Bill with short-term relief for farmers, and called Mitt Romney's running mate the “ideological leader of the Republicans in Congress,” Jason Noble reports for the Des Moines Register. Obama also criticized Romney for favoring expiration of tax credits for wind energy. (Read more) A campaign spokesman replied, "Paul Ryan hails from an agriculture state and supported disaster relief, and the truth is no one will work harder to defend farmers and ranchers than the Romney-Ryan ticket." When a reporter asked Ryan about drought relief, which the House passed but which died in the Senate because of the Farm Bill impasse, he declined to discuss it, Steve Peoples of The Huffington Post reports.

Ryan's selection has made it less likely that a new Farm Bill will pass before the election, writes Chris Clayton of DTN/The Progressive Farmer: "Despite increasing pressure to adopt the legislation to help rural America cope with the drought, the Farm Bill now becomes an even more political document." (Read more)  While the drought is not the president's fault or a problem he can cure, "It is a far bigger issue for Barack Obama than Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney," says the Chicago Sun-Times. "Corn is the biggest crop in the U.S., and the price impacts a variety of domestic and international markets." (Read more) However, Obama's "promising help and compassion" in Iowa shows the advantages of an incumbent, McClatchy Newspapers reported.

The lack of a new Farm Bill has also turned up the heat on congressional incumbents in farm country. "Farmers are complaining loudly to their representatives, editorial boards across the heartland are hammering Congress over its inaction, and incumbents from both parties are sparring with their challengers over agricultural policy," Jennifer Steinhauer writes for The New York Times. "This year’s Farm Bill was unlike any before it. While the House Agriculture Committee signed off on a measure, its substantial cuts to food programs alienated too many Democrats. And its cuts to those programs, as well as to some forms of farm aid, were not enough to appease the chamber’s most conservative members." (Read more)

Carolinas auto club notes dangerous rural roads

U.S. 129, a favorite of motorcyclists
but one of North Carolina's most
dangerous roads. (Citizen-Times)
In the latest of a long line of reports documenting the carnage on dangerous rural roads, the Asheville Citizen-Times that an annual AAA Carolinas analysis has labeled rural counties the “killing grounds” for traffic in the state. Five of the state's counties combined for 5.4 percent of the state’s fatal crashes, despite having only 2 percent of the state’s vehicle miles traveled.

Nationally, two-thirds of fatal crashes occur along rural roads, as reported here last year. Many AAA chapters issue reports about the phenomenon, which can serve as useful reminders.

“We really do it for heightened awareness, so drivers are aware when they are in these counties that there is an increased chance of being in a crash,” said Angela Vogel Daley of AAA Carolinas. “I think that people are obviously concerned when particular counties are on the list year after year.” Clay County handled less than 0.1 percent of the state’s vehicle miles traveled but had five fatal crashes per 100 million miles traveled — nearly five times more than the state average of 1.11 fatal crashes per 100 million miles traveled, according to AAA. (Read more)

Crop scientists are breeding – and farmers are raising – plants and animals more tolerant of drought

Texas rancher Ron Gill puts out cottonseed
feed for cattle bred for heat. (AP photo)
Across American agriculture, farmers and crop scientists have concluded that it’s too late to fight climate change, writes David Pitt of The Associated Press. They are responding with a new generation of hardier animals and plants specially engineered to survive, and even thrive, in intense heat with less rain. Cattle, Pitt reports, "are being bred with genes from their African cousins who are accustomed to hot weather. New corn varieties are emerging with larger roots for gathering water in a drought. Someday, the plants may even be able to "resurrect" themselves after a long dry spell, recovering quickly when rain returns."

"The single largest limitation for agriculture worldwide is drought," said Andrew Wood, a professor of plant physiology and molecular biology at Southern Illinois University. Kansas farmer Clay Scott is testing a new kind of corn called Droughtguard as his region suffers through a second consecutive growing season with painfully scarce precipitation.

The urgency also is evident in Texas, where rainfall has been below normal since 1996. Crops and pastures were decimated in 2011 by a searing drought, and some got hit again this year. Ranchers have sold off many animals they couldn’t graze or afford to feed. Cattle inventory, at 97.8 million head as of July 1, is the smallest since the U.S. Department of Agriculture began a July count in 1973. At least one rancher is now breeding cattle with genes that trace to animals from Africa and India, where their ancestors developed natural tolerance to heat and drought. (Read more)

South Dakota starts program to get health workers, not just doctors, to work in rural areas

Mindy Jagerson, left and Julie Crick at
work at the Freeman Regional Health
Services Hospital (Argus-Leader photo)
Incentives to get doctors in rural areas, like this one in Missouri, are common. Now a program will put $10,000 bonuses into the hands of newly hired health-care employees if they promise to keep working in rural South Dakota for three years. The money comes from the state with a matching share from the worker's employer, reports Jon Walker of the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls. The South Dakota legislature approved the arrangement this year to protect towns where hospitals and nursing homes struggle to find employees.

The jobs include nurses, dietitians, nutritionists, lab technicians, pharmacists, paramedics, X-ray technologists and occupational, physical and respiratory therapists. "It's a no-brainer for the staff person," said Dan Gran, CEO at Freeman Regional Health Services. "They get their $10,000. All they've got to do is show up and maintain their employment. We benefit because we've retained them."  The program is limited to communities with less than 10,000 people.  If the town is smaller than 2,500, the state will pay 75 percent.

The new program bypasses federal involvement, notes Walker. It would use about $300,000 a year from the state general fund. A companion program sets up bonuses for rural health professionals with more training. They range from $35,000 for midlevel professionals to $100,000 for doctors starting new jobs and promising to stay three years in towns smaller than 10,000. The state again covers up to 75 percent of costs. Annual cost is $515,000 for the state. Deputy State Health Secretary Tom Martinec said it's reasonable to use public money to assist private business. "The fact of the matter is we need health care workers in rural areas. They're competing against larger towns. That's why we needed to step in."

Sunday, August 12, 2012

The state of the weekly newspaper industry: healthy, more rural, not as digital as it could be

Between 1997 and 2009, the community weekly newspaper industry became dramatically more rural and more dominated by group ownership, according to a research paper, "The State of the Weekly Newspaper Industry," presented today at journalism educators' annual convention in Chicago. (Because of an error in the conclusions section, an earlier version of this item said it had become less rural.)

Fifteen years ago, 45 percent of weeklies were defined as rural, being in a city or town with fewer than 10,000 people; in 2009, the rural share was 67 percent. The suburban share fell to 21 percent, from 46 percent. Average circulation declined for weeklies based in metropolitan central cities, but grew for those in rural and suburban or "micropolitan" areas, with cities of populations between 10,000 and 50,000.

The study found that the share of weeklies that were group owned increased by about half, to 62 percent, since 1997. Research presented in 2004, using different methodology by different researchers, showed group ownership at 58 percent.

Roughly two-thirds of weeklies had websites in 2009, but only about 6 percent allowed visitors to directly upload articles, and about 6 percent had paywalls, the latest study found. That number appears to have increased greatly in the past year or two, but the research only went through 2009.

The study was presented by Stephen Lacy of Michigan State University at the convention of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. His co-authors were Daniel Riffe of the University of North Carolina, David Coulson of Jackson State University and Robin Blom of Michigan State. For a PDF of the paper, click here.