Friday, November 30, 2012

Public radio station in Missouri gets grant to develop drone aircraft for rural, environmental journalism

A public radio station owned by the University of Missouri has won a university grant to develop drone aircraft to gather images for journalism in rural areas.

Scott Pham, content director of KBIA in Columbia, won $25,000 from the university's Information Technology Committee, which he and the station "will use to fund research for the construction and modification" of drones, Dylan Byers of Politico reports.

"Because current regulations require drones to stay below 400 feet and away from populated areas, our area of focus will be on rural and environmental stories," Pham told Byers. "We plan to fly only on public lands or in areas where we have explicit permission from the landowners. The result will be a collection of web and radio stories that take advantage of a drone’s ability to gain perspectives and information not easily obtained on the ground."

Pham added, "We believe that by getting journalists involved with drones early on, we’re not only giving our industry a leg up, but we might influence the development of the technology too. Journalism is just one application. I think we’ll be surprised at how many different industries can use these things."

Fracking-chemical disclosure laws have loopholes that keep citizens clueless about content

Drill pipes on a rack near Nabors
Industries Ltd. site.(Bloomberg photo)
The people who live in and around rural Karnes County, Texas, have no idea what's in a substance identified as “EXP-F0173-11” that has been pumped into in a half-dozen oil wells there. Now, neither does the state of Texas. Despite the state's year-old law requiring onshore drillers to disclose chemicals they pump underground, Superior Wells Services, the company that manufacturers the mystery substance, considers it a "trade secret" and thus Texas courts are powerless to force Nabors Industries Ltd. to disclose the chemicals that make up the EXP-FO173-11 toxic blend. Reporters for Bloomberg Businessweek write,"This much is clear: One ingredient (in the blend), an unidentified solvent, can cause damage to the kidney and liver, according to safety information about the product that Michigan state regulators have on file."

Nabors, the largest onshore drilling contractor by revenue, is not the only one claiming exemption  from the new Texas law. According to Bloomberg-Businessweek, in this year alone, more than 19,000 such exemptions to the law have been granted. (Data from the documents were compiled by Pivot Upstream Group, a Houston-based firm that studies the energy industry, and analyzed by Bloomberg.)

"Nationwide, companies withheld one out of every five chemicals they used in fracking, a separate examination of a broader database shows," the reporters note. Several other states that require disclosure of hydraulic-fracturing chemicals, including Louisiana, Montana, New Mexico and North Dakota, also leave it up to energy companies to determine what chemicals can be labeled secrets.  (Read more)

USDA to start its quintennial Census of Agriculture Dec. 18; tells small farmers that their input matters

Starting Dec. 18, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will be conducting its Census of Agriculture, which every five years provides a comprehensive snapshot of farming nationwide, down to the county level. Three million surveys will be mailed. But, reports Grant Gerlock of Harvest Public Media, small farms are often underrepresented in the census because they choose not to return the survey. This, he writes, does an injustice to all farmers because "census numbers help direct the flow of funding out of Washington and inform policy decisions on things like the Farm Bill and disaster relief."

Dean Groskurth, director of the Nebraska field office of the National Agricultural Statistical Service, said USDA is always in contact with those who farm commodity crops like corn, cattle, hogs and wheat, but what they don't know so much about is specialty crops. He said now is the time for small farmers to give information to the government so good decisions can be made about helping them or others like them. The census counts as a farm any place that has the potential to sell more than $1,000 of agricultural products, whether it's urban or rural, one acre or a thousand. Results of the survey should be available in early 2014. (Read more)

Mississippi River shipping interests cry for help

Barge, shipping and business organizations including the National Association of Manufacturers, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the American Petroleum Institute asked President Obama to declare an emergency in the heartland this week, calling for "immediate assistance in averting an economic catastrophe" because near-record-low water levels have drastically slowed Mississippi River barge traffic and part of the river may have to be closed to barges. The shallow water is  prompting shippers to take their business off the river and find alternatives; they want Obama to order the Army Corps of Engineers to release more water from the Missouri River to avoid closure of the Mississippi from St Louis to Cairo, Ill., where the larger Ohio River joins it. (Associated Press photo)

