Friday, May 16, 2014

Three regional Federal Reserve banks report farmland prices declined during first quarter

Farmland values in parts of the Midwest and South fell by an average of 6 percent in the first quarter of this year, according to a survey by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, which includes parts of Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri and Tennessee, Jacob Bunge reports for The Wall Street Journal.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, which covers all or parts of Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Wyoming, reported that prices for non-irrigated farmland declined by 1.4 percent during the first quarter.

The Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, which includes parts of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Michigan and Wisconsin, reported a 1 percent quarter-to-quarter decline, the first in five years. (Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago graphic)

Farmland value increased from 2009 to 2013, but "in February, U.S. Department of Agriculture forecasters projected that U.S. net farm income would decline 27 percent to $95.8 billion this year, the lowest level since 2010, as a result of declines in crop prices," Bunge writes. "Last year, net farm income reached a nominal record high of $130.5 billion." (Read more)

Indiana governor seeks to expand Medicaid through existing state insurance program

Approximately 24 states still have not participated in health reform's Medicaid expansion, which provides coverage for adults who earn up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. Some Republican-controlled states are "still looking for alternative ways to accept hundreds of millions, and even billions, federal dollars to expand coverage—all the while trying to maintain some rhetorical policy distance" from the controversial law, Jason Millman writes for The Washington Post.

Republican Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana is discussing a new plan to provide coverage for low-income people through an existing state insurance program. remains to be seen whether the federal government will approve Pence's plan or ask him to make changes. It also remains unclear whether the program will be better than traditional Medicaid.

When Pence said last year he would only consider expanding coverage if it was through the Healthy Indiana Plan, the Obama administration said the state couldn't do that because the program had an enrollment cap and potential cost-sharing issues. Now, Pence plans to get rid of the enrollment caps and make the program available to all adults who earn less than 138 percent of the poverty line. "Between 334,000 and 598,000 people will be covered under the plan, according to Pence's office," Millman writes. "Enrollment will open in 2015, with federal approval."

The current program only provided coverage for those under the poverty line and required them to pay for the first $1,100 of their care, the new program will provide two levels of coverage. Participants will be allowed to make monthly payments, but if they do not, they'll be given simpler coverage that doesn't include vision and dental benefits. The lesser coverage calls for co-payments for services but not for preventive care and family planning services. Participants living above the poverty line who do not give a monthly payment within 60 days will be "locked out of the program for six months. They can't opt into the basic coverage level," Millman writes.

"Exposure to and awareness of the cost of care are key components of the consumer-directed model that encourages price and quality transparency from providers," according to a document from Pence's office. "The increased deductible aligns with private market high deductible health plans paired with a health savings account, providing members valuable experience with a private market plan design." (Read more)

Though Pence does not support President Obama's health-care overhaul, the governor said that states "have an obligation to lead the way on health care reform," Maureen Groppe and Barb Berggoetz write for The Indianapolis Star. Pence said, "Reforming traditional Medicaid through this kind of market-based, consumer-driven approach is essential to creating better health outcomes and curbing the dramatic growth in Medicaid spending." (Read more)

FCC proposes exceptions to Internet neutrality

The Federal Communications Commission offered Thursday a proposal to "ban Internet providers from blocking or slowing down access to websites but may let them charge content companies for faster and more reliable delivery of their traffic to users," Alina Selyukh reports for Reuters. The proposal opened a four-month comment period on the proposal, which would to some extent erode the principle of Internet neutrality, or equal access.

The Washington Post's Wonkblog provides plenty of links on the subject. Here are some:
Facts about net neutrality, by Bree Fowler for The Associated Press. (Read more)
What is net neutrality, and why does the FCC want to regulate the Internet? National Journal reporter Brendan Sasso explains how this issue affects you and why everyone is fighting about it. (Read more)
Now it's the public's turn to weigh in, Cecilia Kang reports for the Post. (Read more)
The case against toughening the rules by reclassifying broadband, Timothy B. Lee writes for Vox. (Read more)
There's nothing neutral about the FCC's partisan politics, Brian Fang reports for the Post. (Read more)

Honeybee losses were less last winter, but more than 1/4 of the population still died

Honeybee populations, which have decreased about 30 percent during each of the last eight winters, lost 23.5 percent of their population during this past winter, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The bees had a 30.5 percent loss during the 2012-13 winter, and losses reached as high as 36 percent in 2007 and 2008, John Schwartz reports for The New York Times.

The losses have been attributed to several factors, including disease and pesticides, but researchers have no answer about why the losses decreased during this past winter, Schwartz writes. Dennis vanEngelsdorp, an entomologist at the University of Maryland, said a 23 percent loss is still high. He told Schwartz, “We’ve gone from horrible to bad.” (Bee Informed graphic: Red is the managed honey bee colonies in the survey. Blue is the average percentage of acceptable loss declared by survey participants.)

While the decrease in losses is a good sign, Jeff Pettis, the co-author of the survey, warned that “one year does not make a trend,” Schwartz writes. (Read more)

EPA proposes rules requiring oil refineries to cut emissions, monitor toxic air pollutants

The Environmental Protection Agency proposed rules Thursday that would require oil refineries "to cut emissions and begin monitoring levels of toxic air pollutants at their fence lines with neighboring communities," Tony Barboza reports for the Los Angeles Times.

"The rules would require the nation's 150 major oil refineries to upgrade pollution controls for storage tanks and reduce emissions from flares, which burn off gases to relieve pressure during startup, shutdown or maintenance," Barboza writes. "Facilities would have to meet other requirements to reduce emissions that can cause respiratory problems, raise the risk of cancer and contribute to smog."

"The rules would for the first time require refineries to monitor and publicly report fence-line levels of benzene, a carcinogen they release into the air," Barboza writes. "The EPA proposal sets limits on concentrations of that compound, considered a marker of a variety of harmful pollutants, and requires companies to take corrective action if readings are too high."

