Saturday, May 25, 2013

Texas Panhandle papers combine to survive, but competition continues

In the Texas Panhandle, the population is sparse, and in some counties getting sparser. That's bad news for the newspapers in the area, some of which are being forced to combine to stay alive. But that doesn't mean the end of competition.

Briscoe County had only 1,637 people at the 2010 census, but Sally Arnold Threet bought the Briscoe County News, and transformed it, writes Laverne Zabielski, who recently sold the Motley County Tribune to Threet: "It had come alive: full of stories, ads and photos. What that communicated to me was that Briscoe County was also alive." Before, "It seemed to represent a community that was dwindling and a newspaper on its way out. Other papers, however, were inspiring: The Clarendon Enterprise and The Canadian Record."

But looking good and making money aren't the same thing. Arnold says she had to cut back the paper's print edition to monthly, with weekly online updates, and expand its coverage and circulation area into parts of larger Hall County, to the east, and smaller Motley County, to the southeast, so it could survive and print biweekly. She dubbed the combination the Caprock Courier, after the geologic formation that underlies the Llano Estacado, the high plain of the Panhandle.

Now Larry and Laverne Zabielski's paper is part of it, and Arnold announced in this week's paper that it will again be printed weekly again. Laverne Zabielski said in a Facebook post, "Becoming the publisher and editor of the Motley County Tribune was a dream come true. Selling the paper to Caprock Courier Publisher Sally Arnold is a dream come true."

Zabielski wrote that she and her husband bought the Tribune in 2007 "because of its strong, historical connection to Motley County and because my ancestors had settled here," but family obligations forced them to move to Kentucky in 2008. They published the paper from there, with the help of digital technology and people in Motley County. (Motley is just outside the Panhandle, according to the more or less official definition, but is in the territory of the Panhandle Press Association.)

Valley Tribune map  
Ironically, Threet, 38, has also become a remote publisher, moving to Tennessee to be with her new husband. But her parents still live in Bricsoe County, and she says she has "lucked out" by having staff members who have many skills and don't need full-time employment at the Courier.

The three counties are also served by another newspaper, the weekly Valley Tribune, based at Quitaque, near the counties' conjunction. It is the successor of the Quitaque Tribune and is published by Becky and Luke Taylor, who bought it from family members Jan. 1. It does not put news online and bills itself as the "Voice of the Rolling Plains," the geographic area east of the Llano Estacado.

Friday, May 24, 2013

W. Va. students growing food for school cafeteria

Nine-year-olds Isaac Seabolt and Emily Glandon
collect onions and carrots at George Washington
Elementary in Eleanor. (Kenny Kemp/Gazette)
Around the country it is becoming more common for students of all ages to learn about agriculture by using greenhouses, allowing them to grow food that will be served in their own cafeterias. Students at George Washington Elementary School in Eleanor, W.Va., between Charleston and Huntington, have found a unique way to learn about foods by using a "high tunnel, a type of temporary greenhouse made of polyethylene that holds heat from the sun," reports Lydia Nuzum for The Charleston Gazette.

The project is the first of its kind in the county, according to Chuck Talbot, the agriculture and natural resources extension agent for Putnam County, who "hopes the hands-on experience will spark a greater interest in learning and health with the children," reports Nuzum.

The program, through a grant by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is one of several programs the school is using to stimulate the children through interactive learning. Principal Mary Beth Myers told Nuzum, "It's not sitting still and doing something out of a book. It is active learning. The students are always excited, and they're very engaged." (Read more)

FCC puts more money into rural broadband

About 15 million Americans, most of them living in rural areas, do not have access to high-speed Internet service, or broadband. The Federal Communications Commission, which has been working on the problem for several years, said Wednesday it will provide $485 million as part of a public-private venture to expand broadband to rural areas.

