Friday, January 31, 2014

Propane crisis worsens; prices more than double

The crisis in propane, primarily a rural fuel, is hitting people in their pocketbooks. Shortages have driven up prices to levels never seen before. “Five dollars and 11 cents a gallon I had to pay for it,” body-shop owner and Mayor Larry Atcher of Laurel, Iowa, population 240, told Dar Danielson of Radio Iowa. “I was sick to my stomach. You know?” In December, the price was $1.94.

Atcher said he has his home thermostat set at 55, and is using electric heaters, but worries about others: “I would think some elderly people and low-income families are the ones it’s going to hurt the worst, because if you get caught without propane and can’t afford it, what do you do? Do you buy propane or do you buy food?” (Read more)

"The effects of the crisis will reach beyond homes and farms to local businesses, churches and schools . . . in the middle of the nation," Missouri's Nodaway News Leader reports, citing data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration: "Between September and October of 2013, exports of propane from the United States rose by 73,000 barrels a day. That level of exports so close to winter almost guaranteed a domestic shortage. The Missouri Propane Gas Association also noted a pipeline, which provide much of the Midwest supplies, was shut down for repairs while a new pipeline moved propane from the central part of the country to new export terminals on the Gulf Coast. Over 6 million people in the center of the country use propane to heat their homes. Because extremely cold temperatures remain in the forecast in the coming weeks, the situation could get worse." (Read more)

Federal fines for rail disasters are often small

Concern keeps growing about the safety of carrying crude oil by rail. After more oil was spilled in 2013 than in the previous 37 years, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended tougher standards for oil tank cars, and the Association of American Railroads urged manufacturers to replace older cars that carry flammable materials. But federal documents show that the Department of Transportation levis relatively small civil penalties against the railroads it regulates, Curtis Tate reports for McClatchy Newspapers. (McClatchy graphic)

"A McClatchy review of annual enforcement reports shows that the Federal Railroad Administration rarely fines any company more than $25,000, though it’s authorized to collect a maximum of $175,000 per violation," Tate writes. "Some fines are as little as $250, and most settlements are substantially lower than the agency had first proposed." The FRA collected $13.9 million in civil penalties last year.

History shows that penalties are riddled with inconsistencies, Tate writes. For example, in a 2010  derailment in Illinois that spilled more than 300,000 gallons of ethanol, forced the evacuation of 600 residents and killed one person, the agency agreed to a $17,000 settlement, because "two inspection reports filed in the weeks after the accident also show that the violations that resulted in the fine didn’t directly contribute to the accident or its severity, including faulty equipment on cars that didn’t derail or spill their cargo and incorrect documentation of the placement of cars in the train," Tate reports. "Such defects would have been violations even if the accident hadn’t occurred. The agency originally proposed a $25,000 fine." But in a 2011 incident when a woman died in her car at a railroad crossing, the agency got a $36 million settlement from Canadian National Railway.

FRA spokesman Kevin Thompson told Tate the agency, “uses a variety of tools to ensure that railroads are operating safely, including civil penalties, enforcement actions and partnerships to drive change within safety culture. These tools are an integral force in driving continuous safety improvement, resulting in significant declines in all measureable safety indicators.” (Read more)

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Postal reform vote delayed pending measures to control rate hikes and allow guns in post offices

Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis.
The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Wednesday delayed a vote on legislation to overhaul the U.S. Postal Service after members said they needed more time to study a pair of amendments: one on how rate increases are determined, the other allowing citizens to carry guns into post offices, Lisa Rein reports for The Washington Post.

If passed, the bill "would allow the Postal Service to drop Saturday mail delivery, but only after mail volume drops below 140 billion pieces of mail annually. The agency would be able to ship alcohol and enter other lines of business that are currently prohibited." The service wants to continue Saturday delivery of packages, on which it makes money.

An amendment from Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), "backed by the powerful mailing industry to strike a plan allowing higher postal rates, appeared to be gaining support," Rein writes. The amendment is in response to language by committee chairman Tom Carper (D-Del.) and its ranking Republican member, Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.), that would allow the Postal Service to set its own prices beginning in 2017, Eric Katz reports for Government Executive.

"The Postal Service recently won a surcharge on that rate from regulators, who allowed a 3-cent jump in the price of first-class letters and other mail that took effect Monday," Rein writes. "The surcharge would last two years, raising $2.8 billion to help the Postal Service recoup revenue it lost during the recession." But Carper and Coburn "agreed to language that would allow that increase to be permanent and raise the annual price cap from inflation to inflation plus 1 percent. The Postal Service’s governing board also would have some authority to override rulings by regulators on rate increases."

Baldwin said the plan would give the Postal Service too much power: “No public or quasi-public entity, especially one with monopoly power, should have near-absolute control in setting its own prices. It’s wrong.” But Coburn said the amendment "would effectively kill the bill by leaving the mail agency in the red."

The sponsor of the other amendment, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), said his amendment "would allow licensed gun owners to carry weapons inside post offices, rather than having to un-holster them and keep them in the car." Guns are banned in federal buildings. (Read more)

Farm Bill includes new program to help food stamp recipients eat healthier at farmers' markets

Even though the Farm Bill cuts an estimated $800 million a year from food stamps, officially the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, it includes an initiative to help low-income families eat healthier while doubling their food stamp benefits through farmers' markets, Tim Carman reports for The Washington Post. While final details for the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive program are incomplete, proponents say the $100 million program "could help hungry families and also address the country’s obesity crisis" by "matching funds to farmers markets, up to $20 million annually for five years, to incentivize SNAP recipients to buy more fresh fruits and vegetables with their benefits."