Alan Bjerga of Bloomberg Businessweek reports that the Corps is taking heat for mismanagement of the Missouri-Mississippi river system even as lawmakers cede that the worst drought in five decades and seasonal dryness has changed much about the landscape of national commerce. Barges on the Mississippi handle about 60 percent of the nation’s grain exports entering the Gulf of Mexico through New Orleans, as well as 22 percent of its petroleum and 20 percent of its coal. (Read more)

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Drop in turnout among rural voters was double the rate of decline among all voters; why, do you think?

"Voter turnout dropped across the country in the 2012 election, but the decline in rural counties was twice that of the nation as a whole," the Daily Yonder reports. "And most of that decline came from Democratic totals." (Yonder chart)
"Rural residents still voted more than those in the cities, but the decline is remarkable. And, as the county groups grow less urban, the turnout decline grows larger," Bill Bishop and Roberto Gallardo write. Why? They asked James Gimpel, a University of Maryland political scientist, to examine rural counties with fewer that 10,000 people, and he said, “Neither of the candidates inspired rural voters to go vote, although there was even less enthusiasm for Obama than there was for Romney.”

But that doesn't really explain why there was such a decline in rural turnout. What was it about Obama, Romney and their contest that kept so many rural people from voting? Comment below.

UPDATE, Dec. 5: The Yonder takes one of the essays from a new book to help explain why rural turnout has declined: Politicians just don't spend as much time in rural areas as they once did. The essay is from Kentucky Cured: Fifty Years in Kentucky Journalism, by Al Smith, co-founder of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog.

Environmental, energy groups hope free-market approach will keep bird off endangered list

The Environmental Defense Fund is proposing "a free-market plan aimed at keeping the lesser prairie chicken off the endangered species list," Phil Taylor of Energy & Environment News reports. The plan is a habitat credit exchange that would encourage landowners and energy companies to voluntarily conserve the bird's habitat in Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. (Photo by Gerrit Vyn)

EDF and its allies, including energy companies, hope the plan would prevent the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from putting the lesser prairie chicken on the endangered species list, which would restrict development by drillers, wind-energy companies, ranchers and the government. They also hope the FWS will follow the example of the dunes sagebrush lizard, which stayed off the list after companies, landowners and ranchers agreed to maintain its habitat. This "free-market" approach to habitat preservation could be an example to other areas.

The lesser prairie chicken has been on the endangered-species waiting list for more than a decade. Scientists say livestock grazing, tree encroachment, energy development and conversion of rangeland to cropland have reduced its habitat and population. "The EDF proposal reflects a broader shift toward the use of voluntary, state-led conservation agreements as the FWS faces court-ordered deadlines to issue listing decisions on scores of other candidate species," Taylor reports. (Read more)

Appalachia's aging population could be 'canary in the coal mine' for rest of country, scholars write

"With its higher proportion of older residents, Appalachia may be America’s 'canary in the coal mine,' an early warning system of problems and possibilities that come with an older population. Paying close attention to what is happening in the Appalachian region will benefit everyone interested in the future of older Americans," write Phillip Obermiller and Robert Ludke of the University of Cincinnati in their journal article, "Appalachia and its Aging Cohort: An Early Warning System for American Aging," published in the most recent edition of Aging Today.

More than 15 percent of the region's residents are 65 or older, compared to the national average of 13 percent. The share is expected to reach 20 percent by 2025. "Appalachia's older-than-age-65 population is growing faster than in the United States or even in the 639 counties adjoining the region," Obermiller and Ludke write. Men aged 65 to 74 form the fastest-growing segment of the population, at triple the rate of women in the same age range. The authors write that they have no specific cause for this, except that women may move from the region more frequently.