Industry groups say that emissions have been declining for decades under existing regulations and health risks from refineries are low, Barboza writes. The American Petroleum Institute, a trade association, said in a statement that the rules come "with a high price tag but uncertain environmental benefits." (Read more)

Read more here:
Industry groups say that health risks from refineries are low and that emissions have been declining for decades under existing regulations.
A statement by the American Petroleum Institute, a trade association, said the rules come "with a high price tag but uncertain environmental benefits."

Endangered red wolves are being killed in North Carolina after being mistaken for coyotes

In response to several cases of the accidental shooting of North Carolina's endangered red wolves, which hunters often mistake for coyotes, a federal judge ordered a stop to coyote hunting in the northeastern part of the state, reports The Associated Press. Dare, Hyde, Beaufort, Tyrrell and Washington counties are home to the world's only wild population of the wolves.

At least 50 red wolves are believed to have been killed from gunshots since 2008, and since 2012 five hunters have told authorities that they mistakenly killed a red wolf, believing it to be a coyote, Karen Chavez reports for the Citizen Times.

"In 2012, the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission passed the rule giving farmers, ranchers and private landowners the ability to control the destructive impacts of coyotes and feral hogs by allowing them to hunt at night with a light on private land," Chavez writes. The rule went into effect in August of that year." (Read more)

Last year the commission voted "to allow coyote hunting at any time of day with no bag limit on private land and on public land even at night with lights if the hunter has a permit," AP reports.

Oil boom leading to overpopulation, creating safety concerns in towns of the West

The oil boom has brought economic growth to several Western states but has also caused headaches and presented safety concerns for small towns that can't keep up with the speed at which their areas are growing. One such town is Carlsbad, N.M., a town of 27,000 that is growing twice as fast as the rest of the state and is struggling with the unexpected growth, Monica Ortiz Uribe reports for Marketplace. (Uribe photo: Wages are high, but so is the cost of living)

New Mexico has flourished, becoming the nation's sixth largest oil producing state, which should be good news for towns like Carlsbad. Maybe not. "The industry is creating thousands of jobs in the southeast corner of the state," Uribe reports. "But all that activity is straining basic services. Housing is limited, classrooms are crowded and roads are more dangerous." The area has already had 10 traffic fatalities this year, much higher than normal.

During the past two years the school district has enrolled 200 new students, but teachers are scarce because the ones who are hired can't find housing, Uribe writes. School Supt. Gary Perkowski told Uribe, "Last year we lost ten teachers that came to Carlsbad, signed contracts . . . and could not find housing. We had one guy that was trying to live with his family in a motel at a hundred and something dollars a night, and that didn't last long." Because of the high demand for housing, "major hotel chains in Carlsbad charge rates comparable to New York City."

Mayor Dale Janway "said developers can't build fast enough," Uribe writes. "New apartments have waiting lists. Workers live in outlying RV parks. But it's not just the oil industry. This region is a major producer of potash, a component in fertilizer. A new mine should start construction this year. The U.S. Department of Energy also runs the country's only permanent nuclear waste facility just outside town." (Read more)

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Rural areas are still losing population, but the rate slowed in 2013 for first time since 2006

Non-metropolitan or rural areas are still losing population but at a much slower rate, according to the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. From July 2011 to July 2012 non-metro areas lost 47,500 people, but from July 2012 to July 2013 they only lost 28,000. Since 2006 non-metro areas had lost more people each year than the previous year. (ERS graphics)
Non-metro areas have lost 400,000 people since 2010, with more than 1,200 counties suffering population loss. During that same span more than 700 non-metro counties gained population, adding 300,000 more residents. Most of the growth has occurred in western states, especially those experiencing a boom in oil and other businesses, such as North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, Nevada and Alaska. (Read more)

Kentucky, feds battle over confiscated hemp seeds; DEA says growing is legal, but importing is not

Kentucky farmers are ready to begin planting hemp. The problem is getting their hands on the seeds. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, who wrote the Farm Bill language for legalization of industrial hemp and is seeking re-election in Kentucky, has joined the fight, asking the Drug Enforcement Administration "to release 250 pounds of Italian hemp seeds that they have held for more than a week by U.S. Customs in Louisville," Janet Patton reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

"The Kentucky Department of Agriculture imported the seeds for university research projects, but the DEA has blocked their release, saying the state needs a controlled-substance import permit," Patton writes. "State Agriculture Commissioner James Comer on Wednesday filed a lawsuit in federal court in Louisville to force the Justice Department to turn them over. A hearing on the motion could come as early as Friday." DEA is part of the department; it deems illegal the seeds of cannabis sativa, which when raised for hemp contains very little of the psychoactive ingredient found in marijuana.

The Farm Bill "allows state departments of agriculture, in conjunction with colleges and universities, to grow industrial hemp for research purposes," as long as it contains less than 0.3 percent of the psychoactive ingredient, Patton notes. The DEA contends "that the language legalizes growing but does not address importation, so a controlled-substance permit is still required." They also "told Comer's office in a letter that the state and the universities cannot assign their authorities to grow hemp to private farmers."

"However, the state Agriculture Department, in its lawsuit, argues that the Farm Bill language specifically supersedes other federal laws, including the Controlled Substances Act and import/export restrictions," Patton writes.

Big agriculture trying to draw younger generation to profession that has become 'farmer vs. farmer'

As the average age of farmers continues to rise, some in agriculture are shifting their focus toward the young, or Millennials, the title for about 80 million people between the ages of 18 to 32, Lydia Depillis reports for The Washington Post. Attracting younger generations to farming was the focus of a recent conference in Arlington, Va., of the Animal Agriculture Alliance, composed of hundreds of farmers and trade groups.

David Fikes, director of consumer affairs for the Food Marketing Institute, told Depillis, "We are three or four generations removed from the farm. There was a generation of people who said, 'I don't care where it comes from; I'm just glad that someone else is doing it.' That day is over and gone."

