Saturday, May 31, 2014

House Republican leaders consider cutting Saturday mail to replenish nearly depleted highway fund

UPDATE, June 9: Lisa Rein of The Washington Post reports Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe's endorsement of the plan and says Saturday mail is "the biggest sticking point for congressional Democrats and many Republicans who represent rural districts. More than three dozen House Republicans have signed a resolution calling on the Postal Service to maintain six-day delivery. But GOP leaders are hoping that their members’ interest in keeping highway projects in their districts flowing during the fall campaign will trump their concern about the cut to mail service."

UPDATE, June 3: David Cullen of Fleet Owner reports the plan "appears en route, but fast, to the dead-letter office. . . . A bipartisan majority of at least 220 members has already signaled approval of a House resolution that states USPS 'should take all appropriate measures to ensure the continuation of its six-day mail delivery service'." Cullen cites a report from Adam Snider of Politico suggesting that we not forget “what happened two years ago when a move to cut transit [funds] from the HTF backfired and House members were left passing a shell bill with streamlining provisions just to get to a conference with the Senate.”

"House Republican leaders are preparing a proposal to replenish the Highway Trust Fund by limiting what mail the U.S. Postal Service would deliver on Saturdays, according to a memo sent to GOP lawmakers." So reports Kristina Peterson of The Wall Street Journal, linking two issues of much rural interest: a looming shortfall in the highway fund and the wish of the postal service and the Obama administration to save money by limiting first-class mail to five days a week.

"One proposal under consideration by GOP leaders would end delivery of first-class mail, catalogs, advertising circulars, and other lower-priority mail on Saturdays to save an estimated $10.7 billion over 10 years. The postal service would still deliver packages, including medications and both priority and express mail on Saturdays and post offices would remain open," Peterson writes. "GOP leaders are also considering transferring funds from the Leaking Underground Storage Tank trust fund," which is financed by a 0.1-cent-per-gallon tax on fuel.

Both measures might be needed. "Between $14 billion and $15 billion is needed to fund a one-year extension of the highway bill, according to the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee staff, based on estimates from the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office," Peterson writes. "The proposal is likely to encounter some resistance on both sides of the aisle." (Read more)

Friday, May 30, 2014

'Quiet crisis' is confronting agriculture, as amount of farmland continues to decrease

The amount of U.S. farmland is decreasing at a rapid rate, "with the country losing three acres of farmland every minute," at a time when experts say more land will be needed to grow enough food to feed the world, reports Agri-Pulse, a Washington newsletter. The recently released Census of Agriculture reports that American farmland dropped from 987 million acres in 1982 to 914.5 million acres in 2012, and "The U.S. is losing farmland at a fairly rapid pace to strip malls, parking lots, highways and other forms of development." (Census of Agriculture graphic)
Some say those numbers don't tell the whole story. Andrew McElwaine, president and CEO of American Farmland Trust, said the Census of Agriculture "doesn’t track the changes in land use such as losses to development or highlight the crops most likely to be lost," saying that more than 90 percent of fruits and nearly 80 percent of vegetables "are grown on farmland under pressure from development." McElwaine told Agri-Pulse, “Since 1982, we’ve converted 24.1 million acres—an area the size of Indiana and Rhode Island combined.”

Every state saw rural land developed from 2007 to 2010, regardless of statewide increases or decreases in farmland, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Agri-Pulse reports, "All 19 states with land-in-farms increases in the 2012 census also developed 'significant acres of rural land,' according to the AFT."Russ Shay, director of public policy at the Land Trust Alliance, told Agri-Pulse, “This is a crisis, but it’s a quiet crisis. We lose farmland one farm at a time. We lose primarily smaller farms. People don’t see it.”

Most states have programs to encourage preservation of farmland, but there is no nationwide program. Agri-Pulse reports, "Through May 2013, 27 states had state-level purchase-of-agricultural-conservation-easement programs, protecting almost 2.4 million acres of farmland, according to the AFT Farmland Information Center’s report. . . . The 2014 Farm Bill may offer some hope in helping save the nation’s farmland. On May 1, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced a new Agricultural Conservation Easements Program, making $366 million in funds available to protect farmland through easements. And more hope lies in a tax-extenders bill currently under consideration in Congress, which increases the incentives for farmers and ranchers to enroll agricultural land in easements." Agri-Pulse is subscription only, but a free trial is available by clicking here.

State takeovers of financially strapped schools, districts can lead to closures and consolidation

When financial trouble plagues American schools, 29 states have the ability to take control of districts, and 23 can take over individual schools, often leading to school closings and consolidation, Adrienne Lu reports for Stateline. "Since New Jersey became the first state to take over a school district (Jersey City) in 1989, about 50 school districts nationwide have been taken over or reorganized by states, whether for financial reasons, academic reasons or both."

The New York state comptroller's office found that 13 percent of school districts were “operating with dangerously low or nonexistent fund balances, chronic operating deficits and extremely limited cash on hand,” Lu writes. In California "eight school districts have negative certifications, meaning that based on current projections, the school districts will not meet their financial obligations for fiscal 2014 or 2015. Another 41 school districts may run out of money by fiscal 2016."

