Friday, September 18, 2015

Democratic senator introduces legislation for postal reform that would benefit rural areas

Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), one of the leading champions for rural mail service, on Thursday introduced a bill titled the Improving Postal Operations, Service and Transparency Act of 2015 (iPOST), which he said “includes a comprehensive package of reforms that would place the Postal Service on firm financial footing, stabilize and improve service performance, allow for the development of new products and services and enhance transparency," reports Post & Parcel.

The U.S. Postal Service, which owes $15 billion and ended fiscal year 2014 with a net loss of $5.5 billion, has suggested ending Saturday mail delivery as one way to improve its finances. That move has not gone over well in rural areas, where many people rely on Saturday mail for deliveries of items such as prescriptions and newspapers. The service and Carper seem to have put a lower priority on the idea.

iPost "takes a hands-off approach" when it comes to "whether to allow the agency to scrap Saturday letter delivery," Bernie Becker reports for The Hill. "But postal unions and rural lawmakers have balked at the idea of getting rid of any parts of Saturday delivery, and Carper backed away from previous plans that would have given USPS more latitude to alter its delivery schedule."

The measure, which got cautious approval from the National Association of Letter Carriers and fellow lawmakers, also would allow the Postal Service to remove a requirement that it "prefund retiree healthcare benefits—a mandate that has been the major driver of the agency’s losses in recent years, including a record $15.9 billion loss in 2012," Becker writes. "The agency has defaulted on the payment for several years now. On top of that, it would increase the number of eligible postal employees using Medicare, lock in an emergency increase in stamp prices loathed by the business community and give the USPS greater access to overpayments into pension funds."

The measure also "encourages the Postal Service to move away from door-to-door to more centralized delivery wherever possible, something estimates say can be a big saver for the agency," Becker writes. "But it would also bar USPS from closing processing centers or local post offices, another area where the agency has sought to find savings." (Read more)

The National Newspaper Association, which was involved in drafting the bill, said it "would set a positive tone in the 114th Congress to provide the U.S. Postal Service with cash flow flexibility while focusing much needed attention on rural mail service." NNA President John Edgecombe, Jr., publisher of The Nebraska Signal in Geneva, welcomed Carper’s requirement for USPS to work with the Postal Regulatory Commission to measure on-time rural mail service.

“Service to small towns has demonstrably declined since USPS slowed the mail down by lowering service standards and cutting about half of its mail processing plants out of its network. My concern about this problem has occupied a good portion of my year as NNA president, as I have urged our members to keep pushing for change,” Edgecombe said. “We hear complaints from our members about newspaper delivery that have been long-standing and are now intensified. Even more alarming, we get reports about problems with First Class and Priority Mail. When the mail doesn’t work, small towns are isolated and handicapped in their economic development.”

Carper's bill would require USPS to attach a geographic tag to each ZIP code, identifying it as rural, urban or suburban, and work with the PRC on regular service reports for on-time delivery. It also would put a five-year moratorium on processing-plant closings while the commission examines whether cuts reduced service more than necessary. The bill also would freeze postal rates through 2017, during a study by the commission.

NNA Postal Committee Chair Max Heath said his panel also welcomed the Carper bill. “All of us who work closely with USPS appreciate the efforts of Postmaster General Megan Brennan to address NNA’s concerns. I have no doubt that this Postmaster General understands that service cuts have harmed the postal franchise severely and we have appreciated her open door. We are eager for Congress to get moving with a reform bill that gives USPS some financial wiggle room,” Heath said. (Read more)

Logging is the deadliest occupation in the U.S.; some rural jobs have highest fatality rates

Logging remains the most deadly occupation in the U.S., according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries released on Thursday. The report found that 4,679 people died in work-related accidents in 2014, a 2 percent increase over the 2013 total of 4,585. Of the total deaths, 40 percent involved transportation, and 23 percent occurred on roadways. Falls accounted for 14 percent of deaths, and 11 percent involved getting struck by an object. While fires and explosions only accounted for 3 percent of deaths, fatal injuries from explosions of pressure vessels, pipes or tires increased by 25 percent.

Logging had the highest death rate, at 109.5 deaths for every 100,000 workers, but the highest number of fatalities occurred in driver/sales workers and truck drivers (835 deaths) and farmers, ranchers and other agricultural managers (263 deaths). By industry, construction had the most deaths (874). Transportation and warehouse accounted for 735 deaths. Agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting, which had a combined death rate of 24.9 per every 100,000 workers, accounted for 568 deaths in 2014, a 14 percent increase over the 2013 total of 500. (Pew graphic)
Fatalities in the onshore oil and gas industry increased 27 percent from 2013 to 2014, from 112 deaths in 2013 to 142 in 2014, Pamela King reports for EnergyWire. "Though BLS does not calculate a mortality rate for oil and gas specifically, the broader mining sector—which reported 181 deaths last year, including the 142 that occurred in the oil field—had a rate of 14.1 fatalities per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers. That's higher than any other group of industries, save for the agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting sector."