But farming isn't easy work, and there's plenty of information—or misinformation—that paints the profession in a poor light. "A lot of modern food production isn't all that pretty," Depillis writes. "People have heard about 'factory farms' and 'frankenfood' made with genetically modified organisms, which has spurred labeling campaigns all over the country. Then there are marketing campaigns like Chipotle's, which cast industrial agriculture as a dystopian world in which cows explode after being fed 'petropellets.'" 

"When food companies market their products as cleaner than others, it implies that everything else is somehow dirty," Depillis writes. "That's given rise to a focus on the word 'choice,' as if no one option were better than any other." Dallas Hockman, vice president of industrial relations for the National Pork Producers Council, told her, "It's fine to be different than your competition, but when you start saying you're better than the competition, that's the challenge. Fundamentally, people want to feel good about what they eat. Don't make me feel bad about my decision."

She writes, "The cleaner-and-better message is too much of a temptation for many farmers, though. And that's a tougher challenge than the one posed by anti-GMO activists or even the Chipotles of the world." Ben Wilson, video production manager for the FarmOn Foundation, which seeks to support young farmers, told Depillis, "It's the war we never saw coming: farmer vs. farmer. We're picking a stance because we're being asked to take a position: 'The way we're doing it is better, and therefore every other way of doing it must be bad or worse.'" (Read more)

'Trains for grains scarce on the U.S. Plains,' Reuters headlines a situation piece on the problem

Farmers in the northern Great Plains rely on railroads to carry their product, but many wheat shipments have been delayed, sometimes by weeks, because of the bad winter, competition from oil and coal shipments, and an improved economy that has increased the amount of consumer goods being shipped. Trains have been delayed by 25.5 days in North Dakota and 32.5 days in Montana, Karl Plume reports for Reuters.

"Farmers are scrambling to find storage space as they prepare to harvest the winter wheat crop in the coming weeks, and some are changing their spring crops to avoid high-yield corn, which takes up more space in silos than wheat," Plume writes. "Others are taking on the extra costs of trucking their harvest to far away markets. The trouble is now rippling through the agricultural economy, disrupting grain processing at mills and leaving cereal and food companies short of supplies."

Some grain farmers, especially in the Dakotas and Minnesota, are stuck holding their largest grain stocks in years. In some cases, millions of bushels of grain have to be kept in storage, Plume reports: "The trouble is now rippling through the agricultural economy, disrupting grain processing at mills and leaving cereal and food companies short of supplies."

A North Dakota State University study "found that rail congestion could cost farmers in the state more than $160 million because the grain glut depressed local prices: $66.6 million in lost wheat, corn and soybean revenue from January to mid-April and an expected $95.4 million more in losses if their remaining inventory gets stranded," Plume writes. (Read more)

Tests in Colo. suggest chemicals, prescription drugs enter groundwater from sewage-sludge fertilizer

A U.S. Geological Survey study published in the Journal of the American Water Resources Association found that "The application of sewage sludge as fertilizer on farm fields can leave traces of prescription drugs and household chemicals long after the biosolid has been applied to the soil," reports Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter. The study found that "Chemicals from antibacterial soaps, cleaners, cosmetics and prescription drugs like Prozac are found in greater concentrations deep in the soil and could find their way into groundwater sources."

The study, which was conducted over several years, was limited to testing in an eastern Colorado wheat field that used treated sludge from a wastewater treatment plant, Agri-Pulse writes. Researchers "cited 57 'emerging' contaminants that appear with growing regularity. They found 10 of the contaminants anywhere from seven to 50 inches down 18 months after the sludge was applied at points where the contaminants did not previously exist. Some 7 million tons of treated sewage sludge is applied to farm fields each year." The effects of the contaminates on humans and the environment is unknown. (Read more)

Animal-science and culinary-arts students and teachers form a meaty partnership in Batavia, N.Y.

For three years, culinary arts students in Batavia, N.Y., have been making meals using meat—such as chicken, eggs, lamb, pork and guinea hens—produced by their school's animal-science program. The partnership has provided a way for students to learn where their meals come from. "If you ask my students at the beginning of the year where food comes from, they say it comes from the grocery store," animal-science instructor Holly Partridge told Howard Owens of The Batavian.

Partridge and Chef Nathan Koscielski said that the collaboration of the programs is "teaching future cooks to respect the ingredients that go into their recipes and teaching future farmers about quality ingredients," Owens writes. "The farmers learn about how to raise animals properly, and the cooks learn to reuse waste in a way that is better for the planet." The cooking scraps leftover in the kitchen are fed to the pigs, lamb and chickens.

The future chefs get to see the live animals to gain a respect for the ingredients they will be using to cook. The animal-science students raise the poultry, then send it away for slaughter by professionals. After that, they show up to the kitchen to see what the Chef Koscielski and his students will cook with it. "I don't know of a college that is doing what we're doing here with the integration of the farm," Koscielski said. "Being able to work with my farmer on a daily basis—I don't get that anywhere else."

The animals are raised organically, which Koscielski said promotes a richer taste and helps the environment. "We want students to learn about organic, healthy food that leaves a small footprint on the environment," he said.

Next year, the Animal Science department plans to expand its henhouse and produce more eggs, which will be enough to provide for Koscielski's kitchen for the whole school year, and that will save money and "give kids an opportunity to run a business venture," Partridge said.

Animal-science students learn that the animals must be raised humanely if they're going to produce good meat. However, they're not pets. "I'm not getting kids coming in crying that that little pig is going to get killed for somebody to eat. I'm getting kids with the understanding that production animals that we raise, we handle different than the companion animals that we raise," Partridge said. (Read more)

Most job-growth incentives in North Carolina go to wealthy urban areas, liberal group's report finds

North Carolina spends a large portion of its business incentives on wealthy, urban areas, leaving rural areas, including the state's most distressed, with far less money to improve the local economy, Allan Freyer writes for the Budget and Tax Center, part of the left-leaning North Carolina Justice Center. About 56 percent of incentives since 2007 have gone to the urban counties that include Charlotte, Raleigh and Durham.

