Friday, August 16, 2013

Report: Money buys happy marriages, leaving working class to struggle to stave off divorce

Is marriage becoming too expensive and too mentally draining for the working class? A report by University of Virginia sociologist Sarah Corse and Harvard University sociologist Jennifer Silva concludes that "as the American workforce and the American marriage have destabilized over the past half-century, marriage has become an increasingly inaccessible option for working-class Americans," Amanda Hess reports for Slate. While the working class struggles, middle-class people "are throwing money at their intimate relationships to keep them stable" and the working class "have been priced out of the institution." 

While the recession has hit Americans hard, it is having a drastic affect on marriages, Hess writes. "Thanks to falling working-class wages, the outsourcing of American manufacturing, the thinning of company benefits, and the rise of part-time and self-employment, American jobs are, in many ways, less stable than ever," Hess writes. "Unskilled workers without a higher education are finding it more difficult to translate blue-collar work into middle-class stability." And the phenomenon could be worse in rural areas, where residents increasingly spend money and time commuting to jobs elsewhere.

"Many of the working-class Americans interviewed by Silva and Corse are now too concerned with maintaining their 'own survival' to 'imagine being able to provide materially and emotionally for others'," Hess writes, adding that happiness all boils to down to money, and whether or not individuals have the means for vacations, date nights, therapy, college, gyms and fun items. "As traditional work and family structures crumble in the United States, middle-class Americans have the money to build relationships, yet remain satisfied as individuals," he concludes. "For working-class Americans, personal stability sometimes requires staying single and avoiding the risk of abuse, abandonment, and even more economic and emotional disruption." (Read more)

Kentucky Democrat calls for a truce in 'war on coal,' suggests a possible deal

"The right is right: President Obama is waging a war on coal. But his fierce, regulatory-based offensive was an inevitable consequence of the GOP’s unrelenting war on the president and his climate policy. Unless the two sides sign a truce—and put meaningful energy into breakthrough cleaner coal technologies—not only will rural Appalachia be devastated in the crossfire, but our planet’s long-term health will suffer too."

That's the head note on a thoughtful essay by Jonathan Miller, former two-term Kentucky state treasurer, Democrat, critic of mountaintop-removal coal mining and publisher of the bipartisan site Writing for The Daily Beast, Miller argues for this deal: "The coal industry asks the president for a six-month moratorium on new regulations and for his promise to finally utilize an existing $8 billion fossil-fuel loan guarantee program to support cleaner coal. In turn, the industry makes a meaningful and substantial investment in Clean Coal 2.0 and helps fund efforts to diversify the Appalachian economy, preparing it for the inevitable post-coal world." (Read more)

Ohio prisons increasingly fill up with white women, perhaps due to harsher rural sentencing

"White women, many from rural Ohio, are the fastest growing population in Ohio prisons. In fact, they made up 80 percent of the female felons sentenced to prison between June 30, 2012, and July 1, or fiscal year 2013, according to state records," John Caniglia reports for the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. White women made up 55 percent of the state female prison population in 2003, and 43 percent in 1998. Overall, their share of the population rose 37 percentage points, or 86 percent from 1998 to 2012. Nationally, the numbers rose 48 percent from 2000-2009, a shorter time span. (Associated Press photo)

Mike Huff, a criminal defense lawyer, told Caniglia, "I tend to believe that judges in the more rural counties tend to sentence people more harshly. In rural counties, it is a big deal when someone gets caught making methamphetamine or selling drugs. People talk about it. They don't want that stuff around. Small newspapers and radio stations report it. It's big news, and judges realize that.''
James Austin, a national researcher who studied women in Ohio prisons through a grant from the U.S. Justice Department, told Caniglia, "That's the thing that jumped out at me. The numbers weren't coming from Cleveland or Columbus, but from predominantly white, rural counties. In smaller counties, there are, generally, fewer programs for women." (Read more)

Minnesota Public Radio gets to the heart of state's rural population with videos and photos

Rural Americans are facing many of the same obstacles, including declining population, loss of jobs, and the movement of political power to urban centers, Tim Marema notes for the Daily Yonder in praising rural reporting done for the past three years by Minnesota Public Radio. (Photo by Ackerman and Gruber: Immigrants from Micronesia have boosted population numbers in Milan, Minn.)

MPR has been reporting and gathering information on rural life in the state for a project called "Ground Level," and has published some of the stories on a website called Fighting for an American Countryside, which says people in rural Minnesota are battling small-town decline with determination, resourceful thinking, and unwavering belief. 