Rural youth 35% more likely to abuse prescription painkillers than urban counterparts, study says

Rural youth ages 12 to 17 "are 35 percent more likely to have abused prescription painkillers in the past year than adolescents living in large cities," says a report by Penn State University researchers published in the Journal of Rural Health, Matt Swayne reports for Penn State News. "Adolescents who live in small cities have a 21 percent greater likelihood of abusing prescription painkillers than their large urban counterparts."

Researchers, who said females are more likely to abuse painkillers than boys, found that the most popular drugs were OxyContin, oxycodone, Percocet and other morphine-based drugs, Swayne writes. Overall, more than 1.3 million adolescents abused prescription painkillers in the past year, researchers said. The survey was compiled from National Survey on Drug Use and Health data from 2011 to 2012 that consisted of 32,036 adolescents.

Researchers said rural youth are more at risk because of limited medical care opportunities and treatment facilities and they are "less likely to understand the risks of painkiller abuse," Swayne writes. They are also more likely to go to an emergency room than a primary medical practitioner. Researchers said drug use among rural youth could be higher, but "rural youths have less access to illicit drugs, receive more positive forms of peer pressure and report stronger religious beliefs." (Read more)

Rural adult Internet users prefer Facebook, shy away from Twitter, Linkedin, Instagram

The majority of rural adult Internet users who participate in social media choose Facebook, while other sites, such as Instagram, Linkedin and Twitter, are not as popular, says a survey by the Pew Research Center. The survey, which consisted of 1,907 adults ages 18 and older from all 50 states and Washington, D.C., found that 67 percent of rural Internet users are on Facebook, compared to 74 percent in urban areas and 72 percent in suburban ones. When it comes to Pinterest, 31 percent of rural respondents use the service, compared to 26 percent urban and 34 percent suburban.

The big differences are in other services. Only 18 percent of rural users are on Instagram, compared to 32 percent urban and 28 percent suburban; 12 percent of rural respondents said they use Linkedin, compared to 30 percent urban and 26 percent suburban; and only 15 percent of rural users are on Twitter, compared to 30 percent urban and 21 percent suburban. Rural individuals are also less likely to join Tumblr, participate in online discussion forums and use mobile messaging apps.

One problem is the lack of specific details in the survey, Tim Marema reports for the Daily Yonder. "We can’t see how different segments of rural are behaving, but we can see rural users as a whole, though the margin of error, at 9.1 percentage points, is a bit on the high side for drawing too many conclusions . . . Here’s another thing to keep in mind: The results in the Pew Center survey are based on the percentage of adults who are online, not the overall population." Researchers reported that 85 percent of adults are on the Internet and 67 percent are smartphone users but did not break those numbers down by specific areas.

National Public Lands Day is Sept. 26; journalists encouraged to localize stories

National Public Lands Day, scheduled for Sept. 26, is a great time for journalists to write local stories about the importance of protecting public lands. The National Environmental Education Foundation created the event in 1994 to encourage volunteers to help clean up public lands and to educate youth about the importance of such lands, said a news release from National Public Lands Day. Diane Wood, president of NEEF, said in a statement, "Each year we ask Americans to set aside one day—the last Saturday in September—to lend a hand to the lands that we use to hike, bike, climb, swim, explore, camp, picnic or simply relax."

Last year about 175,000 volunteers participated in events at 2,132 sites in every state and Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. Volunteers collected an estimated 23,000 pounds of invasive plants; built and maintained an estimated 1,500 miles of trails; planted an estimated 100,000 trees, shrubs and other native plants; removed an estimated 500 tons of trash from trails and other places and contributed an estimated $18 million through volunteer services to improve public lands across the country.

47 of 54 Republican senators file resolution to kill 'Waters of the United States' rules

On Thursday, Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) introduced a joint resolution, along with 46 other senators, to use the Congressional Rule Act to kill President Obama's controversial Waters of the U.S. (WOTUS) rules, Annie Snyder reports for Environment & Energy Daily. "The 1996 law allows expedited procedures to be used to block new regulations. They are most significant in the Senate, where the law limits debate time and bans the use of some common procedural delay tactics, including the filibuster. That means a resolution needs only a simple majority to pass." Even if the resolution passes, Obama is expected to veto it, "and critics of the rule would still need to muster a two-thirds majority to override him."

