Friday, June 14, 2013

Arizona Legislature grudgingly expands Medicaid

Brewer lectured Obama about immigration
when he visited in 2011, but she embraced
his health plan's expansion of Medicaid.
(Associated Press photo)
Kicking and screaming, the Arizona Legislature allowed Republican Gov. Jan Brewer to expand Medicaid in the state under federal health-care reform yesterday after she threatened to veto any bill not accomplishing the move, then called a special session to force lawmakers to act.

A handful of Republicans joined Democrats to pass the measure. "Medicaid amendments intended to defeat or change the legislation — all beaten back by the bipartisan coalition — included a repeal of the hospital assessment that helps fund the expansion, an anti-abortion provision, a requirement for a two-thirds majority approval and proposals that would roll back expansion if federal funding fell short of what’s promised," The Arizona Republic reported. "Conservatives, some calling themselves the 'minority party' though they outnumber Democrats, complained that the process shut out the public and most members of the GOP, which hold majorities in both chambers."

"Unique factors affecting Arizona's Medicaid program . . . played a role in Brewer's decision to set aside her staunch opposition to Obamacare," Jeffrey Young writes on The Huffington Post. "In 2011, a federal court allowed Brewer to freeze enrollment of adults without children into Medicaid to resolve a budget crunch [so the] federally financed expansion enables Arizona to reopen Medicaid without having to pay about half the cost. . . . Moreover, Arizona expanded Medicaid to cover all adults below the poverty line based on a ballot initiative approved by voters in 2000." (Read more)

Another bill is in the works to eliminate delivery of mail on Saturdays, except packages

A powerful House committee chairman has proposed a new postal reform bill that would allow the U.S. Postal Service to eliminate Saturday mail delivery. Republican Rep. Darrell Issa of California, who heads the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, is seeking Democratic votes by allowing USPS "to scrap an annual $6 billion payment to pre-fund health costs for future retirees, a major concession that is likely to help the bill’s chances in the Senate," Lisa Rein reports for The Washington Post. "But Issa’s new draft also keeps proposals that have divided lawmakers. Democrats are likely to oppose any language allowing layoffs, and members of both parties who represent rural districts have pushed back against five-day delivery."

Last year the Senate passed a postal reform bill that would have guaranteed six-day delivery for two years, but Issa's bill never got a vote in the full House. Aides told Rein that his new bill won't be formally introduced for months, while he tries to work with labor unions, rural representatives and other groups that fought him last year.

Issa's draft would allow USPS "to move forward with five-day delivery of letters and second- and third-class mail but continue delivering packages six days for at least five years," Rein reports. That resembles "a failed attempt by Postmaster General Patrick R. Donahoe to drop Saturday mail delivery without congressional approval." USPS makes money delivering packages. (Read more

Missouri passed bill to allow foreign land ownership, apparently to clear way for sale of Smithfield

"Last-minute legislative maneuvers in Missouri may remove one potential legal obstacle to Shuanghui International Holdings' proposed $4.7 billion purchase of Smithfield Foods Inc, which would be China's largest purchase to date of a U.S. company," report Lisa Baertlein and P.J. Huffstutter of Reuters

State Rep. Casey Guernsey, whose rural county in northern Missouri has Smithfield and its pork-producing subsidiaries as its largest taxpayers, passed a bill that would allow 1 percent of the state's agricultural lands to be in foreign ownership, Baertlein and Huffstutter report. "Missouri and at least seven other U.S. states -- Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Wisconsin -- have oft-overlooked laws that prohibit foreign ownership of agricultural land."

The legislation was filed at the behest of foreign interests, "who already effectively hold about 91,000 acres out of the state's estimated 29.1 million farmland acres and wanted the laws changed," Reuters reports. Guernsey's bill and a companion measure "were passed by the legislature on the last day of its session, less than two weeks before the Smithfield deal was announced on May 29." Gov. Jay Nixon still needs to sign the bill, and the state's Agriculture Department has to approve the land sales. (Read more)

Writer says broadband Internet is key to business success in rural communities

There has been much talk in the last decade about the need to get more broadband to rural America, and more lately about the large number of rural residents who still lack quality Internet service. Entrepreneur Diane Smith details in the Daily Yonder about how she used technology to start up a multi-million dollar company from the comfort of her home in Whitefish, Mont.

