Friday, April 26, 2013

George Jones, 'the spirit of country,' who did things his way and is compared to Frank Sinatra, dies at 81

Associated Press photo by Mark Humphrey
"George Jones, the definitive country singer of the last half-century," as Jon Pareles of The New York Times dubs him, died today in a Nashville hospital at age 81 after being hospitalized for eight days with fever and irregular blood pressure.

Jones "was a legendary figure in country music," Pareles notes. "His singing, which was universally respected and just as widely imitated, found vulnerability and doubt behind the cheerful drive of honky-tonk. With a baritone voice that was as elastic as a steel-guitar string, he brought suspense to every syllable, merging bluesy slides with the tight, quivering ornaments of Appalachian singing." The Tennessean quotes country-music scholar Nick Tosches: “He is the spirit of country music, plain and simple.”

Terence McArdle of The Washington Post puts it in comparative and perhaps surprising terms: "Music writers often placed him in the same echelon as Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday for his expressive and unguarded style." He also notes Jones's "marriage to Tammy Wynette was one of the most turbulent in country music." And Pareles notes, "As Mr. Jones sang about heartbreak and hard drinking, fans heard the echoes of a life in which success and excess battled for decades."

Jones was born in a log cabin at Saratoga, Tex., northeast of Houston, to an alcoholic father who would "beat the boy if he didn’t sing for his drinking buddies," McArdle writes. He broke into the big time through the "Louisiana Hayride" in Shreveport. He was known for singing with "very different duet partners," such as Melba Montgomery and early '60s teen idol Gene Pitney, but "his most popular duets were with Tammy Wynette, whom he married in 1969. Wynette’s producer, Billy Sherrill, helped alter Mr. Jones’s image from a wild honky-tonker to a sensitive balladeer. Sherrill chose songs for both performers that mirrored their stormy on-again, off-again relationship. And their fans hung on to every word of every song." (Read more)'the 

All W.Va. students to get free breakfast through public-private partnerships districts must create

Mason County students enjoy a meal of locally grown
food. (Charleston Gazette photo by Chip Ellis)
West Virginia lawmakers have passed a bill requiring schools to provide breakfast to every student and set up funds to collect private donations to be used solely for food. That makes the state the first to have a statewide public-private funding partnership to improve school meal programs, reports David Gutman for The Associated Press. Half the state's children live in families with income below the federal poverty line.

The program is based on one already in use in Mason County, where the Kanawha River meets the Ohio. Cristi Rulen, food service director for the district, said "They do it as a classroom and they're eating with their buddies, and it makes it more of like a family atmosphere," and "our discipline is down, our attendance is up." (Read more)

Molly Burchett of Kentucky Health News writes about the bill and how a similar measure could help children in Kentucky.

Smallmouth bass in Chesapeake Bay are sick

A smallmouth bass with cancer caught in the Susquehanna
River. (Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission)
Sport fishing for smallmouth bass, which has been a multimillion-dollar industry in the Chesapeake Bay, is under crisis, as many of the fish are becoming sick and are in condition too poor to keep as trophies. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation released a report Thursday saying the fish have "been struck by a perfect storm of pollution, parasites, disease and endocrine disruptors that are changing the sex of males," reports Darryl Fears for The Washington Post

The Chesapeake Bay is about 200 miles, with hundreds of rivers and thousands of streams and creeks flowing throughout the watershed, which stretches more than 64,000 miles through six states. For more background, see the Chesapeake Bay Program.

One feeder stream hit particularly hard is the 444-mile Susquehanna River, which flows from New York through Pennsylvania. Citing a study by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, the report found that between 2001 and 2005, catch rates for adult bass fell 80 percent in some areas of the Susquehanna, reports Fears. Commission Director John Arway said "he caught and released 200 bass on a summer night before 2005 and can now catch only three or four, and that anglers who come up empty-handed are shying away from the smallmouth bass, a business valued at nearly $650 million in 2011, according to the American Sportfishing Association," reports Fears. (Read more)

Journalist goes undercover as a meat inspector at slaughterhouse, writes first-person account

Ted Hanover
Writer Ted Hanover, whose quest for material for stories and novels led him to spend time crossing the border with Mexican nationals, and to work as a prison guard at Sing Sing in New York, recently spent two months going undercover in a slaughterhouse as a Department of Agriculture inspector. He gives his first-person account in an article in the May issue of Harper's magazine.