“This program helps families buy healthy food from their local farmers markets, which also helps family farmers and boosts the economy,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.), the Senate's chief writer of the bill as Agriculture Committee chair.

Similar local and state programs are already in place, and are credited with helping low-income families eat healthier, Carman reports. "Many of the state and local programs work the same: Foundations and other organizations raise money to supplement SNAP purchases at a farmers market or similar venue where local fruits and vegetables are sold. The participating market then will double the SNAP benefits up to a certain dollar amount, usually $10 or $20."

Oran Hesterman, president and chief executive officer of Fair Food Network, a Michigan nonprofit, told Carman that because of that state's program, 95 percent of food stamp users say they increased the amount of fruits and vegetables in their diet, and 90 percent said they decreased the amount of junk food the purchase. "Hesterman said that while the current allocation is only $100 million, the number could increase with the next farm bill in five years, if the program proves successful," Carman writes. "If it increased to 1 percent of the SNAP budget, for example, it would be about $800 million to spend annually on an incentive program at farmers markets, he said." Hesterman told him, “That would be a game changer." (Read more)

EPA to finalize coal ash disposal rules by Dec. 19

The Environmental Protection Agency has finally announced when it will finalize rules for coal-ash disposal: Dec. 19. The agency has repeatedly put off setting a deadline; a federal judge's ruling that the EPA announce a deadline was extended from Dec. 29, 2013 until this past Wednesday.

EPA is considering two basic options, notes Romando Dixon for the Citizen-Times in Asheville, N.C.: " In one option, the EPA would list coal ash as special waste subject to regulation when destined for disposal in landfills or surface impoundments. In the second option, the agency would regulate coal ash under the section for non-hazardous wastes." (Read more)

The dangers of coal ash, which contains metals that can be toxic in high doses, became national news more than five years ago when "a dike rupture at a Tennessee Valley Authority power plant spilled more than 1 billion gallons of ash slurry in 2008, covering 300 acres and flowing into two rivers," notes Bruce Henderson of the Charlotte Observer. When EPA dithered, several groups sued it. Matt Wasson of Appalachian Voices told Henderson, “It’s absolutely historic that we’re finally going to have a resolution of this. This has been going on not just since the spill in 2008, but well before that.” (Read more)

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Those in Ky. with enough info on how Obamacare affects them support it; those who lack info don't

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Severe drought in California draining water supply for 17 rural communities

UPDATE, Feb. 3: State officials announced Friday they were cutting off the water supply to 25 million residents and about 750,000 acres of farmland, Ian Lovett reports for The New York Times. "With no end in sight for the dry spell and reservoirs at historic lows, Mark Cowin, director of the California Department of Water Resources, said his agency needed to preserve what little water remained so it could be used “as wisely as possible.” (Read more)

Severe drought in California could drain the water supply from 17 rural communities within 60 to 120 days, and more communities could be in danger of running out of water if conditions continue, Paul Rogers reports for the San Jose Mercury News. Last year California had its lowest rainfall in state history, and state officials said some wells are running dry, while some reservoirs are nearly empty. Wells for the 17 communities serve between 39 to 11,000 residents. (Bay Area News Group graphic)

"Most of the affected water districts have so few customers that they can't charge enough money to pay for backup water supplies or repair failing equipment, leaving them more vulnerable to drought than large urban areas," Rogers writes. Bill Croyle, director of the state Drought Task Force, told Rogers, "This is a statewide drought. This is a serious drought. It's all hands on deck."

"State health officials are in discussion with leaders of other agencies, including the state Office of Emergency Services and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to work on immediate solutions," Rogers writes. "Those could include everything from trucking in water to the health department providing emergency funds for drilling new wells or connecting faltering systems to other water systems." (Read more)

Montana exchange program gives rural and urban students an insight into each others' lives

High school students in rural and urban Montana are getting an inside look at how the other half lives through a program that allows students from one area to visit the other area and be chaperoned around by their peers. Most recently, the program paired up students from Forsyth High School, with a student population of 112, with students from Skyview High School in Billings, Rob Rogers reports for the Billings Gazette. With an enrollment of 1,600, Skyview has almost as many students as the entire population of Forsyth, which has 1,900 residents.

The program, through the nonprofit OneMontana and its Rural-Urban Student Entrepreneur Exchange program, began last year, Rogers writes. As part of the program, students are given a tour of the other group's town, visit local businesses, attend classes at the other school and put together a business project that will be showcased in April when students from the two schools are reunited.

"Students saw first hand the differences between a rural and an urban community, which is what the teachers wanted the students to see," Rogers writes. Kim Knoche, a teacher at Forsyth, told Rogers, "They always think the grass is greener, you know. It's a real-world view." Another hope is that students from different backgrounds will form a bond. Knoche told Rogers, "I was hoping they'd get a chance to make some friends. And they connected right off." (Read more) (Facebook photo: Forsyth students getting a view of Billings)

Working-class children in largely rural states are not getting better paying jobs than their parents

Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Texas have done the best job ensuring that children born to working-class families do better than their parents, while Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Mississippi and Virginia have done the worst job, Jim Tankersley reports for The Washington Post.

A Harvard-led study "suggests that any advances in opportunity provided by expanded social programs have been offset by other changes in economic conditions. Increased trade and advanced technology, for instance, have closed off traditional sources of middle-income jobs," Tankersley writes. "The findings also suggest that who your parents are and how much they earn is more consequential for American youths today than ever before. That’s because the difference between the bottom and the top of the economic ladder has grown much more stark, but climbing the ladder hasn’t gotten any easier."