Other co-sponsors are: Lamar Alexander, (R-Tenn.), John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), John Boozman (R-Ariz.), Richard Burr (R-N.C.), Shelly Moore Capito (R-W.V.), Dan Coats (R-Ind.), Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), John Cornyn (R-Texas), Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Steve Daines (R-Mont.), Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), Deb Fischer (R-Neb,), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Dean Heller (R-Nev.), John Hoeven (R-N.D.), Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.), James Lankford (R-Okla.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Rand Paul (R-Ky.), David Perdue (R-Ga.), Jim Risch (R-Idaho), Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), Mike Rounds (R-S.D.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), Tim Scott (R-S.C.), Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), John Thune (R-S.D.), Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), David Vitter (R-La.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.).

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Crop diversity on U.S. farms has declined since 1978, says county-level study

From 1978 to 2012 the amount of crop diversity grown by U.S. farmers has declined, says a county-level study by researchers at Kansas State University, North Dakota State University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture published in PLOS One, Mary Lou Peter reports for Kansas State University. Less crop diversity "could have implications for how farms fare as changes to the climate evolve."

"Croplands comprise about 408 million acres (165 million hectares) or 22 percent of the total land base in the lower 48 states, so changes in crop species diversity could have a substantial impact not only on agroecosystem function but also the function of surrounding natural and urban areas," Peter writes. "Because croplands are typically replanted annually, theoretically crop species diversity can change fairly rapidly. There is the potential for swift positive change, unlike in natural ecosystems."
Lead author Jonathan Aguilar told Peter, “At the very simplistic level crop diversity is a measure of how many crops in an area could possibly work together to resist, address and adjust to potential widespread crop failures, including natural problems such as pests and diseases, weed pressures, droughts and flood events. This could also be viewed as a way to spread potential risks to a producer. Just like in the natural landscape, areas with high diversity tend to be more resilient to external pressures than are areas with low diversity. In other words, diversity provides stability in an area to assure food sustainability.”

The most crop diversity was seen in the Fruitful Rim (parts of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, California, Arizona, Texas, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina) and the Northern Crescent (states along the northeast border from part of Minnesota east through Wisconsin, Michigan through to Maine and south to New Jersey and Pennsylvania), Peter writes. "The Mississippi Portal Region, which includes parts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Kentucky and Arkansas, had significantly higher crop diversity in 2012 than in 1978."

The Heartland Resource Region (Illinois, Iowa, Indiana and parts of Ohio, Missouri, Minnesota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kentucky), "which is home to 22 percent of U.S. farms and represents the highest value, 23 percent, of U.S. production, had the lowest crop diversity." (Read more)

Wall Street investors buying farmland; farmers complain that land prices are too high

Wall Street investors are buying up farmland, leading some farmers to complain that farmland prices are being driven up beyond their ability to turn a profit, Christopher Doering reports for The Des Moines Register. "The farmland real estate market is valued at $2.5 trillion, with institutional ownership likely responsible for less than 1 percent, according to Bruce Sherrick, professor of farmland economics at the University of Illinois’ TIAA-CREF Center for Farmland Research. But that small number is poised to grow." In Iowa, for example, land prices have risen almost 330 percent since 2000, according to Iowa State University. (Register photo)

"A study released last year by the Oakland Institute, a California think tank, estimated as much as $10 billion in institutional capital is looking to acquire farmland," Doering writes. Greenwich Associates, which surveyed 100 fund executives in 2014, "found that a third of respondents said they might invest more in farmland through July of this year. It was the second most popular investment among 13 categories, behind only energy."

"Farmers have grown increasingly concerned that real estate investment trusts, pension plans and other farmland investors lack the close ties and direct knowledge of what it takes to maintain the property and implement necessary conservation measures to preserve it," Doering writes. "They also worry their involvement has the potential to shut out local farmers by outbidding them when land goes up for sale."

Justin Dammann, a corn and soybean producer from Essex, Iowa., told Doering, “We farm this land, and if we are profitable, that money goes back into our own farms, into our own communities, into our own schools, into our own churches. If an investment company from New York comes out and buys land in Iowa and they make profits in that land, those profits go out of state, and they are not realized here.”

Doering writes, "Iowa, along with a handful of other predominately Midwestern states, have [sic] taken steps to keep corporations off the farm. Iowa passed its law in 1975,and has since updated it to prevent corporate entities other than one established by a family farm from having more than 25 people who are shareholders or acreage topping 1,500 acres. However, individual investors in the United States are not banned from buying land for themselves in the state." (Read more)

Hundreds of farmers, ranchers marching on Washington, D.C., to talk about COOL, RFS, trade

Hundreds of U.S. farmers and ranchers with the National Farmers Union are marching on Washington, D.C., this week, with plans to visit all 535 congressional offices to push their policy priorities, Spencer Chase reports for Agri-Pulse. NFU members want lawmakers to support country-of-origin labeling (COOL), protect the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) and oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement.