In “The Way of All Flesh: Undercover in an Industrial Slaughterhouse,” Hanover says he didn't go undercover to expose anyone, but out of curiosity on how meat is made. His story details his "learning curve wielding a knife and inspecting beef products and his interactions with coworkers and workers," Rita Jane Gabbett reports for Meatingplace, a multimedia information source for the meat industry.

Hanover likes to employ a first-person account of his investigations, and writes about his personal experiences "as he learned the job and the process of cattle slaughter and meat processing," Gabbett writes, noting that some disagree with Hanover's conclusions and interpretations. (Read more)

Harper's is available by subscription only, but an excerpt from Hanover's story can be read here. It reads in part: "When their time comes, the cattle will be urged by workers toward the curving ramp that leads up into the building. The ramp has a roof and no sharp turns. It was designed by the livestock expert Temple Grandin, and the curves and penumbral light are believed to soothe the animals in their final moments. But the soothing goes only so far."

Senators stress broadband at meeting, plan to start working on Farm Bill next month

Several members of the U.S. Senate's Democratic majority held a "Rural Summit" Thursday in Washington, focusing on ways to improve rural America. Among the main topics were a new Farm Bill, rural development and rural broadband, Shirley Bloomfield reports for NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association.

Most the senators "included access to rural broadband as a key for their state’s economic growth and a number of them referred specifically to the importance of universal service in the mix," Bloomfield reports. Mark Begich of Alaska said it was a priority for him that rural Americans have the same access and capacity as anyone else in America. He also told the "standing-room only crowd that the Universal Service Fund is critical for ongoing services in rural America, such as telemedicine, education and agriculture," Bloomfield reports.

Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Debbie Stabenow of Michigan said "she plans to markup a new Farm Bill in committee next month, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada announced on the Senate floor that the full Senate will take up a five-year Farm Bill in May, along with the Water Resources Development Act," Sara Wyant reports for Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter. Read more)

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Rural editor recalls changes, core values and a reader who realized why a sad story needed telling

Rural editor John Nelson reflected on the changes in journalism and the unchanging mission of community newspapers as he was inducted into the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame at the University of Kentucky this week.

"A community and its newspaper are each both plagued and blessed by the human condition, by the shortcomings and successes of their members. Only when those are revealed can they be overcome or celebrated. That's part of the newspaper's mission, and that may be the only way today's product resembles the one at which I began in the early '70s," Nelson said.

"For the most part, however, we still use the same words and write about the same topics. There is just more work and fewer people to do it. One day consumers of news will again accept that you get what you pay for, but that will first require those who hire journalists to accept the same thing. Good journalism is costly in a variety of ways. It often will offend friends, alienate acquaintances and anger customers. But when it works, you hope it makes a difference. Sometimes, you get a hint that it has, like I did in a letter I received many years ago after a particularly costly story."

Nelson then read from a letter from a reader who was horrified that his weekly newspaper would print a story with the awful details of the sex-abuse charges against a leading local citizen:
I am going to call them right now and cancel my subscription … tell them off and do everything I can to put them out of business. But, first I read it all. Oh, please Lord, I don't know about this. What do I feel? … Suddenly, it was like a great burden lifted, I was able to really face the truth for the first time. ... Nothing is ever exactly what it seems. Life is not black and white. It has many colors. I already had learned at great cost that having too much faith and trust in someone can be a great mistake… So, with all that said … I knew today would not be a good day at your newspaper … I appreciate your intentions … I feel so much better about myself and I can handle the answers that I must give to my family, my children and grandchildren, friends and political allies … Keep up the good work. You are what newspapers should be about. Facts, with a heart."
Nelson is executive editor of Advocate Communications, which owns dailies in Danville and Winchester and weeklies in Nicholasville and Stanford, and is a subsidiary of Schurz Communications. He was editor and co-owner of a weekly in Somerset after working at a weekly in Irvine, all in Kentucky. His induction citation called him "a leader for openness in government and quality in journalism" and noted his work as a leader of the Kentucky Press Association president on the state's first open-records audit and efforts to open juvenile courts.