National Telecommunications and Information Administration chart
The Smith family moved from Washington, D.C., with the belief "that we could make a living just about anywhere that had fast and reliable communications connectivity, and we found it in Whitefish," she writes. Smith co-founded Vubiquity, which she says is the largest global provider of multi-platform video services, by raising more than $30 million through the Internet, crediting local businesses and residents with much of her success. "I don’t believe we would have had nearly such swift success had we been located in a more populated community or state."

Her story shows the power and potential of high-speed Internet, she writes: "Broadband connected businesses bring in approximately $300,000 more in annual median revenues than non-broadband adopting businesses. Nearly one in three businesses earns revenue from online sales that account for $411.4 billion in annual revenues for U.S. companies. Sixty-five percent of home-based businesses use the Internet to stay in touch with customers, while 59 percent advertise or sell their goods online, and 98 percent of U.S. counties had at least one high-tech business establishment in 2011." (Read more)

The recently passed Senate Farm Bill includes a pilot program to test ultra-fast Internet in five rural areas, and the Federal Communications Commission has said it will put $485 million as part of a public-private venture to expand broadband to rural areas.

Montana town boosts local economy with shooting contest inspired by a movie

A small Montana town, dubbed the City of Trees, sits along the Yellowstone River and is home to about 1,700 people. But the residents of Forsyth found an interesting way to boost the local economy, courtesy of Hollywood. Every Father's Day weekend, Forsyth hosts the Matthew Quigley Buffalo Rifle Match, a long-range shooting event utilizing old-style, high-caliber buffalo rifles that was inspired by the 1990 film "Quigley Down Under," reports Brett French of the Billings Gazette. (Gazette photo by James Woodcock: Shooters practice Thursday for this weekend's event)

Last year 635 shooters from 40 states competed alongside ones who traveled from across the globe, making it the largest event of its kind anywhere, reports French. Add in family members, and others who attend but don't compete, and the event, now in its 22nd year, brings in quite a bit of money to the small town. “It’s world renowned. We get customers from Germany, Australia, England and New Zealand.” said motel owner Colleen Hoppert, who said she books all 81 rooms for the event, sometimes getting reservations one year in advance.

Match director Buz Coker, a former scoutmaster, told French a vending site set up by the local Boy Scout troop makes enough money to fund a year's worth of scouting events.  The Forsyth Rifle and Pistol Club uses the event to fund $1,000 scholarships to local high school students. “It’s a great opportunity for some of the local organizations to raise some money,” said Tina Sears of the Forsyth Chamber of Commerce. (Read more)

Utah waging war on weeds deadly to livestock, offers app to alert adjoining states

Utah has started a $1.3 million war on weeds to protect livestock and food supplies, and has included a phone application that lets users connect with residents in nearby states to alert them to weeds migrating across borders, reports Taylor Anderson for the Salt Lake Tribune. (Tribune photo by Al Hartman: Leafy spurge)

One dangerous weed, called leafy spurge, contains a substance poisonous to livestock, while another known as cheatgrass dries out in the summer, and acts like a highly flammable fuel that contributed to record wildfires Utah had last year, notes Anderson. Commissioner of Agriculture and Food Leonard Blackham said if left unchecked, "An entire area can become basically unproductive for livestock, for food production or for wildlife or even for meaningful recreation."

The free smart phone app lets users "identify invasive species with their phones and report their location, which state employees then verify." The app has already been used to identify plants that are spreading into Utah from Arizona and Idaho. (Read more)

As many as 400,000 seabirds die each year in fishing nets, protective group says

At least 400,000 seabirds, representing 81 different kinds of birds, are killed every year by fishing vessels that deploy gill nets, and figures could be much higher than that, because much of the data on deaths was non-existent or too old to use, according to a report by BirdLife International, reports Michael Wines for The New York Times. (Alaska Journal of Commerce photo by Margaret Bauman: Gill net fishing vessels in Alaska)

Among the birds killed yearly are penguins, ducks and some critically endangered species such as the waved albatross, reports Wines. Gill nets are anchored in the water by weights and buoys, and are designed to snare fish by their gills, but can catch any creature that is too large to swim through the mesh, including sea turtles. porpoises, seals and whales. Most of the deaths involve seabirds who dive into the ocean for fish, but can't see the nearly invisible nets. To read the full report click here.