COOL "would repeal the mandatory aspects of COOL that the World Trade Organization says violate global trade rules and replace them with a voluntary program that maintains a 'product of the U.S.' label detailing information where an animal was born, raised and slaughtered," Chase writes.

"NFU members will also tout the benefits of the RFS and encourage opposition to any legislative changes to the statute," Chase writes. "Members will ask lawmakers to oppose the proposed reductions in renewable volume obligations for 2014-2016, which the Environmental Protection Agency released in May."

"On trade, NFU members will touch on three topics: TPP; imports of beef from certain areas of northern Argentina and Brazil, which they want delayed; and expanding trade with Cuba," Chase writes. "NFU members were encouraged to stress opposition to TPP in its current form until negotiators addresses issues such as currency manipulation." (Read more)

House Republicans express concern about Clean Power plan's effect on rural development

The Obama administration's Clean Power plan that calls for a 32 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2030 "got several mentions in a House Agriculture Committee hearing on rural development yesterday as lawmakers expressed concern that the regulations could burden rural electric cooperatives," Tiffany Stecker reports for Environment & Energy Daily.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture "has about $4.5 billion invested in building coal-fired power plants that could be affected by the Obama administration's curbs on carbon emissions," said Brandon McBride, the head of the agency's rural utilities agency, Stecker writes. He told the committee, "At this time, it's unclear exactly what the impacts will be and how state plans will be developed." He said it would be unclear how the plan would affect states until after they submitted their plans to the Environmental Protection Agency.

"The National Rural Electric Cooperative Association released a report in July finding that rural economies are more sensitive to rate fluctuations because they serve energy-intensive industries like agriculture and manufacturing," Stecker writes. 

Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.) "said he had 'significant concerns' about the impact of the rule in his rural western Pennsylvania district," Stecker writes. He said that rural cooperatives "provide some of the most affordable kilowatt-hour rates; they use a very diverse portfolio; they need to be able to do that." Rep. Trent Kelly (R-Miss.) said "rural customers 'a lot of times . . . don't have the access to technology or don't have the income or don't have the education in order to comply with these regulations.'" (Read more)

For series, reporter travels 300 miles by canoe to get firsthand feel of impact of Ohio River tributary

The Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism has published a series on the challenges of the Licking River, a 303-mile tributary of the Ohio River in Northern and Eastern Kentucky and Central Ohio. For the series, reporter Andy Mead and a guide traveled the waters in an aluminum canoe to experience "the good, the bad, the ugly and the spectacular of a river that runs through nearly every culture, geography, economy, environment and society known to its home state. (Mead photo: The upper Licking River cuts a winding path through rocky, wooded terrains as it spills out of Eastern Kentucky on a 300-mile journey to the Ohio River)

"Along the way Mead talked to dozens of experts—from ecologists, scientists and environmentalists to historians, farmers and fisherman—and met dozens of real Kentuckians whose lives are entwined with the river," he reports.

While Mead saw plenty of wildlife, he writes, "We saw too much trash: motor oil bottles, hair spray cans, milk jugs, glass jars with lids (that made them buoyant), broken coolers, a motorcycle helmet, a soccer goal. The single most-common trashy item was the plastic soft drink bottle. Most of them probably had been tossed out of a car or truck window into a roadside ditch before being washed into a creek and then the river. There was a smaller but significant number of old refrigerators, washing machines and other discarded appliances. And tires, tires, tires. We should have kept a running count of tires."

The Licking River, which supports fishing and other tourist activities in Kentucky and Ohio, got its name "because the salty water left deposits that attracted animals as far back as when wooly mammoths and ground sloths roamed the land more than 10,000 years ago," Mead writes. "Marc Hult, a retired U.S. Geological Survey hydrologist who lives beside the Licking, said that’s because the river is fed by groundwater that was an ocean 450 million years ago."

"In 1807, President Thomas Jefferson sent Gen. William Clark to collect prehistoric animal bones from what now is Big Bone Lick State Park. The mission has been called the first paleontological expedition financed by the young government of the U.S.," Mead writes.

Community Supported Agriculture operators are young, idealistic and have high turnover rates

In recent years, interest in locally grown foods has allowed smaller farms, mostly operated by younger farmers, to find a niche in local and regional markets, while also providing specialty foods available through the Internet, Timothy Collins, assistant director for research, policy, outreach and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University, reports for the Daily Yonder. "Some communities seeking to enhance local food production have relied on more traditional direct marketing, where a farmer grows the produce, prepares it for market and then sells to consumers at a roadside stand or farm market."

A recent report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture said there were 8,476 farmers’ markets in 2014, up from 2,863 in 2000, and 1,755 in 1994, Collins writes. "They tend to be concentrated in populated areas of the Northeast, Midwest and West Coast. Other farmers might market to restaurants, schools or other food outlets. In both cases, the farmer assumes all of the risk."

An Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs survey from the summer of 2014 found that about 45 percent of Community Supported Agriculture farms are operated by farmers ages 41 to 60 and 28 percent by those ages 26 to 40, writes Collins, who was one of the researchers that conducted the survey. More than 60 percent are operated by women. Also, 82 percent of CSA farmers had a college or postgraduate degree. (Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs graphic)
The survey found that "most CSA operators tended to be committed to environmentally friendly farming strategies," Collins writes. "CSA operators appeared to be less motivated by profit than they were by other more idealistic considerations," more than 75 percent did not grow ip on a farm and most used the business as supplemental income for farm families.

On the downside, many of these businesses don't last, Collins writes. "The study found that more than a third of the addresses in the original sample of about 1,000 farms were bad. In addition, a quarter of the final response of 154 operators reported having gone out of business." (Read more)

Georgia man gets record $1.6M fine for illegally trafficking in live white-tailed deer

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced on Wednesday that a Georgia man who "pleaded guilty to three charges of illegally trafficking in live white-tailed deer will have to pay a $1.6 million penalty—the largest fine ever levied for a U.S. wildlife crime," Corbin Hiar reports for Environment & Energy News. "Benjamin Chason, 61, of Climax, Ga., was sentenced by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio and ordered to spend four months on home arrest, perform 150 hours of community service in an Ohio or Georgia state park, publish a statement in North American Whitetail magazine and submit to three years of probation."

Chason, who was convicted of violating the Lacey Act along with two other men—Douglas Wainwright Sr. and Douglas Wainwright Jr.—"admitted on May 1, 2014, to his role in a white-tail smuggling ring that illegally shipped deer that could have been infected with dangerous diseases from Florida and Georgia to Ohio," Hiar writes. "Tuberculosis and brucellosis, two diseases white-tails can be infected with, can be transmitted from deer to cows and humans. Enacted in 1900, the Lacey Act is the nation's oldest environmental law. Among other things, it prohibits such uncertified transportation and sale of wildlife."

"Wainwright Jr. pleaded guilty Feb. 17 to eight charges related to the illegal hunts and was sentenced to four months of house arrest and three years of probation," Hiar writes. "His father admitted to 12 Lacey Act violations, one count of conspiracy and one count of wire fraud" and was sentenced to nearly two years in prison, a $125,000 fine, 200 hours of community service in the park system and was also ordered to submit an article to the Deer Breeders Gazette.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Surgeon general: Americans need to walk more, U.S. needs more walkable neighborhoods

Americans should spend more time walking, and communities should be equipped with walking areas to make that possible, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said in a report released on Wednesday. "Maybe this sounds like obvious advice, a health tip right up there with admonitions to eat right and wear sunblock," Emily Badger writes for The Washington Post. "But for much of the last century, the federal government has backed a different idea—cars running on cheap fuel and fast asphalt should carry us everywhere—that has largely proved incompatible with walking." (National Photo Company Collection in the Library of Congress: Thomas Circle in Washington, D.C., in 1920 when most of the traffic there was pedestrian)

University of Virginia's Peter Norton, who has studied the history of transportation, told Badger, "If the Surgeon General had called for people to exercise more, that would be just another predictable announcement. But he called for walking. That puts him up against a long history of official discouragement of walking."

One of the main problems is that nearly one-third of Americans live in neighborhoods that lack sidewalks, Badger writes. "The federal government subsidized the construction of postwar suburban subdivisions so heavily dependent on the car they had little use for sidewalks. The government paved the highways that enabled people to live there and kept low the gas taxes that made commuting 30 miles a day affordable. Government engineers came, over time, to think of roads as the domain solely of automobiles—and of pedestrians as an impediment to them."

Another problem is that many people live far enough away from work, grocery stores and other conveniences that walking is not possible, Badger writes. Still, in an age where cars take people everywhere they need to go, many people have grown out of the habit of having to walk much more than 300 to 400 feet to get anywhere.

Murthy told reporters, "In the last few decades we have lost touch with physical activity." Badger writes, "This is true in many ways, in school days that no longer include recess or in jobs that no longer demand physical labor. But it is primarily true in how we've built (or rebuilt) the world around us. And research is starting to show the health consequences. Communities designed around more compact, walkable street grids—places that have what the Surgeon General calls 'connectivity'—have been correlated in research with reduced rates of obesity, high blood pressure and heart disease (they also have fewer fatal car crashes, another public health problem). One study of a million residents in Toronto found that people in less walkable neighborhoods were more likely to develop diabetes."