Freyer's report also says the state "has awarded more than triple the amount of incentive dollars to projects in the wealthiest 20 counties than projects in the state’s 40 most distressed counties," Freyer writes. "The state's incentive projects promised to create or retain two jobs in the 20 wealthiest counties in the state for every one job promised to the 40 poorest counties." North Carolina is also "paying almost twice as much in incentive dollars for each job promised in the wealthiest 20 counties than in the 40 most distressed counties." (Read more) (Center graphic: Tier 1 has the 40 most distressed counties, Tier 3 the 20 wealthiest counties)

"The report raises a practical economic question as well: Are performance-based economic incentives, as well as other tax credits for job creation in more economically distressed counties, enough to convince a company to operate in rural North Carolina?" Richard Craver reports for the Winston-Salem Journal. "In most instances, the answer has proven to be no, particularly for corporations that want an urban feel or a large population from which to draw their workforce."

Michael Walden, an economics professor at North Carolina State University, told Craver that rural residents can still benefit from urban incentives in two ways: “commuting to job opportunities provided by the new firm, or taking job openings that may arise from supplier firms that may be located in non-metro counties.” (Read more)

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Only 1/4 of job-related injuries and illnesses in agriculture show up in federal surveys, study finds

Federal surveys fail to account for  more than three-fourths of job-related injuries in agriculture, according to a study by the University of California-Davis published in the April edition of Annals of Epidemiology.

Researchers at the university counted 74,932 incidents of illness and injuries in crop production in 2011, compared to only 19,700 reported by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Peggy Lowe reports for NPR. The study also counted 68,504 injuries in livestock work in 2011, while the government reported only 12,300 injuries. Researchers also found that the National Agricultural Workers Survey and the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages reported lower numbers than the study counted.

Lead researcher Paul Leigh said government numbers were lower because they exclude small, family-owned operations. "The other two problems in under-counting are negligence by employers who fail to send in the reports and the large number of undocumented ag workers," Lowe reports. "One recent government survey found that about half of the hired workers employed in U.S. crop agriculture were undocumented, with the overwhelming majority of these workers coming from Mexico."

Government numbers also failed to include "estimates for job-related cancers, chronic pulmonary disease or circulatory diseases," Lowe writes. "Other conditions that weren't counted are asthma from grain dust or neurological problems from long-term exposure to pesticides and chemicals because they won't be diagnosed for 10 or 20 years," Leigh said. (Read more)

Human Rights Watch says children are getting sick working in tobacco fields, calls for safer practices

For families who still raise tobacco, it is fairly common for the whole family, including small children, to help with the tobacco harvest. But a report by Human Rights Watch found that children as young as 7 years old working on tobacco farms in the nation's biggest tobacco producing states, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia, are "suffering serious health problem from toiling long hours in tobacco fields to harvest pesticide-laced leaves for major cigarette brands," Charlie Campbell reports for Time. The children "get so sick that they throw up, get covered by pesticides and have no real protective gear."

Researchers interviewed 140 child workers, who reported suffering from "nausea, vomiting, headaches and other health problems associated with nicotine poisoning, known colloquially as green tobacco sickness, which is common among agricultural workers who absorb the toxic substance through their skin," Campbell writes. "On small farms, there is no minimum age set for child workers."

Kentucky state Sen. Paul Hornback, a Republican,in  "says he worked in tobacco fields from when he was 10 years old and doesn’t think further legislation is necessary." He told The Associated Press, “It’s hard manual labor, but there’s nothing wrong with hard manual labor." (Read more)

Grocery makers' group says it will sue to overturn Vermont's groundbreaking GMO labeling law

Last week Vermont became the first state to require labeling of foods made with genetically modified organisms, but the law "is widely expected to be challenged in court by some food and agriculture companies," Carey Gillam notes for Reuters

"The law, set to take effect July 1, 2016, would for the first time align at least a small part of the United States with more than 60 other countries that require labeling of genetically engineered foods," Gilliam writes. "And it sets the stage for more than two dozen other states that are currently considering mandatory labeling of such GMO foods." (Read more)

"Other states have pursued similar measures, but Vermont’s law will be the first of its kind," Niraj Chokshi reports for The Washington Post. "Connecticut and Maine passed labeling requirements but with trigger clauses requiring multiple other states to pass labeling requirements before their own go into effect. At least 25 states have considered such legislation, according to a recent report on labeling requirements from the nonprofit Council for Agricultural Science and Technology. And advocates are hopeful they will get a measure on the Oregon ballot this year." (Read more) (Council for Agricultural Science and Technology 2013 map has not been updated to include Vermont)

Food and agriculture companies have been highly critical of such laws. The Grocery Manufacturers Association, which represents cereal-maker General Mills, said Friday "it intends to sue the state to reverse the law," John Herrick reports for VTDigger, an investigative news outlet in Vermont. Attorney General Bill Sorrell told Herrick, "We're expecting to be sued and we'll put the A-team on the case if and when we are sued."

Groups who opposed GMO labeling "say GMO crops pose no risk to human health or the environment; instead, they say the law will only increase food prices and complicate interstate commerce," Herrick writes. The Grocery Manufacturers Association said in a statement: "The government therefore has no compelling interest in warning consumers about foods containing GM ingredients. In the coming weeks GMA will file suit in federal court against the state of Vermont to overturn the law." (Read more)

Last month was second warmest April on record, but U.S. temperatures remained cooler than normal

Last month was the second warmest April on record, and marked the 350th consecutive month that the world experienced above average temperatures "largely caused by the buildup of manmade greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere," Andrea Thompson reports for Climate Central. The planet's average temperature in April was 58.5 degrees, 1.3 degrees above the average from 1951 to 1980, according to data released by NASA.

