Friday, May 02, 2014

Census of Agriculture, rolled out today, offers plenty of state and county level data about farming

By Tim Mandell
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

The number of farms keeps going down and the average age of principal operators continues to rise, but more farms are using technology and renewable sources, according to the Department of Agriculture's quintennial Census of Agriculture, which consists of 6,000,000 pieces of data on the national, state and county level collected in 2012 and rolled out Friday.

There were nearly 100,000 fewer farms in 2012 than in 2007, with the number of farms dropping 4.3 percent from 2,204,792 to 2,109,303. Despite that decrease, farmers (mostly small ones) who sell directly to consumers rose from 136,817 to 144,530, an increase of 5.6 percent. The value of all agricultural sales rose from $292.2 billion to $394.6 billion, an increase of 32.8 percent.

The average age of farmers rose from 2007 to 2012 from 57.1 years to 58.3 years, and is up from 50.5 years in 1982. But farmers have gotten more connected to technology. Internet use has increased from 56.5 percent of farms in 2007 to 69.6 percent in 2012, although 10 percent of farmers were still using dial-up. The number of farms using renewable energy has more than doubled from 2007 to 2012, up from 23,451 farms to 57,299 farms. Organic product sales also increased 82 percent from 2007 to 2012, from from $1.76 billion to $3.1 billion in 2012.

"The census results reiterate the continued need for policies that help grow the rural economy from the middle out," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a press release."The census also shows the potential for continued growth in the bioeconomy, organics, and local and regional food systems." (Read more)

Read the full report by clicking here. A preliminary report was released in February, and reports in March had information on minority farmers and the age of farmers. A report on Puerto Rico will be released in June, followed by reports in December on specialty crops and specialty crops in Puerto Rico.

Congressman accuses Miss. governor of racism for refusing to expand Medicaid under Obamacare

Rep. Bennie Thompson
An African-American congressman in Mississippi used a radio interview over the weekend to accuse white Republican political leaders of racism for their treatment of President Obama, specifically for their opposition to Medicaid expansion under federal health reform, Geoff Pender reports for the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. "Second District Rep. Bennie Thompson accused Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) of racism and called Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas an 'Uncle Tom' on a New Nation of Islam radio program."

"Thompson said he knows of no other president who has been treated like Barack Obama and said Republicans' 'blatant disrespect' of Obama 'is all about race,'" Pender writes. "Thompson said Bryant's opposition to Medicaid expansion per the Affordable Care Act is 'just because a black man created it'. … I've never seen it as bad here in Washington as I've seen it now. They talk about (Obama's) wife, his children … We are going to have to have some dialogue on race." (Read more)

Weekly questions opponents' reactions to lesser prairie chicken being named threatened species

The move by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to designate the lesser prairie chicken as a threatened species and the subsequent release this week of a proposed plan to protect the chickens has sparked controversy among conservationists, as well as farmers and ranchers. How the proposed plan plays out, and whether or not rules can even be enforced, are some of the main concerns.

Laurie Ezzell Brown, editor and publisher of The Canadian Record in the Texas Panhandle, responded to the designation and the proposed plan in an editorial Thursday:

"We were unprepared for the hand-wringing, man-the-battle-stations reaction to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s announcement earlier this month that the chicken would be listed as 'threatened,' rather than the far more onerous designation of 'endangered'. In making its decision, the USFWS took into consideration a range-wide conservation plan developed over the last two years with input from representatives of industries that would be affected by the listing—among them oil and gas producers, farmers and ranchers, and wind farm developers.

"The ruling was accompanied by the federal agency’s promise to develop a timetable and criteria for eventual de-listing. Implicit in that decision was the understanding that the conservation plan should be given a chance to work, and that the stakeholders would be given a chance to show their commitment to making it work. What we expected would be a declaration of victory by those stake- holders who dodged the endangered-listing bullet was instead a call to battle.

"It was suddenly very clear that the only acceptable outcome to them would have been no listing at all—this, despite the fact that the prairie-chicken population is in rapid and precipitous decline. One of the most frequently-heard comments has been one questioning the civil and criminal penalties that can be assessed to those who willfully or knowingly harm either the chicken itself or its habitat. Those penalties are the muscle, without which any regulatory effort is ineffective."

But enforcing the rules are nearly impossible, unless someone goes so far to the extreme that their actions can't go unnoticed, Brown writes. Sean Kyle, a wildlife diversity specialist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, likened endangered species enforcement to the handing of speeding tickets. Lyle, who has been working for 22 years to keep the bird from getting listed, said that someone going a little over the speed limit won't get stopped, but "If you’re doing 118 mph in a 60 mph speed zone, the cops are going to stop you," Brown reports.