California's 50,000 marijuana farms damaging environment in drought-plagued state

Large quantities of California marijuana grow operations are damaging the environment in a state already in the midst of a horrific drought, Brittany Patterson and Debra Kahn report for ClimateWire. "Growing marijuana triggers a host of environmental problems. Chief among them is its clandestine water use. Then there is the application of rodenticides, some of which are banned in the U.S., and others of which are only for use in the built environment." Another damaging item is baling wire, strung between the trees to dry the marijuana, which cripples eagles that fly into it. (Kahn photo: Volunteers gather up coils of plastic pipes, illegal poisons and other debris after a raid of a grow operation)

Since the passage of the Compassionate Use Act in 1996, "which legalized the use and limited cultivation of medical marijuana in California, the state has experienced a marijuana cultivation boom," Patterson and Kahn write. California is home to an estimated 50,000 marijuana farms, or 60 percent of all marijuana consumed in the U.S.

"Modern-day marijuana operations belie the stereotype of gentle, hippie pot growers," Patterson and Kahn write. "They scour maps for water sources and even pay wildlife hunters to log any water they come across on GPS devices. They raze forests and create roads, shoving thousands of pounds of sediment into nearby water sources to the detriment of salmon and steelhead."

Nick Goulette, executive director of the Watershed Research and Training Center, a nonprofit based in Trinity County, where the local economy revolves around marijuana, told Patterson and Kahn, "Few people fully recognize the vast scope and scale of illegal trespass grows. We're only just beginning to count the ecological costs, and at a moment when climate change, drought, private water demands and wildfire are pushing ecosystems and species to the brink."

Lawmakers last Friday sent a package of bills—which includes environmental rules for its cultivation and funding to rehabilitate grow sites, to fully regulate medical marijuana—to Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, Patterson and Kahn write. One bill "instructs the state Department of Pesticide Regulation to write standards for the use of pesticides in growing marijuana and the maximum remaining residue allowed to be left in the end product. Three other agencies will outlaw water use that affects fish that are migrating through, spawning in or living in rivers. It also sets a deadline of 2020 for the state to create standards for organic certification."

"A companion bill directs the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the State Water Resources Control Board to make permanent a year-old joint task force that addresses environmental enforcement and authorizes them to increase the cost of stream diversion permits in order to fund remediation," Patterson and Kahn write.

Democrats need to fight for rural post offices, opines liberal editor of Wisconsin daily

The Democratic party, which many feel has shifted its focus more on urban areas and less on rural ones—which likely resulted in the party's losing a Senate majority in the last election—needs to rededicate itself to rural America if it wants to be relevant in future elections. One way Democrats can reconnect with rural America is to help save rural post offices, opines liberal journalist John Nichols, associate editor of The Cap Times in Madison, Wis.

Here is an excerpt from his column:
John Nichols
"Rural post offices are more than just places where people pick up mail. They serve as informal community centers. They give small towns definition. They keep rural businesses connected to markets.

"If Democrats were identified as absolute and unequivocal defenders of rural post offices, the party would benefit. That’s simple, practical politics.

"Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders knows this. It’s one of the reasons why he is running well in rural states. The senator from Vermont is ahead of Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton in polls from the first primary state of New Hampshire. And he is pulling even with Clinton in the first caucus state of Iowa.

"The senator has a long record as a defender of the Postal Service, maintaining that “it makes no sense to downsize the Postal Service by tens of thousands of workers, slow mail delivery service and devastate rural communities by closing their post offices.

"American Postal Workers Union President Mark Dimondstein, who will appear Saturday at Wisconsin’s Fighting Bob Fest (along with Congressman Mark Pocan, an outspoken defender of the Postal Service), said: 'Bernie Sanders has been an outspoken champion of postal customers, postal workers and the public Postal Service—demanding expanded services for all Americans, an end to mail delays and an end to the closure of postal facilities.'

"Sanders defends the Postal Service—and especially rural post offices—with the same passion that he defends Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Instead of accepting austerity lies and death by slow cuts, he calls for investing in the renewal and extension of the Postal Service.

“'The Postal Service should be speeding up the delivery of mail, not slowing it down,' said the senator. We should be working to strengthen the Postal Service, not sending it into a death spiral.'

"Sanders is precisely right about this.

"No matter where he finishes in the presidential race, the Sanders approach to rural issues in general, and to postal issues in particular, ought to be embraced by the party of FDR and the New Deal. It makes no sense for Democrats to talk about preserving Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid but not to talk about preserving a Postal Service that is vital for all Americans—but essential for rural Americans."

Railroads say that if year-end safety deadline is not extended expect some services to be halted

The seven largest rail companies in the U.S. say that if the Dec. 31 deadline to install a new collision avoidance system is not extended, then service interruptions should be expected, Spencer Chase reports for Agri-Pulse. "In letters to Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) major rail carriers say they may not be able to legally continue to provide service due to their incomplete implementation of positive train control (PTC), a safety mechanism meant to monitor and control train movements remotely."