Others joining the Hall of Fame were Akron Beacon Journal sportswriter Marla Ridenour, Bill Goodman of Kentucky Educational Television, retired news director Dan Modlin of Western Kentucky University's WKYU-FM, and the late Ralph W. Gabbard of Lexington's WKYT-TV and founder of Hazard's WYMT-TV, which might not be thought of as a community-journalism outlet, but in fact has created a greater sense of regional community among the topgraphically isolated and politically fractious communities of southeastern Kentucky.

Rural radio station among winners of NAB Crystal Radio Awards for community service

UPDATE, Sept. 21: WKDZ also won the NAB's 2013 Marconi Award for Small Market Radio Station of the Year. Other finalists were: KCLR-FM, Columbia, Mo.; KCVM-FM, Cedar Falls, Iowa; KICD-AM, Spencer, Iowa; and WLEN-FM in Adrian, Mich.

A rural radio station was among the 10 winners of the National Association of Broadcasters' NAB Crystal Radio Awards that recognize outstanding, year-round commitment to community service. Holding its own with stations from New York City, Washington, D.C., and Seattle was WKDZ in Cadiz, Ky. The other winners included WCVQ in nearby Clarksville, Tenn., KUZZ in Bakersfield and WYCT in Pensacola.

WKDZ, a country-music station, serves listeners in Trigg and Christian counties in southwestern Kentucky, along the Tennessee border. General Manager Beth Mann said the award, is “the top honor you can receive in the radio industry,” Justin McGill reports for The Cadiz Record. “The community makes it happen,” Mann said. “It’s really their generosity that makes it appear that we’re as driven as we are. It’s a partnership, and I was really happy to bring the award to our staff, but even more proud to bring it home to our community.”

WCVQ is only about 40 miles southeast of Cadiz. Both areas cover Fort Campbell, which is in Kentucky and Tennessee. The pop-music station is owned by the 5 Star Radio Group, which owns five radio stations in the area. General Manager Katie Gambill said hee "staff really has a heart for this community, and to be able to reward them for their generosity was really nice,” Nicole June reports for Clarksville Now. “The NAB award is an honor and we are humbled to be recognized for something we enjoy doing.”

KUZZ plays country music in Bakersfield, at the southern tip of the San Joaquin Valley, and has many rural listeners. Its website says the "recognition is gratifying and humbling," but even more so because they are the No. 1 station in the market and the "rich tradition of country music is alive and well in Bakersfield and doing quite nicely." The list of winners is here.

Great Plains employment rises, reversing trend

Great Plains states have seen a remarkable turnaround in employment, and are one of the few rural areas in the country experiencing growth, according to a report by the National Agricultural & Rural Development Policy Center, reports the Daily Yonder.

Great Plains employment steadily declined from 2001 to 2007 (above), as most other regions were growing, but from 2007 to 2011 (below), the opposite was true, with the Great Plains showing growth, and most other areas seeing a decline. Researchers said, “Growth in the nation’s heartland likely reflects higher commodity prices and the energy boom," and “its sparse population may have insulated this region from the housing bust.”
In rural areas nationwide, employment rates in mining, retail, waste management and self-employment are up, while there has been a drop in rates for jobs in farming, manufacturing, and construction, the Yonder reports.

Amid confusion and possible conflicts of interest, Ky. lawmakers OK selenium-in-water rule for coal

The Kentucky Cabinet for Energy and Environment may have confused lawmakers into passing a proposed regulation about the amount of selenium that can be discharged into streams by mining operations. And in passing the proposal, legislators ignored a possible conflict of interest from various organizations who worked within the system to push the bill, Ronnie Ellis reports for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., which owns five daily and six weekly newspapers in Kentucky, almost all of them near the Eastern Kentucky Coalfield.

"Selenium is a chemical found in mineral ores and in trace amounts in the cells of all animals — but it is toxic in larger amounts," Ellis explains. "It is exposed during excavation or explosions of rock and ore, including surface mining operations and the mining practice known as mountaintop removal."