Barley-growing couple in N.Y. boost craft-beer trade by starting the state's first malting house

When the New York State Legislature passed a bill last year "that will eventually require ales and lagers labeled 'New York Beer' to contain 90 percent locally grown ingredients," the lawmakers apparently forgot that barley can't be used for brewing until it is malted, so a couple in Batavia are starting a malting house, the only one in the state, as well as growing barley, Howard Owens reports for The Batavian.

"Ted and Patricia Hawley . . . are sure others are coming, with anticipation of a craft brew boom in the state thanks to the new rules," Owens writes. "The farm beer license created by the bill is modeled after the winery license, which requires local ingredients and allows for tastings, on-site sales, bigger production runs and statewide distribution."

"This craft brewing industry is phenomenal," Ted Hawley told Owens. "There's no rules. I mean, there could be up to 30 ingredients in brews, from nuts and berries to honey, to apples. There's no rules and there are some great craft brews that are being processed right now in people's garages. This farm brewing bill will offer them an opportunity to open up larger and sell their brews." (Read more)

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Shortage of primary care doctors worst in rural areas

Despite a critical shortage of primary care physicians in the U.S., only 25 percent of newly educated doctors go into the field, and less than 5 percent go on to practice in rural areas, says a study by researchers at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services. Rural Americans account for 16 percent of the U.S. population.

The report, online in Academic Medicine,  suggests that not only are we facing a primary care shortage, but also that the problem is not likely to be solved soon. In addition to finding that just 4.8 percent of the medical education system's graduates practiced in rural areas, 198 institutions (26 percent) produced no rural physicians and 283 institutions (37 percent) produced no Federally Qualified Health Center or Rural Health Clinic physicians, which were created to enhance the provision of primary care services in under-served communities.

“If residency programs do not ramp up the training of these physicians the shortage in primary care, especially in remote areas, will get worse,” said Dr. Candice Chen, lead author of the study. “The study’s findings raise questions about whether federally funded graduate medical education institutions are meeting the nation’s need for more primary care physicians.”

The U.S. is producing primary care physicians at rates that are “abysmally low” and unless changes are made to the system, the nation will have an even greater shortfall of primary care doctors just as the Affordable Care Act ramps up demand for these services, Chen said in a news release. In some states, the additional need for primary care doctors as a result of Medicaid expansion exacerbates the problem.

The study's authors said policymakers should take a hard look at the skewed incentives and other factors that have led to the current primary care crisis and develop a more accountable graduate medical education system. It is critical to find a better balance in medical specialties and more primary care physicians to build an effective, affordable health system.

Foundations still shortchange rural America

Seven years ago, Democratic Sen. Max Baucus of Montana, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said foundations were not giving enough to rural America, and that prompted the Council on Foundations to hold a summit about the issue. Former President Bill Clinton held a similar gathering and lectured foundations. There was hope for increased rural philanthropy, but the Great Recession hit, and foundations' giving declined as their endowments shrank.

Now, those assets have largely regained their value, but foundations are doing no better by rural community development corporations, Rick Cohen writes in Nonprofit Quarterly. He says even the best rural CDCs "have a hard row to hoe in tapping foundation support. It is doubly challenging because foundations have started to lose interest in supporting housing and community development. A foundation sector that has long recovered from its recessionary downturn has the capital to meet Sen. Baucus’s long-forgotten challenge and to reinvest in the stabilization of American’s urban and rural communities. In the aftermath of the recession, now is not the time for foundations to pull back, either from rural or from housing and community development."

To back up his argument, Cohen looked at giving to rural CDCs in two networks, the Rural LISC program of the Local Initiatives Support Corp. and the NeighborWorks Rural Initiative. He found that foundations "lean increasingly toward lending and capital investments, rather than program and general operating grant support," Cohen writes. He lists the biggest rural grantmakers:
"The top 10 foundations in this list account for more than 52.2 percent of foundation grant and loan investments," Cophen writes. He noted that many of the top grantmakers for community and economic development are regional or state-based. "Scarcely present in this list are those foundations typically found among the top overall grantmakers in the nation. . . . A more generalized rural community economic development analysis of foundation grantmaking conducted a few years ago that examined grantmaking between 2004 and 2008 had Kellogg as the nation’s second largest rural development grantmaker, though it’s not so in this analysis of grantmaking to the LISC and NeighborWorks rural groups. Others with high rank in that prior analysis that do not rank highly in this analysis are the Northwest Area Foundation, the McKnight Foundation, the C.S. Mott Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. (Read more)

In 2011, Cohen reported that as philanthropy rebounded with the economic recovery, rural giving actually shrank. That year, the Council on Foundations and the U.S. Department of Agriculture agreed to work together to improve the rural economy. Grant writers, get busy.

