Friday, February 14, 2014

Monsanto buying companies to collect data on farmers; what will it do with the information?

By Tim Mandell
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

It seems every business wants customers to sign up for a store card, which often offers discounts, but allows the company to keep track of your purchases. Advertisements on sites like Facebook pop up to let you know the new book by an author you 'liked' is available for purchase. It's a constant stream of information collection. Monsanto, the world's biggest seed producer and a leading chemical manufacturer, is leading this field in agriculture, spending billions to buy up companies that have data on farmers. But why does Monsanto need all this information, and what does it plan to do with it?

In October Monsanto "spent close to $1 billion to buy Climate Corp., a data analytics firm," and last year bought Precision Planting, "another high-tech firm, and also launched a venture capital arm geared to fund tech start-ups," Lina Khan reports for Salon. Other corporations are following suit, with John Deere and DuPont Pioneer (another chemical/seed combine) announcing plans in November "to partner to provide farmers information and prescriptions in near-real time. Deere has pioneered 'precision farming' equipment in recent years, equipping tractors and combines to automatically transmit data collected from particular farms to company databases. DuPont, meanwhile, has rolled out a service that analyzes data into 'actionable management strategies.'”

The concern is that many farmers "are wary that these giants could use these tools to win unprecedented levels of insight into the economics and operational workings of their farms," Khan writes. "For farmers, the risks of big data seem to pierce right to the heart of how they make a living. What would it mean, for instance, for Monsanto to know the intricacies of their business? For farmers, the most immediate question is who owns the information these technologies capture." That information is unclear, but there's growing fear that corporations will use the information for "price discrimination, in which they charge some farmers more than others for the same product." There is also concern that conglomerates will have "more power to compel farmers to buy other lines of products."

Some farmers "worry that the information may end up being used against them in ways that dull their particular competitive edge," Khan writes. John McGuire, a former Monsanto technology developer, told him, “If you inadvertently teach Monsanto what it is that makes you a better farmer than your neighbor, it can sell that information to your neighbor. It opens the door for Monsanto to say, ‘We know how to farm in your area better than you do.’” (Read more)

The data issue was addressed Thursday during a meeting of the U.S. House Committee on Small Business. "One of the most important issues related to 'big data' goes directly to property rights and who owns and controls farm-level data that may be collected," raising issues of privacy concerns," said Brian Marshall, a farmer and Missouri Farm Bureau member, who testified on behalf of the American Farm Bureau Federation. "For years, farmers have used technology advances to better match varieties of seeds, production inputs and management practices with specific field characteristics. While farmers have been experimenting for well over a decade, only now is the industry starting to consider all the uses of this transformative technology. Farmers should have a say in and be compensated when their data is sold." (Read more)

The problem with Monsanto owning Climate Corp. goes back to the data, and what Monsanto would do with it. "Historically, farmers have relied on federal crop insurance to protect them against the costs of their inputs—fertilizer, seed—during hard times. This setup, though, leaves farmers at a break-even point and does not address the profit they may have made from the crop," Ashlee Vance reports for Bloomberg Businessweek.

"Climate Corp. stepped in to offer insurance that would cover the profit, and it did so in a very innovative way," Vance writes. "The start-up turned the U.S. into a grid and used weather data to measure temperature and rainfall and other factors. If a farmer bought a policy that covered drought and his land didn’t receive the specified amount of rain covered by the policy, he was paid out automatically by Climate Corp. based on the measurements—no need to file a claim." The new Farm Bill makes crop insurance the main part of the federal safety net for farmers.

"The takeaway here seems to be that Monsanto sees Climate Corp. as a data and analytics service arm that will aid farmers in what’s being hailed as the Era of Precision Agriculture," Vance writes. "Start-ups have arrived delivering cheap sensors that constantly monitor the moisture and nutrients in soil, while others have started using satellite images to measure the yields of crops. All this information needs to be pulled and analyzed by someone who knows what she’s doing." (Read more)

Climate Corp. CEO David Friedberg said in a Jan. 31 teleconference that "data created by a farmer or generated from equipment the farmer owns or leases, is owned by that farmer," Sarah Gonzalez reported for Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter. He said "services provided by his company should be free of cost, and a farmer should be able to share his data easily across different systems. He also said Climate Corp. will use third party audits to make sure it is following the guidelines. If a farmer uses a Climate Corp. free service that simply collects, stores and provides access to that data, the company will not view or use. Friedberg said the company needs to get explicit consent from the farmer to use the data for specific activities and research." (Read more)

But that still brings us back to the question of why Monsanto wants the information. Some farmers, like Jonathan Quinn, who grows corn, soybeans and wheat on a large farm in northeast Maryland, believe sharing the information will help their businesses, Dan Charles reports for NPR. Quinn keeps all of his information on a GPS receiver. Until now, he was the only one with access to it. Now that he's participating in Monsanto's sharing plan, "They're going to be able to see everything this [GPS] monitor does. So they're going to be able to look at my field all the time. They'll be able to look at my information, and they're going to just watch that field," Quinn told Charles. "I've had people ask me, 'Why should Monsanto have all your information?' My theory is, if they have my information, and they're out there working with me, I'm hoping that they're going to bring me a better product. And them having my information doesn't bother me."

Others aren't so sure. Mary Kay Thatcher, the American Farm Bureau's senior director for congressional relations, "says farmers should understand that when data move into the cloud, they can go anywhere," Charles reports. "For instance: Your local seed salesman might get the data, and he may also be a farmer — and thus your competitor, bidding against you for land that you both want to rent." Thatcher told Charles, "All of a sudden he's got a whole lot of information about your capabilities."

Charles adds: "Or consider this: Companies that are collecting these data may be able to see how much grain is being harvested, minute by minute, from tens of thousands of fields." Thatcher told him, "They could actually manipulate the market with it. They only have to know the information about what is actually happening with harvest minutes before somebody else knows it. I'm not saying they will. Just a concern." That's a concern that will have to remain unanswered, as farmers wait to see how the data is used. (Read more)

Sunlight Foundation writer says new Farm Bill fails the transparency test

Rick Cohen
The recently signed Farm Bill shows a weakness in transparency, opines Rick Cohen of the Sunlight Foundation., a nonprofit dedicated to openness in government.

"The Farm Bill manages to keep the recipients of the crop insurance program secret," Cohen writes. "It even ditched a provision sponsored by Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) that would have simply required members of Congress and of the president’s Cabinet who are receiving crop-insurance benefits to reveal themselves to the public," he writes. "The Senate, controlled by members of the resident’s political party, never let an amendment offered by Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) and Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) that would have required disclosure of all beneficiaries of the crop insurance subsidy even come to a vote."

President Obama claimed last year that his administration was the most transparent in history, but "that hasn't been quite our take on the transparency of the Obama administration on campaign finance, lobbying, closed door conferences with philanthropists, the Social Innovation Fund, insider trading by members of Congress, bilateral aid, prosecuting whistleblowers, and, of course, the surveillance activities of the National Security Agency," Cohen writes. "In some cases, legislation that reached the president’s desk for signature, such as the STOCK Act, had been so gutted in Congress as to make the disclosure requirements weak, if not worthless. But the president has the ability to veto bills that violate his commitment to transparency and to use his bully pulpit to call out legislators for ducking into the shadows."