Participation in the program is voluntary, and "is intended to protect stakeholders from those 'take' provisions," Brown writes. "The threatened designation includes a 4(d) rule, which exempts all practices implemented by landowners, wind developers and oil and gas producers that fall under the auspicies of the rangewide plan. With the listing, the industry must continue to pay into the habitat exchange fund set up by the plan, and landowners who wish to conserve prairie-chicken habitat—using the same kind of beneficial land management practices that most of them already observe— can enroll in the plan and will profit from the exchange." (Read more)

Book details how meat industry largely foiled plans for regulations and became an untouchable giant

"With millions of dollars in lobbying and a nationally organized movement using ordinary citizens, the meat industry beat back the Obama administration’s attempts to better regulate the chicken and beef industries. 'Big Meat' emerged from the battle stronger than ever, with firmer control of both producers and consumers, says author Christopher Leonard," reports the Daily Yonder, which excerpts part of Leonard's book "The Meat Racket: The Secret Takeover of America's Food Business."

"The story of how Obama failed shows how the administration quickly backed down when corporate interests put up a fight, and how political operatives muzzled and undermined the very reformers Obama’s team installed after his election," Leonard writes. "It is a pattern that has played itself out in failed efforts to reign in the nation’s biggest banks or stop consolidation in the airlines industry, to take just two examples."
"The failed attempt to rein in the big meat packers’ power also illustrates the remarkable level of influence that giant meat companies have in Washington, where they quietly shape public policy to their advantage through groups like the American Meat Institute and the National Chicken Council," Leonard writes. "Their well-orchestrated effort to beat back Obama’s reform efforts has arguably left them more powerful than they were when Obama entered office. And like many of the changes in America’s meat industry, it all played out under the public’s radar."

"Since Obama has taken office, the nation’s four biggest meat companies have steadily hiked prices and widened their profit margins," Leonard writes. "Last year alone, Tyson Foods reported a record profit of $778 million as the company raised prices for chicken, pork and beef. And in rural America, companies like Tyson are conducting business as they always have, using the tournament system to make chicken farmers compete against one another. The only difference is that now, the big meat companies have proved that Washington is incapable of doing anything about it." (Read more)

One-third of U.S. residents would move to another state if they could, Gallup finds

Illinois is the least desirable state in which to live, although most residents have no plans to leave, according to a Gallup Organization poll that asked residents in all 50 states if they would leave if they could, if they were planning to move to another state within the next 12 months and what factors would make them seek residency in another state. The poll, which was conducted from June to December 2013 and included surveys from at least 600 adults in each state, found that 33 percent of U.S. residents said they would like to move to another state, but 86 percent said it's unlikely they will in the next 12 months.

While 50 percent of Illinois residents said they would like to leave, 80 percent said it was unlikely they would move within the next year. Right behind Illinois was Connecticut, with 49 percent of residents saying they would like to move, followed by Maryland, 47 percent; Nevada, 43 percent; Rhode Island, 42 percent; New Jersey, New York and Massachusetts, 41 percent; Louisiana, 40 percent; Mississippi, 39 percent; and Indiana, Arizona and Georgia, 38 percent.

Maine, Hawaii and Montana tied for having the most satisfied residents, with only 23 percent saying they would like to move. They were followed by Texas, New Hampshire and Oregon, 24 percent; Colorado and Minnesota, 25 percent; South Dakota, 26 percent; Wyoming, 27 percent, West Virginia, 28 percent, and Wisconsin, Iowa and Idaho, 29 percent.

While many residents said they would like to leave, at least 79 percent of respondents in every state said it's unlikely they will move within the next 12 months, with more than 90 percent in Minnesota, Texas, Iowa, Maine and Vermont saying they have no plans to move in the next year.

Work was the main reason people cited for wanting to move, with 50 percent of Mississippi residents and 49 percent of South Carolina residents answering work/business related for their desire to move. Those states were followed by Louisiana, 39 percent; North Carolina, 37 percent; Arizona, 32 percent; Nevada, 30 percent; Illinois, 26 percent; Idaho, 23 percent; and Connecticut, 21 percent. Overall, 31 percent of respondents chose jobs as the main reason for wanting to move. Family and friends, weather, quality of life, schools, cost of living and taxes were also choices. (Read more)

Rain forces Florida bus routes to be canceled, leaving rural students with no ride to school

Rural students in one school district in the Florida Panhandle are having a hard time getting to school. Bay District Schools refuses to send its buses down dirt roads or roads that might be under water. As a result of recent rain, 204 students at Waller Elementary School in Panama City stayed home Thursday, Jacqueline Bostick reports for The News Herald. It's the second time this school year that students skipped school because an active bus stop was too far away and they lacked alternate transportation. (Wikipedia map of Bay County)

Bob Downin, director of transportation, said 16 bus routes, all in the northern part of Bay County "were affected by the school district’s decision not to go down dirt roads or roads underwater," Bostick writes. Downin told her, "We sent out alerts to parents saying that we will not go down any dirt roads, we will not go down any roads that were covered in water for the safety of the kids and they would have to get their kids to school." (Read more)

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Transportation Department asks Congress to let states toll interstates to pay for reconstruction

Most of the country's 47,000 miles of interstate highways run through rural America, even if most drivers are going too fast to appreciate it, or don't have the time to stop and visit, unless it's for a quick fill-up, a bathroom break and some fast food before they head back out on the road. But interstate drivers could soon be forced to slow down and take a closer look, if only for a few seconds, as they reach into their wallets for some cash to pay tolls.