Rep. Tommy Turner of Somerset, whose district lies partly in the coalfield, asked that a the legislative subcommittee that reviews regulations have more time to study the effects of selenium. That request was denied by the cabinet, and Turner "suggested the cabinet deliberately confused the committee and backed lawmakers into a corner where they had to choose between an acute selenium standard some felt was unacceptably high — or no acute standard at all," Ellis writes in one of two stories this week on the subject. Still, Turner voted in favor of the amendment, which easily passed. The regulation still has to be approved by the Environmental Protection Agency.

In addition to the hurried vote, there was some strange relationships among people pushing the bill. "David Nicholas, the legislative staffer assigned to the Administrative Regulations Review Subcommittee, is the father-in-law of Bruce Scott, the cabinet’s commissioner of environmental Protection, who urged approval of the regulation," Ellis writes. Also, Jim Booth, chairman of Booth Energy, which manages major coal operations in three states including Kentucky, is chairman of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, which testified on behalf of the amendment. Lawmakers didn't seem concerned about possible conflicts of interest, writes Ellis in his second story of the week on the topic. UPDATE: He takes off the gloves in this column.

Lawmakers debate bill to allow Eastern Washington residents to kill animal-attacking wolves

People in the eastern Washington may soon be allowed to kill wolves caught in the act of attacking animals on their property without having to obtain a permit. State lawmakers signed a petition Tuesday requesting the state Fish and Wildlife Commission to enact two wolf-control measures that have stalled in the state legislature, the Spokesman-Review reports. The proposal also suggests non-lethal alternatives. (AP photo)

Gray wolves have been removed from the endangered list, but are still protected by state laws. "State wildlife managers have testified at legislative committee hearings that the measures would likely result in few wolves killed," the newspaper reports, citing similar laws in Idaho and Wyoming, where only three wolves have been taken. (Read more)

"Senate Bill 5187 would allow rural dwellers to kill a gray wolf caught in the act of attacking or threatening livestock or another domestic animal, no permit required," the paper reports. "Senate Bill 5193 would allow the State Wildlife Account to be used for compensating owners of livestock for damage caused by wolves. It also would create a new account to be used for livestock predation claims." Under the existing law, livestock has to be raised to be sold to qualify for wildlife damage compensation. (Read more)

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Federal money to help farmers' markets buy machines to accept food stamps is going unspent

Federal money designed to help farmers' markets accept food stamps is going unspent, mostly because the Department of Agriculture is having a hard time finding anyone who wants the money, or is qualified to receive it, reports Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter. Only 6.6 percent of the $4 million allocation has been spent. (Photo from Poor Girl Eats Well)

The grant gives farmers' markets technology to participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, which offers nutrition assistance to millions of low-income people and provides economic benefits to communities, according to USDA. Rogerio Carrasco, the program's coordinator, said it has been a struggle to award the $2,000 grants, which allow markets to "purchase machines that can accept, and networks that can keep track of, SNAP dollars," Agri-Pulse reports. As of May 2012, only 1,500 of the 7,100 markets in the U.S. accepted the electronic benefit transfer payments.

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

Another side of the horse crisis: Abandoned colt, unknown to farmer, fathers several foals

Horse owner Marilyn Montavon and one of her horses
(Lexington Herald-Leader photo by Greg Kocher)
A Central Kentucky horse farmer has been finding bundles of surprises in her stables. Someone managed to sneak an unwanted colt onto her property, and the horse lived unnoticed for at least a year among her herd of more than 20 Thoroughbred mares. As expected, the end result has been a bevy of surprise pregnancies that could cost the horse owner thousands of dollars in food and veterinary bills, reports Greg Kocher for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

"I think somebody just figured they didn't want to send the horse to the (slaughterhouse) and they thought, 'Oh, here's a field full of horses. He'll get lost in the herd,'" said Marilyn Montavon, who owns the 50-acre farm near Centerville in Bourbon County, near Lexington.  "But they were irresponsible in putting a colt out with a field full of mares."