"It’s the hard-nosed realism that sets this web, video, radio and e-book series apart," Marema writes. "Not every small town is going to survive, says a Montevideo resident. . . The small towns that do make it are going to have to figure out a new way forward. And that’s where the book and website take off." (Read more)

The website has videos, photos, a blog, stories, and access to the e-book. The site To visit the website click here.

Federal appeals court denies Vermont's quest to shut down nuclear plant over safety concerns

Vermont's attempt to shut down a nuclear plant because of safety concerns has been derailed. State lawmakers have been trying to shut down Vermont Yankee for seven years, but Wednesday the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that "states cannot shut down nuclear plants over safety worries," Matthew Wald reports for The New York Times. Vermont Yankee is owned by Entergy Corp. (Associated Press photo by Toby Talbot)

"The court found that states are 'pre-empted' from regulating safety by the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, which made safety a federal responsibility," Wald reports. "The Legislature had sought to shut the plant by denying Entergy a 'certificate of public good' that is required for all power plants. But the court said Vermont was unpersuasive when it said that the reasons for the denial were that the reactor was too costly and unreliable, and that closing it would encourage the development of renewable energy from wind or wood." (Read more)

Rep. Tony Klein (D-East Montpelier), who led the effort to have a say in Vermont Yankee’s future, said the plant's value to the state is decreasing, including a recent announcement from the company that the plant is cutting 30 jobs, and that it no longer sells power to Vermont utilities, Terri Hallenbeck reports for the Burlington Free Press.

"The court did agree with the state that its actions did not violate Entergy’s constitutional rights by running afoul of the interstate-commerce clause" of the U.S. Constitution, and will not have to pay Entergy's legal fees, Hallenbeck reports. State Attorney General Bill Sorrell said has yet to decide on an appeal. (Read more)

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Aug. 28 webinar will help journalists cover changes, challenges being brought by federal health reform

Jennifer Tolbert
After we published a blog item yesterday that said 80 percent of people who could benefit from insurance exchanges being established under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act knew nothing about them, a reporter immediately emailed to say she and and a co-worker were trying to decipher the law for readers, and "I'm personally terrified."

So, how do reporters go about covering the changes? The Kaiser Family Foundation hopes to help, through a series of webinars for journalists that will "address key aspects of the law, the implications for consumers, and strategies for connecting the dots for different audiences," according to the foundation.

The first webinar is scheduled for 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. ET on Wednesday, Aug. 28, and "will be an overview of how health reform’s impact will vary for people in different circumstances, including those currently with employer coverage, those who buy their own insurance and those who are currently uninsured," the foundation says.

Karen Pollitz
The webinar will be hosted by the foundation's state health policy director, Jennifer Tolbert, and senior fellow Karen Pollitz, who will "explain the law’s individual mandate requiring most Americans to obtain coverage, as well as the law’s new coverage options, including new state insurance marketplaces, subsidies for people with low- and moderate incomes, and new rules prohibiting insurers from discriminating based on pre-existing conditions." They will also answer questions. For more information or to register click here.

Feds eye pulling certification of 'grandfathered' critical-access hospitals in order to save billions

Many rural communities still have hospitals because of the critical-access hospital program, in which small, isolated hospitals get higher Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements in return for limiting their size and services. Now federal officials appear to be considering a move that could cost the hospitals money and perhaps put them at risk of closing.

Most of the hospitals would not meet current location requirements if required to re-enroll to get reimbursements from Medicare, and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services could realize substantial savings by revoking certification to some of these hospitals and reimbursing them at lower rates set by prospective payment systems and fee schedules rather than at 101 percent of costs, according to a report by the Department of Health and Human Services.

The agency found that "the program costs the government and Medicare beneficiaries up to a billion dollars a year more than the original parameters of the law allowed," Jenny Gold reports for Kaiser Health News. If forced to re-enroll, 849 of the 1,329 hospitals in the program would not meet the requirements -- having 25 or fewer beds and being at least 35 miles away from another facility (15 miles in mountainous terrain) in communities that would otherwise have limited access to health services.

"Until 2006, states were allowed to waive the distance requirement and designate small hospitals considered 'necessary providers' as critical access hospitals as well, even if they were close to other facilities," Gold reports. "The program grew quickly and now nearly one in four acute care hospitals are getting the extra payments. Congress got rid of the loophole in 2006, but hospitals that already had the exemption were grandfathered." (Read more)

Rural postal carriers are a different breed of workers than their urban counterparts

Gus Baffa
Gus Baffa served as president of the National Rural Letter Carriers' Association from 2001-03, and before that delivered mail in rural Florida for 10 years. Like many current and former mail carriers, Baffa is against the idea of eliminating Saturday mail, Todd Frankel reports for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Baffa, who is in St. Louis this week with 4,000 other attendees for the association's annual convention, told Frankel, “It’s the U.S. Postal Service. And a service company that cuts service doesn’t last."