The authors say Appalachia's population is older than average because of "the constant flow of younger people out of the region." The greater percentage of elderly doesn't mean they have longer life spans than the average non-Appalachian. Mortality among those aged 35 to 64 is higher in Appalachia than in the rest of the country, most likely the result of higher rates of chronic disease, including cancer, heart disease and diabetes. Poor diet and poor environmental, social and economic conditions contribute to health disparities, the authors write.

"Creative responses to both the challenges and opportunities of an older population are already underway at the local level" in Appalachia, the authors write. In West Virginia, there are six designated retirement communities, counties in which elderly can find affordable housing, healthcare and recreational opportunities. The Christian Appalachian Project provides service for elderly people in Kentucky in the hope they can remain in their homes longer. In North Carolina, the Appalachian Heritage Crafters train senior citizens how to make, market and sell homemade crafts.

To gain full access to the journal article, click here.

Coal will continue declining, especially in Appalachia, congressional report says

Coal will continue to be a key fuel source for America, but its share of electric generation will keep dropping because of cheap natural gas and other factors, according to the Government Accountability Office, the auditing arm of Congress. "The report adds to the fairly common notion that less coal will be burned for domestic electricity production," reports Taylor Kuykendall of The State Journal of Charleston, W. Va. "In the Central Appalachian coal basin, many companies are beginning to turn their focus to metallurgical coal used for steel making as opposed to that fed into coal-fired power plants." Metallurgical coal is much less abundant than bituminous coal burned to make steam for electric turbines.

Cheap gas, along with new limits on carbon-dioxide emissions, will be the biggest factors reducing the amount of coal burned for electricity. The GAO predicts that utilities will cut coal-fired generating capacity from 15 to 24 percent by 2035, and it found that 15 to 18 percent of coal-fired capacity is planned for retirement. About 90 percent of U.S. coal is used to generate electricity, and coal generated about 42 percent of electricity in 2011.

The GAO reports says coal production's decline will vary by region. Using Energy Information Administration data, it predicts that Western coal production will increase while Appalachian coal production will decline through 2035. Just 24 percent of the country's coal supply will be mined in Appalachia by 2035, down from 31 percent in 2010, which represents an industry trend that started in the 1990s. (Read more)

All of this is nothing new to those who follow the coal industry. As Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette writes, the report "confirms things we already knew about the future of Appalachian coal."

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

House Republicans say no new Farm Bill by Jan. 1, but propose an extension as a year-end priority

House Republican leaders have listed extension of the current Farm Bill, not passage of a new one, "as one of a half-dozen items that needs to be finished before year-end," Agri-Pulse reports today after interviewing House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., right. "The length and scope of any extension is still unknown – dependent primarily on successful completion of the 'fiscal cliff' negotiations."

Lucas says there will be no new Farm Bill by Jan. 1 because the Department of Agriculture would not be ready to implement it, but that may be a negotiating position, or an excuse. The Senate has passed a new five-year Farm Bill that is estimated to cost $23 billion less than the current version would over the next 10 years, and wants it included as part of the fiscal-cliff calculations. And so do House Democrats; Agri-Pulse notes that the top Democrat on the Agriculture Committee, former chairman Collin Peterson of Minnesota, "is adamantly opposed to a Farm Bill extension."

“Collin has made it very clear that he wants a complete product, he wants it now and he wants the House version. I agree with him on all of those points,” Lucas told Agri-Pulse. “But in my role as chairman, I have to work in the environment that I’m in.” House Republicans are divided about the Farm Bill, mainly by how much should be spent on the Special Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps.

Agri-Pulse is subscription-only, but offers a free trial.

Rural cancer survivors have more health challenges than their counterparts in metropolitan areas

Rural cancer survivors are more likely than their urban counterparts to say they are in poor health, to have other health disorders or more psychological distress, and to be unemployed due to health reasons, according to a study published in the journal Cancer. They are also more likely to have lower incomes, less education and no health insurance, lead author Kathryn Weaver told Valerie DeBenedette of Health Behavior News Service. We don't know if she told her those things are true of rural Americans generally.