"With the Farm Bill’s next-to-nonexistent transparency requirements on crop insurance, the operative issue may be the connection of the campaign donors to politicians—including President Obama," Cohen writes. "Sunlight notes that in the 2012 election cycle, agricultural services industry interests contributed $42 million in federal and state campaigns. Included in the donors’ lists are various crop insurance trade associations that probably feel a lot more comfortable with keeping the identities of crop insurance recipients hidden from the public."

"In his State of the Union address, the president promised a new muscularity in the use of executive orders, a willingness to issue them when Congress proves unable to act," Cohen writes. "In the case of transparency, President Obama ought to be issuing a flood of executive orders, because his signing off on transparency-weak legislation coming from Congress, such as the Farm Bill, will serve to make his administration unbelievably less transparent than he promised in his 2008 campaign and 2009 inauguration." (Read more)

Another train derails, spilling crude oil in Pa.

"A 120-car Norfolk Southern Corp. train carrying heavy Canadian crude oil derailed and spilled in western Pennsylvania on Thursday, adding to a string of recent accidents that have prompted calls for stronger safety standards," Robert Gibbons reports for Reuters. Nineteen of the 21 cars that derailed and crashed into an industrial building were carrying oil, spilling between 3,000 to 4,000 gallons, which have since been plugged, according to Norfolk. The other two cars were carrying liquefied petroleum gas. (Reuters photo by Jason Cohn) 

The train, which was headed from Chicago to New Jersey, "is the latest in a spate of crude-oil train derailments that has prompted calls for more stringent rules regulating crude by rail, shipments of which have soared in recent years as pipelines fail to keep up with growing supply," Gibbons writes. "It comes ahead of a Senate hearing concerning the safety of transporting crude by rail, which has become a major political issue as the incidents pile up. The hearing was scheduled for Thursday, but was delayed by the snow."

The accident was the second in less than a month in Pennsylvania, and is another in a long line of accidents, including one in July in Quebec that left 47 people dead. More crude oil was spilled in U.S. railway accidents in 2013 than in the previous 37 years. The Association of American Railroads urged U.S. regulators in November to require retrofits and upgrades for nearly 100,000 cars. In January, the Transportation Safety Board recommending tougher standards for shipping crude oil by rail. (Read more)

Best water in rural America is in Curtis, Neb., says the National Rural Water Association

Frontier County, home of Curtis (Wikpedia)
If you're ever in Curtis, Neb., make sure to sample the water. Forget any culinary delights the town might offer, or any tourist attractions or historical sites, the water is where it's at. The National Rural Water Association on Wednesday named the town with a population of 935 as being the winner of its 2014 Great American Water Taste Test, proclaiming Curtis as having the best water in rural America.

A silver medal was awarded to Stansbury Park, Utah, and a bronze to Callaway County Public Service District 2 in Fulton, Mo. Fourth and fifth place went to  Shenandoah, Va., and Point Sebago Outdoor Resort in Casco, Maine. The association said "each finalist was selected from a preliminary tasting that included entries from every state in the nation. Each state rural water association conducts an annual water taste test, and the winners qualify for entry in the national taste test." (Read more)

Curtis "gets its water from two deep wells drilled into the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the largest freshwater aquifers in the world," Algis Laukits reports for the Lincoln Star Journal. Mayor Kevin Brown told Laukits, "We do not treat our water. There's no chlorination. It comes straight out of the wells straight to people's taps." (Read more)

Rural Ga. hospital closes; it's the fourth in a year

Another critical-access hospital in rural Georgia has shut its doors. Lower Oconee Community Hospital in Wheeler County closed due to financial problems, and some of the 100 employees have been laid off while the facility looks to restructure, possibly into an urgent care center, Andy Miller reports for The Telegraph in Macon. Last year three hospitals closed in Georgia, but as many as 15 more were in danger of shutting their doors this year.

Wheeler County, Georgia
"Jimmy Lewis of HomeTown Health, an organization of rural hospitals in Georgia, said Thursday that Lower Oconee suffered from high rates of unemployed and uninsured patients, coupled with heavy demands on staff time to handle claims processing from multiple insurance programs," Miller writes. Wheeler County has a population of 7,900, a 23 percent uninsured rate, 10 percent of employees are unemployed, and 41 percent of children live in poverty, according to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The not-profit hospital is privately owned. Lower Oconee CEO Karen O’Neal told Miller, “We just did not have sufficient volume to support the expenses. It’s a terrible situation, and it’s tragic, the loss of jobs and the economic impact.” (Read more)

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Rural Alaskans dislike Internet company's monopoly, data caps, purchase of TV stations

Streaming movies or playing online games is costing some unsuspecting rural Alaskans thousands of dollars. While lack of rural broadband has been a hot-button issue in many areas, in Alaska a bigger issue is caps on how much data someone can use in a month, and penalties for going over. Alaskans who don't keep a close eye on their data are feeling it in their wallets when the bill comes, Jillian D'Onfro reports for Business Insider.

John Wallace, a Bethel resident who owns and runs Alaska Technologies, which services small businesses and nonprofits that can’t afford their own tech departments, told D'Onfro, “The average customer doesn’t have a clue what they’re doing.” Wallace has "collected a lot of horror stories.," D'Onfro writes. "There were the two girls who had unwittingly allowed Dropbox to continuously sync to their computers: They racked up a $3,500 overcharge in two weeks. One user’s virus protection got stuck on and it cost him $600. Wallace has heard people say, 'I was gaming and I got a little out of hand and I had to pay $2,800.' Once, two six-year-old girls accidentally spent $2,000 playing an online preschool game. Their mom was totally unaware what was going on, until she got the bill." (Read more)

Some say the problem is that one company, General Communications Inc., has a monopoly in rural Alaska. In October, the Federal Communications Commission approved GCI's purchase of NBC-affiliated television stations in Anchorage, Juneau, and Sitka, giving the company over-the-air television to go along with its existing statewide cable television, Internet, wireless, and telephone services, Rosemarie Alexander reports for Alaska Public Media.

"In its order, the FCC said GCI’s takeover of the television stations was in the public interest of local viewers," Alexander writes. "But a number of Alaska broadcasters opposed the buyout based on GCI’s near monopoly in cable television. The stations argued a distribution company as large as GCI could not compete fairly with traditional television stations." Broadcasters "filed a Petition to Deny with the FCC, comparing it to Comcast cable’s acquisition of television program producer NBC Universal.  In that case the FCC required several conditions that limited competition between cable and broadcast television. Instead, the FCC granted GCI the licenses without any conditions." (Read more)

Grant allows Michigan counties to turn discarded tires into durable, low-maintenance roadways

A Michigan county has a combined solution to the problems of discarded car tires and highway potholes. Using a $327,513 grant from the state Department of Environmental Quality, officials in Muskegon County will use 6,800 tires in rubber-modified asphalt to repave 3.1 miles of road, Ashley Weigel reports for Great Lakes Echo, a service of the Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University. (M&J Asphalt Paving in Cicero, Ill., is one business that combines tire rubber and asphalt cement to create the sealcoat seen here)

The hope is that it will create a stronger, more durable road and reduce maintenance costs, said county engineer Paul Bouman. He told Weigel they are “getting our feet wet in this technology, trying to help get the technology out there for the industry. We would anticipate, if this goes well, we’ll try to expand what we’ve learned here and go forward."