The colt, whom Montavon dubbed Mystery Man, has since been sent to live with a friend in Illinois, but where he came from remains a mystery. Police have no record of a missing or stolen horse, Kocher writes, but a horse farmer in Jessamine County, south of Lexington, had three horses suddenly appear on her farm, Karen Gustin, executive director of the Kentucky Equine Humane Center, told Kocher. "We will eventually take those horses because they're labeled as abandoned," Gustin said. "There's no information as to where they came from or who they belonged to." (Read more)

Read more here:

Read more here:

Read more here:

New horse slaughter plant in New Mexico passes inspection, draws objections

Rick De Los Santos stands in front of his horse
slaughter plant. (AP photo by Jeri Clausing)
A proposed horse processing plant in New Mexico passed an inspection Tuesday by the Department of Agriculture, moving it one step closer to being the first to operate in the U.S. since 2007, Jeri Clausing reports for The Associated Press. Horse slaughter has been the topic of heated debates across the country, and the owners of the New Mexico plant say they have received death threats.

Congress forbade the use of federal money for inspection of horse meat, then reversed itself in 2011. Plant owner Rick De Los Santos applied for inspection in December of that year. He also applied for inspection in March, 2012 and March of this year, but USDA dithered. Now President Obama's proposed budget would again disallow funds for inspection, putting the issue back before Congress.

Front Range Equine Rescue, a horse-advocacy group, sent USDA a letter "asking it not to grant permission for Mr. De Los Santos to operate the facility because he had failed to disclose two felonies on his original application form, as well as on a second, subsequent form," Stephanie Strom reports for The New York Times, whose story notes other missteps in De Los Santos's background.

The 7,200-square-foot slaughterhouse has one kill floor and two processing rooms that can process 50 to 100 horses a day into meat for shipment overseas, Clausing reports. De Los Santos said, "They are being slaughtered anyway. We thought, well, we will slaughter them here and provide jobs for the economy." Others don't feel the same way, and have been fighting to keep the plants from opening. We have covered the horse-slaughter debate here, here, and here.

15th person dies from West Fertilizer blast; some tried to warn of impending disaster

A 15th person has been confirmed dead from the April 17 blast at the West Fertilizer Co. plant in West, Tex., as new information emerges that watchdog agencies and organizations warned of potential problems at the facility, such as the 2,400 tons of potentially explosive ammonium nitrate being stored on a site near schools, houses and a nursing home. (AP photo by Charlie Riedel: Cleanup continues.)

According to a November report by the Congressional Research Service, "the U.S. has about 90 facilities -- including chemical factories, refineries, water treatment plants or fertilizer depots -- that in a worst-case scenario would pose risks to more than a million people," Mark Drajem reports for Bloomberg News. "The calculations were based on the proximity of each plant to a population center as well as a 'worst-case release scenario,' such as an explosion or leak, that facility owners are required to report to the EPA."

"Environmental groups, unions and safety groups have pushed the U.S. to tighten oversight of chemical production and storage facilities, but they have never passed Congress," Drajem writes. "Instead, a patchwork of programs operates under separate departments, each with its own objectives, congressional oversight and constraints." (Read more)

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the Texas Department of State Health Services, the state chemist’s office and possibly others, knew as early as 2006 that West was stowing 2,400 tons of ammonium nitrate, but all failed to raise any concerns, Randy Lee Loftis reports for The Dallas Morning News. Bryan W. Shaw, chairman for TCEQ, said, “We don’t evaluate the explosive threat associated with these types of facilities. We look at the environmental and health impacts,” such as whether routine air emissions will cause a local problem. "Even when processing environmental permits for companies handling ammonium nitrate, asking about fertilizer fire and explosion risks is not the TCEQ’s job," he said. 

No one seems to want to take responsibility for missing the warning signs at the West plant. "Experts not involved in the investigation said that the scenario — a routine fire getting out of control and superheating a container with a large volume of ammonium nitrate, widely used as a fertilizer and as an explosive — was easily predictable and probably preventable if anyone from any agency had discussed simple safeguards with the company," writes Loftis. (Read more)

We wrote about concerns about the plant's safety regulations.

Education researcher says Obama's proposed budget doesn't do enough for rural schools

President Obama's proposed 2014 budget isn't distributed equally between rural and urban schools, and features several programs that favor urban schools but could be bad for rural schools, Caitlin Howley, an education researcher and technical assistant in West Virginia, writes for the Daily Yonder.