Results were garnered from a survey of 7,800 cancer survivors, of whom about one in five were from rural areas. This means that about 2.8 million rural people are cancer survivors, said Weaver, an assistant professor at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C. Unemployment or underemployment adds to rural survivors' stress because most people below retirement age get insurance through their employers. Stress could also come from being far away from oncologists and other specialists, which can also take away time from work. "If you think of the stress of cancer and not being able to afford and access health care, I am sure that that amplifies stress," Weaver said. (Read more)

Forecast says farmers' income to drop 3 percent, due mainly to drought; crop insurance softens blow

U.S. farm income will drop 3 percent this year as a result of this summer's drought, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service, which released its 2012 Farm Income Forecast yesterday. The report said that in spite of income loss, total farm income will be close to last year's record high, because most farmers have crop insurance and many benefited from higher grain princes caused by the drought.

According to the USDA, feed costs rose 18 percent this year, and will account for 40 percent of the rise in production costs, Charles Abbot of Reuters reports. Crop insurance will provide the largest increase in farm income, the report says. Production costs are expected to rise by 8 percent this year, which would outpace a gain in crop and livestock income. (Read more)

Groups join to buy leases to prevent drilling in West

In the last six years, environmentalists, politicians, wildlife organizations and others have come together in Western states to protect wild areas from oil and natural gas drilling by buying out leases or persuading companies to donate land for tax write-offs, Ray Ring of High Country News reports. Hundreds of acres of land have either been donated or bought so far. (HCN photo by Dave Showwalter; Wyoming Range national forest area targeted for lease buyout)

The efforts of groups to buy land or get it donated "differ from wilderness designation campaigns, because they focus on areas that have already been leased to industries, and their coalitions sometimes include anti-wilderness off-road drivers," Ring reports. In Montana, about 700,000 acres in the Lewis and Clark National Forest and about 200,000 acres in the Flathead National Forest have been bought or donated. The Nature Conservancy and Canadian environmentalists are giving more than $9 million to buy 400,000 acres of mining leases in Canada's portion of the Flathead River watershed. Along the Thompson Creek Divide in the White River National Forest in Colorado, a campaign has started to buy out leases on 100,000 acres.

But these deals are not easy to complete, Ring writes. A multi-group effort in Wyoming to protect 100,000 acres of the Bridger-Teton National Forest may fall apart if the Trust for Public Land can't raise about $4 million by the end of the year. The group has already raised $5 million. Most of the land being saved is forested, and some are taking issue with that, Ring writes: "Almost all of the tens of millions of acres of federal land leased to drillers lie in the lower-elevation sagebrush and desert, not mountain forests, because that's where geology has deposited most of the oil and gas." Desert advocates appreciate forest deals, but want more attention paid to deserts. (Read more)

Atlas maps world food production and distribution, down to the level of farmers' markets

Does your town have a farmers' market? Do you know where the vendors come from? Might that make a good story? Yes, it might, and a map would help. Here's some groundbreaking guidance: More than 100 cartographers have contributed to a soon-to-be-published collection of maps about food. Each one tells a different story, from meat production in Maryland, to the international almond trade, to taco trucks in California Adam Cole of NPR reports: "Some are local, some are regional, some are global, but in a few days they'll be bound together between the covers of Food: An Atlas. (Map: Sources of food at Berkeley, Calif. farmers' markets)
The project, which was started by University of California, Berkeley cartography professor Darin Jensen, was completed within five months, the time it takes to grow an artichoke, Jensen told Cole. Jensen put out a call for maps exploring food production and distribution, and received some completed maps, some ideas for maps, and some offers from others to help create maps. There are about 80 maps so far, all in varying degrees of style, range and content.