"The Rail Safety Improvement Act of 2008 mandated the installation of PTC across most Class I rail lines by the end of 2015," Chase writes. "According to the Federal Railroad Administration, PTC is supposed to be installed on lines carrying 5 million or more gross tons every year, lines that handle any poisonous-inhalation-hazardous materials, or any lines with 'regularly scheduled intercity passenger or commuter rail services.' Implementation was expected to reach across 70,000 miles of track."

BNSF Railway, the largest rail provider in the country, said in a letter to Congress that it “has serious questions whether it should operate on subdivisions that have not been equipped with PTC in knowing violation of the federal law that mandated PTC as of Jan. 1, 2016," Chase writes. Canadian Pacific Railway said in a letter that “if Congress does not act, actions that the individual rail carriers might take, such as embargoing or rerouting traffic, have the potential to interfere with the fluid operation of the network.”

Union Pacific Railroad said in an email to Agri-Pulse "that without an extension of the PTC implementation deadline, 'neither passenger traffic nor chemicals Americans need and use every day . . . will move on the Union Pacific system by the end of 2015,'" Chase writes.

Florida, California citrus markets under siege from bug that carries devastating disease

A disease that has the Florida citrus market under siege—costing it about $975 million per year on average over the last decade—is now threatening California's $2.5 billion industry, Tiffany Stecker reports for Greenwire. The Asian citrus psyllid is a carrier of a devastating bacterial disease called huanglongbing (HLB), better known as citrus greening, which stunts the growth of citrus, leading to small, bitter fruit. (Stecker photo: Jessica Rodriguez uses her pooter, a device to catch insects, to survey for the Asian citrus psyllid)

The Florida industry was caught off guard by the speed of the epidemic of ACP, which was likely smuggled into the U.S. "in private shipments that did not go through proper inspections," Stecker writes. "Many growers are holding out for a resistant, genetically engineered orange, while scientists are experimenting with HLB-sniffing dogs and technology that identify the infection through metabolic changes within the plant to halt the spread."

In California, 16 counties "are wholly or partially under quarantine for the psyllid, including the top citrus-producing area, the Central Valley's Tulare County," Stecker writes. Mark Hoddle, principal investigator for the University of California, Riverside's Applied Biological Control Research laboratory, told Stecker, “Much of the industry has come to terms with the fact that the question of citrus greening begins not with an if, but with a when.”

In Los Angeles County, about half of all homeowners have a citrus tree on their property, Stecker writes. Kurt Floren, Los Angeles County agricultural commissioner, told her, "This county is effectively one continuous grove, from border to border. The presence of the disease presents an equally devastating potential as it would should it be found in a commercial grove." (Read more)

Rural white police chief retires after posting racist rant on Facebook; blames media for cop killings

A rural North Carolina police chief abruptly retired this week after a social medial post in which he called Black Lives Matter a terrorist group, suggested that it was OK for police officers to shoot thugs and blamed the media for the murder of police officers.

"Surf City Police Chief Mike Halstead's retirement was approved Tuesday by town council during an emergency meeting called earlier in the day by Mayor Zander Guy," Ashley Morris reports for Star News in Wilmington, N.C. "Halstead's retirement comes a day after the president of the state chapter of the NAACP and other leaders said they were meeting this week to discuss their response to a Facebook post written Sept. 3 by Halstead." Halstead had previously announced he would retire some time this year.

Halstead, a 35-year police veteran, wrote, "Open letter from a Police Chief , this Black Lives Matter group is nothing more than an American born terrorist group brought on by the lie of the hands up don't shoot during the criminal thug Michael Brown incident. The FBI and other Government Law Enforcement groups need to step up and put a stop to this."

"I agree there is a race problem in this country," he writes. "It is not brought on by police officer doing their sworn duty, it is brought on by the government, the President and his cronies Al Sharpton, who is a criminal tax evader (but has the support of our so called President), Jessi Jackson, Eric Holder and that ignorant S.O.B. Farrakhan who should be charged with solicitation for murder, lord knows a white man would be arrested for the same actions of idiot Farakhan. I am sure there are many hard working Black people who will agree with me."

"I put allot [sic] of the blame for these cop murders on the media and the way they report police related shootings," he writes. "There is no need to list or even state the race of a person shot by the police. It is more important to wait for the facts and report those. But and a big but that does not make money for these greedy media ass holes.When a black thug is killed by the police they are all over it as is Mr. Barack Obama. However when a police officer white, black or any race is murdered for doing his job the media is short with it's [sic] reporting or not at all. When a white person is killed by a black officer you hear nothing. Has our so called President spoke publicly about these murders of police officers by blacks, HELL NO he has not. Step up Mr. President, or step down because we do not need you."