Oregon day camp gives kids a taste of farming life

Children in Oregon have the opportunity to spend part of their summer learning what it's like to work on a farm, while also having fun and getting a valuable lesson in rural education. A farm near Lebanon, in the northwest part of the state, runs a day camp that lets children spend six hours a day for one week to experience life on the farm, reports Jennifer Moody for the Albany Democrat-Herald. (D-H photo by David Patton: A hay slide at the camp)

Camp participants get the opportunity to feed, groom and play with chickens, rabbits, sheep, goats, a horse, and baby American Guinea Hogs, reports Moody. Other experiences include gathering eggs, milking goats, making cheese, learning to felt, and seeing how wool becomes cloth. Activities are also designed to allow them to learn through having fun, such as how ecology works in worm composting, and exploring watercraft designs by building tiny stick rafts, and carving boats from zucchini. (Read more)

Grants help support arts in rural communities

ArtPlace America, comprising 13 national and regional foundations and six of the country's largest banks, recently awarded 54 grants, including five ranging from $150,000 to $536,740 for "Using Art to Bring New Life to Rural Communities" to organizations in Homer, Alaska; Ajo, Ariz; Lanesboro, Minn.; Prattsville, N.Y.; and Uniontown, Wash. Four other rural communities -- Juneau and Douglas, Alaska; Blue Lake, Calif.; and Neah Bay, Wash. received grants ranging from $250,000 to $500,000, according to a news release from ArtPlace.

"Rural communities often have excellent arts and culture assets that are underutilized, unknown to those outside the area and possibly even falling into disrepair. A relatively small investment can leverage these assets to produce a real improvement in quality of place." George Abbott reports for the Daily Yonder. With so many young people wanting to leave rural America for urban cities, "art is a great method of creating a vibrant and diverse community that will encourage them to stay or return to a rural area. (Read more)

A $200,000 grant to the town of Prattsville in south-central New York will be used to help the local art center and residency recover from Hurricane Irene flood damage, to engage artists-in-residency in becoming involved in town planning and design, and to help the town recover from the disaster through public exhibitions and events, according to ArtPlace. (Photo via Daily Yonder: Prattsville Art Center)

The largest rural grant -- $536,740 -- went to create the Sonoran Desert Retreat Center and Residencies, which will be an arts residency program featuring traditional and contemporary Tohono O'odham and Mexican artists, as well as the tri-national border-themed arts installation, according to ArtPlace.

Another grant, for $313,000, will be used in Lanesboro, Minn. The town of 754 in the southeastern part of the state wants to transform the entire town into an arts campus, which is "the vision of engaging a rural region and its visitors in the arts while simultaneously promoting economic development," reports the Republican-Leader in Preston, Minn. (Lanesboro Arts Center photo: St. Mane Theatre)

Border security becomes focus of immigration debate

As the Senate began debate Wednesday on the immigration bill, which could provide a pathway to citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants, the focal point turned to border security, which Republicans said must be addressed before they will vote for the bill, Julia Preston and Ashley Parker report for The New York Times. (NYT photo: Sen. Ran Paul, R-Ky.)

“In order to bring conservatives to this cause, those who want immigration reform must understand that a real solution must ensure that our borders are secure,” said Sen. Rand Paul, who, like many conservatives, said he supports the pathway to citizenship for immigrants, but holds border security as the more important issue, reports Preston and Parker.

"The current bill would give the Department of Homeland Security six months to present plans to extend border fencing and achieve effective control of the Southwest border, defined as continuous surveillance along its length and 90 percent effectiveness in stopping illegal crossings," reports Preston and Parker. "Once those plans are presented, illegal immigrants could apply for provisional status. The bill includes $4.5 billion in border financing in the first five years."

"If the security goals had not been met after five years, a commission would be created to ensure border officials met them," reports Preston and Parker. "After 10 years, provisional immigrants could apply for permanent residency — the first step toward citizenship — if the border plans were fully operational, the fencing was completed, mandatory electronic verification for new workers was in place nationwide and an electronic exit system checked foreigners departing through airports and seaports."