However, recent temperatures in the U.S. have been been cooler than normal, with the first four months of the year "the coldest such period in the country since 1993," with an average temperature in the contiguous U.S. of 38.7 degrees, 0.4 degrees below the 20th Century average, Thompson reports. Above-average temperatures occurred in the West Coast and Southwest, while the Upper Midwest and Northern Plains had cooler-than-normal conditions. (Read more) (National Climatic Data Center map shows rank by climatological areas)

Rural disabled often struggle to make long-distance trips to receive medical care

Hospital shortages in rural areas mean patients often have to drive long distances to receive medical care. The long trip is even harder for the disabled, especially those living in impoverished areas where high gas prices make it too expensive to travel hundreds of miles for care. More than 56 percent of rural counties have disability rates above the national average of 15.3 percent, and in the rural South the rate is 18.7 percent. Of the nation's 169 counties with the highest disability rates, 159 are rural, according to data from the Census Bureau's American Community Survey from 2008 to 2012. 

In Northeast Louisiana six of the 10 rural parishes have disability rates above the national average, Cole Avery reports for The News-Star in Monroe. That necessitates some people, like Polly Smith, to drive 250 miles to New Orleans to get treatment for her daughter who needs almost constant supervision after suffering severe injuries from being hit by a car.

"The difficulty in reaching health-care providers is one of the biggest hurdles disabled people living in rural places face, according to Aliscia Banks, executive director of Families Helping Families of Northeast Louisiana," Avery writes. The organization provides resources to about 5,000 disabled people in the region, including giving out about $14,000 in gas cards last year. (Read more) (University of Montana Rural Institute map)

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Amid criticism, FCC chair revises net-neutrality plan, but a 'pay-to-play' market could still exist

"Responding to waves of criticism, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler is revising his net neutrality rule proposals to include a ban on certain types of 'fast lanes' for content companies that are willing to pay Internet service providers for the upgrade," Roger Yu reports for USA Today. "The revision, which seeks comments from the agency's other commissioners, will be circulated today as they get ready to vote Thursday on the proposals."

Last week, several major companies, including Amazon, LinkedIn, Facebook and Netflix, as well as more than 100 smaller start-ups, asked the FCC to abandon its plan to let Internet providers charge the companies for faster access to customers.

The revision "doesn't entirely ban Internet fast lanes and will leave room for some deals, including public-interest cases like a health-care company sending electrocardiography results," Yu writes. "But unlike his initial proposal last month, Wheeler is seeking to specifically ban certain types of fast lanes, including prioritization given by ISPs to their subsidiaries that make and stream content, according to an FCC official who wasn't authorized talk about the revisions publicly before the vote. The FCC would retain powers to review any prioritization deals that may pose public harm."

Not everyone is happy with the revision. "It looks like the regulators are trying to address some of the concerns, but the reported changes don't fix the basic problems," Consumers Union policy counsel Delara Derakhshani told Yu. "We're still looking at the very real possibility of a 'pay-to-play' market. That's not net neutrality. We still believe the best option for achieving net neutrality and protecting consumers is reclassifying Internet service as a telecommunications service." (Read more)

"But why should you, as someone who just wants to use the web to surf or watch programming, care whether companies like Netflix and Hulu have to pay companies like Comcast and Verizon to ensure smooth feeds?" David Carr writes in a column for The New York Times. "Well, even though consumers won’t be charged directly for the faster service, we all know where those fee increases will end up landing. I just received a notice from Netflix that the price of a new membership is rising $1, to $8.99. It’s still small money and a bargain at that, but as its costs and that of other companies go up, what had been a cheap alternative for lots of programming could start to become costly."

"Google, Facebook, Twitter and the like offer you an endless array of useful products, many of them at a cost of absolutely nothing," Carr writes. "By contrast, cable companies, which provide most of the broadband, supply an endless array of entertainment, but at a very dear price that is not going to endear them to anyone. Add in the fact that broadband providers are the ones we call when the web isn’t working — have you ever contacted Netflix when your movie was endlessly buffering? — and you can see how they get the blame for everything and credit for nothing."

"The public has an expectation that the web will work like other utilities: When people turn on a light switch, the room lights up, and when they twist a faucet handle, water comes out. People expect the same of the Internet — always on, always working," Carr writes. "We don’t want two Internets — a good one and a bad. We want the money and investment to flow toward a single infrastructure that works rapidly and efficiently, as it does in so many other countries. Given the mounting opposition, the FCC commissioners would be well advised to delay any changes this Thursday." (Read more)

Investigation finds that breeding deer for private reserves is spreading disease to livestock

A billion-dollar industry primarily devoted to breeding deer and elk that are shipped to private reserves, where the rich pay thousands of dollars to hunt the animals, is costing taxpayers millions of dollars and spreading disease to livestock, Ryan Sabalow reports for The Indianapolis Star. (Star photo by Robert Scheer: Bucks in a pen at a deer-breeding operation near Bremen, Ind.)

An investigation by the Star, which produced a four-part series, "found that captive-deer facilities have spread tuberculosis to cattle and are suspected in the spread of deadly foreign deer lice in the West," Sabalow writes. "More important, The Star's investigation uncovered compelling circumstantial evidence that the industry also has helped accelerate the spread of chronic wasting disease, an always-fatal deer disease similar to mad cow. CWD now has been found in 22 states."

"CWD's spread roughly coincides with the captive-deer industry's growth," Sabalow writes. "In half of the states where CWD was found, it first appeared in a commercial deer operation. Officials in Missouri, Nebraska, New York and Canada think captive deer or elk introduced the disease to the wild."

Because there's no reliable way to test for CWD, infected deer can be shipped to disease-free states, where they infect other animals, Sabalow writes. "The Star's investigation uncovered examples of deer escaping from farms, shoddy recordkeeping and meager penalties for those caught breaking the rules, which further undermine state and federal efforts to contain the disease. Plus, in less than a decade, more than a dozen people have been charged with smuggling live deer across state lines."