Jensen told Cole he hopes the atlas will prompt action and discussion about food systems. "These maps are going to enlighten us about humanity's relationship with food," Jensen said. "But they are going to raise more questions than they answer." The cartographers intend to keep collecting food maps, and hope to published an extended atlas with hundreds of maps in the future. (Read more)

Climate change raises Dust Bowl-like specters

Could climate change bring another version of the Dust Bowl? Some look at the current drought in the high plains and suggest that possibility. (U.S. Department of Agriculture Drought Monitor map: Red is extreme drought, maroon is exceptional)

Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Wyoming experienced a large dust storm in October, following "preparation of fields for fall planting, and could be the first act of an encore performance" of the the 1930s Dust Bowl in the Great Plains, where the current drought is most intense. Temperatures are expected to remain higher than normal across most of the western half of the country in the next few months, Melissa Gaskill of Scientific American reports.

"If the drought holds on for two or three more years, as droughts have in the past, we will have Dust Bowl conditions in the farming belt," Environmental Working Group agriculture expert Craig Cox told Gaskill. "It could be in a sense an invisible Dust Bowl, not like the big storms before, but withered crops, dry stream and other disasters that accompanied the Dust Bowl." Soil-conservation programs and different farming practices make a repeat of the Dust Bowl unlikely in the foreseeable future, experts think.

Agriculture on the semi-arid southern Great Plains has relied on irrigation from the Ogallala Aquifer since the 1940s, which has been depleted by half. Some fear that most of the remaining reservoir will be gone in about 30 years. Climate change "has brought less rain as well as hotter temperatures that increase evaporation, forcing farmers to use even more water," Gaskill writes. Texas Tech University Climate Science Center director Katherine Hayhoe told Gaskill that the agriculture systems in semiarid states -- Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas -- are vulnerable. "We built these vulnerabilities into the system and climate change is the final straw that may break the camel's back," Hayhoe said. (Read more)

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Giving Tuesday, today, aims to 'create ways to give more, give better and give smarter'

In the beginning, there was Thanksgiving. Then there was Black Friday, named by retailers for the positive ink it brings to their business ledgers. Then there was Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday. And now, as a relief or antidote to all the getting, there is Giving Tuesday.

Today, "Charities, families, businesses and individuals are coming together to transform the way people think about, talk about and participate in the giving season," organizers say on the Giving Tuesday website. "It’s a simple idea. Find a way for your family, your community, your company or your organization to join in acts of giving. Tell everyone you can about what you are doing and why it matters. Join a national celebration of our great tradition of generosity. And together we’ll create ways to give more, give better and give smarter."

Sounds like a fine idea. The gifts can be of time, talents or money. For a list of the effort's founding partners, click here.

Country's middle becoming hotspot for start-up technology companies

A technology scene is growing in the middle of the country, with dozens of new ventures starting every year, investors committing hundreds of millions of dollars, and state governments partnering with private organizations to promote it all. "They are calling it the Silicon Prairie," reports John Eligon of The New York Times. The region contains just 5.7 percent of U.S. tech-investment deals, but it's just one of two places that experienced increased investment from the beginning of 2011, according to a joint report by the Angel Resources Institute, Silicon Valley Bank and CB Insights. (NYT Photo by Mark Kegans: Employees of an Iowa technology company)

About 15 to 20 technology start-ups are started every year in eastern Nebraska, a more than three times increase from five years ago, according to the Omaha Chamber of Commerce. Over the past seven months, about 60 start-ups have presented ideas in Missouri, and 160 start-ups in Iowa applied in 2010 with Startup City Des Moines, an incubator financed with $700,000 in public and private money, including a quarter-million dollars from the state.

"Traditionally, you’d say, 'Hey, if I want the safe lifestyle, I’ll stay here and I’ll do what generations before have done,'" said Jeff Slobotski, Omaha native and founder of Silicon Prairie News, a site covering the region’s tech scene. "Now, there is a newer potential in terms of what can take place here and not having to hop on the first plane out of here, saying, 'Hey, I’m going to set up shop in the Midwest and make a go at it here.'" Many people credit Silicon Prairie News for the region's start-up growth, Eligon reports, because other than writing about start-up news, the site organizes conventions to connect entrepreneurs with investors.