Other areas have received similar grants, and have upgraded their roads with the rubber-modified asphalt, Weigel reports. "The rubber in the new asphalt adds elasticity to the roads, which makes them more flexible during the freeze and thaw cycles, said Michael Marshall, Scrap Tire Program coordinator for the DEQ. The elasticity prevents cracks that can allow water to seep in and ruin the road." (Read more)

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Poorer counties have fewer options for health insurers, making their premiums higher

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is making health insurance more affordable for millions of Americans, but leaves it still out of reach of millions more. Perversely, that is more likely to be true in poorer counties, according to an analysis by The Wall Street Journal of the 36 states using the federal health-insurance exchange.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans in 515 lower-income counties in 15 states have only one option in the exchange, and the lack of competition forces them to pay high premiums, Timothy W. Martin and Christopher Weaver write for the Journal. In 80 percent of those counties, the only insurer is an affiliate of Blue Cross & Blue Shield. For the Journal's interactive, county-by-county database, click here.

"Residents of wealthier, more populated counties in the U.S. receive lower-priced choices than those living in counties with a single insurer," Martin and Weaver report. In counties with one insurer, the average price for a 50-year-old to purchase a silver plan, the one most commonly sold, through the marketplace was $406. In contrast, citizens in counties with four insurers could purchase a silver plan for an average of $329. This phenomena represents the tactics of insurers who avoid areas with unemployment problems and high numbers of unhealthy residents, the reporters write.

For example, Aetna Inc. and UnitedHealth Group Inc. offer services "in more counties outside of the marketplaces, where plans are sold directly to consumers and federal subsidies aren't available," they write. Rebecca Stephens found out that she only had one health insurer option in Hardee County, Florida, and the plan she wanted to purchase would cost her approximately $200 more per month than a comparable plan in Tampa. "That is costs me more for health insurance than someone in Tampa doesn't seem equal to me," she told the Journal.

Coverage prices were higher in rural places even before health reform. Jon Urbanek, a senior vice president at Florida Blue, cited shortage of hospitals and doctors as a key reason for the higher premiums. "Our costs are higher," he said. "The premiums we charge reflect the cost of the providers." People in smaller cities and suburbs, too, are often limited to fewer choices and subject to higher prices. "From a consumer's standpoint, it's unfair," said Dylan Roby, a program director at UCLA's health policy research center.

Glenn Melnick, a health-care economist at RAND Corp., thinks areas with low populations will not easily attract additional insurers. "I don't think the health law can overcome those economics," he said. The Congressional Budget Office reported that approximately 20 million Americans can get income-based tax credits to reduce health insurance costs; some brokers and insurers think these subsidies will negate the price disparities for some people. Russell Childers, an insurance broker from Americus, Ga., told the Journal, "Most people are receiving a high enough subsidy for coverage that they don't care." (Read more)

Farmland values continue downward spiral

Years or historic high crop prices for corn led to a rise in property values. With an abundance of corn planted, crop prices are beginning to drop, and farmland prices are taking a downturn with them. But experts say a total collapse is unlikely, especially since farm debt burdens are low, Jesse Newman reports for The Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture predicted this week that net farm income will drop 27 percent this year. Michael Duffy, an economics professor at Iowa State University, "projects lower income for farmers could drive the price of farmland down 20 percent to 25 percent over the next several years," Newman writes. "Other observers point to factors that could cushion or reverse the market decline, including an unexpected resurgence in the price of corn and soybeans. Some buyers say they are waiting to pounce if prices fall, which also could help keep any decline from turning into a rout." 

During the second half of 2013 farmland prices fell 3 percent in Iowa and 1 percent in Nebraska, according to the Farm Credit Services of America, a lender that calculates weighted averages based on land quality. A study by Omaha's Creighton University in January found the outlook for farmland and ranchland prices was the weakest in more than four years. "The shifts have forced farmers to recalculate the value of productive land," Newman writes. Greg Plunk, a third-generation Illinois farmer who added 80 acres to his farm over the past two years, told Newman, "Profits will be tighter, there's not going to be near the returns, and guys will have to be careful how much expenses they've got into an acre."

"Falling land prices could cause economic ripples, curbing farmers' ability to borrow money to buy new acreage, crop supplies or machinery," Newman writes. "Land secures many of those loans. Mark Jensen, chief risk officer at Farm Credit Services of America, said half of its $20 billion portfolio consists of real-estate loans secured by farmland. As credit quality deteriorates, farmers will use more land as collateral, he said. A pullback in farmers' spending could curtail construction of grain bins and livestock facilities as well as purchases of new machinery."

Some observers "point to factors that could cushion or reverse the market decline, including an unexpected resurgence in the price of corn and soybeans," Newman writes. "Some buyers say they are waiting to pounce if prices fall, which also could help keep any decline from turning into a rout. Greyson Colvin, managing partner at investment manager Colvin & Co., which owns about 7,000 acres of farmland, told Newman, "We think this next 12 months is going to be the best window we've had in the past five years" to invest in farmland." (Read more) (WSJ graphic)

2014's first case of West Nile virus reported in Miss.; since 1999 the disease has cost U.S. $800 million

The Mississippi State Department of Health has reported that 2014's first human case of West Nile virus in the U.S. has occurred in Hinds County, site of the state capital of Jackson. Last year 45 Mississippians contracted the illness, and five died; 247 had it in 2012, and five died. There may have been more; cases are only revealed to the public if they're laboratory-confirmed. State Epidemiologist Dr. Thomas Dobbs said the timing of the case is unexpected because of this season's intense winter weather, but it reminds people that the virus show up at any time, the Clarion Ledgerreports.
West Nile virus first appeared in the U.S. in 1999, and the disease has cost the U.S. about $800 million, according to a report in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, Michaeleen Doucleff reports for NPR. (NPR graphic) Some victims suffer neurological problems such as seizures, coma, paralysis of limbs, swelling in the brain or spinal cord, and even death. Patients often face high costs of care and long recovery times, months or sometimes years.

"But the biggest economic cost of treating West Nile virus, by far, was decades of work lost when people died of the diease," Doucleff writes. Epidemiologist J. Erin Staples and her team at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that the deaths caused by West Nile cost the U.S. approximately $450 million since the first case in 1999, Doucleff reports. Staples said that "the purpose of the report was to give communities a sense of how much West Nile illnesses actually cost," Sherry Jacobson reports for the Dallas Morning News. "This will allow people to better assess the impact of the disease burden and to evaluate the cost-effectiveness of their prevention programs," she told Jacobson.

Bill requiring prescription for meth ingredient advances in W.Va.; Tenn. governor has limits bill

Methamphetamine is a growing problem in West Virginia, so its Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill to require a prescription to buy cold medications that contain pseudoephedrine, a key ingredients in making meth, Eric Eyre reports for The Charleston Gazette.  (Gazette illustration, for its series in December on the state's meth problem)

Oregon and Mississippi are the only states with such laws. A bill for one in Indiana died this month. Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam has a bill to limit the amount on pseudoephedrine that could be bought without a prescription, more than any other state. His administration has said the state leads the nation in meth use.