"Serving areas more sparsely populated, with smaller tax bases, and often poorer than urban or suburban districts, rural districts must conduct all the work of educating their students, implementing new initiatives and complying with state and federal policies that other districts must, but with fewer resources," Howley writes. "Rural district budgets are often further constrained by the high cost of transporting students across long distances. Stressed budgets in turn affect the number of staff that districts can hire and the number of higher-level courses they can offer."

The budget includes several programs that are designed to help rural areas, but instead do little to address the concerns of rural schools, such as post-secondary programs, when some rural students might not be going to college, or required programs that reward money based on number of students, which could hurt a rural school that has to hire a teacher for one class with a small amount of students, while receiving little money for the program, Howley writes. "With limited resources and overworked staff, it’s practically a miracle that rural schools and districts accomplish what they do." (Read more)

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

D.C. Court of Appeals sides with EPA in veto of permit for huge mountaintop-removal coal mine

Reversing a federal judge's decision, an appeals court ruled today that the Environmental Protection Agency legally rejected a permit for what would be one of the largest mountaintop-removal coal mines ever.

Judge Karen LeCraft Henderson wrote for a unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia that EPA can throw out Clean Water Act permits issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Henderson was appointed by George H.W. Bush; the two other judges were appointed by George W. Bush, notes Ken Ward Jr. of The Charleston Gazette.

The case involves Arch Coal's Spruce Mine in Logan County, West Virginia, originally proposed to cover more than 3,000 acres and permitted by the Corps for 2,300 acres. For a copy of the ruling, via Ward's Coal Tattoo blog, click here.

"Coal industry officials and coalfield politicians have argued that EPA did not have the legal power to veto the Spruce Mine permit after it was issued," Ward writes. "Their complaints about EPA's veto have been at the heart of their campaign to paint EPA as a rogue agency carrying out an illegal effort to destroy the Appalachian coal industry."

"EPA cited the growing scientific evidence that mountaintop removal significantly damages water quality downstream, and noted an independent engineering study that found Arch Coal could have greatly reduced the Spruce Mine's impacts," Ward notes. Jason Bostic, a vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association, told Ward, "I can't imagine Congress intended things to work this way. To restore some sort of stability back into the permit process, some legislation might be required." (Read more)

Rural science teacher is national Teacher of the Year

AP photo by Susan Walsh
A teacher at a rural high school near Yakima, Wash., was honored as national Teacher of the Year today "in a White House ceremony where President Obama praised him for his efforts to show students that they are smart enough to do anything," reports the Yakima Herald-Republic.

Jeff Charbonneau, 35, is a science and technology teacher at the high school in Zillah, a small town about 15 miles southeast of Yakima. "Charbonneau says success begins with building relationships with students, which in turn helps build confidence that they can do the work," the Herald-Republic said in an editorial.

Price of farmland keeps rising; more fear a crash

The price of farmland, specifically in the Corn Belt, Northern Plains and Great Lakes states, keeps going up, and has more people worried that it will crash.

The value of farmland in Nebraska rose 36 percent per acre from 2007 to 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. During the same period, values rose 30 percent in North Dakota, 25 percent in Kansas, South Dakota and Minnesota, 24 percent in Iowa, 17 percent in Illinois and Indiana, 14 percent in Missouri and Ohio, 11 percent in Michigan, and 7 percent in Wisconsin. Values also rose 8 percent in New York, 7 percent in North Carolina, 6 percent in Kentucky and 4 percent in West Virginia, but stayed steady, or dropped, in every other state. (Read more)

National Agricultural Statistics Service graph
"In 2010, excellent Illinois farmland was selling for a modest $7,000 per acre instead of the current $13,000 per acre," reports Marcia Zarley Taylor for DTN/The Progressive Farmer. In a poll conducted by DTN, 50 percent of respondents said they think Corn Belt farmland prices are forming a bubble headed for a crash, 39 percent believe a bubble is forming but will have a soft landing, and 9 percent believe farmland values aren't close to a top yet and will continue to rise, Taylor writes.

Mike Duffy, an economist at Iowa State University, told USA Today reporter Christoper Doering that in Iowa, "An acre of farmland that a decade ago sold for an average of $2,275 now goes for $8,700," and last year "an 80-acre parcel near Boyden in Sioux County, some of the most fertile ground in the Corn Belt, sold for a record $21,900 per acre."