Earlier this month a bipartisan Senate bill was introduced that would ultimately end Saturday mail. A similar bill is pending in the House. The move, along with more use of cluster mailboxes instead of direct home delivery, could save $5 or $6 billion, but will also mean cutting 40,000 to 60,000 jobs.

"There are more than 100,000 rural letter carriers and more than 73,000 rural routes," Frankel writes. "Rural routes are handed out based on seniority. And carriers hold onto them for as long as they can. The postal service’s rural route system has been fixed for decades. Even when rural farmland becomes office parks and suburban subdivisions, rural carriers still deliver the mail."

Rural carriers are different than their urban counterparts. "Rural carriers have their own union," Frankel writes. "They are postal workers, but they don’t wear uniforms. About half of them drive their personal vehicles on the job. They call themselves 'post offices on wheels' because rural carriers sell stamps and money orders on the road." They are also also paid by "the precise amount of mail they deliver — every package and letter — is tallied. A formula determines pay. A rural carrier can make in the mid-$30,000s. Pay tops out at about $65,000." (Read more)

Flood insurance rates in coastal areas are going sky high, as more homes are being added as flood risks

"A new law meant to stabilize the federal government's money-losing flood-insurance program is starting to send rates sky high, prompting a growing backlash in coastal areas," especially in rural areas, Siobhan Hughes reports for The Wall Street Journal. "The Biggert-Waters law, enacted in 2012 before superstorm Sandy hit the Eastern seaboard, requires that government insurance premiums for the 5.6 million property owners in flood-prone regions be set at a level that better reflects the full risk of flooding. It was prompted by cumulative losses that had ballooned to $24 billion for the National Flood Insurance Program.

One property owner, Bill Bubrig, of Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, in the state's southernmost parish, where the Mississippi River meets the Gulf of Mexico, "estimated that flood-insurance premiums on his home will increase from $633 to $28,000 a year, with a big chunk of the increase hitting as early as 2014," Hughes reports. "The changes mean some owners must retrofit their homes or businesses—by raising buildings higher above the ground and taking other measures—to better guard against flooding, or pay rates that could surge to $10,000 and higher a year. Vacation homes are subject to new insurance rates starting this year, while primary residences already subject to flood insurance will get new rates in phases." (Journal photo by William Widmer: Burbig at his home)

To make matters worse, the government is "redrawing flood-zone maps that will classify more properties as flood risks," Hughes writes. "To soften the impact, some members of Congress are asking the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which administers the federal flood insurance program, to delay implementing parts of the law while lawmakers consider changes to limit premium increases."

But opting out of flood insurance isn't an option for most residents, "since flood insurance is mandatory for properties with federally insured mortgages," Hughes writes. "And there is little people can do to lower premiums shy of elevating properties, which likely would cost multiple tens of thousands of dollars." (Read more)

Greek yogurt company has brought jobs, and 'nasty' odor, to rural Idaho town

It's getting stinky in the 250-population town of Hollister, Idaho. In December, Chobani opened the world's largest yogurt plant, a $450 million, 1,000-employee facility on 200 acres in Twin Falls. That's 20 miles from Hollister, where the company is dumping hundreds of thousands of gallons of acid whey -- a smelly manufacturing byproduct of Greek yogurt -- into irrigation ponds, mixed with water and applied to fields as a soil amendment, Carissa Wolf reports for Boise Weekly. (Weekly photo by Larry Wolf: Chobani plant)

Hollister resident Mike Courtnay, who lives near an irrigation pond, told Wolf, "I don't know if you've smelled whey or not. It is nasty. Really nasty." Mike's wife Deb told Wolf, "I was raised on a farm that had 3,000 pigs and we had whey. And it is not a bad smell at first, but when it gets hot, it ferments and it's a horrible, horrible smell. It's going to ruin the aquifer here. We have a very shallow one here. Our water stands at 30 feet. We don't want to cause problems, but we don't want our livelihoods to change either." (Wolf photo: Mike and Deb Courtnay)

Some Hollister residents are also concerned about the impact on the environment, and the constant vehicle traffic in an area that was once nearly deserted, Wolf writes. "As whey soaked the soil, temperatures climbed and the wind blew across the land, prompting neighbors to grill the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality and government officials about noise pollution from heavy traffic, farming rights, disclosure, environmental sustainability and, in general, the smell of the newest operation up the road." It's the same concerns raised by residents near a Cobani plant in upstate New York, in New Berlin.