"The additional investment will leverage millions in additional private investment to quickly serve rural areas currently lacking access to high-speed broadband," reports Scherer. The move is phase 1 of the Connect America Fund. Phase II "will provide ongoing annual support of $1.8 billion for both voice and broadband service," reports Colleen Scherer of Ag Professional. "Total FCC investment in expansion and support of rural fixed and mobile broadband and voice through universal service is budgeted at $4.5 billion." (Read more)

Kentucky coal jobs at modern low; state's western coalfield now out-producing east

The coal mining business in Eastern Kentucky continues to suffer from record setbacks. The Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet announced this week that coal jobs in Kentucky have dropped to its lowest level since at least 1950, when numbers were first recorded, reports Bill Estep for the Lexington Herald-Leader. (Photo: A train load of coal near Cumberland. Charles Bertram/Herald-Leader)

Read more here:

Since September 2011, the state has lost 5,695 coal jobs, or just over 30 percent, with more than 5,500 of those lost jobs from Eastern Kentucky coal mines, Estep reports.

Over the past 18 months, coal production in Eastern Kentucky has dropped 42 percent. Statewide production has fallen 26 percent during that time, and the smaller Western Kentucky Coalfield (part of the Illinois Basin) out-produced the larger Eastern Kentucky field in the first quarter of 2013, producing 10.4 million tons  to 10.1 million.

"Eastern Kentucky coal producers face a number of challenges, including competition from relatively cheap natural gas and lower-cost coal from other regions in the country, higher mining costs, and tougher rules aimed at protecting the environment," Estep reports.
ead more here:

We reported on the decline in Central Appalachian coal most recently here and a recent conference in Eastern Kentucky designed to build a non-coal economy in Central Appalachia here and here. For a PDF of the state report on coal production and employment, click here.

Rural teens need more information and services about pregnancy issues, advocate says

Why are teen pregnancy and birth rates higher in rural America than in urban areas? Rural areas have a serious lack of information and services, something that needs to be changed to ensure the safety of pregnant teens, or those at risk of becoming pregnant, writes Rebecca Hart, of Provide, which works to ensure safe access to abortions, on the Daily Yonder.

Rural teens often lack necessary access to health care, writing Hart. There are too few primary-care physicians and emergency room doctors, treatment options are non-existent, or too far away, and fewer people are covered by Medicaid or may be covered by employer insurance that doesn't provide the care that is needed.

Another hurdle is education, or lack of it, Hart writes, staying that sex education in school is a must, and when teens do get pregnant, they need to be provided with options or support in issues such as adoption, abortion, and parenting. States such as Oklahoma and Mississippi teach abstinence, but Hart writes that without proper education, teen pregnancy rates are unlikely to decrease. Mississippi and North Dakota only have one abortion clinic in the state, making it much more difficult for a teen looking at that option.

Charts by National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy
The solution, Hart, says, is to provide teens with more access to whatever needs they require. Teens intent on keeping the baby should be "referred to prenatal care specifically geared to the medical, psychological, and financial needs of pregnant rural teens." Likewise, teens looking to give the baby up for adoption, or have an abortion, should be allowed access to all the information and help they need. (Read more)

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Senate votes to cut crop-insurance subsidy for high-income farmers; more amendments coming

Now that farm lobbies have embraced the idea of more tax-subsidized crop insurance to replace direct payments, at a higher cost, "the same activists who spent years trying to kill direct payments are turning their guns on crop insurance," David Rogers reports for Politico.

The battle was joined this afternoon and tonight on the Senate floor, starting with 59-33 passage of an amendment that would "substantially cut the subsidy rate for wealthy farmers with incomes over $750,000," Rogers writes. "In the wings are proposals requiring much greater disclosure from the Agriculture Department on who benefits from the program. And there is a bipartisan proposal to bar any farmer from getting more than $50,000 in premium subsidies per year."