Michael Hein of the Liberty Trust and Savings Bank, in the southeast Iowa town of Durant, told Doering, "The concern clearly is not so much how much higher are they going to go, but when this bubble breaks, how low will they go and what will the aftermath of that be?" (Read more)

EPA asks State Dept. to find another route for pipeline, questions greenhouse-gas estimates

A stick marks the proposed route of the pipeline near
Bradshaw, Neb. (Associated Press photo by Nati Harnik)
The Environmental Protection Agency has voiced concerns about the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, saying the State Department may have underestimated the amount of greenhouse gas it could release. The EPA is asking the State Department to look for an alternative route, saying more analysis needs to be conducted before the government approves the TransCanada project to ship heavy tar-sands oil from Alberta.

"The EPA’s objection provides opponents with political ammunition and could force President Obama to weigh in on the permitting decision," report Lenny Bernstein and Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post. "Secretary of State John Kerry will decide whether the pipeline is in the U.S. national interest unless another federal agency objects. If the EPA continues to challenge State’s analysis, Obama will have to make the call."

The northern leg of the pipeline would covers 1,179 miles and transport 830,000 barrels daily, traveling across 274 miles of Nebraska, home of the Ogallala Aquifer, a vital source of water under most of the Great Plains. We wrote recently about the fight Nebraskans have waged against the pipeline to get it moved away from the aquifer.

Website launched to help expose online plagiarism

With advances in technology just about anyone can say he or she is a journalist and post a story online. They can also steal the work of others and claim it as their own, knowing it's highly unlikely the original writer will ever discover the plagiarism. The Sunlight Foundation, a group that uses the Internet to promote a more open government and provide new sources for news media, hopes to change that with its new website, Churnalism, a source "to help detect possible plagiarism in news and research articles online," according to a press release from the organization.

Using a database of press releases and Wikipedia entries, the site "matches fragments of text between two documents," states the press release. Users can run the system "automatically, or you can manually paste in the URL or text of an article," and if it finds a match, "shows you a side-by-side result right on your computer screen." Visit the site here.

Lower Great Lakes threatened by toxic waste in N.Y.

The Buffalo News began a three-part series today examining how 800 hazardous waste sites in three counties in Western New York pose a serious threat to the lower Great Lakes, drinking water for millions of people in the U.S. and Canada. A study, conducted by local environmental groups and based on information from state and federal organizations, found potential chemical hazards in Erie, Niagara and Cattaraugus counties, reports Dan Herbeck and T.J. Pignataro. (Above, Greg Evans has lived all his life near the Love Canal Containment Area in Niagara Falls. Buffalo News photo by Charles Lewis.)

The study found the three counties have 174 state or federal Superfund sites (an uncontrolled or abandoned place where hazardous waste is located) and 43 of those have been designated as significant threats to public health, Herbeck and Pignataro. write. Niagara County has more than twice as many hazardous waste sites as comparably sized counties in the state, and Erie County has almost eight times as many brownfield cleanup sites - abandoned or underused properties where there may be environmental contamination. (Read more)

Conference examines ways to improve Central Appalachian economy without relying solely on coal

Finding new sources of non-coal-related income and jobs for families in Eastern Kentucky and Central Appalachia was the focus of last weekend's Appalachia’s Bright Future Conference, held in Harlan, Ky.  The three-day event focused on workshops, presentations and discussion on the economic future of the region, Joe Asher reports for the Harlan Daily Enterprise.

“Our coal industry is pretty down right now,” said Carl Shoupe, of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth. “If you study the industry, you can see that there’s some coal left here, but it’s not economically feasible for these coal companies to mine this coal at the present time, and it might not be in the near future.” (Read more) For background on the conference, go here.

Court overturns ruling that upheld blanket permit for mountaintop removal coal mines in Kentucky

Kentucky coal (Charles Bertram, Herald-Leader)
Environmental groups won a battle Monday in Kentucky that could prevent coal mining companies from dumping remnants of mountaintop removal into streams, Bill Estep reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A federal judge had upheld a ruling allowing mining companies to "fill sections of streams with large amounts of rock blasted away to uncover coal seams," Estep writes, but the Court of Appeals reversed the decision.