"The U.S. Department of Transportation on Tuesday asked Congress to end the prohibition on tolling existing interstate highways as a way of paying for their reconstruction, marking a major shift away from how the system has been funded for decades," Curtis Tate reports for McClatchy Newspapers.

"The proposal is part of President Barack Obama’s $302 billion infrastructure bill aimed at addressing a looming shortfall in the federal Highway Trust Fund," Tate writes. "States are currently able to toll interstates only to add lanes, but many simply don’t have the funds they need to widen or rebuild the oldest sections of interstate, and nor does the federal government."

Currently "31 states rely on federal funds for more than half their highway and bridge improvements," according to American Road and Transportation Builders Association, a trade group, Tate writes. But "Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said Tuesday that the federal Highway Trust Fund is set to run out of cash in August, a scenario that would hurt most states." (Read more)
Department of Transportation map; click on it to view a larger version

'Farmland,' a movie about young farmers, aimed to improve farming's image, makes formal debut today

A documentary being released today in theaters follows the daily lives of six farmers and ranchers in their 20s. It is funded by the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance, which was created to improve the public image of agriculture. The movie lets viewers "step inside the world of farming for a first-hand glimpse into the lives of young farmers and ranchers," says its website. "Learn about their high-risk/high reward jobs and passion for a way of life that has been passed down from generation to generation, yet continues to evolve." (Read more)

"The footage doesn’t foster any idyllic stereotypes; it captures real-world farm frustrations, joys and fears, dirt and mud and manure and all," writes Farm and Dairy Editor Susan Crowell. "More than anything, I’m hoping enough non-farm viewers see Farmland to realize some very simple truths: Farmers care about their land and livestock and crops. Deeply. This life is not easy. It’s hard work, with long hours. And no matter how hard you work, you’re still at the mercy of the weather and the markets. This life is not easy." (Read more)

One of the farmers profiled, Margaret Schlass of Marshall, Pa., said the documentary "shows her as 'a young person in the community, trying to do something good …. and trying to build something from the ground up, that positively impacts the community,'" Deborah Deasy reports for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Schlass, who sells certified naturally grown vegetables, told Deasy, “That's why I did the film, so that people could see a first-generation farmer farming, and how hard it is, and all the struggles that they have to endure." (Read more)

"This is an important film for each of us in agriculture to see," LaVell Winsor writes for Farm Futures. "Equally important as it is for you to see the film is for you to take a friend who may not have a farm background. Discussing this film is a great way to open dialogue about what you do on your farm and how your farm fits into the food chain. . . . The most striking is to see the reaction to the film and get the questions and the comments about what they didn't understand about agriculture, and how they're more at ease with livestock production," Winsor writes. "One of the most powerful moments in the film is listening to how these young producers care for their animals; so much of the time that's misrepresented in the mass media." (Read more)
A review of the film will appear later.

April carbon-dioxide levels highest in human history

Carbon dioxide levels in April reached the highest level in human history and highest in hundreds of thousands of years, David Perlman reports for the San Francisco Chronicle. Measurements by instruments on a mountain in Hawaii "showed that for the entire month of April, levels of the gas exceeded 400 parts per million for the first time, said Pieter Tans, a climate scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency who monitors the instrument record." (Chronicle graphic)
"The precise average for the entire month was 401.25 parts per million as of Tuesday, he said, and that level had only reached the crucial 400 threshold for the first time during a single day a year ago before dipping slightly," Perlman writes. "Records from ice cores drilled in Antarctica reveal air bubbles trapped in the ice as long ago as 800,000 years ago and not one of those gas bubbles has revealed carbon dioxide levels higher than 300 parts per million, Tans said."

Mark Z . Jacobson, a Stanford Univeristy atmospheric scientist and environmental engineer, told Perlman, "The rise of carbon dioxide levels above 400 parts per million is an indicator that the problem of global warming is getting worse, not better. This means we need to focus more heavily on solutions to this problem, namely converting to wind, water and solar power for all purposes." (Read more)

Virginia learns it's in the oil patch as crude train derails in Lynchburg, sending flaming cars into river

Another train carrying crude oil has derailed, this time in downtown Lynchburg, Va. Wednesday afternoon. Three flaming CSX tank cars carrying crude oil fell into the James River. As of late Wednesday,  nearly 50,000 gallons of crude oil was still unaccounted for, reports The News and Advance of Lynchburg. There were no serious injuries or deaths reported and city drinking water was not affected, although Richmond's drinking water could be affected if the oil reaches that far. (Photo submitted to News and Advance)

"CSX confirmed about 15 tanker cars were involved," The News and Advance reports. "Three or four caught fire, Lynchburg Police Lt. Dave Gearhart said. Each car carried approximately 30,000 gallons. One car was found empty, one car was full, and one car was about one-third full." The train was traveling from Chicago to southeastern Virginia. (Read more)

"The incident also cast a bright light on the rapidly expanding rail transport of crude oil from the Upper Plains through Virginia — and downtown Richmond — to terminals and refineries in the Northeast, raising safety and environmental concerns all along the way," Michael Martz and Rex Springston report for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