Hollister residents trying to get their questions answered have had little success, Wolf writes. Residents "called every government agency they could think of, trying to find solutions to what Mike Courtnay puts in the nuisance category. Calls to Chobani representatives went unanswered. Conversations with Idaho DEQ officials were vague. Neighbors say they heard that government agencies were told to look the other way and let Chobani do what it wants." They say they feel no one cares, because it's just a small, remote town that no one ever visits. Resident Carl Jones told Wolf, "If I hauled 2,000 loads of crap and dumped it in Boise, I'd be sitting in a courtroom." (Read more)

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Reporting needed: Most whom health-insurance exchanges would aid know nothing about them

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will affect millions of Americans, especially those in rural areas. But many are not prepared for the coming changes, according to a survey sponsored by Enroll America, a non-profit group that calls itself "a nonpartisan organization whose mission is to maximize the number of uninsured Americans who enroll in health coverage made available by the Affordable Care Act" through online insurance marketplaces known as exchanges.

The survey, taken early last fall, showed "nearly 80 percent of those who stand to benefit have no idea what an exchange is or how to get the health insurance subsidies they will offer," Christine Vestal reports for Stateline. Enroll America, which "has strong ties to the Obama administration, has been using more than 100 staff and about 3,000 volunteers to go door-to-door and to stage community events this summer to inform people about the opportunities for health care coverage on the exchanges."

"When the exchanges open, anyone who does not already have employer-sponsored insurance will be able to comparison shop for coverage and find out whether they qualify for federal subsidies to help pay for their policies," Vestal notes. "Visitors to federally funded websites and call centers will also find out whether they qualify for Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and they’ll be able to sign up for that coverage immediately. Policies purchased on the exchange will take effect Jan. 1, 2014. The Obama administration is scheduled to announce Thursday how it will dole out $54 million in federal money to hire so-called 'navigators' who will help people actually sign up." (Read more)

Clearly, this subject needs more news coverage to inform people about it. To help reporters do that, the Kaiser Family Foundation is holding a series of free, one-hour webinars, beginning Wednesday, AUg. 28, from 12:30 to 1:30 p.m. ET. For details and registration, click here.

Fla. oyster industry declared federal disaster; governor says he'll sue Ga. for using too much water

On Monday federal officials declared a fishery disaster for Florida's oyster industry in the Gulf of Mexico, and Tuesday Florida Republican Gov. Rick Scott said the state is going to sue Georgia for causing the problem by using too much water from rivers that flow into the gulf. (Tampa Bay Times photo)

"In the last year, the oyster industry has lost 44 percent of its revenues as the oyster population in the Gulf of Mexico has declined an estimated 60 percent," Mary Ellen Klas reports for the Tampa Bay Times. Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson asked the federal government to declare the fisheries disaster a year ago, and Scott made the same request in September. (Read more)

"The collapse of the oyster industry last year came after a drought reduced freshwater flowing into Apalachicola Bay," The Associated Press reports. "But state officials have also blamed the lack of freshwater flow due to increased consumption in Georgia. Alabama, Georgia and Florida have fought for years over the amount of freshwater coming downstream from Georgia to the other states." Last year Florida "obtained a $2.7 million federal grant to pay 200 dislocated oystermen for a project to re-shell the bay in the Florida Panhandle to help it recover and re-open to harvesting." (Read more)

"Florida, Georgia and Alabama have been wrangling for more than 20 years over where Atlanta gets its water, a fight dubbed the Tri-State Water War," Craig Pittman reports for the Times. "To officials in Florida and Alabama, Atlanta is at fault for wasting water and failing to plan for its future. Atlanta officials insist they're now doing more water conservation than anywhere else in the nation, and Florida and Alabama's water demands are unreasonable."

The Apalachicola Bay "produces 90 percent of all of Florida's oysters, and 10 percent of all the oysters consumed in the U.S.," Pittman reports. "Amid court battles, congressional power plays, even a brief bid to move Tennessee's state line to give Georgia even more water, nobody has come up with a compromise that suits everyone. And Georgia's consumption is expected to nearly double by 2035 to 705 million gallons per day." (Read more)

Owners of Iowa plant drop plans for horse abbatoir; New Mexico plant owner vows to keep fighting

Almost two weeks after a federal judge temporarily banned two horse slaughterhouses -- in Iowa and New Mexico -- from opening operations, owners of the plant in Sigourney, Iowa, have decided to end their pursuit to slaughter horses, and instead focus on cattle, Grant Schulte reports for The Associated Press.