Lawrence F. Katz, a Harvard economist and one of the study's authors, said the paper suggests that “it is not true that mobility itself is getting lower,” Tankersley writes. Katz told him, “What’s really changed is the consequences of it. Because there’s so much inequality, people born near the bottom tend to stay near the bottom, and that’s much more consequential than it was 50 years ago.” (Read more) (Post map) (To view an interactive map click here.)

Farm Bill winners, losers, and plenty of opinions

Now that the Farm Bill has passed the House and is expected to pass the Senate and be signed into law by President Obama, here's a look at some of the stories being written about the bill.

Dairy farmers welcome the bill's subsidy overhaul, reports M.L Johnson for The Associated Press. "Farmers expressed relief this week that a long fight over federal dairy subsidies had ended with an overhaul that most thought would be fair and effective in keeping farms from going under during hard times." (Read more)

One provision, "tucked into page 735 of the 949-page farm bill, could make it more difficult for gasoline blended with higher concentrations of ethanol to find its way to rural areas, where demand for the fuel is greatest," Cezary Podkul reports for Reuters. "That, in turn, could make it more difficult for the United States to implement a program known as the renewable fuel standard, or RFS, which mandates increasing amounts of biofuels like corn-based ethanol be blended into the nation's fuel supply." (Read more)

"Soybean and catfish farmers, dairy food manufacturers, U.S. cattlemen and the organic food industry all counted themselves among the big winners," Bill Tomson and Tarini Parti report for Politico. "Much less pleased are meat processors, champions of the food stamp program and Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa)," who sponsored an amendment "that would have prohibited states from regulating other states’ means of agricultural production." (Read more)

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps, took a major hit, with $8 billion in cuts, Alan Bjera reports for Bloomberg. "The bill would cut food-stamp spending by $8.6 billion over 10 years, though additions to other programs bring nutrition-aid cuts down to $8 billion—one-fifth of the $40 billion sought by Republicans and fought by Democrats and food retailers." (Read more)

Passage of the farm bill is a huge victory for House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), "who was whipsawed by his own party throughout much of 2013 over the costs of the bill and demands for more spending cuts," writes Chris Clayton for DTN The Progressive Farmer. "Nonetheless, he was able to successfully navigate a compromise bill through the chamber." (Read more)

Katie Valentine, of Think Progress, takes a look at what the bill means for energy and the environment, writing that it "has been heralded as a win for conservationists, but it’s got some pitfalls, too." (Read more)

President Obama should veto the bill, opines The Washington Post. "We hope Mr. Obama will pick up the phone, call Congress—and tell them he’s preparing his veto pen for the 2014 farm bill. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that this legislative grotesquerie gives to the rich and takes from the poor." (Read more)

The bill "makes some of the most significant reforms to wasteful agriculture subsidies in many years, and it contains dozens of important provisions designed to increase employment in rural areas and save lives with farsighted crop research," reports The New York Times. "It preserves some important environmental protections, while cutting others. And though its food-stamp provisions were saved from being much worse, they will still reduce benefits for too many poor people. On balance, the bill is clearly worthy of support, particularly because it will prevent austerity fanatics in future Congresses from gutting food stamps for the next five years." (Read more)

Backers of the farm bill "are patting themselves on the back for saving billions by eliminating a huge wasteful farm subsidy program. Don't believe the hype," Michael Hiltzik writes for The Economy Hub. "The conservative American Enterprise Institute says the measure could cost taxpayers $15 billion more per year than do existing crop programs, much of it going to the wealthiest farmers and the crop insurance industry." (Read more)

Farm Policy has a copy of the farm bill debate transcript, which can be accessed by clicking here.

Hidden among one of the nation's richest counties is a growing population of poor rural families

Chester County, Pa., is a haven for the rich and the Amish but is seeing a new, alarming trend—a rise in rural poverty and families going hungry in Honey Brook Township, Alfred Lubrano reports for the Philadelphia Inquirer. The growing problem led to the opening this week of something not normally seen in these parts, a food pantry.

"Route 322 runs 494 miles from Cleveland to Atlantic City, crossing the Appalachian Mountains in Western Pennsylvania," Lubrano writes. "Although Route 322 traverses Chester County, one of the richest counties in the United States, it remains a hunger highway, thick with the traffic of Honey Brook residents seeking food."  The county poverty rate has risen from 4.5 percent in 2000 to 7.4 percent in 2012, but in Honey Brook the poverty rate is 11 percent, and a third of public school children are considered low-income, with 40 percent of families earning less than $50,000 annually. Only 7,000 people live in Honey Brooke, but 1,700 of them live within one square mile.

Dawn Schell, a former teacher who runs an outreach center to help the poor of Honey Brook, told Lubrano, "People are stuck. Lack of food is a huge thing. More and more families here are needing help. But they're sort of giving up hope. We want this pantry to restore it."

Peggy Magnuson, whose husband is a seasonal landscaper, is a former house cleaner and a stay-at-home mother of five children under 17. Their family lives in a trailer that costs $1,000 a month. She told Lubrano, "The children eat like you can't believe, and sometimes I have to say, 'Look, we need to cut down. There's just not enough.'" (Read more)

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Farm Bill compromise passes House by 251-166 vote; Senate is expected to pass it

"The House approved the five-year Farm Bill today, with a 251-166 vote, sending the nearly $1 trillion agricultural policy package to the Senate," Derrick Cain reports for Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter. "The bill would eliminate direct payments in favor of enhanced crop insurance, revise commodity supports, create a new dairy program and make several other changes to agricultural policy, including an approximate $8 billion cut to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program," better known as food stamps.