Opponents of the program say it's not right to heavily subsidize wealthy farmers, but supporters "argue the program proved its worth by helping farmers survive the fierce drought of last summer and fall," Rogers reports. "And in a broader sense, insurance for the farmer is also insurance for the nation by helping to maintain a safe and viable food supply system. Perhaps most important is the question of how to apply means-testing without driving larger participants out of the risk pool." Read more)

Farm Bill hemp amendment needs McConnell's push; Reid is for letting states label GMO-containing food

Sens. Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell
The Farm Bill keeps getting more interesting.

Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky wants an amendment to legalize industrial hemp, but senators in the Democratic majority aren't willing to let him hide behind his libertarian seatmate Rand Paul in order to include it among the amendments that will get a floor vote.

Meanwhile, Majority Leader Harry Reid "would allow states to impose their own food labeling rules requiring the disclosure of genetically-modified ingredients," reports David Rogers of Politico. "Who’d have guessed the Senate farm bill debate would bring out so much of what’s wild and free inside the sober men at the top?"

Rogers reports that McConnell "worked behind the scenes" to get Paul's hemp amendment added in committee, and as leaders on both sides tried to agree on a list of floor amendments, "One big question was whether McConnell would come out in the open and demand consideration of the legalization provision. Thus far the minority leader has been happy to let his younger, more naturally free-wheeling tea party colleague  . . . walk point for him on hemp. But with the Memorial Day recess looming, Democrats wanted McConnell to speak for himself — if the amendment is to be added to the mix."

Reid supports an amendment by independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont (who caucuses with Democrats) to allow states to require labeling of food products that include genetically modified organisms. "Opponents argued that the end result would be a checkerboard set of state laws and Congress should trust in the safety reviews conducted now by the Food and Drug Administration." (Read more)

Meanwhile, McConnell got one obstacle out of the way this afternoon when the Senate voted 44-52 against an amendment that would have ended crop insurance for tobacco, which remains a major crop in Kentucky though only about 5,000 farmers grow it.

Nearly a million in U.S. live near fertilizer storage sites like one that caused deadly explosion in Tex.

The deadly ammonium-nitrate blast that claimed 14 lives, injured more than 200, and caused more than $100 million in property damage at the West Fertilizer plant in Texas is a terrible tragedy that many might think could never happen to them. But the Reuters news service found that at least 800,000 Americans live within one mile of hundreds of storage sites for the potentially explosive chemical, Ryan McNeill and M.B. Pell report.

The Reuters analysis found that sitting within close proximity to the ammonium nitrate are hundreds of schools, 20 hospitals and 13 churches, and 10,000 or more people live within one mile of at least 12 of these facilities. Many of the sites are in rural areas. The data were incomplete, because reporting ammonium-nitrate incidents is voluntary, and some states failed to respond to the news organization's request for data.

"Among those that withheld data was Missouri, which The Fertilizer Institute, an industry association, said is the No. 1 user of ammonium-nitrate fertilizer in the United States. The group said Missouri accounts for 20 percent of the nation's use of the product." (Read more) An interactive map of known facilities with ammonium nitrate can be viewed here; below is a screen shot of the map focused on the Arkansas-Tennesee border, with Missouri's omission indicated:
We wrote about West Fertilizer here and about how ammonium nitrate is banned in some countries here.

Rural newspaper details ambulance crew's long journey to rescue one man

Harold Schaetzle
In Maine, which has the highest percent of rural population in the country, 96 percent of traffic fatalities in 2010 occurred on rural roads. With so many people living in rural areas, and so much area to cover, it's not uncommon for emergency personnel to travel some distance to the scene of an accident. But we were alerted to a story by Kaitlin Schroeder for the Morning Sentinel in Waterville that details how one rural ambulance crew went above and beyond the call of duty to rescue an injured man.

Jeremy O'Neil
"Rangeley NorthStar is responsible for 1,100 square miles of Maine's rural northwest, stretching west to the New Hampshire border and north to the Canadian border," reports Schroeder. After receiving a call about a spinal injury, three members of the Northstar crew -- Steve Grant, Harold Schaetzle and Jeremy O'Neil -- traveled 30 miles from their base to rescue the man, and another 64 miles to transport him to a hospital in Berlin, N.H.