Keaton Walker, president of Responsible Transportation, told Schulte, "We just can't sit with our heads down. We have to get back to work. Our main focus now is going to be beef." The Humane Society responded to the decision in a statement: "Horse meat is a product of cruelty that Americans don't want to buy, and which pollutes the air and water wherever it occurs." Rick De Los Santos, owner of Valley Meat Co. in Roswell, N.M., said he has no plants to back down. He told AP, "We are going to see this deal all the way through." (Read more)

The plants were scheduled to open the week of Aug. 5, but on Aug. 2 a New Mexico federal judge blocked those plans, saying the U.S. Department of Agriculture should have done an environmental review before granting inspection to the meatpackers. Animal-rights groups filed a lawsuit against the proposed horse slaughterhouses, and Aug. 8, a federal magistrate ordered the groups to post a bond of nearly $500,000 to cover the companies’ costs and potential lost profits, if the animal-rights groups lose the case.

Tennessee songwriting festival renews this week

Stunned that there wasn't already an Appalachian songwriters festival in East Tennessee, musician Cyndy Montgomery Reeves helped start one, Kenneth Burns reports for The Mountain Press, the daily newspaper for Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg. Now in its second year, the Smoky Mountains Songwriting Festival is scheduled to begin Thursday and run through Sunday in Gatlinburg. (Photo from festival website: Musicians performing at last year's event)

The event showcases amateur and professional musicians and features competitions in bluegrass, country, folk and rock, Burns writes. All live music is free. There are also workshops, which charge a fee, and cover areas such as how to write, pitch and demo a song, increasing your chances of getting a song cut, and co-writing.

Reeves was inspired to start the event after seeing a similar festival in Key West, Fla., Burns writes. She told Burns, "I love you, Jimmy Buffett, but how can you have a songwriters festival for 16 years, and I’m from East Tennessee, and I’ve never heard of one?” From there, Reeves helped preview the festival for city officials in 2011, before the first event was held last year. She told Burns, "It was very successful,. Everybody there enjoyed it. We broke even, and we started something we knew could be a great success.” (Photo by Kay Speer: Festival founder Cyndy Reeves)

One performer will be Marty Dodson, who has written songs recorded by Kenny Chesney, Rascal Flatts, Billy Currington, and Diamond Rio. Dodson told Burns, "It’s about putting a face behind the song. When people hear a song I wrote that Kenny Chesney did, they might feel like maybe he wrote it, or they don’t think about who wrote the song.” Dodson said songwriter festivals also can educate listeners about the nature of the music business. He told Burns, “If I’m downloading a song for free, here’s who I’m hurting, a real person with a family.” (Read more)

Parents say rural Iowa students lag in science, technology, engineering and mathematics

How well are rural children prepared to take tests that measure proficiency in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM? Not well, at least in Iowa, according to a study by the University of Northern Iowa and Iowa State University. The study found that rural Iowa students struggle to get access to STEM teachers and programs, compared to urban schools, creating a gap between how well rural and urban parents feel their children are being prepared in the subjects, Mike Wiser reports for The Gazette in Cedar Rapids. (Gazette photo by Liz Martin: Iowa students participating in the state's Corridor STEM Initiative)

"According to the report, 62 percent of urban parents think their child is 'very well prepared' in STEM subjects, compared to 37 percent of rural parents," Wiser reports. "Ninety percent of the parents surveyed agreed their child 'does well in elementary math/science and has some advanced skills in high school STEM subjects.'"

Republican Gov. Terry Branstad told Wiser, “It does show we have a problem. This is an indication we don’t have enough teachers with the right background.” Wiser writes, "Branstad said higher starting teacher salaries required as part of the state’s education reform package should help the state recruit more teachers with STEM backgrounds. He added the new law allows school districts to start teachers with backgrounds in hard-to-fill positions, such as science and math, at higher levels." (Read more)

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Corn prices are falling at a rapid rate, dropping 40 percent since last year

"The boom in corn prices that helped propel the U.S. farm economy is fading amid expectations for a record-high harvest," Mark Peters and Jesse Newman report for The Wall Street Journal. And "the slide is bad news for farmers who saw their incomes surge to the highest levels since the early 1970s, adjusted for inflation, while farmland values ballooned so much that some analysts worried about a bubble. Lower corn prices will squeeze profit margins, farmers who rent land for their crops might struggle to make money, and sales of tractors and other farm supplies likely will suffer."

Corn, the largest U.S. crop, saw its prices reach an all-time high last year, but are down 40 percent to their lowest point in three years, the Journal reports. Prices dropped from $8.31 a bushel last August to $4.65 as bushel last week, and analysts predict it will continue to decline. The "slide is bad news for farmers who saw their incomes surge to the highest levels since the early 1970s, adjusted for inflation, while farmland values ballooned so much that some analysts worried about a bubble. Lower corn prices will squeeze profit margins, farmers who rent land for their crops might struggle to make money, and sales of tractors and other farm supplies likely will suffer."