"It’s difficult to get Virginia to pay attention to this because they don’t think of their being part of the oil patch, but now they are,” Fred Millar, an Arlington County-based consultant on hazardous materials safety, who has warned Virginia officials of potential dangers from oil transport, told the Times-Dispatch. “Virginia is being used as a transportation corridor only. We get all of the risks and no benefits.” No cause of the derailment has been confirmed, at least publicly. (You Tube video by Ryan Maderi)

Hospital in rural Tennessee to close; company says state's lack of Medicaid expansion is a factor

Jackson Sun photo by David Thomas
Another rural hospital is closing in a Republican-led state that chose not to expand Medicaid under federal health reform. Haywood Park Community Hospital in Brownsville, Tenn., will end inpatient and emergency services on July 31, Tom Wilemon reports for The Tennessean. The 62-bed hospital will be turned into an urgent-care clinic that will treat minor illnesses and non-life-threatening injuries.

Larry Cash, chief financial officer of Tennessee-based Community Health Systems, which operates or leases 208 hospitals in 29 states, "said Tennessee’s failure to expand its Medicaid program was a contributing factor for the decision," Wilemon writes. Cash told him, “It is a situation where we will continue certain services there but inpatient services can be done at our hospital there in Jackson better.” Jackson is about 31 miles from Brownsville.

The hospital has seen a continual decline in patients, from 1,300 in 2009 to less than 250 in 2013, David Thomas reports for the Jackson Sun. Joel Southern, Haywood Park Community Hospital’s chief executive officer, said in a statement: "These are challenging times for all hospitals and we must evolve and adjust to new realities. Maintaining a full-service hospital for the current inpatient demand from acute and emergency patients is not sustainable.” (Read more)

It's no surprise that the hospital is closing, Wilemon writes. "The Tennessee Hospital Association warned that rural hospitals would close if Tennessee did not expand its Medicaid program." Craig Becker, president of the association, told The Tennessean in December, “The vast majority of our hospitals that are financially distressed right now are in our rural areas.” Four rural hospitals have already closed in Georgia, which also did not expand Medicaid. (Read more)

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Supreme Court upholds EPA's authority to regulate smog from coal-fired power plants

The Obama administration scored a major victory in its bid for clean energy when the Supreme Court on Tuesday "upheld the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate the smog from coal plants that drifts across state lines from 28 Midwestern and Appalachian states to the East Coast," Coral Davenport writes for The New York Times.

The 6-to-2 ruling "will force coal plant owners to install costly 'scrubber' technology to curb smokestack pollution of smog-forming chemicals," Davenport writes. "Many owners have said the regulation would be so expensive to carry out that they expected to shut down their oldest and dirtiest coal plants."

Legal experts said the decision "signals that the Obama administration’s efforts to use the Clean Air Act to fight global warming could withstand legal challenges," Davenport writes. "In June, EPA is expected to propose a sweeping new Clean Air Act regulation to cut emissions of carbon dioxide, the heat-trapping greenhouse gas that scientists say is the chief cause of climate change. Coal plants are the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States." (Read more)

Murray Energy cuts 1,200 Consol retirees' benefits

Placing blame on the Obama administration for destroying the coal industry, Murray Energy, one of the largest coal employers, announced Tuesday that it will terminate health benefits for 1,200 non-union retirees "who worked in mines Murray purchased one year ago" from Consol Energy, reports WTRF in Wheeling, W. Va. Benefits for salaried retirees, including medical, prescription drug and life insurance will end on Dec. 31.

"Murray Energy’s inability to provide these benefits is, in part, due to the destruction of the coal industry, including our markets, by the Obama administration and its appointees and supporters, who have eliminated the livelihoods of thousands of coal miners, and their families, by the forced closing of 392 coal-fired electric power plants in America, now and in the immediate future," the company said in a statement. "Due to these action and devastated coal markets, Murray Energy is unable to support these benefits."

"Murray Energy is making this announcement at this time to allow affected salaried retirees of Consolidation Coal [Consol's former name] the opportunity to make other arrangements," the statement reads. "Over 80 percent of the lost benefits can be made up with Medicare. Also, these former Consolidation Coal retirees have good pension benefits. The company has provided these salaried retirees with information on and access to alternate coverage." (Read more)

Pipeline plan suspended; developers site lack of customers, but they face several other problems

A controversial pipeline project may never be built. The $1.5 billion Bluegrass Pipeline, designed to carry up to 400,000 barrels of natural gas liquids per day from Pennsylvania and West Virginia's shale-gas fields to the Gulf Coast, has been put on indefinite hold, with developers saying "it has not received the necessary customer commitments."

Williams Companies map
While the hold is indefinite, there is something of a deadline: "If Bluegrass Pipeline does not exercise its options for easements within the three-year term of the option, the easement will expire," Kayla Pickrell writes for the Midway Messenger in Kentucky, where there was concern about the pipeline's safety, especially in karst topography, and possible use of eminent domain to get right of way from unwilling landowners.

Williams Companies, one of two partners in the project, said its decision "was not based on opposition, which played out at public meetings, in the courts, the legislature, news outlets and social media," James Bruggers reports for The Courier-Journal of Louisville.