The region's tech entrepreneurs say the nature of their businesses is unique to the Midwest. Companies that have started in the last year include Ag Local, which provides an online marketplace to trade meat, and Tikly, which allows bands to sell concert tickets. There are also start-ups outside the information technology field that focus on biotechnology, manufacturing and medical devices. (Read more)

Unlike Tex. and Okla., officials in some states try to reverse or block local limits on drilling

Local officials in Texas often restrict drilling within city limits, and state officials and people in the oil and gas industry are accustomed to that and have few complaints about it. But in other states, "State officials are banding together with the oil and gas industry to head off the kind of local regulation that routinely happens in Texas with little fanfare," Mike Soraghan of Energy and Environment News reports.

Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper is suing the city of Longmont, Colo., just north of Denver, to reverse its ban on drilling in residential neighborhoods. Longmont residents voted to approve the ban earlier this month. In Pennsylvania, Republican Gov. Tom Corbett blocked two towns from restricting drilling through revision of zoning laws. In both states, industry representatives say that restricting drilling differently from town to town makes drilling more difficult because without uniformity across the state, drillers will have to change the way they drill on a case by case basis.

But in places like Texas and Oklahoma, where drilling has existed for decades and localities have enacted bans within city limits with little pushback, "Lack of uniformity hasn't pinched development," Soraghan reports. Some cities in Oklahoma "flat-out ban" drilling, Soraghan writes, but this has had very little effect on drilling in the state. (Read more)

Newspaper that covered and followed up on deadly tornadoes named best small, local paper of 2012

The Joplin Globe in Missouri has received the 2012 "Newspaper of the Year" award from the Local Media Association, a national trade group of more than 2,000 community newspapers. The Globe won in the category for dailies under 30,000 circulation. The Santa Fe New Mexican won second, and the Lawrence Journal-World of Kansas won third.

The Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri's School of Journalism conducted the judging. "The Joplin Globe serves its readers well with a comprehensive news report coupled with in-depth articles and features," the judges said. They cited "Faces of the Storm," biographies and photos of all victims of the May 2011 tornadoes, as "an especially noteworthy effort. Thoughtful design continues throughout the sections, and the advertising is modern and inviting. Headlines are appropriate in size and design and accurately written. This is a newspaper that is paying attention to its readers and its community."

William Ketter, vice president of Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., which owns The Globe, said the newspaper has always made strong local reporting its main focus. "The Joplin Globe is a prime example of a newspaper that is indispensable to its readers in good times and in times of crisis," Ketter said. (Read more)

Pine beetle infestations warm Canadian forests; fueled by climate change

The mountain pine beetle has ravaged forests across North America, and it has long been thought that infestations can raise surface temperatures by killing trees that once kept temperatures cool. Hard data about this phenomenon didn't exist, but researchers have now collected actual numbers that document how infestations warm Canadian forests, Christa Marshall of Energy & Environment News reports. Though the study focused on British Columbia, its implications could affect forests in the U.S., too, especially in coniferous forests of the Northwest. 

The study, published in Nature Geoscience by scientists at University of Toronto and the University of California, Berkeley, concluded that pine-beetle infestation in British Columbia raised surface temperatures in affected areas an average of 1 degree Celsius. In the worst-hit areas, summer temperatures increased by several degrees. Across all of British Columbia, beetle infestations likely raised temperatures an average of half a degree, even outside forests. "Previous studies have shown that climate change has allowed the beetle to flourish. Our work shows that beetle infestations in turn feed back on climate, creating yet warmer summertime temperatures," said study co-author Holly Maness of Berkeley.