Corn prices were less than $2.50 a bushel, before prices surged in 2008 because of flooding and growing demand by the ethanol industry, the Journal writes. Prices have stayed around $6 a bushel the past two years. "The Department of Agriculture has projected this year's U.S. corn harvest, which starts next month, to haul in about 14 billion bushels, up from 10.8 billion bushels last year and 12.4 billion bushels in 2011. Officials are expected to increase the estimate slightly in a monthly crop report due Monday."

What farmers needs is a boost in demand for corn, the Journal writes. "U.S. corn exports have fallen to levels not seen in decades as competition from South America and elsewhere increases. And runaway growth in U.S. ethanol production is easing as the corn-based fuel supplement hits limits on how much can be blended into gasoline." (Read more)

Immigration reform could be costing legal migrants jobs working blueberry fields in Maine

The push for immigration reform, and the fear of hiring illegals, could be costing legal migrant workers jobs. Seasonal jobs picking blueberries in Maine is break-backing work that pays as much as $20 an hour, but few Americans apply, leaving the jobs to migrants. Wanting to avoid the hassle of trying to weed out illegal immigrants in the hiring process, more companies are turning to machines to replace hand pickers, Dave Sherwood reports for Reuters. The number of seasonal Maine blueberry pickers has dropped nearly 80 percent in the past 15 years, to fewer than 1,000 last year.

Unemployment in Maine is 6.9 percent, but is as high as 10 percent in Washington County, "a poor, sparsely populated corner of Maine where the economy revolves around agriculture, forestry and tourism," Sherwood writes. "The problem is acute throughout the oldest, whitest state in the nation. Despite that, the seasonal jobs, which offer a short period of intense physical labor, found few takers among area residents and were traditionally filled by migrants."

But it's not Americans workers that have migrants worried. It's tractors. "Jobs previously filled by those with dubious documents haven't transferred to Americans, as some proponents of E-Verify anticipated," Sherwood writes. "Instead, many of Maine's largest growers have pushed to mechanize the harvest, eliminating many of the once-coveted seasonal jobs. It is an unexpected consequence, observers said, of decades of uncertainty and political wrangling over immigration reform."

In 2001, Whitney Blueberries, a smaller grower with 300 acres, partnered with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to ensure its seasonal staff of handpickers are legal, Sherwood writes. Spokesperson Durand Cercone told Sherwood, "We want to do things right. But every year its a gamble. You never know if enough people are going to show up to get the job done. You can see why people are going towards mechanization. It's a tough call when you've got berries rotting in the field." (Read more)

Oklahoma doctor says key to increasing number of rural doctors begins with high school programs

Rural areas struggle to hire enough doctors, forcing many residents to travel long distance to cities for medical attention. In Oklahoma the average age of doctors is 54 years old, and 19 percent are over 65, Rowynn Ricks reports for the Woodward News in Woodward, Okla. a 12,000-poulation town near the panhandle. But one doctor says the key to bringing more doctors to rural areas is to get students interested at an early age, early admission to medical school, and to encourage doctors to take jobs in rural areas near where they went to school.

Dr. Kayse Shrum, provost of the Health Sciences Center at Oklahoma State University in Tulsa, told the local Chamber of Commerce, "the first initiatives are high school programs directed toward reaching out to teens in their rural hometowns and encourage them to begin to consider seeking a medical degree even before they graduate high school," Ricks reports.

One program "involves attending FFA leadership conferences around the state to meet with advisors and get their help in identifying students with potential to become doctors," because they already have a connection to rural areas, Ricks writes. Another program is the newly-formed Operation Orange, where medical school students and staff travel the state to visit high school students who have shown an interest in pursuing jobs in the medical fields.

Shrum said early admission to medical school is also key, Ricks writes. The OSU medical school begins interviewing students during their sophomore year, and if accepted, they can begin attending after their junior year. Shrum said, "Then when they complete their first year of medical school, their undergraduate institution will award them with their bachelor's degrees." OSU this year is starting a rural primary care physician course tract, where students spend two years in Tulsa, then "have the opportunity during focus courses to go back out to rural communities to gain experience and begin to understand the challenges they will face out there." Shrum also said that OSU is expanding its residency program into more rural areas, because doctors are more likely to practice closer to where they performed their residency. (Read more)

Writer says phrase 'farm bill' could become a metaphor for failure, and for being duped

Chuck Fluharty
The words "farm bill" could quickly become a metaphor for failure and being duped, Chuck Fluharty opines for Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter. "Was Speaker Boehner 'Farm Billed'? Why yes, he was. Were the House and Senate Ag Committees 'Farm Billed'? Yes, also. Deeper questions are yet to be answered: Will the Tea Party, and/or the House Republican Caucus, eventually be ‘Farm Billed,’ for their actions? But the deepest, and most troubling question remains: Has Agriculture been 'Farm Billed'”?