Marcellus Drilling News says future prospects for the pipeline are cloudy because of the Kentucky opposition, an adverse state court ruling (upheld on appeal) against eminent domain, questions about Williams' partner and competition from a more-or-less parallel pipeline that doesn't have to deal with landowners because it was built for Gulf gas fields decades ago and will now reverse its flow (as would most of the Bluegrass Pipeline, from Hardinsburg, Ky., south).

"Williams says the project was ahead of its time. We say that's bunk," MDN declares. "By the time this project would have gone online, in 2015, there will be dramatically more NGLs being produced . . . Second, and perhaps just as important as the Kentucky problem, is the financial stability of joint venture partner Boardwalk Pipeline Partners." (Read more; subscription required for full access)

Rural communities could get shortchanged as FCC moves to erode Internet network neutrality

Network neutrality, or "net neutrality," prescribes equal treatment for users of the Internet; there is no "fast lane." Companies cannot pay extra to have their web pages load faster, but that could change, and wouldn't be good news for rural America, Edyael Casaperalta writes for the Daily Yonder.

The Federal Communications Commission said last week that it consider "new rules on Internet traffic that would allow broadband providers to charge companies a premium for access to their fastest lanes," as The Wall Street Journal reported. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said the FCC won't vote and release the rules until May 15, but would act with transparency, and Internet providers would not be able prioritize certain content or block any legal content. Some groups are not too confident the results will be favorable. The Daily Kos is even asking people to sign a petition. "The FCC will consider this "pay-to-play" rule on May 15th, so let's nip it in the bud now," the Daily Kos reports.

The Washington Post noted in February that the agency has "a trump card" to hang over the head of Internet providers: reclassifying them "as regulated utilities under Title II of the Communications Act. Doing so would entitle the FCC to reinstate all the old rules about traffic blocking and discrimination that were just eliminated by the court."

Net neutrality matters, but not many rural people have joined the discussion, which may be because rural and Native American communities still comprise the majority of those who cannot access telecommunications services, Casaperalta writes. Of the 19 million Americans who do not have access to fixed broadband networks, 14.5 million live in rural areas, and almost a third live in tribal lands, according to the FCC's latest Broadband Progress Report.

"Net-neutrality advocates fear that without rules in place, big companies like Netflix, Disney, and ESPN could gain advantage over their competitors by paying ISPs to provide preferential treatment to their company's data," writes Brad Chacos for PC World. The net neutrality debate has been going on for years. In 2010, the FCC passed rules that earned them criticism from both the liberals and right-wingers. The Daily Beast's headline said that that ruling "boils down to one fact: there will soon be a fast Internet for the rich and a slow Internet for the poor."

Meanwhile, the FCC also announced last week that it was planning to raise the standard download speed that can be called broadband to 10 megabits from 4 megabits. "This is a great step! But there’s a chance weaker net-neutrality rules will compromise the ability of rural communities to enjoy these faster speeds. What good are faster speeds if the information rural people want is stuck in the cheaper slow lane?" Casaperalta writes.

Walmart keeping customers 'street legal' by offering auto insurance policies in store, online display at Walmart
Taking one-stop shopping to another level, Walmart customers will soon be able to purchase auto insurance while in the store or on the company's website. Through a partnership with Tranzutary Insurance Solutions LLC's, the retail giant and one of the biggest rural businesses, will receive promotional payments while " receives a commission for every policy that is sold," Anna Prior reports for The Wall Street Journal.

"While it expects to offer the service nationwide in the coming months, Wal-Mart said the tool is available immediately in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Texas, and will provide customers with multiple quotes from a group of national insurance carriers, including Progressive, Esurance, Safeco and The General," Prior writes. Customers can also use the tool to compare prices to their current insurance. (Read more)

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Drought continues to plague U.S., especially West

Severe drought plagues 21 percent of the U.S., and 41 percent of the country is under a drought watch or warning, mostly west of the Mississippi River, notes Reid Wilson of The Washington Post., in a story that uses maps done by the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, with help from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The maps are updated weekly; here is last week's:
"Every inch of five states—California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and Nebraska—are experiencing some level of drought," Wilson writes. Two-thirds of California is experiencing extreme or exceptional drought. "Much of the northern Texas Panhandle is under extreme or exceptional drought warning, as is most of California and parts of northern Nevada. Parts of California, Nevada and Arizona are drier than they have been in 1,200 years, putting at risk millions of acres of farm and forest lands." Nebraska, Oklahoma and Kansas are also experiencing serious drought conditions. (Read more)

Plan to protect prairie chickens angers some ranchers; some say biggest threat is from drought

One month after the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service designated the lesser prairie chicken as a threatened species, it has produced a plan to protect the bird, which lives mainly in Kansas, Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Colorado. Some farmers and ranchers are angry that they have to make room for what they consider an invasive species. (Conservation Fund photo)

"Officials are banking on a 373-page, five-state conservation plan to save the species,"  Janelle Stecklein reports for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. "The plan attempts to protect the chicken and address conservation by balancing the nesting and mating grounds of the chicken with business and agricultural interests."