Rep. Frank Lucas
The Senate is expected to approve the legislation—possibly as early as next week—and President Obama to sign it into law, Cain writes. House Agriculture Committee Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) said, "It may not have everything my friends on the right may and it may not have everything my friends on the left may want. But, it's a compromise.”

"The Congressional Budget Office released a score for the bill Tuesday estimating that direct spending for authorized programs would total $956 billion over 10 years, of which $756 billion would be for nutrition programsm," Cain writes. "Relative to spending and revenues projected under CBO's May 2013 baseline, CBO said it estimates that enacting the legislation would lower budget deficits by $16.6 billion and increase revenues by $100 million over 10 years. This came in below the $23 billion in possible savings being touted by bill supporters, but they noted that the Farm Bill baseline had already been reduced by $6.6 billion" through budget sequesters. (Read more)

The bill includes "a new revenue insurance subsidy that would pay farmers in the event of 'shallow losses' or revenue losses incurred before their paid crop insurance kicks in. That program might kick in sooner than previously thought as some crop prices have dropped in recent months," The Associated Press reports. Also, "a separate subsidy program would trigger payments when crop prices drop. This is similar to current subsidies, though the new programs would kick in sooner, especially for cotton and rice, the crops that depend the most on the direct payments that would be phased out. Producers would have to choose between these subsidies or the revenue insurance." (Read more)

Farm Bill ends 'direct payments' and sets limits, but not what reformers wanted

The five-year Farm Bill, which passed the House Wednesday by a vote of 251-166, and now heads to the Senate, ends direct payments to farmers, whether they farm or not, that cost around $4.5 billion a year, reports The Associated Press. However, "Reformers came away frustrated by the bill’s failure to rein in crop insurance subsidies and impose a more meaningful cap on what any single farm can receive in government aid," David Rogers reports for Politico.

The bill includes "stricter limits on how much money an individual farmer can receive—$125,000 annually on all payments and loans, when some were previously unrestricted," the AP reports. "The agreement is less strict than either the House or Senate bills, which had put limits on how much a farmer could receive from individual programs. Language that would limit how many people in a farm operation may receive such payments was also passed by both chambers but taken out of the compromise bill, which would kick the issue to the Agriculture Department."

The bill also includes "a new revenue insurance subsidy that would pay farmers in the event of 'shallow losses' or revenue losses incurred before their paid crop insurance kicks in. That program might kick in sooner than previously thought as some crop prices have dropped in recent months," AP reports. Also, "a separate subsidy program would trigger payments when crop prices drop. This is similar to current subsidies, though the new programs would kick in sooner, especially for cotton and rice, the crops that depend the most on the direct payments that would be phased out. Producers would have to choose between these subsidies or the revenue insurance." (Read more)

Farm Bill revives payments in lieu of taxes, a boon to rural counties, especially in the West

The final Farm Bill, which passed the House Wednesday on a 251-166 vote, includes more than $400 million for the recently expired payments in lieu of taxes (PILT) program, which "are meant to compensate local governments for services they provide on federal lands, which are not subject to local property taxes," reports the Daily Yonder. PILT divides "$425 million among some 1,850 counties in 49 states."

PILTs are especially popular in rural areas in the West, where most federal land is located. In 2013, New Mexico received $34.7 million, and areas like San Juan County—with a population of 128,000 in the northwestern part of the state—received $2 million, or 6 percent "of the county's $34 million general fund that year," Ryan Boetel reports for The Daily Times in Farmington.

Payments to other Western states, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior, were: California, $38 million; Utah, $34 million; Arizona, $31 million; Colorado, $27 million; Alaska, $25 million; Idaho, $25 million; Wyoming, $25 million; Montana, $24 million; Nevada, $22 million; Oregon, $13 million; and Washington, $13 million. No other state received more than $5 million.

Mike Murray, a county commissioner from Lewis and Clark County, Montana, and chair of the National Association of Counties Public Lands Steering Committee, told the Yonder, “We are most pleased that the federal government will once again renew its obligation to America’s counties which are unable to collect property taxes from the nation’s 606 million-acre estate yet are responsible to provide services on these lands." (Read more)

PILTs have been around for about 35 years but were only recently added to the Farm Bill by House Republicans as a way to help save the bill. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) "promised to help after PILT found itself left out of the omnibus spending bill enacted earlier this month," David Rogers reports for Politico. "And it could prove a bit of fortunate log rolling by Lucas since many of the same Western Republicans who wanted the PILT money are also allies of the cattle and beef lobby," which opposed the final version of the bill because it made no substantive changes to the law requiring meat to be labeled with its country of origin. (Read more)

Rural schools in Iowa form lobbying group

Concerned that state lawmakers aren't supporting rural schools as much as urban ones, rural school leaders in Iowa have formed a new group to give them a stronger voice in the statehouse, Jill Kasparie reports for KCRG News in Cedar Rapids. The Rural School Advocates of Iowa are "pushing for legislative support that strengthens rural education."