In West Virginia, Republican senators unsuccessfully sought an amendment to allow state residents to "buy pseudoephedrine in neighboring states and keep small quantities of the cold medication at home," Eyre writes. The Senate is expected to pass the bill, but its House chances remain unclear.

The over-the-counter drug industry strongly opposes such laws, saying it will raise health-care costs and inconvenience people needing medicine. Carlos GutiƩrrez, a lobbyist for the Consumer Healthcare Products Association, told Eyre, "While we certainly commend the legislature for taking action to address the meth problem, we urge them to focus on solutions that target criminals, not honest West Virginia families."

Last year in West Virginia 533 meth labs were seized, up from 287 in 2012, Eyre writes. Kanawha County, which lies in the center of the state, and has the state's third largest population, including the state capital of Charleston, easily leads the state in meth lab busts. Local Republican Sen. Chris Walters opposes the bill, saying the solution is a "meth offender registry" that would bar people convicted of drug crimes from buying pseudoephedrine. Meth makers typically use others, called "smurfs," to buy ingredients for them. (Read more)

Oregon town, cities in at least six other states allow city workers to carry guns

City employees in the small northeastern Oregon city of Milton-Freewater can now pack heat. City council members on Monday voted to amend the employee handbook to allow employees to carry guns, Sheila Hagar reports for the Union-Bulletin in Walla Walla, Wash., across the Columbia River.

Gun holders will be required to pass background checks and sheriff's reviews, and weapons won't be allowed in courtrooms, or in the homes or businesses of owners who don't want firearms on their property. City Manager Linda Hall told Hagar, "I’ve had questions asked me from people on the street, that employees will be packing shotguns and pistols on their hips. It’s nothing that dramatic. We’re talking in order to qualify, they would need concealed-weapon permits.”

Hagar reports the issue began when public-works employee Shave Wright asked his supervisor about carrying a concealed weapon at work. Wright told Hagar, "It’s like a seat belt. You put it on every day and hope it saves your life the day you have a wreck. And when that happens, you are so glad the seat belt was there. I don’t want people thinking we’re the wild, wild West around here; (a firearm) is just a tool for something you hope never happens." (Read more)

Hagar was inspired to write a follow-up story examining if other towns had adopted similar measures. She found similar laws had been passed in towns or counties in North Carolina, Kentucky, Colorado, Texas, Michigan, and Kansas, and according to a report by the nationwide law firm Cozen O’Conner, 27 states and the District of Columbia "have no laws in place governing firearms in the workplace." (Read more)

More trains steering towards oil fields, leaving grain elevators stuck waiting for months on end

There's a scene at the beginning of the classic 1968 film "Once Upon a Time in the West" where a group of cowboys are waiting for a train. The nearly three-hour film is often low on dialogue, and takes its time progressing, as the cowboys wait, and wait, and wait. Finally the train arrives. The grain industry might feel as though they're stuck in that movie, except it seems that no matter how long they wait, the trains never arrive, mainly because there aren't enough trains to carry supplies, and all available trains are being diverted to carrying oil to North Dakota's Bakken shale oil field.

With trains so far behind schedule, some grain elevators have been waiting for supplies for more than a month, Katie Micik reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer. "Transportation expert Jay O'Neil said this year's railroad traffic jam in the Northern Plains and Canadian Prairies resulted from a 'perfect storm' of circumstances: large crops, increased oil shipments by rail, labor issues and uncooperative winter weather. Costly congestion could become the norm during winter months, at least until railroads build new track or new pipelines take oil cars off the rails, said O'Neil, an agricultural economist with Kansas State University's International Grains Program."

As a result, some business owners are so desperate for grain, "some end-users doubled -- perhaps even tripled -- their purchases, resulting in basis bids that were $4 above futures prices for 14 percent-15 percent-protein spring wheat," Micik writes. "The going rate for a rail car in the secondary market topped out near $4,000 above tariff, or roughly $1 per bushel of corn or soybeans it carried. The demurrage charges for ships waiting off the Pacific Northwest coast keep swelling."

The problem is that "farmers harvested bumper corn, soybean and wheat crops after three years of disappointing production," but there aren't enough trains to deliver the goods, Micik writes. Instead trains are going to the oil fields. "Bakken oil production, at nearly 1 million barrels per day at the end of 2013, has maxed out pipeline capacity, leaving rail as the only option to move crude to southern refineries. State officials said up to 90 percent of North Dakota's crude could be shipped by rail by the end of 2014, up from around 70 percent now."

Railway companies are trying to make up the difference by hiring more employees, but it takes time and training to get the new crews up to speed, Micik writes. In the meantime, not moving grain is impacting business. "Very simply put, when cars were unable to move, for whatever reason, basis levels rose in 25 cent to $1 increments some days," said DTN cash-grains analyst Mary Kennedy. "When cars were available, the basis dropped by the same increments that it went up by. And the ball is still bouncing. There are other factors like protein, quality and of course demand as it relates to the hard red spring protein premiums, but it needs to get from point A to point B or it is not worth much." (Read more)

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

OSHA backs off efforts to monitor grain bins on small farms, sites of most entrapments, over 1/3 of deaths

Photo from
After complaints from farmers and Republicans in Congress that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration was illegally enforcing grain-bin regulations grain bins on small farms – which account for more than a third of grain-bin deaths and more than two-thirds of grain-bin entrapments – the Labor Department said it will consult with the Agriculture Department and farm organizations to issue new guidelines on regulations, reports Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter.

About 70 percent of known entrapments throughout history happened on farms and locations not subject to OSHA regulation under a 1976 law that exempted farms with 10 or fewer employees, according to a report by Purdue University. From 2007 to 2012, there were 212 cases of grain-bin entrapment in the U.S., with 102 deaths. In 2012, 37 percent of entrapments occurred on exempt farms, 47 percent happened at commercial facilities and in 16 percent of cases the nature of the location was unknown, according to the report. Those eye-popping numbers drew the attention of OSHA, which began looking at farm grain bins. Farmers weren't happy, and cited the 1976 law. (Purdue graphic)
Brian Kennedy, the Department of Labor's congressional liaison, wrote in a letter to Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) that "DOL prohibits OSHA activity on farms that employ 10 or fewer employees and that do not maintain a temporary labor camp," Agri-Pulse reports. "In 2010 there was a dramatic increase in the number of workers entrapped and suffocated in grain storage structures while performing grain handling operations.' In response, the department ramped up its inspection program—and cut down on such accidents." That didn't go over well with farm lobbies, leading to the memo's withdrawal and the turn of discussions to the creation of new guidelines. (Read more)

USDA predicts net farm income will drop 27% in 2014

A drop in prices for corn and soybeans has led the U.S. Department of Agriculture to predict that the net income of U.S. farmers will drop 27 percent in 2014, to its lowest level since 2010, Jesse Newman reports for The Wall Street Journal. Last year's net income of $130.5 billion was the highest since 1973, when adjusted for inflation. "The USDA projected a decrease this year of $11 billion in U.S. corn receipts and more than $6 billion in soybean receipts."