The Michigan Department of Education, which closed two schools last year, "is currently monitoring another 46 school districts in financial trouble; each district must submit a plan to eliminate its budget deficit within two years after the state has approved the plan," Lu writes.

But some states, such as Michigan, "have adopted emergency provisions to help struggling school districts out of a bind, including allowing them in some cases to break or renegotiate union contracts," Lu writes. Idaho has a similar law. (Read more)

More carbon dioxide might reduce crops' nutrients

A new study led by Harvard School of Public Health found that crops that traditionally provide people with much of their dietary zinc and iron will contain less of those nutrients in the coming years, particularly by 2050, due to a predicted rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide. About two billion people deal with zinc and iron deficiencies, "resulting in a loss of 63 million life years annually from malnutrition," Harvard reports. The study was published May 7 in the journal Nature

The researchers studied data from 41 genotypes of grains and legumes from seven locations that used free-air carbon-dioxide enrichment technology, which lets plants grow in fields with increased levels of CO2. Then they tested edible parts of wheat, rice, maize, sorghum, soybeans and field peas. The results showed that "Zinc, iron and protein concentrations in wheat . . . were reduced by 9.3 percent, 5.1 percent and 6.3 percent respectively, compared with what grown at ambient CO2. Zinc and iron were also significantly reduced in legumes; protein was not," Harvard reports.

The researchers estimated that 2 to 3 billion people get at least 70 percent of their dietary zinc and/or iron from C3 crops, such as wheat, rice, soybeans and field peas; this is especially common in the developing world in places where zinc and iron deficiency are already problems. One result that surprised the researchers was that zinc and iron concentrations were not consistent throughout the rice. "That finding suggests that there could be an opportunity to bread reduced sensitivity to the effect of elevated CO2 into crop cultivars in the future," Harvard reports.

Samuel Myers, a research scientist in Harvard's Department of Environmental Health and the study's lead author, said that growing genotypes with less sensitivity to CO2, bio-fortifying crops with iron and zinc, and providing nutritional supplements for people affected by deficiencies, are all potential ways to help. "Humanity is conducting a global experiment by rapidly altering the environmental conditions on the only habitable planet we know. As this experiment unfolds, there will undoubtedly be many surprises," Myers said. "Finding out that rising CO2 threatens human nutrition is one such surprise." (Read more)

Senate panel OKs keeping horse slaughter ban

The Senate Appropriations Committee's recently passed agriculture appropriations bill includes an amendment prohibiting the U.S. Department of Agriculture from inspecting horse slaughterhouses, which would continue the horse-slaughterhouse ban in the omnibus budget bill passed earlier this year.

The committee approved the amendment, introduced by Sens. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), by an 18 to 12 vote, the American Horse Council reports. The ban was first enacted via an appropriations bill in 2007, but expired in 2011. Other legislation would put the ban into law, eliminating the need for annual appropriations language.

Red and blue states find common ground on election reform: online and same-day registration

Though partisan debates over election laws continue, it appears there may be a trend toward compromise. This year some states altered voting laws to permit people to vote online or to allow same-day registration, and once Illinois finishes making changes to its online system, more than 100 million eligible voters—about half the voters in the nation—will be in states that offer online registration, Jake Grovum writes for Stateline.

"In 2011 and 2012, there was a wave of restrictive laws that were passed," said Jonathan Brater, lawyer for the Brennan Center for Justice's Democracy Program. "We're certainly optimistic that more states are going to be moving to make voting easier." This year most of the focus has been on creating online voting opportunities.

Same-day registration has been approved in 10 states and the District of Columbia, and Hawaii may approve it soon as well. Proponents say allowing voters to register to vote on the same day increases voter turnout ("States that allow same-day registration consistently lead the nation in voter participation," says Demos, a voting-rights lobby), helps lower-income citizens, young voters and voters of color. Advocates also say it is cost-effective.

Republicans who once opposed same-day registration are getting used to the idea. In Utah, legislators mobilized a pilot project. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act may even play a role in this discussion. Some states allow people to register through their insurance exchanges. (Read more)

N.C. getting law to encourage drilling and fracking, make disclosure of fracking chemicals a crime

A North Carolina bill that would make it a crime to disclose trade secrets related to hydraulic fracturing passed the state House and Senate Thursday and now goes before Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, who is expected to sign it into law, Mike Lee reports for EnergyWire.

"The Energy Modernization Act originally would have made it a felony to disclose fracking chemicals," Lee writes. "The state Senate had already reduced that to a misdemeanor" before passing it 33-12; the bill passed the House by 64-50. (Read more)

Fracking permits could be issued beginning in the spring of 2015, Bruce Henderson reports for the Charlotte Observer. "Democrats fought in vain to add provisions on air emissions, drilling-worker housing, disposal of fracking wastes and public disclosure of fracking chemicals. They debated at length a part of the bill that calls for further study of 'forced pooling' in which the property of unwilling owners can be tapped." That is common in major oil and gas states.