Springville School Board President Lee Ann Grimley told Kasparie, "Our purpose is to speak up for children in rural school districts, to make sure they get a fair, quality and equal education." Springville Community Schools Supt. Brian Ney said, "I'm hoping we can get a true understanding of legislators that just because we are small doesn't mean we are an inferior school—not at all. We want enough money to fund the school is what we want to do." One of the group's main concerns is transportation costs because buses have to travel longer distances than urban schools to pick-up and drop-off students. Other concerns are operational sharing costs and flexibility in funds districts operate, Kasparie reporyts. (Read more)

Funds are often determined by enrollment size, and leftover funds from one account sometimes can't be used in another account, Audrey Ingram reports for the Daily Times Herald in Carroll. Those concerns led representatives from more than 40 districts with school enrollments under 1,250 to meet earlier this month to establish the group. Coon Rapids-Bayard Schools Board President Joel Davis said, "By the end of 2014, 24 fewer school districts will exist in rural Iowa than were present in 2008. In that same time span, the percentage of students in poverty has increased from 33 to 42, but the funding to address the needs of those at-risk students has declined by 5 percent in rural schools."

Davis said the group "would take a 'tuning fork' approach—one tine will focus on helping local school boards network and build personal relationships with their legislative representatives, while the other tine funnels membership dues into hiring a professional lobbyist to reinforce the local message," Ingram writes. (Read more)

Arizona program requires health-care students to spend at least 4 weeks with rural providers

Most states have struggled to attract recent graduates to take medical positions in rural areas. Incentive programs that pay or forgive some or all of school-loan debt haven't done the trick, as recent grads continue to prefer urban areas. Arizona is trying to change that by requiring all health care students at the University of Arizona, Arizona State University and Northern Arizona State University to get rural experience, Rachel Leingang reports for Cronkite News at ASU. (University of Arizona photo: Students on rotation in the program)

Each year, as part of the Rural Health Professions Program, students in medicine, pharmacy, nursing, public health and other health care fields at the three schools "spend at least four weeks following rural health professionals and receive additional seminars and mentorship, culminating in a 24-week clinical experience for pharmacy and medical students toward the end of their studies," Leingang writes. "After completing the program, participants can receive a notion of 'Distinction Track in Rural Health' on their transcripts." Last year 870 students participated in the program.

Dr. Jonathan Cartsonis, who heads the University of Arizona program, in which 152 students participated last year, "said the goal is getting more health professionals to work in rural parts of the state," Leingang writes. Cartsonis told her, “We believe once they have a taste of it, they’ll be excited to practice in a rural area. When you’re practicing in a rural setting, you feel like you’re using all the skills you learned in medical school; they’re required on a daily basis.”

Sandy Haryasz, CEO of Page Hospital in northern Arizona, "said the challenges in rural practices often come down to lifestyle," Leingang writes. Haryasz told her, “It gives them an opportunity to see if small-town living is what they need or want—to see if they want to come back to a rural area. It gives them a good flavor of the differences between rural and metropolitan.” (Read more)

Feb. 18 symposium in Philly to focus on natural-gas drilling's effects on environment, public health

The Center of Excellence in Environmental Toxicology and the Center for Public Health Initiatives are hosting a free symposium Feb. 18 on the “Impact of Unconventional Natural Gas Drilling Operations on the Environment and Public Health.” Registration is required for the event, which will take place at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. The registration deadline is Feb. 10.

The symposium hopes to "engage many different stakeholders concerning hydraulic fracturing and educate participants on the process and effects on the environment and public health," according to the Perelman School of Medicine at Penn. "The symposium will also profile ongoing research on this topic. The day will end with a session on citizens’ concerns with a panel discussion." For more information or to register click here. For the event's full agenda click here.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Workshop on covering local elections to be videostreamed live starting at 5 p.m. CT Thursday

It's a big election year in most of the country, from the U.S. Senate to local school boards, and it's time for news outlets to start planning their coverage. You can get some ideas online Thursday evening through noon Saturday by watching live videostreaming of the "Down-home Democracy: Empowering Citizens With Outstanding Coverage of Local Elections" workshop from the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the Missouri School of Journalism.

The workshop starts at 5 p.m. CT Thursday with a presentation about the importance of political coverage from Jim Pumarlo, author of Votes and Quotes: A Guide to Outstanding Election Campaign Coverage. The Friday program runs from 8:30 to 5:30 CT and includes Mark Horvit, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors; Hank Waters, publisher emeritus of the Columbia Daily Tribune; and Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues (publisher of The Rural Blog) and former political writer for The Courier-Journal in Louisville. For the full schedule, click here. For the videostream, click here.

Farm Bill waters down limits on subsidy payments

Sen. Charles Grassley
smiles but he's not happy
While lawmakers came to an agreement Monday on a final Farm Bill, not everyone is happy with the outcome, especially Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and the meat industry. Even though meat industry groups have said they will fight the bill because it doesn't change country-of-origin labeling, it is expected to pass the House by Wednesday evening.

"Reformers are furious that the final agreement waters down their efforts to rein in the growth of large farms by imposing limits on what each operation can receive" from the new crop-insurance programs, Agriculture Risk Coverage and Price Loss Coverage, reports David Rogers of Politico. Grassley, a strong supporter of direct payments, which are being eliminated, said “This is an example of why Congress has a 12 percent approval rating." (Read more)

Grassley criticized the bill "after his payment-limit provisions were basically scrapped," Chris Clayton writes for DTN/The Progressive Farmer. "The House and Senate had passed bills with $50,000 payment caps for ARC and PLC but those were changed in conference. The bill instead would have a $125,000 payment cap applying to PLC, ARC, marketing-loan gains and loan-deficiency payments. That amount doubles to $250,000 for married couples."