The past several years have been good for farmers, with net incomes rising 90 percent from 2006 to 2011, Newman writes. The 2012 drought raised prices to record levels, and coupled with government-backed crop-insurance programs, farmers thrived. Plenty of rain and cooler temperatures in 2013 led to a "record 13.925 billion bushels of corn and the third-largest soybean crop in history." By the end of 2013 corn and soybean prices began to take a dive, with corn prices falling 40 percent, but "Many growers had already locked in the higher prices using futures contracts. With corn prices still hovering around $4.40 a bushel, the real hit is expected this year."

USDA "forecasts a 0.7 percent increase in livestock receipts this year, driven largely by an 11.3 percent drop in feed prices," Newman writes. Dairy farmers are expected to "benefit from an upswing in milk production, dairy prices and robust international demand for U.S. milk." The report also "predicted production expenses for farmers will drop in 2014 for the first time since 2009. But they are still expected to be the second highest level on record nominally and the third highest in inflation-adjusted dollars." (Read more)

Textile mills are coming back in the South, with mechanization and non-woven fabrics

Textile mills are making a comeback in the mostly rural South. About 650 mills closed nationally between 1997 to 2009, and many of the jobs were shipped overseas where it was cheaper to produce products. In recent years, the industry has returned to the U.S., providing fewer but higher paying jobs in areas that desperately need an economic boost. The jobs are fewer due to mechanization, with 200,000 jobs lost to it in the last decade, but the pay is higher because workers need to be more tech-savvy, Marsha Mercer reports for Stateline. The average salary for U.S. textile workers is $37,900; for all manufacturing workers it is $60,496. In 2012, the textile industry employed 233,000 workers and generated $54 billion in shipments.

Southern states are reaping the benefits of the return to the U.S., with companies from Brazil, Canada, China, Dubai, Great Britain, India, Israel, Japan, Korea, Mexico, Switzerland and the U.S. announcing plans to open or expand textile plants in 2013 in Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia, Mercer writes. A. Blanton Godfrey, dean of the College of Textiles at North Carolina State University, told Mercer, “Textiles manufacturing—yarn, fabric, woven and nonwoven—is still here and growing. We’re selling cotton yarn cheaper than the Chinese.” (Stateline chart)

"Another change in the industry is the growth of non-wovens, which are fiber-based products made of fabric that’s compressed, heated or tangled, like felt," Mercer reports. "Diapers and facial wipes, mops, medical scrubs and all kinds of filters are nonwovens. In the last decade, North Carolina has gained 1,945 jobs making nonwoven products and $719 million in nonwoven factory investment."

More than a third of the jobs gained in 2012 were in North Carolina and Georgia, and the two states have campaigned hard to bring more. In Georgia in 2013, "Five floor-covering manufacturing companies announced expansions that will add 3,550 jobs to the 22,382 existing carpet- and rug-manufacturing jobs and an $815 million in investment," Mercer writes. "In North Carolina, nine textile firms announced plans in 2013 to build or expand plants in the state, creating 993 jobs and investing $381 million." South Carolina is also getting a $218 million, 230,000-square-foot yarn factory that will create 501 jobs. (Read more)

With merit and pay increases frozen, Maine trooper says he feeds his family on roadkill

Government financial woes have become so bad in Maine that some state troopers have resorted to eating roadkill. That's what one said Monday during his testimony before the Legislature's budget-writing Appropriations Committee in support of a bill "that aims to restore about $6 million, over the current two-year budget cycle, to the state's general and transportation funds for the purpose of merit and longevity pay increases," which were frozen in 2013, Scott Thistle reports for the Maine Sun Journal. Maine has the largest percentage of rural population in the U.S.

Two state troopers testified, with one saying "he has even resorted to collecting roadkill to help feed his family of six, while another said that last week his children awoke to a cold house twice because they were unable to afford enough oil for their furnace," Thistle writes. One trooper said, "During the winter seasons, we often have to buy heating oil a few gallons at a time because we rarely can afford the minimal delivery amount. Due to the merit stoppage, this year, I had to sell my wife's engagement ring, military souvenirs from the war and other personal items just to make ends meet."

Both troopers testified "that their financial situations were a result of merit and longevity pay-increases that were put on hold in the previous budget cycle as a means to solve the state's budget shortfall," Thistle writes. One said his family relied on food stamps, the Medicaid for health coverage and that he had re-enlisted in the military reserve for the extra income.

Sen. Emily Cain (D-Orono) said, "Every single one of these individuals goes to work every day and does their very best and have not had any type of pay increase or even acknowledgement of how long they've been doing their job for five years. When you hear from state workers who are working at least 40 hours a week, and these are the same people who are qualifying for public assistance, that is simply not OK—it's wrong." (Read more)

Study gives insight into covering governments' deals with private partners

Some states, cities and towns have turned to public-private partnerships to deliver public services or spur economic development, and the partnerships are not without controversy. A study published in State and Local Government Review gives journalists guidance on how to cover the topic, Leighton Walter Kille reports for Journalist's Resource, a service of the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University.

The study by Cheryl Hilvert of the nonprofit Center for Management Strategies and David Swindell of Arizona State University’s Center for Urban Innovation says "Service delivery is often thought of as being purely governmental (for example, policing), managed by private interests (a contract for snow removal) or left completely up to community groups or individuals (raising funds for a bike path, perhaps), but the report identifies 10 steps between the two extremes," Kille writes. "Among those discussed are intergovernmental agreements, contracts with or grants to private firms, voucher systems, franchises and more. For journalists, understanding the benefits and risks of each option and their use by cities is crucial to covering these issues."

Researchers concluded, “When structured properly, (collaborative service delivery can) have demonstrated benefits including cost savings, enhanced quantity and quality of services, as well as less tangible benefits such as addressing community needs, enhancing trust between participating entities and increasing citizen support." But they also found public-private partnerships “can be problematic if not approached through formal transparent bidding/request for proposal processes and formalized agreements to begin the collaborative activity.” (Read more)

Indiana bill would require state to favor farmers in legal conflicts

Controversy is brewing in Indiana over a Senate bill facing action in the House. The bill is designed to protect farmers, but critics say it could open the door for safety concerns, Erica Zazo reports for the Great Lakes Echo, a service of the Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University. The bill "would require Indiana law to favor farmers during legal cases and protect farmers who use 'generally accepted farming and livestock production practices' from getting sued." Critics "say these 'generally accepted practices' can lead to the pollution of waterways with pathogens and E. coli, food safety problems related to antibiotic and growth hormone use, animal cruelty, odor and air pollution."

Sen. Carlin Yoder
The bill's author, Sen. Carlin Yoder (R-Middlebury), told Zazo, “It’s just a simple paragraph that says that we will continue to protect the rights of farmers." Indiana Farm Bureau lobbyist Amy Cornell said the bill will "also focus on producing quality food for all Hoosiers and an overall strengthened economy by protecting the rights for farmers to continue growing their business."

Groups such as the Humane Society of the U.S. and the Hoosier Environmental Action Council oppose the bill. Kim Ferraro, water and agriculture policy director and staff attorney for the council, said the bill could create conflicts between homeowners and farmers, reducing the value of homes. The bill easily passed the Senate on Jan. 23 by a vote of 40-8 and is now in the House Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development. (Read more)

How much did War on Poverty cut the poverty rate?