A nationwide permit adopted in 2007 by the Army Corps of Engineers permitted dumping mountaintop removal debris, "if the Corps decided the proposed mining would have only minimal environmental impact, both by itself and when combined with past mining," Estep writes. The permit was struck down in West Virginia in 2009, but upheld in Kentucky. The Corps has since adopted more stringent permitting conditions, but a few Kentucky mines apparently still operate under the old rules. (Read more)

Monday, April 22, 2013

Rural Ohio residents often say no to school property tax increases; is that a remnant of consolidation?

Despite performing well on state tests, and receiving high marks from the state, some rural school districts in Ohio can't pass tax levies, Ida Lieszkovszky reports for State Impact, a collaboration of public radio newsrooms.

Some rural Ohio schools haven't passed a levy since the 1970s, and one district, Warren Local Schools, has passed just 20 percent of requests for local money, compared to 51 percent in Franklin County, home of Columbus, and 43 percent in Cuyahoga County, home of Cleveland, she writes. (Lieskovsky photo: Warren school has no walls or doors between classes)

Warren Local is in Washington County, which borders West Virginia and has a per capita income of just over $23,000, compared to $56,000 for teachers in an area where only 15 percent of residents have a bachelor's degree or higher, Lieszkovszky reports. With no doors or walls between classrooms, schools use bookshelves and lockers to separate classes. Still, locals think the school has enough money, and have continually voted down levies. As a result, two school buildings were closed, teacher wages were frozen, 90 positions were eliminated, and high-school busing has been cut.

Some blame consolidation for the rift between residents and the school districts, Lieszkovszky writes. In the 1960s smaller schools were combined to make larger ones, and some residents felt they lost their "a significant part of their social life and local identity." Since then, residents have continued to hold a grudge when property taxes are put on the ballot, she writes. (Read more)

Home births are becoming more common, but many states continue to make non-nurse midwifery illegal

Home births in the U.S. rose 28 percent from 2004 to 2009, but remain less than 1 percent of the total. About half the states don't have laws allowing the practice of midwifery, writes Kelli B. Haywood, a Lamaze certified childbirth educator and rural Kentucky resident, writes for the Daily Yonder. Home birth midwifery is prohibited in Kentucky, she writes, even though home births in the state rose 27 percent from 2004 to 2009, she reports. It is also illegal in Alabama, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, North Carolina, South Dakota and Wyoming.

Certified nurse midwives are legal in all 50 states, but are typically trained nurses who work at hospitals and rarely participate in home deliveries. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention map)
For expectant mothers in rural Kentucky, home can be a better solution than going to a hospital, Haywood argues. Cristin Stanley-Potter, a mother of three who lives in the mountains of southeastern Kentucky, told her: “In all honesty, there isn't much to choose from. The obstetricians in our area do not provide evidence-based care. There are few to choose from in general, which means that each practice has a large number of patients and little attention is given to each one. I chose to give birth at home because I wanted a more personal experience, and I wanted the best care possible for myself and my child."

Of the 13 states with active legislation concerning midwifery licenses, seven have populations that are more rural than the national average – Alabama, Georgia, South Dakota, Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, and North Carolina, Haywood writes.

Project aims to record oral history of rural Wisconsin

A Wisconsin man wants people to contribute to an oral history of rural life in the state. Farmer and published author Ed Janus, right, has teamed up with the University of Wisconsin-Marathon County to create The People of Rural Wisconsin Project, a website for first-person audio stories about rural life in the Badger State, Keith Uhlig reports for the Marshfield News Herald.

Janus considers himself "an audio journalist, a story collector who records interviews in the style of Studs Terkel, Chicago author and master of the oral history interview," Uhlig writes. "He was enthralled with radio journalism at an early age, and he embraced the oral history style of storytelling in the 1960s when he interviewed political demonstrators." (Read more)

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Farm Bill flounders on food stamps; here's why

A new Farm Bill has not passed mainly because House Republicans want cuts in the program that makes up 80 percent of the bill's spending: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps. That's the simple description. The politics of it are more complicated, and the programmatic aspects are even more so, but David Rogers of Politico has produced a takeout that explains it all. Read it here.