Grassley said: “It appears the payment limit and actively engaged reforms, which Congress overwhelming approved, have been watered down to the point they will likely have little to no effect. It’s bad for agriculture, it’s bad for taxpayers who are worried about the debt, it’s bad for our credibility with trading partners, and it’s bad for the future of farm programs." (Read more)

If Farm Bill passes, 11 states can grow industrial hemp in pilot and research projects

Industrial hemp made its way into the final Farm Bill, with the pending legislation allowing colleges, universities or "state departments of agriculture to cultivate industrial hemp in agricultural pilot programs in states that already permit the growth and cultivation of industrial hemp," U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a press release. Eleven states -- Colorado, Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Montana, North Dakota, Oregon, Vermont, Washington and West Virginia -- have such laws. 

McConnell took primary credit for the provision, citing his role as Republican leader of the Senate. He said it could help state economies "by exploring innovative ways to use hemp to benefit a variety of Kentucky industries, while avoiding negative impact to Kentucky law enforcement’s efforts at marijuana interdiction, the pilot programs authorized by this legislation could help boost our state’s economy."

Ed O'Keefe reports for The Washington Post, "Aides noted that the new hemp-themed provisions are among hundreds of policy and spending details buried in the legislation, but the decision is likely to contribute to a growing national debate about the legalization of marijuana both for medicinal and recreational purposes."

McConnell's release said, "The legislation carved out industrial hemp from the federal Controlled Substances Act, which currently does not distinguish industrial hemp from marijuana. Industrial hemp lacks the high quantities of the active ingredient THC found in the abuse-prone marijuana." Colorado has already released hemp regulations, and had a legal hemp crop. Kentucky had been planning a spring crop, even as state officials debated its legality. The bill defines industrial hemp as that containing less than 0.3 percent delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol by dry weight. (Hemp for You graphic)

Group says FDA still allows use of antibiotics that don't meet agency's own standards

For years, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has permitted the use of antibiotics in livestock feed that had the potential to cause health problems in people, and it still is, despite recent action on the issue, say critics who have been pushing for such action, saying it creates strains of disease-causing organisms that are resistant to antibiotics.

"FDA officials reviewed about 30 animal-feed additives between 2001 and 2010, rating 18 of them 'high risk' in terms of contributing to health problems in humans," Brady Dennis reports for The Washington Post, citing research of federal records by the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental lobby. The NRDC report found that "at least 26 of the feed additives that FDA researchers reviewed — some of which have been in use since the 1950s — did not meet standards set by the agency in 1973 that required companies to submit scientific studies proving that the drugs were safe," Dennis writes.

The FDA, which in December started an effort to phase out most antibiotics used in livestock, responded with a statement saying its internal review used in the report was “part of the agency’s overall effort to assess available, current information regarding antimicrobial resistance concerns associated with the use of medically important antimicrobial drugs in food-producing animals.”

Researchers say they found evidence that at least nine of the feed additives that don't meet the standards are still being marketed, Dennis writes. "The FDA said Monday it remains confident that its current approach, which will give animal-drug companies and the agricultural industry several years to adapt, 'is the most efficient and effective way to change the use of these products in animal agriculture.'” (Read more)

'Promise Zone' in E. Ky. Coal Field faces challenges

During the State of the Union speech, President Obama plans to explain his plan to battle inequality and poverty including the "promise zone" plan, which is a new version of an old idea: the "enterprise zone," writes Annie Lowrey of The New York Times. Recently Obama named a large part of southeastern Kentucky a promise zone, which means it will attract "renewed attention from Washington, which vowed to provide it top priority for grants and, if Congress goes along, new tax dollars as well," Lowery notes, adding that "this remote part of Appalachia" suffers from an unemployment rate of 12.8 percent, rampant drug abuse and a 26 percent rate of poverty.
Not all of Whitley County, the westernmost county in the zone, is in it.
The zone is one of five named so far; the other rural one is the Choctaw Nation in eastern Oklahoma. The Kentucky plan continues to gain advocates "from across the political spectrum," Lowrey reports. For example, Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear and Sen. Rand Paul, a Democrat and a Republican, support the the program. "This adds up to significant stimulus," Paul told Lowrey. "It could have a big effect for people who are really hurting."

Lowery writes, "But experts are broadly skeptical that any federal initiative would be enough to combat either the immediate economic upheaval caused by the loss of coal jobs or the long-term economic torpor that is a product of remoteness, poor infrastructure and an under-educated work force." Bob Turner, a Skidmore College professor who has studied enterprise zones, said, "There's a real gap between the amount of private and public disinvestment in these areas and the scope of the public intervention."

Local workers and officials are unsure how significantly the government will be able to improve the area's economy. "There isn't a magic bullet here," said Jeff Whitehead, the executive director of the Eastern Kentucky Concentrated Employment Program. "My agency is involved with trying to retrain 8,000 coal miners who have lost their jobs. Unfortunately, one of the more successful things we're doing is helping them find jobs outside the area."

The government had helped enterprise zones by providing better tax rates and anti-crime programs in an attempt to attract businesses to the area while also seeking to improve education programs and build the work force. Past enterprise zones have had mixed results. In 1994 two and a half counties on the edge of the East Kentucky Coal Field became an empowerment zone, but the resulting improvements in employment and poverty may have simply resulted from improvements in the broader economy, Lowery writes. She notes that the region is still dependent upon federal programs, and the declining coal industry to the east has brought on a rise in crime and poverty.