Steve Grant
While that might not sound overly amazing, this is: The accident happened on an island, and the responders had to travel by boat to reach the injured man, secure him, travel back by boat to land, then drive the rest of the way to the nearest hospital. The main reason for the long distance is that the area doesn't have a high enough population of year-round residents to support more medical services, but is a popular spot for tourists, and most calls involve visitors injured during outdoor activities, reports Schroeder. (Read more) Here's a Google map of the likely route they took from Caribou Island in Parmacheenee Lake:

Senate keeps sweet deal for sugar growers

In what some critics are calling a sweet deal for sugar growers and a bad deal for consumers, the Senate Wednesday voted against a farm-bill amendment that would lower the price-support level of sugar from 18.75 cents per pound to 18 cents, reports David Rogers for Politico. The amendment had been pushed by candy makers, conservative activists and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

"The sugar program stands out as one of the most intrusive of the commodity programs still on the books: a mix of price supports, import quotas, and since 2008, a feedstock program under which sugar can be purchased by the government to be used in biofuels," reports Rogers. Prices for sugar this week "ran at least a penny per pound above the price supports."

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), whose state is a major producer of sugar beets, said “We forget that this is much bigger than a sugar program. It’s much bigger than any one single commodity. My concern is when you single out one commodity, whether it’s soybeans, corn or sugar or tobacco or rice, when you single out one commodity, you threaten the effectiveness of the overall Farm Bill." (Read more)

Myrtle Beach writer is 2013-14 Nieman Fellow in Community Journalism; will spend year at Harvard

Isaac Bailey of The Sun News in Myrtle Beach, S.C., has been named the 2013-14 Donald W. Reynolds Nieman Fellow in Community Journalism, meaning that he will join 11 other American journalists and 12 from other countries at Harvard University for a year beginning in August.

Bailey, an award-winning journalist who has worked at The Sun News for nearly 16 years, will study the intersection of literacy, football, race and the economy in the South, particularly in South Carolina's Georgetown and Horry counties, with a goal of using the research to understand efforts to battle illiteracy and improve cross-racial understanding in the region.

The Nieman Foundation, which administers the oldest fellowship program for journalists in the world, aims to promote and elevate the standards of journalism and educate those specially qualified for the field. The Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, created by a community newspaper publisher, funds the fellowship for a community journalist each year.

Eastern Livestock officials sentenced to jail time for theft of $32 million from cattle producers

Nearly two years after being indicted in a $32 million "check-kiting" scheme against cattle producers, the founder and chief operating officer for the now defunct Eastern Livestock LLC were sentenced Tuesday to jail time. Founder Tommy Gibson was sentenced to 70 months in prison, and COO Steven McDonald was sentenced to 57 months in prison, reports Justin Story for the Daily News in Bowling Green, Ky.

"When the company closed, billions of dollars worth of checks issued from various bank accounts were deposited in amounts that exceeded the balances available in those accounts, artificially inflating the company’s cash collateral account," reports Story. "The company’s line of credit with Fifth Third (Bank) expired Oct. 15, 2010, but Gibson and McDonald continued the scheme by depositing millions of dollars of checks from various bank accounts, in amounts exceeding available balances, into one of the company’s operating accounts with Fifth Third, according to federal court records."

Federal prosecutors have seized $4.7 million, and will distribute that money to the victims "by way of two bankruptcy cases in Indiana and the forfeiture action" brought by federal prosecutors, Story reports. (Read more)

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau narrowly defines 'rural,' which may tighten credit for farmers

Some farmers in Ohio, and probably most other states, may not be able to get certain types of mortgages because "They don’t live in counties defined by regulators as 'rural,' even if they’re surrounded by cows, pigs, chickens or soybeans," reports Stephen Koff, Washington correspondent for The Plain Dealer of Cleveland. The list for your state is here.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau last week finalized its list of "rural counties" for the purpose of mortgage lending "and left off the majority of Ohio farm counties," Koff writes. "The rural label packs a federal regulatory punch, especially as it pertains to balloon mortgages, or short-term mortgages that farmers often obtain."