The plan, "which has an enrollment fee of $2.25 per acre per year for industries, provides protection from 'take' and eliminates the typically long federal permitting process in habitat areas," Stecklein nots. "Farmers and ranchers, who have ideal nesting and breeding grounds, are eligible for annual payments of $20 to $40 an acre to incentivize the conservation and chicken-friendly practices."

Oklahoma landowners have already agreed to conserve 400,000 acres of prairie-chicken habitat, and state businesses "have pledged more than $30 million over the next three years toward chicken conservation efforts," Stecklein writes. They have also changed schedules to avoid disrupting mating season, which runs from March 1 through July 15. (Read more)

Not everyone is a fan of the plan, reports Frank Morris of High Plains Public Radio, which has studios in Garden City, Kan., and Amarillo, Texas. Norval Ralstin, who has thousands of acres with crops, cattle and wind turbines near Mullinville, Kan., told him government officials "almost think they can take over your property if you're not doing everything you can to make sure this species survives."

Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt plans to fight the threatened-species listing, but "the real action is with the landowners," Morris writes. "If they don't agree to take payments to manage their properties in bird-friendly ways, the whole range-wide plan falls apart." Pruitt told Morris, "For the Fish and Wildlife Service to come out and say, 'Yes, we're going to classify the lesser prairie chicken as a threatened species, but we're not going to change anything,' seems to beg the question, then why did you take the step?"

Some, like Dodge City, Kan., rancher Wayne Keller, told Morris the chickens are dying from drought, not hunters: "Four years of just real brutal conditions. No morning dews, just blast furnace winds." With prairie grass dying, much of the wildlife that depends on it is suffering," Morris writes. "Lesser prairie chickens only live about a year and a half on average, so a couple of years without many chicks takes a serious toll." If breeders "can get the hens—and the weather—to cooperate, each couple could produce up to a dozen chicks and help build the bird's numbers. But with lawsuits, legislation and hard feelings to sort out, repairing its habitat is going to be more difficult." (Read more)

Study: Historical data prove beyond any reasonable doubt that climate change isn't occurring naturally

There is little probability that climate change is a natural occurrence, according to a study by Shaun Lovejoy, a physics professor at McGill University in Montreal. In the study, published in the online journal Climate Dynamics, Loveyjoy concluded that "natural-warming hypothesis may be ruled out 'with confidence levels great than 99 percent, and most likely greater than 99.9 percent,” the university says in a press release.

"Rather than using complex computer models to estimate the effects of greenhouse-gas emissions, Lovejoy examines historical data to assess the competing hypothesis: that warming over the past century is due to natural long-term variations in temperature," the release says. "Lovejoy’s study applies statistical methodology to determine the probability that global warming since 1880 is due to natural variability."

Lovejoy said, “This study will be a blow to any remaining climate-change deniers. Their two most convincing arguments – that the warming is natural in origin, and that the computer models are wrong – are either directly contradicted by this analysis, or simply do not apply to it.”

The study predicts, with the standard 95 percent confidence level, that a doubling of carbon-dioxide levels in the atmosphere would cause the climate to warm by between 1.9 and 4.2 degrees Celsius. "That range is more precise than – but in line with -- the IPCC’s prediction that temperatures would rise by 1.5 to 4.5 degrees Celsius if CO2 concentrations double," the release says 

The study is behind a pay wall, but an excerpt can be found on the Cambridge University Press by clicking here.

Florida House votes to let teachers carry guns

On Monday the Florida House passed a bill that would permit teachers to bring guns to school. The proposal is less likely to pass the Senate, which is more moderate. School employees would have to possess concealed weapon licenses and military or law enforcement experience. The bill would "require schools to hold drills to prepare for active-shooter situations," Kathleen McGrory writes for the Miami Herald.

In the weeks after the Connecticut elementary school shooting, Republican Rep. Greg Steube brought up the idea, and the National Rifle Association agreed with the proposal. "The best way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun," NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer said.

Some parent groups, teachers and local school boards have protested, saying guns should not be permitted on school property. "[Putting] guns in the hands of school personnel is not the answer to ensuring the safety of all children," said Mindy Gould, who oversees legislative affairs for the state PTA.

Steube's bill didn't make it through last year, and this year it incited a lively debate. "If you want to keep children safe, put forth the money from our surplus to hire resource officers," said Rep. Karen Castor Dentel, a Maitland Democrat. "I know Rep. Steube has worked hard on this, but arming teachers is not the solution. Funding our schools adequately is." However, Rep. Ronald Renuart pointed out that "We cannot afford to have resource officers in every school full time. Yet, we have very willing veterans who have been well-trained who can help us in this situation."

"We are not safe when we create an environment where those who are deranged can go and do reckless damage," said Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala. (Read more)

Vilsack says small group of Republicans block immigration reform, which could start with farm bills

Passing immigration reform should be easy, but a small group of House Republicans are blocking it, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack (left) told reporters Monday. "Vilsack said the lawmakers, whom he did not name, fail to understand the economic impact that immigration reform could mean to the nation," Derrick Cain reports for Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter. Vilsack said, “The reality is that American agriculture is not performing at its maximum due to an inadequate workforce."