McCrory, who praised the bill, said in a statement: “We have sat on the sidelines as a state for far too long on gas exploration and having North Carolina create jobs and also help with our country’s energy independence. Instead we are pumping in natural gas from other states. So we are all using that natural gas, but for whatever reason we are thinking if we do it here, it’s wrong, but if we take it from someplace else, it’s right. That’s very hypocritical.” (Read more)

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Two more N. Cal. counties to vote on secession map
UPDATE, JUNE 4: "Fifty-nine percent of Del Norte County voters rejected the secessionist measure in unofficial returns Tuesday. In Tehama County, a secessionist proposal was leading by 53 percent, with votes continuing to be tallied Wednesday," reports The Associated Press. "A similar but unrelated question on the ballot in Siskiyou County, to rename it the Republic of Jefferson, failed with only 44 percent of voters in favor."

Residents in two conservative, rural counties in Northern California will vote Tuesday "whether they should support a proposed move to secede from California and form a breakaway state of Jefferson" with part of Oregon, Lee Romney and Veronica Rocha report for the Los Angeles Times. Some residents of Del Norte and Tehama counties, which have about 91,000 people, have complained "about overregulation, lack of representation and a culture clash with urban areas."

California's Siskiyou County voted in September to form Jefferson. Since then "elected officials in Glenn, Modoc, Siskiyou and Yuba counties already voted to join the movement," while supervisors in Butte County will vote June 10, The Associated Press reports.

The region has 11 counties that share one state senator, compared to 20 senators for the greater Los Angeles area and 10 for the San Francisco Bay Area, Del Norte County resident Aaron Funk told AP. Funk said, "Essentially, we have no representation whatsoever.”

"The counties that could opt in—as many as 16, according to supporters—make up more than a quarter of the state’s land mass but only a small portion of its population," AP writes. "The seven counties that have voted or will this month have a combined geographic area twice the size of New Hampshire, with about 467,000 residents." (Read more) The least populated state, Wyoming, has an estimated 583,000 residents.

Judge allows Tenn. town to change its name a second time, to Rocky Top, at developer's behest

A federal judge has declined to issue an injunction preventing the Tennessee town of Lake City from changing its name to Rocky Top to take advantage of the strong identity of the Bluegrass tune that is the fight song of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

Google map: Lake City is pinned, Rocky Top is starred
The city council voted yesterday to start the process of changing the name, after U.S. District Judge Thomas Varlan ruled against House of Bryant, the music publishing company founded by the late Boudleaux and Felice Bryant, who wrote the song in the Great Smoky Mountains town of Gatlinburg in 1967. Lake City, population 1,800, lies between the Cumberland Mountains and the westernmost arm of Norris Lake, the first Tennessee Valley Authority project. The town was called Coal Creek before the lake was impounded in the mid-1930s.

The state legislature and Gov. Bill Haslam have already enacted a law allowing the change, which is being sought by a developer. "Rocky Top Tennessee Marketing and Manufacturing Co. . . . has proposed a development that could be worth up to $450 million over six years and include an indoor and outdoor water park, coal miners’ theater, children’s museum, train rides, restaurant, and a candy company on some 300 acres near two exits off Interstate 75," reports John Huotari of Oak Ridge Today. "Officials have said it could bring 200 new jobs to Lake City and generate another $6 million in sales tax per year. But the project hinges on the name change."

The music publishing firm filed suit in March, saying the name change “is an attempt to unfairly exploit the fame and goodwill of House of Bryant’s intellectual property.” The suit also alleges trademark infringement, false advertising, unlawful taking, deceptive trade practices and unfair competition. "Varlan ruled that Lake City likely would not infringe on House of Bryant's copyright because the town does not intend to use the name for commercial purposes," reports Travis Loller of The Associated Press. "Varlan also denied a request to put the brakes on the developers' plans, saying it was too early to issue an injunction on proposals that may never come to fruition."

House of Bryant contends that the name change would open the door to commercial exploitation of the name because it would make Rocky Top "merely a geographic reference," Loller reports. The suit says the song refers to "a fictional or idyllic place," though a peak in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park bears the name.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

House panel OKs bill that would allow schools losing money on lunches to opt out of federal rules

A U.S. House committee approved today a bill that would allow some school districts to opt out of school-lunch nutrition rules strongly promoted by Michelle Obama.

"From vending-machine junk-food labels to the merits of fresh white potatoes in the diet of low-income mothers and their young children, nutrition items dominated the meeting" of the House Appropriations Committee, reports David Rogers of Politico. "But the school meals fight drew the most attention, given the first lady’s prominence, and the key 29-22 committee vote followed a spirited debate that approached two hours."

Because Republicans control the committee, "the outcome was never in doubt," Rogers notes. "But Democrats did win a pledge from Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), the bill’s manager, that he doesn’t intend for the waiver to become permanent law and will consider revisions to make that clearer." Aderholt said, "I do think that Mrs. Obama is well-intentioned, and I don’t mean to be disrespectful to her program. I’m not sure she recognizes the fuller impact in greater America."

School Nutrition Association President Leah Schmidt said after the vote, "We appreciate the House Appropriations Committee’s support for this waiver to give temporary needed relief to some schools across the country. This will not halt the progress in school cafeterias; it is a temporary reprieve to allow schools to catch up."

The food and agriculture appropriations bill "requires a school district to show only that it has operated at a loss for six months in trying to meet the standards," Rogers notes, quoting Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.):  “If I were a school district and I wanted to find a way to save money and not comply, you could drive a food truck through this amendment.” Actually, the amendment By Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.) was to take out the subcommittee-approved provision, Alyson Klein of Education Week points out.