Fifty years have passed since President Lyndon B. Johnson declared the War on Poverty. While much has changed, with the national poverty rate dropping from 24 percent in 1960 to 14.3 percent in 2012, the rate has stalled in recent decades, staying between 12 to 15 percent since the 1970s.

There's a problem in how poverty is defined, Knoll reports. "The Census Bureau’s Official Poverty Measure is based on metrics that are little changed from the 1960s, and it has been criticized for using outdated poverty thresholds and neglecting government policies that include non-cash transfers. In response, the U.S. Census Bureau in 2011 began formally experimenting with a new poverty paradigm, the Supplemental Poverty Measure."

A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research used this measure to examine anti-poverty policies since 1967, and found that government programs were more effective in reducing poverty than previously thought. Without government programs, poverty would have risen from 25 percent in 1967 to 31 percent in 2012; the rates were only 19 percent in 1967 and 16 percent in 2012, Stephanie Knoll writes for Journalist's Resource, a service of the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University.

Government programs reduced child poverty "by 12 percentage points and deep child poverty by 11 percentage points, versus 3 and 5 percentage points respectively in 1967," the study's authors write. "Without government programs, deep child poverty rates would be as high as 20 percent during economic downturns, as opposed to the 4 percent to 6 percent rates we observe with government programs.” The study also found that tax credits and food and nutrition programs have been especially helpful in reducing poverty. (Read more) (National Bureau of Economic Research graphic)

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Writer: What about the 98 percent of rural Americans who don't work in agriculture?

President Obama arrives at Farm Bill signing ceremony
(Photo by Rod Sanford, Lansing State Journal)
The Farm Bill and its signing ceremony put a big emphasis on creating agricultural jobs, with the Obama administration and members of Congress touting how it will improve rural economies. But most rural areas rely largely on means other than farming to support their economies, and nine out of 10 jobs rural areas lost since 2007 have not come back, Tim Marema reports for the Daily Yonder: "Since the start of the Great Recession in 2007, rural counties have led the nation in net job losses. While metro employment has returned to pre-recession levels, non-metro counties have 800,000 fewer jobs today than they did in 2007. Even though the recession is over, rural job losses continue to mount."

Counties that represent less than 20 percent of the U.S. population had 90 percent of the net job loss," Marema points out. "The rural unemployment rate remains higher than the metro rate, despite fewer people in rural counties looking for work. From 2010 to 2012, for the first time on record, the number of people living in non-metro counties went down instead of up. That’s historic by definition. Net farm income may be up, but real household income in rural America is down – 8.7 percent in micropolitan counties (counties with small cities) from 2007 to 2011 and 6.8 percent in non-core counties (ones with no small cities) during the same period."

Those job losses and high unemployment rates won't be fixed by the Farm Bill, Marema writes. "As important as farming is to the rural economy, it's one piece of a much larger puzzle. Farmers, though economically vital, are a small minority of the rural population. And most people who farm earn more money in town from an outside job than they do from working their land."

"We can’t allow our leaders to continue to talk about agriculture as synonymous with rural, any more than we can allow energy production to represent the entirety of the rural economy. Or manufacturing, or services," Marema writes. "We need a new rule. If you put the word 'rural' in the title of the report, you should have to say something of substance about the 98 percent of rural Americans who don’t earn their primary living from farming. The fact that we can get a glowing report about agriculture at a time when other rural economic news is grim should tell us something. There’s a much bigger story out there. We need to be clear about that, or we’re history." (Read more)

Towns, counties in rural West reinventing themselves as recreational tourism wonderlands

The economy of the rural West once relied on mining, timber, drilling, and ranching, but in recent years has become prosperous for recreational tourism. "A study commissioned by the Outdoor Industry Association estimated that the recreation economy drives $646 billion in consumer spending and creates 6.1 million jobs directly," Ryan Cooper reports for The Washington Monthly. "A 2011 National Park Service study concluded that spending by park visitors supported 251,600 jobs, $30.1 billion in sales, $9.34 billion in labor income, and $16.5 billion in value added. From another angle, a Headwaters [Economics] study found that western non-metro counties have a per-capita income that is $436 greater for every 10,000 acres of protected public lands within their boundaries." ( photo)

Visits to national parks and national forests are skyrocketing, with 283 million visitors to national parks in 2012 and 160 million to national forests, Cooper writes. "There are no system-wide visitor statistics for Bureau of Land Management land—indeed, it is probably not possible to rigorously survey their nearly 250 million acres—but the number of annual visitors is undoubtedly quite large as well. And that number of visitors is bound to bring in a fair amount of cash."

Some towns moved to tourism out of necessity, others had their hands forced. Moab, Utah, was a mining town that went bust, and local officials restructured their economy around tourism, taking advantage of their many outdoor recreational opportunities to attract visitors, Cooper writes. Escalante, Utah turned to its recreational wonders after then-President Bill Clinton in 1996 declared the coal-heavy Kaipairowitz Plateau and the surrounding region, a national monument. While the move was initially despised, opinions have changed, perhaps because from 1996 to 2008 the "population increased by 8.3 percent, jobs by 37.6 percent, real personal income by 40.3 percent, and real per capita income by 29.6 percent."

With Western towns few and far between, there is plenty of opportunity for other areas to reap the benefits of recreational tourism. "Americans have long loved their national parks. But because we aren’t creating many new ones, and we are creating more Americans, the crowds at the most famous parks, like Yellowstone and Grand Canyon, get bigger every year," Cooper writes. "And as developing countries in Asia and Latin America grow richer, their expanding middle classes will increasingly have the means to satisfy the abiding human desire to travel and see great natural beauty—and nowhere is more beautiful than the American West. In the future, there will be more people eager not only to visit the West for its natural beauty but to live there as well, if the swelling populations of places like Denver, Boise, Albuquerque, and Salt Lake City are any guide." (Read more)

Child obesity persists among the poor and less educated; early-life factors also matter

Although youth obesity has become slightly less prevalent, most of the improvement has been restricted to children in families with higher salaries and educations, according to a Harvard University Kennedy School of Government analysis by Robert Putnam and colleagues. They examined data pertaining to education and income from the 1988-2010 National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys and the 2003-2011 National Survey of Children's Health, Joe Rojas-Burke writes for Covering Health, published by the Association of Health Care Journalists. Rural children are more likely to be obese than those in cities and suburbs.

Obesity in children whose parents have a college degree began falling about 10 years ago, but increased among children whose parents have a high-school degree or less. There were similar findings among income levels, and the trend was also found in non-Hispanic whites. Although calorie intake did not vary much by education or wealth, physical activity varied greatly. "Children of college-educated parents became more active than they were a decade ago, while children of less educated parents showed no improvement. One factor in this trend is that children from families with high education and incomes are playing increasingly more high-school sports, and children from poorer, less educated families have been playing fewer high-school sports.

Some believe that obesity is an issue in low-income neighborhoods because their lack of parks, recreational centers, outdoor trails and safety discourage physical activity. However, there isn't much evidence to support that claim, and "The effects of income and education tend to trump the influence of neighborhood characteristics," Rojas-Burke writes. Does an outdoor environment convenient for physical activity always pull children away from their video games and Internet?