"Of the state’s 88 counties, 44 are normally considered rural for census and state government purposes," Koff reports. "But for mortgage purposes, the CFPB only counted 20, leaving off places that proudly proclaim their status as boondocks country, such as Van Wert County, Wayne, Huron, and Auglaize."

"That has a real adverse, practical effect in a lot of Ohio communities," Jeffrey Quayle, senior vice president at the Ohio Bankers League, told Koff. Without the rural designation, "Banks there say they will be much less willing to issue balloon mortgages, or three- to five-year property loans that require repayment or refinancing at the end of the term," Koff writes. "That’s because a CFPB rule starting next January will restrict mortgages associated with steep payoff requirements. Balloon mortgages sought by farmers who cannot get traditional mortgages are among them."

"The CFPB says it wants to end predatory loan practices that led too many home buyers to foreclosure in recent years," Koff reports. "But community bankers serving small towns and rural counties say their loans did not cause the mortgage meltdown, and that the new regulations will unfairly hurt their future borrowers. The community banks hold all the risk because they do not sell these loans to third-party investors." (Read more)

Candidate ordered to reimburse Alaska Dispatch for legal fees in its fight to get his records

Chalk up another victory for journalists in the battle for open records. The Alaska Dispatch had already forced 2010 U.S. Senate candidate Joe Miller to provide information from public records that detailed his improper activities. Now the Alaska Superior Court has ordered Miller, right, to reimburse the online newspaper more than $85,000 in legal fees from the lawsuit. Miller's employer was ordered to pay a little more than $12,000. (Photo by Stephen Mowers)

When Miller ran on the Tea Party ticket, the Dispatch argued "that Miller’s records, which detailed episodes of misconduct for which he was punished and barred from rehire for three years, should be available for Alaska voters to review," Jill Burke reports for the Dispatch. Miller dragged out the litigation for two years, leading to $112,000 in court costs for the Dispatch.

When a state judge ordered Miller to release the records, it turned out that he had repeatedly lied, and had used a colleague's computer to vote in his own online straw poll on who should be the new head of the Alaska Republican Party. The judge required him to undergo counselling. Miller plans to run again for the Senate in 2014. (Read more)

In wake of Monsanto ruling, Kentucky may label some in-state products as non-GMO

In the wake of last week's Supreme Court ruling in favor of food giant Monsanto in its battle with an Indiana soybean farmer over the right to grow genetically modified organisms, we've heard plenty of opinions on what should or shouldn't be done about the issue. Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner James Comer is considering a label for non-GMO Kentucky products, Nick Storm reports for "Pure Politics," part of cn|2, a service of the Insight Communications cable-TV firm.

“If you look at the advances we’ve made in agriculture, it’s been because the higher yields the more drought resistant plants and stuff. Those plants have been genetically modified,” Comer told Storm. “Eighty-eight percent of the corn planted last year was genetically modified (and) 94 percent of the soybeans planted all over the United States were genetically modified."

Still, many people have mixed feelings about GMOs. Comer said, "There’s a great concern by a large segment of the population – and its only growing – that there’s issues with the GMO’s. We’re looking at doing a program within the department that would allow for labeling of non-GMO Kentucky Proud products. We want to be very proactive in this, but it’s a very complex issue.” Kentucky proud is the state's marketing program for in-state products. (Read more)

We wrote about the use of genetically modified foods, and whether or not they should be labeled, hereThis chart showing the increase of genetically engineered crops in the U.S. is from Food Politics.

'Blue card' immigration program moves closer with Senate committee vote for reform bill

One of the most talked-about parts of the proposed immigration bill has been the "blue card" program, which would make it easier for experienced farm and agriculture workers who are in the country illegally to move one step closer to obtaining a green card and legal residency in the U.S. On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed the legislation by a 13 to 5 vote, sending it to the full Senate.