Supporters of the promise zones remain optimistic that the program could be more effective this time. In Kentucky, the initiative involves worker retraining, business investment and anti-drug policies. "The idea is to build a diversified economy based on the talents of the local people as they are now," said Alison Davis, director of the Community and Economic Development Initiative of Kentucky at the University of Kentucky. She emphasized the importance of not only attracting large businesses but also assisting workers to start new businesses: "In the past, it's been a lot of 'Shoot anything that flies! But in Appalachia, particularly in these counties—it would be a special, unique company that would find its needs met in Eastern Kentucky." (Read more)

Also, the effort will have some corollary help, which the Times story fails to note. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has added it and several other counties to its StrikeForce list for preferential treatment, and Beshear and 5th District U.S. Rep. Harold "Hal" Rogers, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, have mounted a joint effort to boost the economy in the state's Appalachian counties, including $100 million for highspeed Internet. Also, the promise zone will be managed by Kentucky Highlands Investment Corp., a venture-capital agency that handled the empowerment zone.

It's cold outside, but not early enough or long enough to kill off all invasive species

The unusually cold temperatures haven't lasted long enough to kill off all invasive species, according to a report from the U.S. Forest Service and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, Lacee Shepard reports for the Capital News Service, based at Michigan State University. (Flickr photo: Emerald ash borer)

The report found that when temperatures hit -10 F., some invasive species, such as the emerald ash borer, which feeds on ash and kills the tree, could freeze to death, Shepard writes. But like many insects, the borer adjusts to the weather, and adjusts to survive. Thus, though this winter has been cold, it turned extremely cold too late to eliminate the species.

“Insects go through a physiologically intense process of acclimatization in the fall and there’s actually changes in their bodies. It’s the equivalent of having antifreeze," Deborah McCullough, a professor of entomology and forestry at Michigan State, told Shepard. "If the insects don’t create this antifreeze their cells will freeze and burst, killing them. If we had this Arctic vortex the first or second week of November, it might have been really different. But there have been all these weeks of cooler and cooler temperatures for the ash borer larvae, under the bark, to have acclimatized. Because it’s the middle of winter they are as acclimatized as they could possible be. Some of them are still going to survive it.”

Still, McCullough said she hopes "the cold will kill off other harmful species like mimosa webworm, an insect that webs leaves together and feeds on them," Shepard writes. "While the harm they cause is less severe than what emerald ash borer or the (hemlock woolly adelgid) cause, it is still damaging and unsightly." The hemlock woolly adelgid preys on hemlock by injecting toxic saliva while feeding, eventually killing the tree. The species appeared to vanish in 2006, but made a comeback in 2013. (Read more)

Monday, January 27, 2014

Feds, with new money to address over-population of wild horses, seek the public's ideas

The federal government is asking the public to help it find a solution to the nation's wild horse problem, devoting $1.5 million from the fiscal year 2014 budget to allow the Bureau of Land Management to figure out what to do about the 40,000 wild horses in 10 Western states, Lenny Bernstein and Brady Dennis report for The Washington Post. The BLM "is inviting anyone with a legitimate idea of how to curb the horse and burro populations to step up and propose it. The agency will study the ones it finds most promising and try again to find a solution."  Ed Roberson, the BLM’s assistant director of resources and planning, told the Post, "We need all the help we can get."

The BLM manages 50,000 horses and burros sent to pastures and corrals, "feeding 33,608 horses in pastures at $1.30 per head each day and 16,160 horses and burros in 'short-term corrals' at four times the expense, officials said. The temporary stays can last as long as 18 months," the Post reports. The BLM "says that the open range it manages can support 26,677 horses and burros and estimates that 40,605 are roaming that land," the Post writes. "A National Research Council study released in June concluded that the agency may have undercounted by 10 to 50 percent and that horse populations were probably growing at 15 to 20 percent every year." The agency has tried adoption and fertility darts but has had little success with either venture. (Read more) (BLM graphic)

Out west, cowboys and cattle ranchers adapt to migration, technology to stay in the trade

The life of cowboys and cattle ranchers in the Western U.S. has undergone a transformation in recent years, as more people move to cities, and those who stay on the range are forced to adapt to changes in technology to stay in the cattle trade, Dan Frosch reports for The New York Times. (NYT photo by Matthew Staver: National Western Stock Show in Denver)

The Internet, cell phones and more complex technologies are now standard practice among cattle ranchers, Frosch writes. "Gone are the days when a cattleman could simply eyeball his herd to figure out which animals to breed; these days, cutting-edge genetic techniques are used to identify the strongest cattle and those requiring the least amount of grass." Marshall Ernst, a rancher from Windsor, Colo., told Frosch, “It’s a tough, rapidly changing business. Those who are not taking advantage of new technology or are resistant to change may not be able to survive.”

Migration has also been a problem. "As suburbs around the West have crept farther out onto the plains, and the cost of raising cattle has risen, the number of cattle has dwindled to the lowest level since 1952, according to 2013 data from the United States Department of Agriculture," Frosch writes. "Finding good, knowledgeable cowboys has also become harder, as more people have moved to cities away from the rural communities that raised them, cattlemen here said. And these days, ranchers must spend considerably more money and time on marketing their cattle over the Internet to stay relevant and profitable."