The bill also "opens the door for fresh potatoes — not chips or fries — to qualify for purchases under the supplemental nutrition program for women, infants and young children," Rogers reports.

New Georgia law targeting Obamacare prohibits Extension Service navigators who help enrollment

It's no secret that some states do not like the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Recently Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal signed two bills that not only thwart the law but make it more difficult for the Peach State to expand Medicaid anytime soon. House Bill 990 transfers Medicaid expansion authority from the governor's office to lawmakers, while HB 943 "restricts state and local agencies and their employees from advocating for Medicaid expansion" and "bans the creation of a state health insurance exchange," writes Andrea Flynn of the liberal Roosevelt Institute.

The second bill, HB 943, will also prevent the College of Family and Consumer Sciences at the University of Georgia from continuing its navigator program to help Georgians get Obamacare coverage once the federal grant of $1.7 million runs out in August, Andy Miller writes for Georgia Health News.

Although Georgia did not expand Medicaid eligibility to people earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, poor people who qualified for it and PeachCare, a state program, could still sign up. "Georgia cannot afford for our Medicaid rolls to swell. Otherwise, we start cutting into the education budget, the transportation budget and the public safety budget," Rep. Jason Spencer, sponsor of HB 943, told Georgia Health News.

The navigator program sought to educate people about the law, to help them sign up for Medicaid or for coverage on the national exchange. "People who had never had insurance and hadn't had insurance in a long time got affordable, high-quality insurance," Deborah Murray, the college's associate dean for Extension and outreach, told The Rural Blog. "People were so appreciative and relieved to know they could now afford health care."

Only a few other states have navigator programs based in universities, such as Arkansas and Florida. Murray said she knew the law wasn't popular in Georgia, but she still didn't expect the kind of political opposition that arose in the legislature. "The role of the university is to educate," Murray said. "What we were doing is really education focused: giving people the information they needed to make informed decisions."

After the grant runs out, Murray said the university's Cooperative Extension Service and its county offices will continue its mission to educate and inform. "Educating the public about health-insurance literacy is part of the Extension and land-grant mission of the university, and we will continue to do that," Murray said. "Helping people understand health insurance and use it properly will help reduce health care costs."

Some rural grocers survive, thrive in a struggling market that has been overrun by large chain stores

Some small-town grocery stores are making a comeback, but it hasn't been easy to keep up in an economy that has brought many rural grocers to close their doors, while chains like Wal-Mart and Target keep popping up in rural towns or close enough that they are the only viable option for many local residents.

Photo: Christopher Gannon/Des Moines Register
One such store that has thrived has been Mulholland's, a family-run store in Malvern, Iowa, that opened in the 1870s. The store, which has 11 employees, sees about $1 million in sales annually, Marco Santana reports for The Des Moines Register. Owner Tom Mullholland said the store has been successful because it "has diversified its products, offering a meat market, grocery store and catering business all under one roof. That variety, his meat counter's reputation and the competitive prices draw people from outside of Malvern." Changes became easier when the store won a $10,000 statewide entrepreneurial competition.

But small-town grocery stores offer more than just food. They are gathering places for community members and are often supporters of the community, Santana writes. A good example is in Humeston, Iowa, where residents 10 years ago built a grocery store from scratch, raising $300,000 for the business.

"Their efforts reflect many of the reasons some industry experts say rural grocery stores have been able to stave off a brutal decline and have leveled off its numbers," Santana writes. "The store serves as an economic engine, a meeting place and a point of pride." Residents say at least 14 new businesses have opened a direct result of the grocery store.

The two stores might be a rarity Iowa. The Center for Rural Affairs conducted a study in 2010 that found that in the state from 1995 to 2005, the number of grocery stores fell by half, while Target and Wal-Mart increased their numbers175 percent, Santana writes. While no studies have been released since, the Iowa Grocery Industry Association "says it has 191 rural independent members today, up from 145 in 2004. But officials say that could be just as much a result of efforts to recruit members to the association as a growth in rural stores." (Read more)

Veterans with PTSD find comfort on the farm

Berea College photo: Growing Warriors
participating in Grow Appalachia program
Recent veterans, many of whom are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, have found comfort in farming, where they can get outside instead of being stuck in the cramped confines of an office, Nancy Marshall-Genzer reports for Marketplace.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which says 45 percent of service members are from rural areas, has begun creating farming programs for veterans, such as Growing Warriors, based on a 286-acre spread in Eastern Kentucky. Farm manager Kevin Lanzi, a former Marine suffering from PTSD, told Marshall-Genzer, “I finally found farming, and ever since I’ve never looked back. Just seeing what you’re making. The responsibility is all you. It’s awesome.” West Virginia has a similar program called the the West Virginia Veterans and Warriors to Agriculture Project.