Sen. John Cornyn, a Republican from Texas, filed an amendment that would "require certification from Homeland Security and the top federal auditor that his border goals had been met for one year before provisional immigrants could start the path to citizenship," reports Preston and Parker. (Read more)

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

FEMA declines to help West, Tex., rebuild public facilities damaged in fertilizer-plant explosion

The Federal Emergency Management Agency says it will not help rebuild roads, a school and the sewage system in West, Tex., a town of 2,800 that was badly damaged by the explosion at the local fertilizer plant in April. “The impact from this event is not of the severity and magnitude that warrants a major disaster declaration,” FEMA Administrator W. Craig Fugate told Gov. Rick Perry in a letter.

"FEMA has provided aid to individual residents and households, but a major disaster declaration . . . would provide money needed to rebuild parts of the city," Terrence Henry of NPR reports. "The agency will also not provide unemployment assistance, crisis counseling, legal services and other aid." In another letter, FEMA said “The remaining cost for permanent work is within the capabilities of the state and affected local governments.” The letter was obtained by StateImpact, a consortium of NPR and some of its state affiliates.

"West Independent School District carried a $60 million insurance policy, but its damages in the blast would only cover about half of the estimated $117.4 million needed to renovate or replace the damaged buildings, school officials have said," Tommy Witherspoon and Regina Dennis of the Waco Tribune Herald report. (Photo of West Intermediate School by Rod Aydelotte, WTH)

Dallas Morning News columnist Todd Robberson writes, "The fact that FEMA's response was in a letter sent directly to Gov. Rick Perry, an ardent foe of just about everything federal, strongly suggests partisan politics is heavily at play here. This stinks." (Read more)

Taxpayers lose millions as coal leases draw only one bid and payments aren't collected

The Department of the Interior is failing to collect tens of millions of dollars in lease payments for coal mining on federal land, and the department's Bureau of Land Management is shortchanging the government money while allowing a handful of business to have a monopoly in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana, according to a report released Tuesday, reports John Broder for The New York Times. (National Mining Association photo: Powder River Basin coal)

Despite a rule adopted in the 1980s to ensure competition, the report found that 80 percent of sales in the past 20 years had received only one bid, reports Broder. "The report said the process for computing the value of the leases was faulty, costing the government millions. At the current rate of coal leasing, the inspector general found, every penny-a-ton undervaluation costs taxpayers $3 million."

The report also found that the BLM allows coal companies "to expand their lease holdings by as much as 960 acres with no competitive bidding and little oversight" and has "approved 45 such lease modifications since 2000 without adequate documentation, potentially costing taxpayers $60 million," Broder notes.

An independent study conducted last year found that Interior's failure to secure fair market value for coal mined on public lands had deprived taxpayers of almost $30 billion over the previous 30 years, reports Broder. The department disputes that figure. The full report can be viewed here.

Some worry Texas housing development could displace world's largest bat colony

For 10,000 years Mexican free-tail bats have spent the spring and summer in Bracken Cave in rural Texas just north of San Antonio. The popular tourist destination is home to the world's largest bat colony, with an estimated 10 to 20 million bats emerging from the cave every night to blacken the skies with their vast numbers. But developers are planning to build a 1,545-acre, 2,500-home subdivision near the cave, a move that many feel could threaten the existence of the bats, and put residents in harms way, reports Colin McDonald for San Antonio Express-News. (Express-News photo by Bill Calzada: Millions of bats emerge from the cave)

Bat Conservation International, which owns the cave, said the bats can carry rabies, but they also eat several million pounds of insects every night, benefiting farmers whose crops could be damaged by the insects if the cave is forced to be sealed, notes McDonald. Plus, there is concern about where the bats might migrate if they could no longer use the cave. As a result, state representatives are trying to slow down development with a proposed bill that would "put a moratorium on development within five miles of the 697-acre preserve that surrounds the cave." (Read more)

More than half of rural workers hold middle-skills jobs, which don't require a four-year degree

Rural Americans are big at middle-skill jobs, which require at least some on-the-job training, an apprenticeship or similar experience, or post-secondary education that doesn't consist of a four-year degree. More rural Americans hold middle-skills jobs than do their urban counterparts, and the percentage of rural workers holding such jobs has not changed, while numbers have declined in urban areas, according to research by the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire. (Graph: Current Population Survey)

Fifty-one percent of rural workers held middle skills jobs in 2012, compared to 42 percent in urban areas, Carsey reports. In urban areas, white, Hispanic, and black workers were equally likely to hold middle-skill jobs, but in rural areas Hispanics were substantially more likely to hold a middle-skill job than white or black workers. Older workers are more likely than younger workers to hold middle-skill jobs.  The full report can be viewed here.