Scientists used satellite and provincial forest data from 1999 to 2010 to reach conclusions. Maness said "the work is distinctive because it translates theory to a specific and very large region," Marshall reports. Scientists found that mild winters driven by climate change fuel infestations, and hot and dry summers make pine trees more susceptible to attack. (Read more)

Monday, November 26, 2012

Illinois' anti-eavesdropping law can't be used against those who record police, U.S. Supreme Court says

Here's some good news for journalists: The U.S. Supreme Court today let stand a federal appellate-court ruling in Illinois that "The state's anti-eavesdropping law violates free-speech rights when used against people who tape law enforcement officers," the Chicago Tribune reports. "Opponents of the law say the right to record police is vital to guard against abuses." (Read more)

Drought still on, threatening winter wheat; hurts food banks; look for higher food prices soon

As some areas of the country slowly recover from this summer's drought, some other areas still struggle as drought becomes more severe. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's latest Drought Monitor, below, shows more than 60 percent of the U.S. is experiencing some level of drought, with almost one-fifth in extreme or exceptional drought.
"The U.S. hard red winter wheat crop is in bad shape," Ken Anderson of Brownfield Ag News reports. USDA meteorologist Brad Rippey told Anderson the crop "got off to a rough start" because of drought, especially from Kansas to Texas where there's been no rain since October. "The crop is really in dire straits," he said, added that prospects for improvement aren't very good because precipitation will be sparse in the coming weeks. "We need a pattern change. We need a couple of big storms. We need some snowfall to bring back this winter wheat crop from the brink of disaster."

The drought increased food export prices and left farmers with less excess crops than usual, which means the federal government isn't buying as much excess and isn't donating as much to food banks. The USDA usually budgets to buy excess, or bonus, commodities for emergency food assistance programs, Annie Gowen of The Washington Post reports. Bonus commodities provide food banks with steady donations, but they have decreased to 371 million pounds this year, down from 500 million in 2010.

Consumers will start to see higher prices on meat and dairy by the end of the year, and on other items by mid-2013 because the drought "hit crops fundamental to America's food supply,"  reports Christianna McCausland of The Christian Science Monitor. Corn is found in about 74 percent of all food consumed in the U.S., and is used as livestock feed, and because there was so little of it available this summer, prices skyrocketed.

Gun and ammo sales jump after Obama re-election

Gun and ammunition sales spiked after President Obama's election this month because of fears that he might enact stricter gun controls in his second term or that United Nations agreements about gun control might infringe on the U.S. market, reports Anna Tinsley of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. If this pace continues, gun and ammo shortages could occur, dealers say. (Star-Telegram photo by Rodger Mallison: Clerk tries to sell an assault rifle)

Gun-control advocates say they don't understand the rush to stockpile. Obama has never said he would infringe on the right to bear arms, saying that he respected that right. But gun-owners' fears seems to stem from propaganda campaigns by the National Rifle Association and Obama's statements about wanting to restore the ban on assault weapons. After the 2008 election, people bought so many guns and ammo that a shortage ensued. It took more than a year for prices to drop and supplies to build back up. Sales after this year's election were not as high as four years ago, Tinsley reports.

Gun-buyers say they think Obama didn't push for stricter rules in his first term so he would get re-elected, and now that he has been, they fear increased regulations are on the horizon. Cheaper Than Dirt Outdoor Adventures owner DeWayne Irwin told Tinsley the buying frenzy will "die down" in the next six to eight months, but "Something will happen, maybe talk of an assault rifle ban, and it will all come up again," and when it does, sales will surpass 2008 numbers. (Read more)

UPDATE, Nov. 27: For the second year, gun buyers came out in record numbers on Black Friday, overloading the FBI with required background checks, Kevin Johnson of USA Today reports. The agency fielded 154,873 calls for checks, a 20 percent increase from last year's previous record of 129,166, according to FBI records. 