That's led to an industry "made up of at least 10,000 farms and hunting preserves in the U.S. and Canada, a boutique business that's part livestock and part wildlife and often falls into a regulatory gap between agriculture and natural resource agencies," Sabalow writes. "And, when it comes to hunting deer in fenced preserves, the owners are often free to set their own rules."

"The Star investigation found that more than half the states that allow high-fence hunting provide little or no oversight of how deer and elk are killed," Sabalow writes. "So, while the killing of livestock is governed by humane slaughter rules, and the taking of wildlife is governed by hunting laws, anything goes on preserves in most states. The industry counters criticism of this fact by saying the market regulates itself, that hunters naturally eschew unethical behavior." (Read more)

The 18-month investigation also looked at breeding big-antlered deer, an in-depth look at deer hunting preserves, and a look at what could happen if preserve owners make the rules. The investigation also led to the leader of Indiana's Senate to call "for a summer study session to discuss the disease risks associated with Indiana's nearly 400 deer farms, and address the decades-long legislative and legal stalemate over high-fence hunting," Sabalow writes. (Read more)

Pending bills could permanently ban horse slaughterhouses, foreign sales for consumption

Horse slaughterhouses could soon be permanently banned in the U.S. under pending legislation, which also bans foreign sales of horses for human consumption, reports Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter. "Currently, under the fiscal year 2014 omnibus appropriations bill, companies are effectively banned from conducting horse slaughter operations in the nation until Sept. 30. That legislation, however, did not ban the sales of horses to Canada and Mexico."

The Senate bill, introduced by Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) "has 28 co-sponsors from both parties and is awaiting action in the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee," Agri-Pulse notes. "The House bill, offered by Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.), has 170 co-sponsors and was referred to three committees. Meehan and other lawmakers recently requested that the House Appropriations Committee reinstate the temporary ban in the FY 2015 agriculture appropriations bill."

Former Congressman Charlie Stenholm (D-Texas), who has lobbied in favor of horse slaughterhouses, estimated that there are about 50,000 wild horses, mostly on public lands, with many of them turned loose because people couldn't afford to care for them, Agri-Pulse reports. He said euthanizing and burying a horse can cost between $400 to $2,000, compared to the $500 an owner could get for selling the house to a slaughterhouse.

The Humane Society of the United States said that 92 percent of horses sent to slaughterhouses were still healthy and could serve practical uses, and that 80 percent of Americans disapprove of horse slaughterhouses. (Read more)

Democrat urges GOP Tenn. governor to veto lingering, watered-down version of meth bill

The leader of the Tennessee state Senate's Democratic minority is urging Republican Gov. Bill Haslam to veto a watered-down version of the governor's own legislation designed to curb methamphetamine production by limiting purchases of pseudoephedrine, reports The Associated Press. Kyle said Monday that "the bill passed by the Legislature did not go far enough to put a dent in makeshift meth labs around the state."

The Senate passed a bill limiting purchases to 4.8 grams per month and 14.4 grams per year without a prescription, while a House bill set limits of 5.8 and 28.8 grams, "which is the equivalent of about five months' worth of the maximum dosage of medicines like Sudafed," AP notes. Haslam wanted stronger restrictions. When the two sides couldn't agree, the measure went to a conference committee, and Senate negotiators agreed to the House bill. It has been sitting on Haslam's desk for nearly a month. (Read more)

Iowa editor fired for anti-gay post on personal blog

Bob Eschliman
The editor of a community newspaper in Iowa was fired recently for making disparaging remarks on his personal blog about religion, homosexuality and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

Bob Eschliman was fired as editor of the Newton Daily News for an April 29 blog posting in which he wrote: "I’d like to talk a little bit about deceivers among us, most notably the LGBTQXYZ crowd and the Gaystapo effort to reword the Bible to make their sinful nature 'right with God'."

Eschliman referred to a website about a book called the Queen James Bible, which "seeks to resolve interpretive ambiguity in the Bible as it pertains to homosexuality" by editing eight verses in a way that makes homophobic interpretations impossible, according to the site.

Eschliman wrote: "The editors are very keen to let folks know they didn’t remove passages from the Bible, but instead reworded them to 'make it more relevant.' Calling other versions of the Bible 'anti-LGBT versions,' the editors are very clear about their intent. They want to erase all references to sodomy as a sin." Eschliman also used the term "homo."

John Rung, president of Shaw Media, which owns the Daily News, wrote in a column for the paper: "The First Amendment does not eliminate responsibility and accountability for one’s words and actions. Last week (Eschliman) expressed an opinion on his personal blog that in no way reflects the opinion of the Newton Daily News or Shaw Media," Rung writes. "While he is entitled to his opinion, his public airing of it compromised the reputation of this newspaper and his ability to lead it." (Read more)

The newspaper has received several letters in support of the firing and in support of Eschliman. To read the paper's letters section, click here.

Registration deadline for Rural Health Journalism Workshop is May 28; free with AHCJ membership

The Association of Health Care Journalists has scheduled its seventh annual Rural Health Journalism Workshop for June 6 in Portland, Oregon. The free workshop, which is only open to members who pay the yearly $60 membership fee, will focus on covering health stories in rural America.

Topics include: The rural health landscape: Meeting the people, meeting the challenges; Telemedicine: Technology triumphs and regulation challenges; The aging of rural physicians and the next generation of care; How the ACA impacts rural health care; and Poor oral health: What's the cost?

The workshop, hosted by Oregon Health & Science University and sponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Missouri Foundation for Health, will run from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the DoubleTree by Hilton and will include lunch and dinner. Some travel assistance is available. The deadline to register is May 28. For more information or to register click here.

Conference to look at ways to combine arts and agriculture set for Sept. 3-5 in Greensboro, N,C.