Craig Bryan, head of the National Center for Veterans Studies at the University of Utah, says farming can offer temporary relief from PTSD although therapy is still required. He told Marshall-Genzer, “They’re distracted. They’re engaged in something that’s fun, and they don’t necessarily have to think about or it’s easier to avoid those memories and thoughts of the traumatic event." (Read more)

A post office inside a store is better than no post office at all, many rural customers are finding

As the U.S. Postal Service looks for ways to cut costs, including efforts to end Saturday first-class mail, many rural towns have suffered, with post offices closing or reducing their hours. That has led to a resurgence in village post offices, located inside retail establishments. They are most common in Kentucky, where nearly one-sixth of the nation's 610 VPOs are located, Kristy Robinson Horine reports for KyForward. (Horine photo: Store in North Middletown provides postal services)

“Kentucky has so many because it’s very rural, and we have many post offices that are going through reduction in hours,” David Walton, a regional USPS spokesperson, told Horine. “Here, we have gone into what we call a ‘post plan.’ We go into low-performing areas, have a community meeting and give customers a choice.” Walton acknowledged that VPOs are an alternative developed after “a push-back from communities that did not want to lose their post offices” when the USPS proposed closing thousands in 2012.

To qualify for VPO status, "there has to be an existing retail or business outlet already in the community," Horine writes. "In Kentucky, VPOs are found in bait and tackle shops, convenience stores, and gas stations. VPOs are usually located in areas where the existing post office has closed or has been forced to reduce hours. Employees of the VPOs are not considered post-office employees although background checks are conducted by the USPS to ensure a measure of integrity that the organization has been known for throughout the years."

"VPOs can sell the most popular USPS items such as forever stamps and flat rate shipping boxes," Horine writes. "They can even offer Priority Mail services, and some have banks of post office boxes on the premises where patrons can pick up their mail. VPOs will not personally deliver mail to customers, and the packages, once received in the host VPO establishment, are picked up by bona fide postal employees and taken to a central post office." (Read more)

Study finds that 217 rural counties are among top 25 percent of counties with most creative workers

Some of the most creative people in the U.S. are living and working in rural America. A report by the Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that 217 rural counties are in the top 25 percent of nation's most creative class counties "when measured by the percentage of workers who are employed in creative-class professions," such as arts, architecture and engineering, Tim Marema reports for the Daily Yonder. Many have a college or a university. (USDA map; CLICK HERE for an interactive map with county data)
"The creative-class thesis holds that communities that attract and retain more workers who are in creative occupations will fare better in today’s economy," Marema writes. "ERS researchers identified creative occupations listed in the 2000 census and refined their selection criteria (the fine print of the study’s methodology and the data itself are here). Then they identified the top quarter of U.S. counties that had the largest percentage of creative-class workers." (Read more)

Internet radio station gives worldwide exposure to aspiring musicians of Appalachia

Appalachian musicians are getting worldwide exposure through an Internet radio station based in West Virginia that mostly plays local bands from the Charleston area but hopes to expand to cover musicians in the entire region, Bill Lynch reports for The Charleston Gazette. The station, New Appalachian Radio, which began airing in March, was created by two former college classmates.

Station co-founder Jody Herndon told Lynch, "New Appalachian music can sound like a lot of things. It can be country or rock or rap or even metal. It’s just all influenced by being here." (Gazette photo by Kenny Kemp: Station founders Eric Meadows and Jody Herndon)

Herndon and co-founder Eric Meadows said that "What they hope to do is to give local people the chance to hear their favorite local bands someplace other than the clubs as well as spread that music farther out," Lynch writes. They said they also hope the station becomes popular enough to influence Appalachian musicians to remain locally instead of taking their musical talents to urban areas like New York or Nashville. (Read more) Listen to the station by clicking here.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

USDA free-lunch program expanding to all 50 states; deadline for schools to apply is June 30

Over the past three years 11 states -- Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan, New York, Ohio, West Virginia, Florida, Georgia, Maryland and Massachusetts -- participated in a program through the U.S. Department of Agriculture that provided free lunches to students in more than 4,000 schools with a high percentage of their students in poverty.

The Community Eligibility Provision program is expanding for the 2014-15 school year, adding all qualifying schools in the U.S. Are your schools eligible? Have they applied? Do they plan to? The deadline for new schools to apply is June 30. For more information from CEP, click here. For state-by-state statistics, and a link to a list of qualifying schools, click here.

The program has proven successful in participating states, Education Week reported last year. It serves 372 schools and 152,669 children in Kentucky, Anna Baumann writes for the liberal Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, encouraging more schools to participate. Some have been reluctant because of potential financial ramifications.

In South Carolina, 657 high-poverty schools will be eligible for the program in the fall, reports The Times and Democrat of Orangeburg. Sue Berkowitz, director of the Appleseed Legal Justice Center, told the newspaper that more than half of public schools in the state qualify for the program, and 20.4 percent of its households with children lack access to adequate food. (Read more)

"In Minnesota, 39 school districts are eligible to participate for all schools in their district," Kim McGire reports for the Star Tribune. "USDA officials estimate that about 138 schools could benefit, or about 57,300 students." More than 50 schools in Vermont qualify for the program, Angela Evancie reports for Vermont Public Radio.

Farm-to-table movement remains a market niche; California close to creating Office of Farm to Fork

Although nearly 80 percent of Americans say sustainability is important to them in buying food, they don't appear to be acting on that solicited expression. "For all its successes, farm-to-table has not, in any fundamental way, reworked the economic and political forces that dictate how our food is grown and raised," Dan Barber writes for The New York Times.