A "National Rally for Citizenship" was held
April 10 at the U.S. Capitol in support of
immigration reform. (UPI/Molly Riley)
To be eligible for the "blue card" program, applicants have to pay all taxes, pay a $400 fee, and have no convictions for felonies or violent misdemeanors, reports Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter: "Work requirements include performing at least five years of agricultural employment for at least 100 work days per year, or performing at least three years of agricultural employment for at least 150 work days per year."

Workers would have two options, "a portable, at-will employment-based visa and a contract-based visa program," reports Agri-Pulse. "The H-2A program would sunset one year after the new visa program is enacted." The new program, through the U.S. Department of Agriculture, would provide three-year visas. Workers unemployed for more than 60 consecutive days would lose their status and be deported. Employers would also have to register with the USDA.

Wages and raises have also been set per position. Employers would also be required to provide housing or housing allowances, and would have to use the the federal work verification program, E-Verify, over a five-year period, reports Agri-Pulse. Through the first five years of the program, there would be a cap of 112,333 visas.

Agri-Pulse is subscription-only, but offers a free trial here. For more on the "blue card" program go here.

Webinar today to focus on transferring of wealth, and the opportunities available to rural areas

As older generations of Americans make plans to pass along their savings to younger generations, they often look to their rural roots, and give back to the communities in which they were raised. How can rural communities take advantage of these financial opportunities? The Center for Rural Entrepreneurship hopes to answer that question through a webinar designed for community leaders, policy makers, and those interested in community development through philanthropy.

The one-hour webinar is scheduled at 1 p.m.  today. Cost is $29.99. The webinar will be recorded, and will be available for viewing on the group's website. To register, or for more information, visit here.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Retired network reporter calls out lousy local TV

Ed Rabel, right, was a great correspondent for CBS News, and knows what good broadcast journalism is. He doesn't appear to be seeing much of it in Lincoln County, West Virginia, where he lives and watches stations in Charleston and Huntington.

"There is very little reason to watch the local news," Rabel writes in The Charleston Gazette. "If you're satisfied to simply see the day's digest of house fires, fender benders and high school reunions, fine. Otherwise, the regional boob-tube newscasts are nothing more than a 'vast wasteland' in the words of one-time FCC Chairman Newton Minow. Using my words, I would say the so-called newscasts are a colossal waste of time. Basically, the items they flog as news are merely undemanding fillers located between used-car commercials and mattress ads. Not to mention the announcements for male enhancement."

Rabel says the stations make much of the weather, even when it isn't news. "Instead of focusing on original reporting, the local stations are focused on cosmetics," he writes. "Not a country for old men and women, the local television "news" landscape is populated by bubble-heads and glib, young, sometimes pretty know-nothings. The truth is, they wouldn't know a news story if it slapped them in the face. When was the last time you saw an investigative piece about, let's see, the Massey Mine disaster? Or, how about, God forbid, an exclusive story that penetrated the precincts where politicians hide their secrets from the public?"

Rable blames station owners and managers fear "such stories might insult local advertisers or offend politicians on whose toes reporters might stomp. And investigative or original reporting is costly, meaning real reporters must be hired to do real reporting, a job that requires lots of time and money that the stations have no time for. Instead, I remember one Huntington TV station leading its newscast last December with the astonishing news that Christmas tree sales were on the rise. Hold the presses!
Someone once said that owning a local TV station is like having a license to steal. But the real license to broadcast calls for the people to be informed. People, isn't it time to revoke the license?" (Read more)

Farm Bill amendments target crop insurance

The critics of federal crop insurance, expansion of which will be a key part of a new Farm Bill, may have found its soft underbelly: insurance for tobacco growers, the only remaining federal support for the controversial crop.

“Joe Camel’s nose has been under the tent all this time in the form of these hidden crop insurance subsidies,” said Republican Arizona Sen. John McCain, sponsor with Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California of a farm-bill amendment that would eliminate insurance for tobacco. She said, “It’s time for the American taxpayer to get out of the business of subsidizing tobacco — once and for all.”