Combining arts and agriculture to boost rural economies is the focus of a three-day conference Sept. 3-5 in Greensboro, N.C. Sponsored by Art-Force and the National Rural Assembly, the conference, "Cross-Currents: Art + Agriculture Powering Rural Economies" includes "dialogue, workshops and exploration of how partnerships between the creative arts and agriculture are producing innovative strategies for economic development and well-being in rural communities," according to its website.

The conference will allow participants to "highlight successful models of the arts as connector, developer, facilitator, and economic generators, build a compelling case for more creative and leading edge rural revitalization strategies, and offer examples of how to build collaboration, capacity, and value among food advocates, agricultural producers, artists and designers, planners, and community leaders," states the website.

The registration fee is $190. For more information or to register for the event, click here.

Monday, May 12, 2014

As a near-miss inflames debate, uncontrolled use of drones is 'a modern version of the Wild West'

The number of drones flying the friendly skies is increasing. In March, a commercial jet pilot reported that he nearly collided with a drone, inflaming arguments between the Federal Aviation Administration and drone users about the legality of drone use and what the future holds for unmanned aircrafts, Jack Nicas and Andy Pasztor report for The Wall Street Journal. To make matters worse, some drone users have shown an unwillingness to follow any rules, and the FAA has not served as an effective enforcer. (3D Robotics Inc. drone)

"Some proponents of unmanned aircraft worry that the near-collision could spark a public backlash and perhaps spur U.S. and state regulators to impose tougher restrictions than drone users claim are necessary," Nicas and Pasztor write. "The FAA plans to propose in November, several years later than initially projected, new rules on how small drones could be used legally for commercial purposes. It could take several more years for the rules to become final."

In February the FAA said commercial drone use is illegal, but it doesn't have the ability to enforce the rule. In March, a federal judge dismissed an FAA fine for drone use, and the ruling made it appear that flying commercial drones below 400 feet is legal. Drones have been used in rural journalism, by colleges and law enforcement, and by the energy industry.

Matt Waite, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor who runs a drone-journalism program that got a cease-and-desist letter from the FAA last year, told the Journal that the fear is that the "longer it takes to have the rules of the road in place, the more the technology advances and the cheaper it gets, the closer we get to some knucklehead doing something dumb and hurting someone."

The FAA seems to be allowing drone use in farming because they consider farmers hobbyists, Nicas and Pasztor write. The FAA's attempts to enforce rules have been ineffective. For example, in January the FAA emailed an Orlando drone company that films concerts and television commercials to say they were violating FAA policy. The owner said he ignored the email, and the FAA has yet to follow up.

One federal official told the Journal: "Fewer and fewer people seem deterred by threats. Nobody is asking the FAA how to proceed, so it's turned into a modern version of the Wild West where some people think anything is OK."

The FAA "estimates there could be as many as 7,500 drones in U.S. skies within five years of the new rules. People in the unmanned aircraft industry say that estimate is far too low," Nicas and Pasztor write. Chris Anderson, chief executive of California drone maker 3D Robotics Inc. said "he sells about 2,000 autopilot systems a month to customers around the world who want to build their own drones." Anderson noted that one Chinese company sells at least 10 times that many. (Read more)

Wall Street Journal looks at rural hospitals' problems related to Obamacare, lack of Medicaid expansion

"Rural hospitals have long been under financial pressure from the rising cost of providing health care, the dwindling number of patients staying overnight and the shift of more profitable services like cardiac care to bigger medical centers," Valerie Bauerlein reports for The Wall Street Journal. "Now, the Obama administration, saying that some rural hospitals have been receiving subsidies they weren't meant to get, has proposed eliminating a further $2.1 billion in Medicare payments next fiscal year for hospitals designated as providing 'crucial access." (WSJ graphic)

Some rural hospitals in states that chose not to expand Medicaid under federal health reform have struggled to stay open. A rural Tennessee hospital recently announced it's shutting its doors, while four rural Georgia hospitals have closed in the past year. Because those states chose not to expand Medicaid, hospitals are losing government subsidies for providing care to the uninsured.

"Health advocates say a disproportionate number of working poor people who might qualify for Medicaid after an expansion live in rural areas and may have trouble getting treatment," Bauerlein writes. "Rural hospitals are particularly sensitive to changes in Medicare and Medicaid payments because about 60 percent of their revenue comes from the government, according to the American Hospital Association."

That's bad news for rural residents in places like Belhaven, N.C., where city leaders are trying to find $3 million to take over the local hospital from its owner, who has said the hospital will close this summer, Bauerlein writes. The hospital serves fewer than 20 people per day, but it is the town's largest employer, and the closest emergency room is 75 miles away. North Carolina didn't expand Medicaid. (Read more)

10 Alabama hospitals shuttered in past three years

In the past three years, 10 Alabama hospitals have closed, including Chilton Medical Center, Infirmary West and Southwest Alabama Medical Center. Seventeen have shuttered since 2000. Although these closings can be partially attributed to outpatient treatments, improved technology and other things that reduce pricey inpatient stays, "Recently there are extreme pressures on hospital budgets related to the health care reforms, Medicare cuts, the lack of Medicaid expansion and Alabama's peculiar health-care landscape that are pushing hospitals, especially those in rural areas, to the brink," Mike Oliver writes for Alabama Media Group.

Glenn Sisks, CEO of Coosa Valley Medical Center, agreed that the lack of Medicaid expansion are putting pressure on hospital budgets. "The problem associated with [the lack of Medicaid expansion] goes back to the passage of the Affordable Care Act bill several years ago," Sisks said. This creates not only a financial problem but also a public health issue. "We are generally treating ER's as primary care office settings. It's very expensive, and it also causes people to delay care," Sisks said.

In 2012, 22 rural hospitals were operating with a negative margin, and the average operating margin was 1.1 percent. According to the Alabama Hospital Association, hospitals gain 38 percent of their money from Medicare, 20 percent from Medicaid, 31 percent from commercial and 12 percent from other. Sisks said another concern is Alabama's low wage index, which assists in regulating Medicare reimbursement rates. Now Medicare dollars have been cut.