Instead of declining, Big Food is growing. In fact, nearly 100,000 farms—mostly midsize ones—have disappeared in the past five years, and only 1.1 percent of U.S. farms are responsible for almost 45 percent of farm revenues. Also, corn and soy, which are the farm-to-table movement's favorite targets, made up more than half of harvested acres for the first time.

California, the nation's most productive agricultural state, is taking steps to improve its outlook, with the state Assembly voting 75-0 last week to create an Office of Farm to Fork, which "is geared toward broader efforts related to food access and sustaining healthy communities . . . would be integrated within the California Department of Food and Agriculture," Chris Macias reports for The Sacramento Bee. The bill "would coordinate with agri-business, schools and community organizations to achieve its goals of improving access to nutritious foods." (Read more)

Barber asks, "How do we make sense of this odd duality: food revolution on one hand, an entrenched status quo on the other?" He discovered part of the answer several years ago on a grain farm operated by Klaas and Mary-Howell Martens. Klaas was growing emmer wheat, which helped make some delicious whole wheat bread. Barber wanted to figure out what made the emmer so good. "I realized I was missing the point entirely. The secret to great-tasting wheat, Klaas told me, is that it's not about the wheat. It's about the soil," Barber writes.

Klaas planted crops based on planned rotations designed to preserve and improve the quality of the soil.  He often starts with a cover crop like the mustard plant, which helps restore nutrients in the soil. After that, Klaas plants a legume—such as soybeans or kidney beans—which helps take nitrogen from the atmosphere and store it in the plant's roots. Then he plants oats or rye, which creates soil structure and helps prevent weeds. Then the soil is ready for the wheat.

"Depending on what the soil is telling him, he may roll out an entirely different rotation," Barber writes. Barber realized that he had been "cherry-picking" what he wanted for a menu without taking care of the whole farm. Farmers often neglect producing some crops that are necessary for supporting the soil needed to produce the more popular crops—and the most delicious food. Barber writes that eating more local grains and legumes would improve the food system, but including cover crops such as cowpeas and mustard in our diets might be more challenging.

"Today, the best farmers are tying up valuable real estate for long periods of time (in an agonizingly short growing season) simply to benefit their soil," Barber reports. If somehow a market were created for the crops necessary to sustain the land, the food system would improve. "Imagining the food chain as a field on one end and a plate of food at the other is not only reductive, it also puts us in the position of end users. It's a passive system—a grocery-aisle mentality—when really, as cooks and eaters, we need to engage in the nuts and bolts of true agricultural sustainability," Barber writes. (Read more)

First legal U.S. hemp crops since 1970 planted in Ky.

For the first time since 1970 hemp seeds were legally planted in the U.S., with researchers at the University of Kentucky and Western Kentucky University planting small crops on Tuesday, Bruce Schreiner reports for The Associated Press. "The crop once thrived in Kentucky, but growing hemp without a federal permit was banned in 1970 due to its classification as a controlled substance related to marijuana." (Lexington Herald-Leader photo by Pablo Alcala: Planting hemp seeds Tuesday in Lexington)

The Italian seeds, which had been held for several weeks by U.S. Customs agents in Louisville, who said importing them was illegal, will also be planted in about 13 acres throughout the state in the coming days, said Holly Harris VonLuehrte, chief of staff to state Agriculture Commissioner James Comer. Two acres are expected to be planted Thursday in Rockcastle County, where the crop will be turned into textiles and be converted into fabric used to make U.S. flags. (Read more)

"University of Kentucky researchers sowed a small plot of 13 varieties of hemp seeds," Janet Patton reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. "The plants are expected to be up in seven to 10 days and harvested in October. The hemp varieties will be evaluated for their seed and fiber production." Researchers "will identify varieties suited to production in Kentucky; assess potential weed, disease and insect problems; and quantify seed and fiber yield of varieties along with the effects of nitrogen fertilization," Patton writes. (Read more)

Projects are also planned involving researchers at Kentucky State University, Morehead State University, Eastern Kentucky University and the University of Louisville.

'Gun beat' writer in the Virginias stresses safety and education, but has yet to buy a firearm

Greg Jordan
Sometimes reporters show a flair for writing about a certain topic. Or maybe they just know a little bit more about a subject, or are more interested in it, than their co-workers. And sometimes they get handed a story, and somehow they become the go-to reporter whenever that subject comes up again.

For Greg Jordan, it might be a combination of all three. Jordan, a reporter for the Bluefield Daily Telegraph in southern West Virginia and southwest Virginia, has found himself covering the 'gun beat' as the newspaper's unofficial gun reporter. Guns are big news in the region; Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has angered some constituents by calling for stricter background checks while maintaining that he's an avid gun owner and supporter of gun rights.

With the popularity of guns in the region, Jordan has plenty to cover. "It seems I’m becoming the gun reporter at the Daily Telegraph," Jordan writes. "If our list of possible stories includes a gun show, gun demonstration or chance to shoot guns, I’m the one that’s voted most likely to attend. I guess it has something to do with a fondness for flames and explosions."

Jordan says he's not a gun expert, but enjoys using them and plans to own one when he can afford it, preaches safety and education when handling firearms. "Like any tool, you have to use a firearm correctly," he writes. "For instance, if you plan to use a power saw, you have to know how to use it safely, otherwise you’re going to be pruning your fingers."