People often seem to forget that factors from very early in life can influence and individual's likelihood of becoming obese. According to the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, which followed 7,738 kindergarteners for 10 years beginning in 1998, half the children who became obese were already overweight in preschool, and that doesn't include the 12 percent who were already obese in kindergarten, researchers reported in the New England Journal of Medicine. "Overweight 5-year-olds were four times as likely as normal-weight children to become obese by the end of the study," Rojas-Burke writes.

Sometimes factors before a person is born can make a difference. According to the authors of the NEJM paper, children with high birth weights were only 12 percent of the population but represented more than 36 percent of people who were obese at age 14. A pregnant mother's undernourishment or overnourishment can alter fetal metabolism and brain development, which may contribute to obesity. "Observational studies have linked bottle-feeding rather than breast-feeding to weight gain," Rojas-Burke repots. Societal changes have made it more difficult for children to stay healthy. Food companies are making more and more high-calorie, low-nutrient foods. A common concern—insufficient sleep—even affects toddlers, and it can interfere with the regulation of hormones. These factors and others likely vary depending on family income, education and cultural background. (Read more)

Great Backyard Bird Count Friday through Monday

This weekend is for the birds. The annual Great Backyard Bird Count asks people of all ages to get outside from Friday through Monday and spend 15 minutes counting as many different kinds of birds as they can see. Participants are asked to enter their checklist and photos on the group's website, then browse the site to see what others were able to find. There is also a photo contest. (Photo by Raghu Narayan of a flame-back woodpecker in India won fourth place in last year's composition contest)

The event was launched in 1998 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society. Last year "participants in 111 countries counted 33,464,616 birds on 137,998 checklists, documenting 4,258 species—more than one-third of the world’s bird species," according to the website. And the event isn't just for fun. It's a valuable tool for scientists and bird enthusiasts to study birds, their behavior, and migration patterns. (Read more)

New Mexico, which expanded Medicaid, still sees a need to help rural hospitals

In another example of rural hospitals struggling to keep their doors open, a state Senate committee in New Mexico hopes to receive compromise legislation to direct tens of millions of tax dollars to funding for its state's rural hospitals, four or five of which officials say are on the brink of shutting their doors, Winthrop Quigley reports for the Albuquerque Journal

"Hospitals hope to cobble together a package that includes the $36 million from a mandatory one-eighth percent gross receipts tax from the counties, about $10 million in state funds, and a federal contribution that is contingent on the state and county funding," Quigley writes. "The combination would generate $192 million statewide to help offset the cost of uncompensated care and the cost of caring for indigent patients. The counties, however, have objected that the funding plan usurps their responsibility to determine how taxes raised within the county are to be spent and that the funds raised would go to a pool instead of being spent on in-county hospitals. The New Mexico Association of Counties has pushed for a one-sixteenth percent tax that would raise about $18 million."

"Part of the debate is whether counties would impose a new tax or whether the funds could come from some existing revenue source," Quigley writes. "Smaller community hospitals around the state have been hit especially hard by federal budget cuts and reductions in Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement rates. Shrinking populations are another factor. The hospitals already have cut services but say they can’t cut enough to make up for the reductions."

New Mexico, which is expanding Medicaid under Obamacare, is having its Medicare payment cuts by "about $75 million a year, federal budget cuts that cost New Mexico hospitals $16.2 million a year and state Medicaid payment cuts that have reduced outpatient payments to hospitals by $250 million a year, according to the hospital association," Quigley writes. As a result, many rural hospitals have cut services, with three eliminating obstetric services, while others "are eliminating home health care, clinics and physicians’ offices." (Read more)

Southern Republicans opposed to Medicaid expansion look for other ways to help hospitals

The idea behind the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was that everyone would have health insurance, so the federal government wouldn't need to pay hospitals as much for treating the poor and uninsured. But the Supreme Court said states didn't have to expand the Medicaid program to cover people earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty threshold, so 25 states have either refused to expand Medicaid or are still discussing it.

That has left many poor people in those states, unable to get health insurance or Medicaid. "Now Republican leaders in Georgia and Mississippi may be bailing out hospitals that will lose funding they would have gotten from Obama's health-care law," Ray Henry and Christina A. Cassidy write for The Associated Press.

Three rural Georgia hospitals have closed in recent months, and finances are becoming an issue for Atlanta's Grady Memorial Hospital because approximately 60 percent of the patients are uninsured or on Medicaid, and officials say the federal cuts might cost the hospital $141 million. "You're talking about a large number of uninsured; you're talking about a Trauma I center," said Chris Riley, chief of staff for Gov. Nathan Deal. "You're talking about a hospital that serves a very primary purpose, covers a lot of Georgia residents."

State Rep. Terry England says extra payments to hospitals would be cheaper than a Medicaid expansion, for which Georgia would have to start paying 3 percent in 2017, rising to the law's cap of 10 percent in 2020. Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant argues that the federal government might not fund Medicaid as the law provides, saying told AP, "For us to enter into an expansion program would be a fool's errand." There is also debate about how much a Medicaid expansion would cost each state; generally, opponents point only to the cost, while advocates say expansion would create jobs in the health-care industry and provide tax revenue to offset or largely offset the cost. Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, the only Southern governor to embrace Obamacare, expanded Medicaid after studies predicted the cost would be recouped. (Read more)

Monday, February 10, 2014

Two Wisconsin hospitals are the latest in rural America to stop delivering babies

Citing a lack of physicians willing and able to deliver babies, and low birth rates in their areas, a pair of rural hospitals in west-central Wisconsin are eliminating deliveries, Christena T. O’Brien reports for the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram. Memorial Medical Center in Neillsville stopped delivering Saturday, and Rusk County Memorial Hospital in Ladysmith will temporarily halt services on March 2. (Leader-Telegram photo by Steve Kinderman)

About 30 babies are born each year at Memorial, while over the past five years annual births at Rusk have ranged from 47 to 68, O'Brien writes. Both hospitals "will continue to provide pre-and postnatal care and pediatric services and be able to handle emergency deliveries," O'Brien reports, but expectant mothers are being directed to neighboring medical centers for deliveries.

Another issue is the workload, O'Brien writes. In some rural areas, doctors that deliver babies need to be on call at all times, an issue that has scared away many physicians, said Scott Polenz, administrator of Marshfield Clinic’s West District and former CEO of Memorial. He told O'Brien, "We’ve all tried to be everything to everybody, but with rising health care costs . . . I think we’re going to see more and more of these decisions.”

Ed Wittrock, vice president of operations at Mayo Clinic Health System-Chippewa Valley, which operates three clinics, one of which stopped deliveries 10 years ago, told O'Brien, “When you’re delivering babies, you have to be able to have all the resources on hand right now. Ten years ago we were having trouble recruiting family practice physicians who actually were trained in (obstetrics) and wanted to deliver babies ... and that is a problem today, that family practitioners are not all trained to deliver babies, and rural communities tend to have a majority of family practitioners.” (Read more)

Rural Arizona residents unhappy they have no say in huge egg factory farm being built their town

Some factory farms in rural areas often operate under few regulations. Such is the case in Tonopah, about 50 miles from the center of Phoenix, where residents are unhappy that they have no say in Hickman Family Farms' plans for an egg factory farm that will start with 2.2 million chickens and could grow to four times that size, David Madrid reports for the Arizona Republic. (Republic photo: Protesting the proposed farm)

"Because the land is zoned for agriculture, state agricultural laws allow Hickman’s to build the 360-acre farm with few permit requirements and virtually no oversight from the state or Maricopa County," Madrid writes. To make matters worse, the farm is owned by the family of the area's county supervisor, who is the person residents would normally voice their concerns about such a project.