While Vilsack didn't point fingers at any particular House member, "House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) have largely been standing in the way of movement of immigration reform legislation, supporters say," Cain notes. Goodlatte wants to replace the agricultural visa program that allows workers to stay for one year to one that allows 500,000 temporary agricultural laborers into the U.S. each per for up to 18 months.

Others have said they don't trust President Obama to enforce border security, which Vilsack called "a lame explanation…a flimsy excuse,” Cain writes. Twenty-two senators, led by Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) sent a letter to Obama last week challenging the administration's enforcement review, saying it will lead to fewer deportations.

"The Senate bill would allow undocumented farm workers to become eligible for an immigrant visa status called a 'blue card.' Under the legislation, blue-card holders could apply for lawful permanent resident status after five years if they have continued to work in agriculture, paid their taxes, and pay a fine," Cain writes. "House Republican leadership has preferred a piecemeal approach to the immigration issue focusing mainly on border security." (Read more)

Monday, April 28, 2014

Some states restrict use of Zohydro, new painkiller that looks easier to abuse

Some states are restricting the use of the new painkiller Zohydro, "setting up a showdown with the federal government over who gets to decide the best way to protect public health," Michael Ollove reports for Stateline.

Though millions of chronic pain sufferers could benefit from the drug, some officials worry that abusers will crush and inject it for a big high, will significantly worsen the painkiller abuse crisis they have been battling. Combating prescription drug abuse has been a focus in Kentucky for the past few years. U.S. Reps. Hal Rogers of Kentucky and Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts have introduced a bill to withdraw the Food and Drug Administration's approval, done though an advisory board voted 11-2 against it.

A federal judge told Massachusetts officials that they cannot ban a drug that the FDA has declared safe and effective, but Gov. Deval Patrick is restricting its use. Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin has taken similar measures, and the Ohio legislature is debating similar action. Twenty-nine state attorneys general, including Kentucky's Jack Conway, have requested that the FDA rethink its approval of Zohydro.

"We're in the context of a very serious epidemic of opioid drug addictions and opioid deaths, and that's a public health crisis that has been growing over the last decade and half," said Michael Carome, director of the Health Research Group at the consumer organization Public Citizen. "The last thing we needed was another extended release opioid for treating chronic pain."

According to Trust for America's Health's 2013 report, "6.1 million Americans abuse or misuse prescription drugs," and "Overdose deaths involving prescription painkillers have quadrupled since 1999, and now outnumber those from heroin and cocaine combined, Ollove reports. Zohydro is an opioid, and opioids are not only easily abused but are also unfortunately gateway drugs, influencing people to use heroin, which isn't as expensive. One advantage to Zohydro is that it is a single-ingredient, long-acting product, unlike other painkillers that were combined with acetaminophen, which can be injurious to the liver.

Opponents are frustrated that the FDA not only approved the drug but also did not force the manufacturer, Zogenix, to create a version that isn't so easy to abuse. The company has said it is making such a version. "In the meantime, it said it has implemented other safeguards, such as compensating sales representatives for educating doctors, pharmacists and patients on the risks and benefits of extended-release opioids," Ollove writes.

Sherry Green, chief operating officer of The National Alliance for Model State Drug Laws, agreed withZohydro maker Zogenix "that taking action against selective prescription drugs is the wrong approach," Ollove reports. Green said, "When we focus almost solely on an individual drug, we tend not to put as much attention on the underlying problem, which is the abuse and addiction. Obstructing illicit routes to one medication only creates pathways to another one." (Read more)

How food-secure or -insecure is your county? Interactive map shows rural areas are less secure

More than 51 percent of food-insecure counties are rural, even though rural counties make up 42.5 percent of U.S. counties, Niraj Chokshi reports for The Washington Post. A little more than 24 percent of micropolitan counties are food-insecure, even though those counties represent 20.4 percent of the counties, and 24.1 percent of metro counties are insecure, despite consisting of 37.1 percent of counties. (Feeding America's Map the Meal Gap map: The darker the color, the higher the food insecurity. An interactive version of the map is available by clicking here)
Through a series of graphics, the Post examines food insecurity in America, noting that the South, which is mostly rural, makes up 90 percent of highly insecure counties, "with the largest concentrations in the South Atlantic (Delaware, D.C., Florida, Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia) and East South Central states (Alabama, Kentucky, Mississippi and Tennessee)."

It only takes an average of $2.26 per day—or $15.82 per week and $68.74 per month—to feed the 49 million Americans, including 16 million children, who are food-insecure, Chokshi writes. Despite those low numbers, many Americans continue to struggle with hunger. One reason is that from 2002 to 2012 the poverty rate increased by 3.3 percentage points, and the unemployment rate increased by 3.4 points, but the home ownership rate went down 2.4 points. (Feeding America graphic)

Race is also a factor. "Of all the counties where a majority of residents are African American, 93.1 percent belong to the highly insecure category," Chokshi writes. "In counties that are majority white, just 6.2 percent belong to that highly insecure group." (Read more)

More than 1,400 groups, activists sign petition against budget that would cut Rural Development

More than 1,400 rural organizations and advocates have sent a petition to Congress in an attempt to stop cuts to Rural Development programs in the Department of Agriculture's proposed budget for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1, Sarah Mickelson reports for the Daily Yonder. "Proposed changes include a 60 percent cut in low-cost home ownership loans and over $150 million in cuts to grants that help small, rural communities provide potable water and waste disposal systems to residents."