Sen. Baucus says he'll advocate for all things rural during 'fiscal cliff' discussions

Democratic U.S. Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, left, says he will advocate for rural initiatives and programs during legislative negotiations to avoid the Dec. 31 "fiscal cliff" of spending cuts and tax increases, Malia Herman of the Great Falls Tribune reports. Because Baucus is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, he could have a big influence on the final "fiscal cliff" deal. He is pushing for a new Farm Bill, abolishing the estate tax and protecting rural hospitals, among other things.

"I've been in a lot of meetings focused on debt reduction," Baucus told Herman. "In those groups, I find that I am the only person from a rural state and the only one who understands agriculture." He said he hopes legislators look to the Farm Bill when discussing cuts because the Senate's version would reduce the federal deficit by $23 billion while reforming farm programs. He also said he hopes to "champion tax cuts and tax credits benefiting rural Americans," Herman reports. (Read more)

Inland Press Association announces winners of annual contest; winners among small papers are listed

Hannah Furfaro of the Ames Tribune in Iowa was the big winner in the Inland Press Association's annual newspaper contest among newspapers with circulations of 10,000 to 25,000. She won first place for investigative and explanatory reporting.

Fufaro's winning investigative stories explored "the connection between Iowa State University and AgriSol Energy’s plans to build large-scale farms in Tanzania," the Tribune reports. She won first place for explanatory reporting for "stories about the Iowa Board of Regents’ tuition set-aside program, a practice recently abandoned that set aside a certain percentage of tuition received to fund financial aid programs." Presentation Editor Andy Rohrback was co-winner of that award, for his graphics and illustrations.

In the investigative category, the second-place winner in the circulation class was Lou Mattei of the Rio Grande Sun in Espanola, N.M. There was no winner among papers with circulations of less than  10,000. The news writing contests were judged by the School of Journalism and Telecommunications at the University of Kentucky.

In explanatory reporting, the winner among small newspapers was Tim Leeds of the Havre Daily News in Montana. Second went to Lorene Parshall of the Gaylord Herald Times in Michigan and third to Jeffrey Jackson of the Owatonna People's Press in Minnesota.

The People's Press won third place for editorial excellence among small papers, a category won by the Daily Star Journal of Warrensburg, Mo., for its "on-target and well-written commentaries on issues," which are concise and backed up with supporting evidence. Second place went to the Half Moon Bay Review of California.

Among newspapers with circulations of 10,000 to 25,000, the editorial-excellence winner was The Gazette of Janesville, Wis., for its "strongly local focus on issues directly affecting the newspaper's constituency." Second and third place, respectively, went to the Ames Tribune of Iowa and the Wyoming Tribune Eagle of Cheyenne. The category was judged by the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Kansas.

The contest includes several other categories. For more, click here.

Grass-fed beef gains popularity, but it takes twice as much time as finishing cattle on feedlots

The demand for grass-fed beef is growing, and is expected to continue growing at a relatively fast pace, perhaps 20 percent per year, according to one study. Alan Williams, a grass-fed beef producer and member of the Pasture Project, an effort to get more conventional Midwest producers to join in, tells Georgina Gustin of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "In the late 1990s there were only 100 producers. Now there are more than 2,000. The market has grown from being $2 million to $3 million to over $2.5 billion in retail value."(Photo by J.B. Forbes of McClatchy-Tribune)

Most U.S. cattle are sent to feedlots where they are fattened and finished with corn and other grains, Gustin reports. That system allows the beef industry to run cheaply and efficiently with fewer workers, and ranchers say even a partial switch to a pasture-based system, in which cattle are left to graze until slaughter, would be costly and impractical. Grass-fed advocates say the feedlot system and growth of the industry "has come at too high a cost for the environment, for human health and for the animals themselves," Gustin reports.

"Basically, it comes down to time," said American Grassfed Association president Patricia Whisnant, who also owns Rain Crow Ranch, one of the largest producers of grass-fed beef. "You take an animal off of the pasture, you give him antibiotics and corn, you're looking at harvesting that animal in 12 to 14 months. On grass, you're looking at 24 months, and more likely 28." (Read more)