The problem, residents say, is that they were given no warning about plans for the farm, and given no voice in whether or not permits were approved, Madrid writes. But the farm only needs two permits, one for use of a floodplain, which is expected to be issued, and the other for dust control, which has already been issued. Billy Hickman, a company co-owner and vice president of operations, told Madrid, “I don’t know that I can please everybody. Hopefully, we can perform at a level that they’re satisfied that. . . . We’re not disrupting their lives.”

Wikipedia map: Tonopah, Maricopa County
Residents disagree. "Signs of opposition line properties along Indian School Road, where the farm will be built. A public meeting last month with the Hickmans drew about 400 residents, most of whom were angry and opposed to the plant," Madrid writes. "The residents fear their dream lifestyle become a nightmare that includes chicken feces, flies, dead chickens, truck traffic, noise and air pollution. They worry the giant farm could endanger underground water supplies and hot springs, and about the Hickman’s use of prison labor." Some officials and business owners are also concerned that the farm will scare off tourists from the popular local hot springs.

The first phase of operations, which are scheduled to being any day now, include "seven 30-foot-tall buildings, each with a 45,920-square-foot footprint, and a 35,000-square-foot processing plant," and "would require about 18 trucks per 10-hour day, seven days a week," Madrid writes. " Future phases would each have seven buildings that house 300,000 chickens in each, and would boost the farm’s chickens to more than 8 million if there are four phases." (Read more)

Rural Ohio county loses only grocery; residents struggle to buy fresh produce and meat

Food deserts have become all too common problem in rural areas. Mary Beth Lane of the Columbus Dispatch takes a look at an Appalachian county that recently became one. Vinton County (Wikipedia map) has 450 square miles and more than 13,000 residents, but has had no grocery store since Sept. 1, 2013. Some residents must drive at least 30 miles to find one.

State Rep. Ryan Smith (R-Gallia County) has been trying to help the county attract a grocer. He told Lane, “It’s hard to fathom not having a grocery store in your entire county. We are trying to make Ohioans healthier. That’s pretty hard to do when you’re not able to purchase fresh produce and fresh meat.”

Trying to get businesses to open in the area has been tough. Commissioner Jerry Zinn told Lane, “We contacted every chain you can imagine. The only one who called back with any interest was Kroger [based in Cincinnati]. They dropped interest after learning our demographics." The county has a 9.6 percent unemployment rate, ninth highest in the state, and 21.4 percent of residents live below the poverty line, Lane notes.

The last grocery store, which made home deliveries and employed 36 people, had been in operation since 1986. But after the store's owner died, his widow closed the store, fearing the local Dollar General store would sell groceries, Lane reports. That didn't happen. Now, many senior citizens don't have the ability to travel long distances for groceries. The Vinton County Senior Citizens agency has tried to help, taking about 20 people a month on grocery shopping trips. But without a grocery store, the county is struggling. Dr. Pat Speck, a 74-year-old retired veterinarian, who drives 17 miles to Kroger or 30 miles to Aldi, told Lane, “It was a great loss to lose that supermarket. I am sure that everybody in the community feels the same.” (Read more)

North Carolina officials admit they wrongly declared Dan River safe after coal-ash spill; feds probe state

UPDATE, Feb. 13: "Federal authorities have launched a criminal investigation into North Carolina's environmental agency," The Associated Press reports. "The U.S. attorney's office in Raleigh issued a grand jury subpoena demanding records from the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources. They include emails, memos and reports from 2010 through the Feb. 2 spill."

North Carolina's Department of Environment and Natural Resources admitted Sunday "it wrongly declared all test results for the arsenic levels in the Dan River as safe for people after a massive coal ash spill" from a retired Duke Energy coal-fired power plant, Emery Dalesio reports for The Associated Press. (AP photo by Gerry Broome: Coal ash in the Dan River in Danville, Va.)

"A water sample taken Feb. 3, two days after the spill was discovered, was four times higher than the maximum level for people to have prolonged contact, such as swimming." Division of Water Resources director Tom Reeder said in a statement: "We made an honest mistake while interpreting the results."

Duke said "up to 82,000 tons of ash from a coal-burning power plant mixed with 27 million gallons of contaminated water escaped," Dalesio writes. Duke said it fixed the leak Saturday. "A water sample collected Tuesday showed arsenic levels that were considered safe for people, said Dianne Reid, head of environmental sciences for the water resources division." But the sample was taken "two miles downstream from the plant, rather than closer to the spill site where two environmental groups reported readings far exceeding safety standards." (Read more)

"Most power plants are built along waterways because plants use large amounts of water and steam to run operations," Stephanie Soucheray explains for North Carolina Health News. "Coal ash ponds became common features of these sites in the last 50 years, and it was only in 2010 that the EPA proposed regulating coal ash." The agency is still thinking about it and has until Dec. 19 to propose regulations.

Thursday webinar will explain how to seek newly available funds for rural broadband

The Federal Communications Commissions recently announced the creation of an experimental program called the Rural Broadband Trials to allow surplus from the Connect America Fund to go to rural broadband providers that hadn’t previously been eligible for the support. So, how do you get access to the funds? That answer will be provided at 1:30 p.m. EDT on Thursday in a free webinar.

During the webinar the National Rural Assembly’s Rural Broadband and Policy Group, in cooperation with the FCC, will explain to rural stakeholders "how to participate in the FCC’s new experiment, the Rural Broadband Trials – a program that will fund projects to bring broadband to rural areas," according to the assembly. For more information or to register click here.

Federal plan to take most gray wolves off endangered list halted due to questions about study

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s proposal to take gray wolves off the endangered list has been halted, at least temporarily, after the National Center for Ecological Analysis found the proposal was "not well supported by the available science" and "was strongly dependent on a single publication, which was found to be preliminary and not widely accepted by the scientific community," according to a release from the NCEAS, which said additional research is needed on the subject. To read the full report click here. (Associated Press photo by Dawn Villella) 

"In response to the findings, the Fish & Wildlife Service decided to once again seek public input before issuing final wolf rules," Raju Chebium reports for The Desert Sun in Las Vegas. "The previous public comment period ended in December and the administration planned to issue a final rule this year."

"Gray wolves in the lower 48 states have been under federal protection since 1967," Chebium notes. "In recent years, gray wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains and the western Great Lakes region were delisted after the government said those populations are rebounding. The Fish & Wildlife Service proposed delisting gray wolves throughout the lower 48 but keeping the Mexican gray wolf, found only in the Southwest, on the endangered-species list. Farmers, ranchers and hunters wanted the delisting, which was also backed by a number of congressional Republicans. Many Democrats and conservation groups opposed the rules, arguing that the wolves need more time to recover after being nearly wiped out in the continental U.S." (Read more)