McCain "estimated that eight tobacco insurance products offered by the Agriculture Department had cost taxpayers $34.7 million in 2012," David Rogers reports for Politico. "Much of the remaining tobacco grown in the U.S. is for export and enjoying such profits, McCain said, that 'it makes no sense' to continue the subsidies, worth an estimated $333 million" over the next 10 years.

Regardless of what happens to the tobacco amendment (No. 923), "Waiting in the wings are more broadly written Senate amendments, seeking to cut insurance subsidies for wealthier producers and even capping the total premium support allowed per farm," Rogers reports — noting that President Obama's proposed budget calls for a lower level of support for crop insurance than Congress envisions.

"While the government absorbs about 62 percent of the premium costs for crop insurance, the farmer never sees that subsidy. What he or she sees is the bill for the remaining 38 percent — not some cash handout like today," Rogers notes. "Nonetheless, Obama’s budget calls for trimming back on the premium subsidies between 3 to 5 percentage points depending on the nature of the policy for a net savings about $7 billion over 10 years. And there’s a growing consensus that some across-the-board reduction will have to come sooner or later." (Read more)

For a list of amendments, from DTN/The Progressive Farmer, click here.

First in a series of conference calls on the Farm Bill will be held Wednesday, May 29 at 11 a.m.

Would you like to know more about the Farm Bill? The first of a series of conference calls on the legislation, hosted by the regional offices of the Council of State Governments and the State Ag and Rural Leaders group, will take place Wednesday, May 29 at 11 a.m. Eastern Time.

The House and Senate farm bills would both end direct payments to farmers, replacing these with expanded crop insurance, but the bills differ in a number of ways on the extent and nature of the farm safety net. They also disagree on spending cuts, mostly in nutrition programs, which account for 80 percent of expenditures in either bill. The current Farm Bill was extended last fall after efforts to pass the legislation stalled in the House, establishing a deadline of Sept. 30 for renewal.

To register for the free conference call, email Hans Poschman at for call-in information.

Conservatives from California bolster conservative dominance of North Idaho; school elections today

Conservative transplants largely from California have taken over Kootenai County," Idaho, High Country News reports, asking, "Have they gone too far?" (Wikipedia map)

The story by Sierra Crane-Murdoch starts with former County Clerk Dan English, who recounted how Kootenai's voter performance veered rightward from 1996 to 2002, leaving him as the only Democrat left in an elected county office. He finally lost it in 2010, long after USA Today had dubbed Kootenai "the most Republican county in the most Republican state in the nation."

That's all we can share with you, because High Country News is available only by subscription, but the story's headline promises that it reveals "How right-wing emigrants conquered North Idaho." But you might want to check the The Spokesman-Review of nearby Spokane, Wash., where blogger Dave Oliveria took note of the HCN story, saying it "connects the dots." He tied it to today's local elections: "On Tuesday, we’ll learn whether Kootenai County archconservatives who call themselves 'Republicans' for politics’ sake will keep total control of the Coeur d’Alene School Board. And establish beachheads on the Post Falls School Board and Kootenai Hospital Board. The end game for the ideological radicals is the overthrow of the Coeur d’Alene City Council this fall." (Read more)

Monday, May 20, 2013

Critic of crop insurance calls it bloated, but he doesn't expect Congress to reverse course

One key to the new Farm Bill is expansion of crop insurance. We wrote about a recent study by Iowa State University agricultural economist Bruce Babcock that said taxpayers overpaid nearly $7 million for crop insurance in 2012, and he expects those numbers to keep going up.

In a business where insurers, farm lenders, industry grain giants and equipment companies all stand to profit from crop insurance, the outspoken Babcock is not exactly a popular person, reports Marcia Zarley Taylor for DTN/The Progressive Farmer. But if Babcock (Taylor photo) is correct, will Congress do about it? The answer, he says, is to continue to charge taxpayers even more money. Over the next 10 years he expects the crop insurance program will cost $8.8 billion per year.