"And don’t expect television shows and movies to demonstrate safe firearms practices," Jordan writes. "The writers are looking for drama when they put a gunfight in their plots, not accuracy. They would have you think you can hit a target just by pointing your gun in its general direction. And have you ever noticed how the heroes never run out of ammunition until the plot calls for a dramatic moment?"

"When I finally get a gun of my own, I’ll take the courses that show you how to use it the right way," he writes. "Without knowledge to go with it, a gun is nothing but a dangerous paperweight. Like any other tool, you have to use it correctly. Even a hammer or a screwdriver is dangerous if you mess around with it." (Read more)

'World's oldest living paperboy' stays young at heart by delivering family's weekly in Northern California

The small town of Winters, Calif., is home to 94-year-old Newt Wallace who has had a hand in the local weekly newspaper, the Winters Express, since he bought it in 1947. Nearly 70 years, later the Wallace family stills own the paper, and Newt, who retired as publisher in 1983, continues to work for the company, as the world's "oldest living paperboy," Greg Trott reports for The Reporter in Vacaville. (Trott photo: Wallace taking a break during his weekly deliveries)
"He doesn't take a long break on the bench," Trott writes. "In fact, he is constant motion, dropping off papers to Main Street businesses at a furious pace, rarely stopping to chat to town folk who call out 'Hi, Newt!' as soon as he opens the door," Trott writes. "If no one greets him, he'll announce 'It's the paperboy.' It's sounds strange to hear a 94-year-old refer to himself as a 'boy.'"

But "paperboy is a bit too casual of a title for Newt," Trott writes. "This man has lunched in the White House with John F. Kennedy, corresponded with presidents Truman, Nixon, Ford, Clinton, Bush No. 1 and on and on. He was the youngest president of the California Newspaper Publishers Association. He even had the honor of riding with Humphrey Bogart in an elevator in 1952, except Newt didn't think it was an honor," mainly because he didn't recognize the actor and mistook him for a gangster.

For now, Newt has no plans to retire. His son, Charley, who now runs the paper, told Trott, "When he was 75, he was thinking of retiring. I told him, 'Show me three of your friends that are retired and still alive.'" Since then, Newt has remained active, delivering his weekly papers and talking to old and new friends around town. (Read more)

Session proposals due by Friday for September conference about combining arts and agriculture

Proposals for sessions at "Cross-Currents: Art + Agriculture Powering Rural Economies," a conference to be held Sept. 3-5 in Greensboro, N.C., need to be submitted by 6 p.m. EDT Friday. The conference, sponsored by Art-Force and the National Rural Assembly, 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," the conference website says.

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

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

First lady comes out swinging against GOP bill to create exemptions from new school meal rules

First Lady Michelle Obama spoke out today against a House committee's bill, "backed by Republicans and pushed by the food industry and some school officials, that would allow some districts to opt out of federal mandates passed in 2010 to reduce sodium and increase whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables in school lunches," Tom Hamburger reports for The Washington Post. (Image from CNN)

"This is unacceptable," Obama said, according to a White House press pool report. "It's unacceptable to me not just as first lady but also as a mother." Noting obesity statistics, she said "The stakes couldn't be higher on this issue. . . . The last thing we can afford to so right now is play politics with our kids health." And, exaggerating for effect, she added, "Now is not the time to roll back everything we have worked for. . . . We have to be willing to fight the hard fight now."

Obama said nutrition experts, not Congress, should set school nutrition standards. Many children have shown little interest in the healthy alternatives, which has led to large amounts of food being thrown out, Hamburger notes. "The effort fits with the spirit of Obama’s 'Let’s Move' campaign and other initiatives in which she has advocated for healthy eating and a reduction of obesity," Hamburger writes. "Until now, however, she has largely shied away from direct confrontations with lawmakers and industry groups."

The first lady of the United States seemed ready for a public fight Tuesday at a White House roundtable. Press pool reporter Helena Bottemiller Evich reported that about 2:15, White House aides "moved to usher the pool out of the room but FLOTUS spoke up and said 'let them stay.' The pool was ushered out at around 2:35 p.m., as the discussion (which began at approximately at 2 p.m.) continued."

Among those participating was Donna Martin, school-nutrition director in rural Burke County, Georgia, who said beforehand that "the new lunch standards are popular and may have helped the school football team win a statewide competition," Hamburger writes. For more from the press pool, see the attached comment.

"The School Nutrition Association, which represents cafeteria administrators, issued a statement on Tuesday calling the rules 'overly prescriptive' and citing Agriculture Department data showing a drop in school-lunch participation since the standards were adopted," David Joachim of The New York Times reports. "However, in an interesting twist on Tuesday, several former SNA presidents penned a letter to appropriators, asking them to reject calls for waivers," Agri-Pulse reports.

Rescue groups fill demand for pets by transporting more-at-risk Southern dogs to the Northeast

In some rural areas, especially in the South, it's not unusual to see stray dogs roaming towns or countrysides in search of food and shelter. In many cases, those dogs are former pets left to fend for themselves because of the high costs of caring for them. In other instances, unsterilized dogs have reproduced, overcrowding shelters and forcing large numbers of animals to be euthanized.