Weekly newspaper in Oklahoma holds annual event to teach water safety to community's children

John M. Wylie II, publisher of the Oologah Lake Leader in the small town of Oologah, Okla., informed the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors about an interesting event the paper put together to combine fun and education. In response to a series of drownings, mostly involving young people -- in each case the victim was not wearing a life jacket -- the paper teamed up with two local, world-class fishermen to start the Kids Fishing Derby, an event to teach kids how to fish, and to promote water safety. (Lake Leader photo: A child is fitted with a life jacket)

The paper lined up sponsors to provide all children with free custom-fitted life jackets, and every child was required to go through a four-station safety course, Wylie said. That first year, more than 200 kids attended. The fifth annual derby was held earlier this month, with more than 250 participating. All total, 300 fish were caught and 175 life jackets were given away. To visit the paper's website click here.

Distillery in small W.Va. town has a wide market

Smooth Ambler Spirits produces bourbon, gin, vodka, and whiskey sold in stores and restaurants in nearly half the states in the U.S. But what most people might not know is that the distillery is actually a large-scale operation in Maxwelton, W.Va., just outside Lewisburg, in the southeastern part of the state, report Dale Mackey and Shawn Poynter for the Daily Yonder. (Photo: Smooth Ambler Old Scout Rye)

“People think we’re a couple of guys with a little moonshine still sitting over in the corner, when in reality, we’re in some of the finest restaurants and bars in the world.” said John Little, head distiller and vice president of Smooth Ambler. “We have people come in here all the time and try our stuff and say ‘You’re the best kept secret in Greenbrier County,’ but we’re doing everything we can to be the worst kept secret.” To see where Smooth Ambler is available click here.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

N.M. attorney general says horses' medications preclude equine abattoir; water permit also an issue

New Mexico might not be the first state to open a horse slaughter facility after all. The proposed slaughter plant passed an April inspection by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but now USDA officials are withholding final approval and questioning whether the needs a water-pollution permit. The lawyer for Valley Meat Co. said the plant won't discharge anything into water, and "such a permit was never needed during the 20 years the plant slaughtered cattle," The Associated Press reports(AP photo: Rick De Los Santos, who wants to open the horse slaughterhouse)

Another potential roadblock arose Monday, when state Attorney General Gary King, a vocal critic of horse slaughter, ruled that horse meat is an adulterated product that is illegal to produce in the state, Stephan Dinan reports for The Washington Times. (Read more) AP notes that King, is running for the Democratic nomination to face Republican Gov. Susana Martinez, who has opposed the abattoir.

Adulterated food is meat that has come from animals treated with drugs, including an anti-inflammatory commonly found in racehorses, and medications used to treat bacterial, parasitic and viral infections, AP reports. If the plant were to open, it would be the first such plant in operation in the U.S. since 2007. (Read more)

Montana trying to open dialogue among teens about mental-health issues; state leads country in suicides

Montana leads the country in suicides among young people, and some blame the "cowboy-up" attitude that has led to a statewide avoidance of open dialog about mental-health issues, reports Cindy Uken of the Billings Gazette. A unique program in the 8,500-population town of Miles City has  succeeded in getting young people to talk about depression, suicide, and mental health issues, and that program is now being brought to Billings, which has a population of more than 100,000. (Gazette photo by James Woodcock: Casey Elder of the Billings chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness speaks about the "Let's Talk Billings" campaign.)

From 2010 to 2011 Montana had 57 suicides among people aged 15 to 24, and 552 total suicides, Uken reported in a December 2012 story. Montanans kill themselves at a higher rate than any other state, with an estimated 15 attempts each day.

The Billings project will mirror the program in Miles City, including hiring a theater director and getting teens involved in theater workshops that will be performed at area schools and will include a question-and-answer session with a school counselor, reports Uken. It also includes creating a website for teens with information about depression and suicide, access to help at the local, regional and national level, and a Facebook page for teens to communicate with one other.

Among other goals are to work with administrators, staff and counselors at select high schools, researching local mental health resources, and reaching out to Native American youth, a group with an extremely high rate of suicide, Uken reports.