"Rural advocates argue that rural America’s community development needs are not a priority for the administration and urge Congress to reject the proposed reductions as 'unwise and unwarranted,'” Mickelson writes. "They warn that the president’s budget will only make it harder for low-income families, the elderly and persons with disabilities to access decent, healthy and affordable housing and will hurt struggling rural economies."

The main concerns are cuts to guaranteed loans and self-help loans, Mickelson writes. Guaranteed loans "provide fixed-rate mortgages—with up to 38-year terms and subsidized interest rates as low as just one percent—to help low-income rural families gain access to clean, decent and affordable housing," while self-help grants "is the only federal program that combines 'sweat equity' home ownership opportunities with technical assistance and affordable loans for America’s rural families." (Read more)

Bipartisan effort to reshape Appalachian Kentucky's economy seeks opinions from the grass roots

Shaping our Appalachian Region is searching for ways to improve and diversify the economy of Appalachian Kentucky. SOAR work groups plan "to hold meetings in most parts of Eastern and Southern Kentucky this summer, to gather ideas for a strategic plan that will be written by the SOAR executive committee this fall," Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, reports on the Appalachian Kentucky page of The Rural Blog.

"The groups had their first meetings last week at the annual East Kentucky Leadership Conference in Somerset, a site that gave both the long-held conference and the months-old SOAR a broader geographic base, and wove together some of the region's contrasting political threads," Cross writes. One of the most common ideas mentioned "was a need to overcome the divisions created by county lines." Other ideas centered around finding ways to promote the region's vast sources of tourism, agriculture, timber and livestock.

Charles W. Fluharty, president of the Rural Policy Research Institute, who is acting as temporary staff leader for SOAR, told the crowd, "I've never seen so much progress or bipartisan commitment from the political establishment. The challenge is to translate that to the grass roots."

SOAR, which "was launched in response to a steep decline in the region's coal industry," is a bipartisan effort led by Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear and Republican 5th District U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers of Somerset, Cross writes. Ron Crouch, a demographer with the state Workforce Development Cabinet, said "the economy of the Eastern Kentucky Coalfield has been diversifying for many years, to the point that coal now ranks only sixth in employment, with health care ranking first, and such categories as education and retail trade in between," Cross writes.

Transportation Dept. says it will send crude-oil-train rules proposals to White House this week

The U.S. Department of Transportation said it will send a comprehensive package of proposals regarding rail shipments of crude oil to the White House this week, Timothy Cama reports for The Hill. "The proposals will include some options for improving the standards for tanker cars that carry crude oil, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a blog post late Thursday." Last week Canada announced new safety rules for train cars carrying crude oil.

The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has refused to set a deadline for new tank-car rules, even though the railroad industry petitioned for new rules three years ago. Since then, railway accidents involving cars carrying crude oil as skyrocketed, with more oil spilled on U.S. railways in 2013 than in the previous 37 years. That doesn't include a crude oil derailment in Quebec, 10 miles from Maine, that killed 47 people. The train originated in North Dakota. The Association of American Railroads also urged U.S. regulators in November to require retrofits and upgrades for nearly 100,000 cars. (Read more)

Moving Duke ash ponds would take 30 years, hike typical bill more than $20/mo.; utility has alternative

A top Duke Energy executive told lawmakers last week that moving coal-ash ponds away from drinking-water supplies would cost $7 to $10 billion and would take 30 years, John Murawski reports for the Raleigh News & Observer. The company and its stockholders said they will pay the cost to clean up the 39,000 tons of coal-ash sludge that leaked into the Dan River from a Feb. 2 spill but say customers should foot the bill to move the 14 locations, as critics have demanded. (McClatchy Tribune graphic)

A state regulator estimated that customers could expect to see their bills increase by more than $20 a month. Duke officials have countered with a cheaper option that would cost $2 billion to $2.5 billion and leave the coal ash in place at most sites. Under that option, "the coal ash would be air-dried, left in place and covered with a tarpaulin or membrane," Murwaski writes.

Chris Ayers, executive director of Public Staff, the state agency that represents the public in utility-rate cases, "noted that a North Carolina utility’s environmental compliance costs are typically included in customers’ rates. He said it was too early to tell if the Public Staff would challenge Duke’s proposed costs, which the company would have to demonstrate are prudent and reasonable," Murawski writes. "Ayers told lawmakers that Duke could not be held to an environmental standard that did not exist when the pits were constructed a half-century ago."

"Under state law, Duke’s coal ash remediation plan will require approval from the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources," Murawski writes. "But the cost of that plan is in the hands of the N.C. Utilities Commission, which would review Duke’s expenses after the company spent the money." (Read more)