But some organizations have discovered that the South's overcrowded animal population can be a blessing for other areas where pets are in low supply, novelist J. Courtney Sullivan writes for The New York Times. "Many of the dogs that are routinely euthanized in Southern states—healthy Labs, hounds, shepherds and others, including puppies of various breeds—are in high demand in the Northeast, where low-cost spay and neuter services are the norm, kill rates are down and there are exponentially more potential adopters."

Last year, Long Island's North Shore Animal League America, a no-kill rescue and adoption organization, placed 6,672 dogs from Southern states, more than 5,000 of them puppies, in homes in New York, Sullivan writes. (NSALA photo: This puppy was one of 63 dogs rescued from a Mississippi shelter damaged by a tornado)

Volunteers have also been key, she writes. "People in Southern states are using Facebook and Petfinder to post pictures of homeless dogs. They find local volunteers who agree to temporarily foster the animals and make connections with groups like Badass Brooklyn Animal Rescue. Despite having little funding and no formal shelter space, the group has found homes for 1,200 Southern dogs since 2011."

Another group, P.E.T.S., based in Tennessee, "makes weekly pickups in seven Southern states and drop-offs in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New England and New York," Sullivan writes. "P.E.T.S. has relocated more than 50,000 dogs in 10 years." (Read more)

Rural veterans are getting older as overall population of rural veterans continues to shrink

The average age of rural veterans is on the rise, while their overall population continues to decrease, Tim Marema reports for the Daily Yonder. The Economic Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that from 1992 to 2011 the number of rural veterans declined from 6.6. million to 3.9 million, and about half of all rural veterans are 65 years or older. (ERS graphics)
Part of the decline in population can be attributed to some former non-metropolitan counties' re-classification as metro and the overall decrease in number of military personnel since 1990, Marema writes. The biggest problem, Marema writes, is the increasing age gap among rural veterans; less than 3 percent of all rural veterans are between the ages of 18 and 34. Among the overall rural population, about 25 percent of residents 65 and older are veterans, while only about 5 percent in the 18 to 34 age range are veterans. (Read more)
More than 40 percent of rural female veterans served during the Iraq or Afghanistan wars, while less than 5 percent of rural male veterans served in those wars, the report states. "Among rural veterans in 2011, racial/ethnic minorities made up 4 percent of WWII veterans, 5 percent of Korean War veterans, 8 percent of Vietnam-era veterans and 16 percent of Gulf War I and II veterans." To read the full report, click here.

Putting invasive species on the menu is working to control some populations, but not others

The ongoing quest to control or eliminate invasive species is relevant across the nation, from the concern about Asian carp invading the Great Lakes to the overabundance of feral hogs running wild in nearly every state. Putting the creatures on the dinner menu is an increasingly popular method to control invasive species, Ramit Plushnick-Masti reports for The Associated Press. (Florida Sportsman photo: Lionfish)

"The idea gained momentum recently when lionfish, which invaded the Gulf of Mexico, were successfully marketed to restaurants and appear to be in decline," Plushnick-Masti writes. "The skilled predators damage reefs and devour native fish, and they are eaten only by sharks—or larger lionfish. People soon learned that beneath the lionfish’s spiky skin lies a buttery, flaky meat that is perfect for ceviche or as an alternative to lobster."

But while lionfish are supposed to be tasty, markets for feral hogs and Asian carp are harder to develop. Feral hogs reproduce so fast that eating them has little effect on the population, Plushnick-Masti writes. While carp is a delicacy in China, few Americans are interested in eating them. Duane Chapman, a research fish biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, told Plushnick-Masti, “The fish are good eating if they’re healthy, which they’re not always. Here the fish are pretty much not edible because they’re so skinny.”

One invasive species that has been successfully marketed as food is the tiger prawn, which is similar to shrimp. The tiger prawn "has been found in the northern Gulf of Mexico, where scientists fear it could harm the multimillion-dollar crab, shrimp and oyster markets." (Read more)

Monday, May 26, 2014

Rural publisher says president should have focused attention on uninsured poor to boost Obamacare

"Oddly, given the importance to the president and health-care economy, there wasn’t a sustained, dramatic and memorable campaign from the White House to educate the public about exactly what 'Obamacare' would and would not do," writes H. Brandt Ayers, publisher of The Anniston Star in Alabama.

"The president could have called together the White House regulars — the networks, wire services and major newspapers — and invited them to follow him on a tour to show the public the face of Americans who have no insurance or family doctor," Ayers writes. "He could have led them to West Virginia, where teams of doctors, dentists and nurses volunteer annually to treat the hill people who have no insurance."

With such use of the bully pulpit, TV news outlets "could send out to the country pictures of the army of hill folk from little towns who traveled, sometimes for great distances, to see the only doctor or dentist they will ever see," Ayers envisions. "Reporters could stand in line with an army of the wretched, talking to them about their lives until their number came up and it was their turn to enter the improvised clinic."

The beginning of Ayers's column is also a good ending: "In time, the Affordable Care Act may be seen as a fully accepted, even noble achievement of President Obama’s administration, but it also may be seen as the act that devoured him, rendering him mute when he needed to be most articulate."