Senate Farm Bill includes pilot program to test ultra-high-speed Internet in five rural communities

Sen. Patrick Leahy
The Farm Bill that passed the Senate Monday night included an amendment by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) for a pilot program to test ultra-high-speed Internet in rural communities. The program allows the Rural Utilities Service to invest in up to five gigabit-broadband networks, which are about 100 times faster than the average high-speed Internet, in rural areas over the next five years, reports Jennifer Reading for WCAX in Burlington.

"What I want to make sure is that a rural area can compete the same way an urban area can," Leahy said. "It's actually the argument, the debate that went on before I was even born about whether you had rural electricity, rural telephone or not, and if we hadn't done that much of this country would be a wasteland."

Leahy said he hopes Vermont is chosen for one of the pilot programs, reports Bob Kinzel of Vermont Public Radio. “We have demonstrated that businesses are eager to come to Vermont, they like to come into some of our rural areas but need the ability to have phone connections, Internet connection, power and so forth," Leahy said. “This would give us a great step forward if we had this.”

A summer vacation story: a bucket list of fun

Community newspapers often have a summer lull, when stories, especially those related to education, are hard to find. But the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro has an interesting story that has a different take on the popular bucket list. It found a family whose eldest daughter has created a bucket list of fun, allowing her to set, and accomplish, goals this summer. (DNJ photo by Helen Comer)

Allie Lawrence, who just finished kindergarten and is learning to write, created a list called Allie’s Awesome Summer, including items like swimming, bowling, hiking, catching fireflies, making S'mores and camping, reports Samantha Donaldson. Allie's mom, Sarah said, “I thought if the girls made a list, we would be more likely to get it done. It is goal setting. It is so easy to get busy and say they are having fun during the summer. We’ll probably do everything on the list.” (Read more)

Monday, June 10, 2013

Senate passes Farm Bill that would broaden definition of 'rural' for development programs

The Farm Bill that passed the Senate this evening would reduce the number of definitions that the federal government has for "rural," to nine from 15, two of which apply only to Puerto Rico, reports David Fahrenthold of The Washington Post. The definitions vary from program to program, which can be confusing for local officials.

The Department of Agriculture wants to use a single definition, a jurisdiction of less than 50,000 people, for its Rural Development portfolio of programs, and the bill would do that. Now, areas with 20,000 or fewer residents can get loans and grants for community facilities, but are too heavily populated to get aid for water and waste disposal systems, which only go to areas with 10,000 or fewer people. And those areas don't qualify for aid for telecommunications systems, because only areas with 5,000 or fewer residents qualify for that.

Some rural interests say broadening the definition will make it harder for small places to compete for funding. "In the House, both Republicans and Democrats have said the population cap is too high and the bill’s vision of 'rural' is too expansive," Fahrenthold reports. "The Senate bill would still give smaller places priority treatment." The bill passed 66-27 at 6:55 p.m. EDT. Brad Plumer of The Washington Post has a guide to the bill. For a look at its prospects in the House, from David Rogers of Politico, click here.

Among other federal definitions of "rural," the Census Bureau says it's any place outside a town or city with more than 2,500 residents. The Department of Veterans Affairs says it's areas with a population density between seven and 1,000 people per square mile. And the Department of Education just goes along with whatever state governments, who take the lead in school matters, define as rural. (Read more)

Rural editor joins advocates' crisis call for community and individual action against diabetes

Floyd County in Appalachian Region
The editor of a weekly newspaper in Eastern Kentucky has joined an advocacy group's call for residents in his county to make simple, healthy lifestyle changes, serving as an example of how local newspapers and community members can engage the public to confront poor health status of the area, which is often put on the back burner despite alarming warning signs.

Recently, the Tri-County Diabetes Partnership declared the rate of diabetes in Floyd, Johnson and Magoffin counties "a crisis of epidemic proportions." If the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention "saw a similar increase in any other illness, they would probably declare a national emergency,” said J.D. Miller, vice president of medical affairs for Appalachian Regional Healthcare.

The group's statement was an appropriate response to direct public's attention to the imperative of addressing the area's skyrocketing rate of the disease, Ralph Davis of The Floyd County Times wrote in an editorial.

Diabetes will remain a crisis unless we do something about it, and "if you have been waiting for a crisis before making healthy lifestyle changes, we’ve got one for you. In fact, we have several," Davis wrote. "It’s going to require the conscious decision by everyone in the region to do what they can to improve their diet and exercise habits, and to encourage their friends and family to do the same."