"Here are two realities which trouble me most about this farm bill process," Fluharty opines. "The average farm household income in 2012 was $89,099 —$20,000 more than the average U.S. household income. Conversely, SNAP households which include a child, an elderly person or a disabled person account for 76 percent of all SNAP households, and they receive 83 percent of all SNAP benefits."

He writes that "83 percent of SNAP households have gross incomes of $19,530 for a family of three, and 61 percent of SNAP households average $14,648 for a family of three. And the 'Farm, Farm Bill,”' as it is touted, does much to ensure that large producers are held whole, and eviscerates other important programs across a range of titles that support all the rest of the Farm Bill constituencies, whom together comprise the broad fabric of rural American life."

"If this stands, the optics are most unpleasant," he opines. "Has there been fraud and abuse in the food and nutrition programs? Of course; it is a Federal program. Has there been fraud and abuse in the Commodity programs? Of course; it is a Federal program. Can and should more be done to attack these failures? Of course. This wider American metaphor is troubling. Replicating it in a Farm Bill framework further divides us and reinforces public perceptions which harm us all: Republicans, the Ag Committees, all of us who love agriculture. These optics are very bad, as is the metaphor. Let us hope neither survives." (Read more)

Farms are getting bigger, but are still owned by families, and some are aided by corporations

U.S. farms are growing in size, when measured by the average number of acres under cultivation, while the number of mid-sized farms between 100 to 500 acres keeps shrinking, even though most farms remain family-owned, Lydia DePillis reports for The Washington Post. "Part of the reason is that some mega-corporations have moved from direct ownership of cropland into a coordinating role, sourcing product from family-owned pieces of land that they’ve sold off. Also, families are just as capable of operating modern agricultural technology as agribusinesses are." (Graphic by Census of Agriculture: The midpoint acreage of cropland and harvested cropland)
More than 96 percent "of the crop-producing farms in the U.S. are owned by families, and they represent 87 percent of all the agricultural value generated (non-family owned farms are defined as those operated by cooperatives, by hired managers on behalf of non-operator owners, by large corporations with diverse ownership, and by small groups of unrelated people)," Depillis writes. (Livestock on U.S. farms)
"The increase has been driven by several factors, including the development of high-tech equipment, seeds, and pesticides that made farming less labor intensive, increasing the returns to scale," she writes. "Also, the rise of contracts means that farmers could lock in prices for their crops ahead of the harvest, allowing them to invest in that new technology (which may also have been accelerated by farm subsidies and the early-1990s disappearance of quotas that limited production).  Farming got much more specialized, focusing on tremendous production of one commodity, rather than growing all kinds of veggies and livestock." (Read more)

Monday, August 12, 2013

Yogurt craze drives dairy growth in New York, raising pressure for immigration reform

New York is on the fast track to becoming the yogurt capital of the world, with state yogurt production having doubled from 158 million pounds in 2005 to 1.2 billion pounds in 2011. But with many of the workers migrants, the future of the business relies on the fate of the immigration bill, Chris Clayton reports for DTN The Progressive Farmer. There are about 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S., many of whom work in agriculture and small businesses. About 70 percent of U.S. farmworkers are thought to be in the country illegally. (DTN photo by Chris Clayton: The Emerlings farm near Perry, N.Y. has 20 employees, many of them immigrants)

"The importance of yogurt to dairy farmers in New York is akin to that of ethanol to corn farmers in Iowa," Clayton writes. Several major corporations have shown interest in starting yogurt businesses in New York, including a proposed 350,000-square-foot yogurt processor in Batavia. The $200 million investment will hire 150 employees. The plant is adjacent to a new $20 million Greek yogurt plant.

Finding Americans to work at the plants has been difficult. John Emerling, whose 1,200-cow operation has 20 employees, many of them Hispanics, told Clayton that despite high unemployment, "it wouldn't matter what we paid. People just wouldn't answer."