Years of drought and rising beef cattle prices are also a concern as well as a growing disinterest in younger generations in continuing the family tradition of farming, Frosh writes. Mike Miller, a senior vice president for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, told him, “Generationally, things change. We’ve got kids that grow up on farms and ranches. They watch their mom and dad work extremely hard and in some cases not make very much money. And they decide that’s not the life for them.” (Read more)

Forest Service considers allowing first hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in a national forest

Rural areas have often felt the impact of hydraulic fracturing in their communities and the threat fracking brings to water supplies. Now, the U.S. Forest Service is considering allowing hydraulic fracturing in Virginia's George Washington National Forest, a move that has caught the attention of politicians, considering the area's water supply is used by four million people—including many rural residents—and the Washington D.C. area, Neela Banerjee reports for the Los Angeles Times. If approved, it would the first time the agency allowed a fracking in a national forest. (LAT map)

The 2011 update of the Forest Service's plan for the forest "would have effectively banned fracking," Banerjee reports. "After an outcry from industry, the Forest Service decided to reconsider. Aware of the complexity and contentiousness of the issue, the agency has delayed a final decision several times. Fracking currently is permitted on only two Forest Service preserves, both in the West: Dakota Prairie National Grasslands in North Dakota and Pawnee National Grassland in Colorado."

The George Washington "sits on the eastern edge of the Marcellus Shale formation, whose vast deposits of natural gas have touched off a drilling bonanza in Pennsylvania and West Virginia," Banerjee notes. "The dispute mirrors dozens around the country as hydraulic fracturing unlocks oil and gas previously considered out of reach. But this time, it has stirred concerns not only about water in rural communities but also about the drinking water of one of the nation's biggest metropolitan areas."

Virginia counties near the forest, such as Augusta and Rockingham, "boast some of the state's richest agricultural land, and many towns benefit from tourism tied to the forest," Banerjee writes. Nancy Sorrells, a historian of the region and former Augusta County supervisor, told her, "Local governments here are aware that their most important natural resource is their water." Sorrells and lawyers from the Southern Environmental Law Center said "huge trucks would navigate the sinuous roads into the mountainous terrain, forest land would be cleared for pipelines and hilltops would be flattened for compressor stations," as Banerjee puts it.

Virginia House panel tables bill apparently aimed at stopping lawsuits over natural-gas royalties

The Virginia General Assembly subcommittee last week tabled a bill that would empty gas royalties "escrow accounts holding at least $30 million that are now the subject of a series of federal class-action lawsuits," Michael Owens reports for the Bristol Herald Courier. "The bill attempts to fine-tune a 20-year-old law initially crafted by former industry lawyers in an attempt to spur Southwest Virginia’s energy sector without getting bogged down in drawn-out legal battles over gas ownership."

The bill, "which legal experts say could have stopped the lawsuits in their tracks, included suggestions by EQT Production, one of two main defendant companies targeted by the lawsuits," Owens writes. It is sponsored by by Rep. Terry Kilgore, R-Gate City. "The company donated $3,000 to Kilgore’s uncontested 2013 election campaign, according to political finance watchdog Virginia Public Access Project. Of that money, $1,000 landed in his campaign’s coffers two days after his election victory Nov. 5."

Landowners have always had a difficult time getting access to the royalties, Owens writes. "Under current law, they can touch the royalties only if they split it with the coal owners, win a costly court battle, or win an out-of-court arbitration. Virginia legislators imposed the hurdles rather than decide whether the gas royalties belong to the person holding the deed for the coal or the person with the deed for the gas estate. And so energy companies look to the escrow accounts each time they drill a coal seam where the deeds to the coal and to the gas are linked to multiple owners. Kilgore’s proposal declared the owners of the gas title to be the rightful recipients of the royalties as long as coal owners did not step in with a claim. The goal was to begin emptying the nearly 1,000 existing escrow accounts of all royalties by mid-2015." (Read more)

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Farm Bill to tighten rules for subsidies, food stamps; negotiators hope to file by Monday night

The compromise Farm Bill, which negotiators hope to file Monday night to get a House vote by Wednesday, will tighten eligibility for food stamps by scotching "what many see as an abusive scheme by states that distribute token amounts of low-income fuel assistance to food stamp households to help them gain higher benefits," David Rogers reports for Politico.

"Under this practice, known as 'heat-and-eat,' as little as $1 per year in fuel aid can be used to claim a higher utility deduction and leverage far more in monthly food stamp benefits, especially in high-cost cities like New York," Rogers explains. "By insisting that the fuel aid be no less than $20, the farm bill hopes to rein in such schemes. A portion of the resulting savings would then be plowed back into 10 pilot programs to test new ideas to help jobless beneficiaries receive training and find employment."

The move is expected to save more than $8 billion over the next 10 years, a little more than a third of the bill's $24 billion in savings. However, the estimate of savings from restructuring farm programs is open to question, because the last time they were estimated by the Congressional Budget Office, corn prices were much higher, Rogers reports.

"Nonetheless, the Farm Bill represents a landmark rewrite of commodity programs and should yield savings for taxpayers by ending the nearly 18-year-old system of direct cash subsidies to farmers," Rogers writes. "These payments, which cost more than $4 billion annually and are distributed at a fixed rate — whatever a farmer’s profits — will be replaced by two options linked to real market losses, not just the land."

Rogers describes the new crop-insurance programs in some detail, then reports that negotiators are still "skirmishing over livestock regulations and new, tighter caps on farm subsidies . . . two familiar issues, each with a long history and a populist cast." A proposed compromise would set a new limit of $125,000 per person or $250,000 for a couple, "but within that number there would be no fixed apportionments of what could be received" from the new crop-insurance programs "versus marketing loans. The bill would require subsidy recipients to be "actively engaged" in farming, but "the deal appears to kick that issue up to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to decide, but makes clear that farmers who own their land should automatically qualify."

The big unanswered question, at least for Rogers, is the future of country-of-origin labeling, "a battleground between independent cow-calf ranchers and the more centralized beef industry." Read his story.