"Rather than curbing the costs of crop insurance, the pro-agriculture members added more taxpayer support with new programs that protect shallow revenue losses," reports Taylor. Babcock said, instead of restraint, the ag committees "want to insure the deductibles. They want to keep current subsides and pile on more." (Read more)

Southern Great Plains' water is quickly drying up

America's high plains, especially the southern part, continue to suffer from drought and overuse, leaving many wells completely drained, or well on the way to being used up, reports Michael Wines for The New York Times.

"Vast stretches of Texas farmland lying over the aquifer no longer support irrigation," reports Wines. "In west-central Kansas, up to a fifth of the irrigated farmland along a 100-mile swath of the aquifer has already gone dry. In many other places, there no longer is enough water to supply farmers’ peak needs during Kansas’ scorching summers." The worst part, Wines reports, is that once the water is gone, it could take hundreds or thousands of years to be restored.

Bill Golden, an agriculture economist at Kansas State University, told Wines that most farmers will adapt to farming without irrigation. “The revenue losses are there,” he said. “But they’re not as tremendously significant as one might think.” Already some farmers have shifting their focus to other areas, such as dairy farming, which uses less water, but others continue to grow corn, a crop that requires large amounts of water, reports Wines. (Read more)

We reported on diminishing groundwater in the high plains here, and in Texas here.

Appalachian roads are most deadly in U.S.

Traffic deaths are more likely to occur on rural roads, and are rising. Now, a new study concludes that the fatality rate in Appalachia is 45 percent higher than in the rest of the country, according to a study by West Virginia University's School of Public Health, reports the State Journal in Charleston.

In Appalachia from 2008 to 2010 there were 15.8 traffic deaths for every 100,000 people, compared to 10.9 deaths per 100,000 in the rest of the country. Motao Zhu, the study's author, said that in Appalachia, "Traffic fatality rates were higher for passenger-vehicle drivers and passengers, motorcyclists and ATV riders, but lower for pedestrians and bicyclists." (Read more)

Free workshop will focus on covering rural health

The Association of Health Care Journalists is hosting a free workshop June 14 in Birmingham, Ala. that will focus on covering rural health issues and topics. The group's annual Rural Health Journalism Workshop "will bring journalists together with health care and policy experts who focus on the medical challenges of rural areas," says its website.

To register, simply join AHCJ. Breakfast and lunch will be provided at the event. Travel assistance is available for those who need it. More information on registration or travel assistance can be found here.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Researchers map geotagged 'tweets of hate'

A group of academic geographers at Humboldt State University in California and the University of Kentucky are researching geotagged "tweets of hate," including racism and homophobia,  and finding that they are more prevalent outside major metropolitan areas. The maps "show the significant persistence of hatred in the United States and the ways that the open platforms of social media have been adopted and appropriated to allow for these ideas to be propagated," the researchers write. Here's a map of racist tweets; click on the image for a larger version, or here for the original, interactive version.
"Quite depressingly, there are a number of pockets of concentration that demonstrate heavy usage of the word," the researchers write. "In addition to looking at the density of hateful words, we also examined how many unique users were tweeting these words. For example in the Quad Cities, 31 unique Twitter users tweeted the word 'nigger' in a hateful way 41 times. There are two likely reasons for higher proportion of such slurs in rural areas: demographic differences and differing social practices with regard to the use of Twitter. We will be testing the clusters of hate speech against the demographic composition of an area in a later phase of this project." Here's their map of homophobic tweets:
"Only around 1.5 percent of all tweets are geotagged, as it requires opting-in to Twitter's location services," the researchers acknowledge. "Sure enough, that subset might be biased in a multitude of ways when compared with the the entire body of tweets or even with the general population. But that does not mean that the spatial patterns we discover based on geotagged tweets should automatically be discarded." (Read more)