So the New York yogurt business turns its eyes to the House, which may not take up the immigration bill until October," Clayton writes. The Senate reform bill, which passed in June, would legalize the 11 million now in the country illegally. "The bill has a special provision giving a 'blue card' to farm workers who have worked at least 100 days on farms over a two-year period in 2011-12. After five years, they can become permanent residents. Five years later, those workers can apply for citizenship. The bill also would allow up to 112,333 new agricultural worker visas, a number that could grow depending on labor conditions." (Read more)

Police officer in response to shooting of child: 'There is no such thing as an accidental discharge'

It's sad to write, but "accidental" shootings involving children seem to happen often enough that they don't always receive the national attention they deserve. But what is refreshing is that a police officer in southern Virginia publicly criticized the very use of the word "accidental" when referring to a recent shooting where a 6-year-old shot a 1-year-old in the back. (Register and Bee photo by Allison Roberts: The house, where the shooting took place, was also visited by police in June after a report of shots being fired)

Police say the 6-year-old boy "found a .380 handgun that belonged to a man also living in the home and accidentally fired the weapon," Allison Roberts reports for the Danville Register and Bee. "The bullet from the .380 traveled through a wall in the home and struck a 1-year-old in the back." The victim was listed in stable condition.

"Cpl. T.B Scearce of the Danville Police Department said there is no such thing as an accidental discharge — it is a negligent discharge," Roberts writes. "In order for a gun to fire, Scearce said three things have to occur: it has to be functional, it has to be loaded and the trigger has to be pulled." The story can be found on the newspaper website on Aug. 6. To visit the site click here.

In response to the shooting, the sheriff's department is pushing gun safety by giving away free gun locks, reports ABC News 13, which covers Lynchburg, Danville and Roanoke. Sheriff Mike Mondul told the news, "I think with the recent shooting incident that happened, it kind of raised awareness as to why gun safety is important." In just a matter of seconds, a gun lock, like the one in the photo, can secure a weapon and make it inoperable without a key, ABC News reports. (Read more)

Navajo Nation sparring with celebrities, politicians over slaughtering of horses

When actor and activist Robert Redford and former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson joined the fight to stop horse slaughter plants from opening in New Mexico and Iowa they thought they would have Native Americans on their side, but the Navajo Nation, the country’s largest federally recognized tribe, are on the opposite side of the fence when it comes to the controversial issue, Fernanda Santos reports for The New York Times. (NYT photo by Diego James Robles: Wild horses in New Mexico)

Last week, Redford and Richardson joined animal rights groups in a lawsuit to stop the two plants from opening. A judge blocked the slaughterhouses from temporarily opening, but the groups were ordered to pay a $500,000 bond to cover the companies’ costs and lost profits for the next 30 days, if the animal rights groups lose the case. The Navajo Nation sent a letter to Congress in favor of opening the slaughterhouses.

Ben Shelly, the Navajo president, told Santos that free-roaming horses cost the Navajos $200,000 a year in damage to property and range. He said there is a gap between reality and romance when “outsiders” like Mr. Redford — who counts gunslinger, sheriff’s deputy and horse whisperer among his movie roles — interpret the struggles of American Indians. Shelly told Santos, “Maybe Robert Redford can come and see what he can do to help us out. I’m ready to go in the direction to keep the horses alive and give them to somebody else, but right now the best alternative is having some sort of slaughter facility to come and do it.”

In Navajo territory, "parched by years of unrelenting drought and beset by poverty, one feral horse consumes 5 gallons of water and 18 pounds of forage a day — sometimes the water and food a family had bought for itself and its cattle," Santos writes. "According to the latest estimates, there are 75,000 feral and wild horses in the nation, and the numbers are growing, Mr. Shelly said." (Read more)

Shell disease putting clamps on New England lobster business

Lobsters in Maine could soon be plagued with a disease that causes no harm to the meat, but alters the shell's appearance to the point that makes them unmarketable, Clarke Canfield reports for The Associated Press. The disease, which has been in New England since the 1990s, only affects one of every 1,000 Maine lobsters, "but scientists and lobstermen are concerned because the incidence grew fivefold from 2010 to 2012."

Kathy Castro, a biologist at the University of Rhode Island, told Canfield that shell disease could be linked to a number of pressures such as rising water temperatures, pollution, and low oxygen levels in the water. (University of Rhode Island photo: A lobster with shell disease)

Lobster in New England is "valued at more than $400 million to fishermen and hundreds of millions more to coastal communities," Canfield writes. In Rhode Island only 1 percent of lobster had the disease in 1996, but that number jumped to 20 percent in 1998 and now ranges from 18 to 34 percent each year. The number in Cape Cod is 20 percent, with a high of 38 percent in 2011. Only 3 percent in Massachusetts were reported to have the disease in 2000, and the number has stayed steady. (Read more)