Backyard chicken coops are a popular trend

It has become increasingly more common to find live chickens running around people's backyards. The Richmond Times-Dispatch takes a look at a pair of chicken farmers in Goochland County, just outside Richmond, Va., who promote backyard chicken coops and the importance of chicken as a sustainable food source. (Associated Press photo: Pat Foreman, left, and Lisa Dearden on Dearden's farm)

Pat Foreman and Lisa Dearden teach classes and hold workshops, and are starting something called Coop Corps America that will provide chicken coops for residents who need help starting their backyard flocks, reports Bill Lohmann for the Times-Dispatch. Foreman told Lohmann, "The chicken movement hasn’t even begun to crest. Every single community and town is talking about chickens. It’s really gone nationwide.” She said chickens eat insects and create rich compost. Also, she said concerns about odors, loud noise, and disease are not as big as most people think. (Read more)

EPA and Chesapeake Bay Foundation reach agreement on controlling farm animal runoff in watershed

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation have ended their long-running battle over runoff from farms, agreeing how to monitor pollution in the bay, which has a watershed of 64,000 square miles in six states -- New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia. (New York Times photo by Todd Heisler: Farm runoff in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania)

As part of the agreement, EPA will audit and inspect each state's animal feeding operations and programs to make sure they comply with the Clean Water Act and state regulations, taking action if they are not compliant, reports E.B. Furgurson of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Md. EPA will also collect data to determine if revisions are necessary.

The agreement mostly affects small farmers, with about 66 percent of nutrients -- mostly manure -- that enter the bay coming from such farms, reports Ad Crable for Lancaster Online. In Lancaster County, in south-central Pennsylvania, 63 livestock and poultry farms will be affected by the agreement.

Some people are concerned that the EPA is only concentrating on the bay area, reports Furgurson. Valerie Connelly, of the Maryland Farm Bureau, told Furgurson, “Rather than impose new standards across the country, the EPA appears to be imposing a tougher set of inspection and review requirements only on animal operations in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.”

Some environmental groups have expressed the same concerns, reports Furgurson. Seth Horstmeyer, of The Pew Charitable Trusts, said the organization “is extremely disappointed that, instead of strengthening national rules to protect all of our waterways from livestock waste, the EPA is conducting more assessments." (Read more)

Fish and Wildlife Service recommends taking gray wolves off endangered species list

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed taking gray wolves in most of the country off the endangered species list, saying the animals have re-populated to a safe level. The organization notes that the estimated 6,100 gray wolves in the Northern Rocky Mountains -- Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Washington, Oregon, Utah -- and the Western Great Lakes -- Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio -- have rebounded from near extinction to exceeding population targets by more than 300 percent in some areas. (AP Photo by Dawn Villella)

State and federal agencies have spent more than $117 million restoring gray wolves since they were added to the endangered species list in 1974, reports The Associated Press. Over the past several years about 1,600 have been killed in Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Minnesota and Wisconsin, and thousands more have been killed over the past two decades by government wildlife agents responding to livestock attacks. (Read more)

Montana, which only has about 625 gray wolves, is considering allowing hunters and trappers to take up to five wolves, and to expand hunting season to six and a half months as part of an effort to lower their numbers, reports Eve Byron for the Independent Record in Helena. (Read more)

Sunday, June 09, 2013

Veteran journalist says mental-health coverage should be careful, creative and balanced

The term 'mental health' has different meanings to different people, and perhaps more so in rural areas, where treatments is harder to get. It's important to use precise language when writing about the topic, because a fourth of Americans are affected by mental-health issues each year, and many  don't seek treatment due to its stigma.

"Fair, accurate and balanced portrayals of mental health in the news media are so important," says Melissa McCoy of the California Newspaper Publishers Association. She notes that studies show coverage of mental health is mostly reactive, responding to a school shooting or n act of violence, which could skew public perceptions about mental illness. She says journalists should "provide accurate coverage of mental health without adding to its stigma" or to the discrimination faced by those with mental illness.

Journalists can seek balance by asking themselves about the relevance of mental health to the story and making sure to use the right type of language, says McCoy; be creative about mental health coverage by integrating it into stories about general health, veterans returning from war, substance abuse recovery, unemployment or even stress among students.