According to Dr. Will Ferniany, CEO of UAB Health System, UAB "gets about 67 cents on every patient dollar spent on Medicaid," Oliver writes. "To make ends meets, hospitals have to squeeze what they can out of the commercial insurance side, which in Alabama is primarily the formidable Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Alabama, which has major market share and is quick to point out it has had some of the lowest premium rates in the country."

Dr. Allen Perkins, chairman of Department of Family Medicine at the University of South Alabama and president of the Alabama Rural Health Association, said the state needs a health care infrastructure. "We need care delivery, but we don't need all care to be provided by hospitals, and we don't need hospitals to provide every service. . . . Optimistically, what I see happening is the leadership in the state comes to understand that without health-care infrastructure, we cannot recruit industry," Perkins said. "Pessimistically, I see a lot of hospitals closing." (Read more)

EPA might at last require frackers to reveal chemicals

The Environmental Protection Agency is creating stricter rules for U.S. oil and gas drilling. On Friday, EPA announced that it may eventually require hydraulic fracturing companies to reveal to the government—and maybe even to the public—which chemicals they use, Lindsay Abrams writes for Salon.

Even though these chemicals can end up in drinking water, fracking companies do not have to say which chemicals they use because they're "trade secrets." Some companies lost their fracking fluids on, but critics are not impressed. "We want to be sure that there is some agency that is actually collecting this information about what is being used in these shale plays across the country," Deborah Goldberg, a lawyer at Earthjustice, said. "The disclosure we are getting right now is spotty.

Also, the EPA said it's considering "incentives and recognition programs that could be used to support the development and use of safer chemicals in hydraulic fracturing." (Read more)

Reported oil and gas spills at production sites rose by 17% in 2013, according to available data

Reported spills at oil and gas production sites went up 17 percent in 2013. The number of spills rose from 6,546 in 2012 to 7,662 last year in the 15 top states for onshore oil and gas activity, Mike Soraghan reports for EnergyWire. The spills accounted for "more than 26 million gallons of oil, hydraulic fracturing fluid, fracking wastewater and other substances."

The data is not 100 percent accurate because some states only report certain spills, and other states opt not to report any, Soraghan writes. "Some of the increase may have come from changes in spill reporting practices in a handful of states, but the number of spills and other mishaps rose even without counting those states." (EnergyWire map)

The biggest increase was in the North Dakota Bakken Shale region, where spills rose by 42 percent from 2012 to 2013 even though the state's average number of working rigs dropped by 8 percent, Soraghan writes. Most of the spills were from smaller, newer companies.

"Pennsylvania had a 60 percent increase in spills paired with a 30 percent decrease in rig activity. But industry and state officials say the increase is attributable to a lower spill reporting threshold in place for the last three months of the year," Soraghan writes. Statistics may also be skewed in Utah, where reported spills doubled to more than 400 in 2013, but 150 of those resulted from one company's reporting incidents of flaring, which the state doesn't require to be reported. (Read more)

BLM has failed to inspect thousands of high-risk oil wells, according to a congressional investigation

"The government has failed to inspect thousands of oil and gas wells it considers potentially high risks for water contamination and other environmental damage, congressional investigators say," Hope Yen reports for The Associated Press. Investigators from the bipartisan Government Accountability Office of Congress said weak control by the Bureau of Land Management "resulted from policies based on outdated science and from incomplete monitoring data."

Investigators, who reviewed oil and gas wells in Arkansas, California, Colorado, Louisiana, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, West Virginia and Wyoming, found that BLM "failed to conduct inspections on more than 2,100 of the 3,702 wells that it had specified as 'high priority' and drilled from 2009 through 2012," Yen writes. The agency, which had yet to indicate whether another 1,784 wells were high priority or not, "considers a well 'high priority' based on a greater need to protect against possible water contamination and other environmental safety issues."

"The report said BLM has not reviewed or updated many of its oil and gas rules to reflect technological advances as required by a 2011 executive order," Yen writes. "They include guidance on spacing of wells, which the report said could help maximize oil and gas production." (Read more)

Hands-on programs allow rural students to raise livestock that will end up in the schools' cafeterias

Budget cuts and declining student populations are leading some rural school districts to implement hands-on agriculture classes, where student-raised livestock and student-grown produce eventually turn up in the school cafeteria, Steven Yaccino reports for The New York Times. "A high school in Montague, Mich., has student-raised chicken on its menu. Another, in Willits, Calif., serves campus-bred pork. Pupils in other districts throughout the Midwest are growing crops or garden produce for a letter grade before eating the fruits of their labor when the lunch bell rings." (NYT photo by Maddie McGarvey: Near Hagerstown, Ind., Nettle Creek School Corp. Supt. William Doering visits a hands-on agriculture program)

Stefonie Sebastian, education specialist at Future Farmers of America, told Yaccino, “As budgets keep getting cut, we keep looking to more creative ways. Agriculture programs used to be on the chopping block. Now we’re seeing it as a way to get things done at the school.”

In the Nettle Creek school district in Hagerstown, Ind., which has lost about 66 of its 1,000 students since 2010, and was forced to cut $350,000 from its budget, a hands-on agriculture program is paying off big time, Yaccino writes. The school's cattle program is "expected to save at least $2,000 in annual cafeteria costs and expand vocational training," and schools will have more meat than they can consume. That means schools can sell the excess meat to purchase more livestock.

"In lieu of a classroom, students built a fence around 10 acres of school land," Yaccino writes. "The district is still looking to hire a new teacher to run the cattle course, which will be open to sophomores, juniors and seniors. If all goes as planned, the first herd of six Angus cross and one Hereford—bought with donations from local banks and members of the community—will be slaughtered this fall with the help of a butcher who volunteered to stock school freezers." (Read more)