"I have instructed my officers to be vigilant, if threatened take appropriate action," he writes. "If that means shoot a thug, then do it and answer for it while you are still alive not dead. Law Enforcement is fed up with this murderous society who want to take out those who protect and serve . . . America, wake up, all of you black, white, Mexican whatever you need the police, we do not need you."

Pennsylvania court reverses decision that barred proposed gas wells in rural township

A state judge in Pennsylvania this week "reversed a lower court's decision that barred proposed gas wells in a rural township," Ellen M. Gilmer reports for EnergyWire. "The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court ruled Monday that the Fairfield Township Board of Supervisors was justified in approving a plan for two natural gas wells on private land in the township, about 90 miles north of Harrisburg." (Wikipedia map: Fairfield Township)

"The board approved the application of Inflection Energy LLC to build and operate two wells on the land of two local families, drawing appeal from neighbors who say the well pads would diminish their quality of life and threaten the local environment," Gilmer writes. "The reasoning was based in part on the state Supreme Court's landmark 2012 plurality opinion in Robinson Township v. Commonwealth, which found that the state constitution's environmental rights amendment gives municipal governments a duty to protect the public trust and that they may not be barred from regulating where drilling occurs." (Read more)

USDA official victimized by selective use of video reaches settlement with blogger's widow

Shirley Sherrod
Shirley Sherrod, the former Georgia Rural Development director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has reached a tentative settlement with the widow of conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart, whom she sued after a heavily-edited video appeared to show her discriminating against a white farmer because of his race, leading to a racial firestorm and a request for her resignation.

When "the full video showed that Sherrod's words were an attempt at racial reconciliation, not racism," she was offered a new job at USDA, but refused the position, reports The Associated Press. In 2011 Sherrod sued Breitbart and his colleague Larry O'Connor "for defamation and emotional distress."

"U.S. District Judge Richard J. Leon on Tuesday ordered the case halted 'in light of the parties' representations that a settlement has been reached among all of the parties' and the agreement circulated for signatures," AP reports. "Breitbart died in 2012. His wife Susannah was substituted as a defendant." (Read more)

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

County-level data shows that 53% of rural counties lost workforce from July 2014 to July 2015

The number of rural jobs are up, but the number of people looking for jobs in rural areas has gone down, according to county-level data from the national employment report for August, Bill Bishop reports for the Daily Yonder. From July 2014 to July 2015, rural areas gained 152,000 jobs. During that same time the number of people looking for work declined by 177,000, meaning that the total workforce declined by 25,000.

Overall, 53 percent of rural counties—1,042 total counties—lost workforce, while 56 percent of urban counties gained workers, Bishop writes. Nationwide, the U.S. gained 650,000 jobs from July 2014 to July 2015, and the national unemployment rate fell to 5.1 percent. The percentage of people looking for work is at an all time low at 63 percent. The main reason is that more people of working age have left the workforce. (Yonder map: For an interactive version, click here)

Major fast food and chain restaurants have poor policies about antibiotics, activist report says

While many major corporations have declared efforts to phase out antibiotic use in animals raised for food, most of the top 25 fast food and casual chain restaurants in the U.S. have poor policies when it comes to antibiotics, according to a report and scorecard by consumer, health and environmental groups that gave 20 of the 25 chains a grade of F for their practices, Kate Colwell reports for Friends of the Earth, an environmental organization and one of the groups that helped compile the report.

The report was compiled through a survey that asked businesses about use of antibiotics, transparency, availability of organic meats and grass-fed beef options on their menus and use of hormones and beta-agonists in meat and poultry supplies.

Panera and Chipotle received a grade of A, Chick-fil-A received a B and Dunkin' Donuts and McDonald's received a C. Those chains are the "only ones that have adopted publicly available policies that meaningfully limit routine antibiotics use," states the report. "These policies range from strict prohibitions on any antibiotics use (Chick-fil-A), to policies that prohibit use in chicken of antibiotics important in human medicine (McDonald’s). Only Chipotle, Panera, Chick-fil-A and Dunkin’ Donuts have antibiotics use policies that apply to all the meat they serve."

Applebee’s, Arby’s, Burger King, Chili’s, Dairy Queen, Denny’s, Domino’s, IHOP, Jack in the Box, KFC, Little Caesars, Olive Garden, Outback Steakhouse Grill and Bar, Papa John’s Pizza, Pizza Hut, Sonic, Starbucks, Subway, Taco Bell and Wendy’s all received a grade of F.

Natural gas production expected to decline for fourth straight month in October

Natural gas continues to tumble, with production from the seven largest U.S. shale deposits expected to drop "for a fourth straight month in October to average 44.784 billion cubic feet a day, the lowest since March, based on an Energy Information Administration forecast released Monday," Naureen Malik reports for Bloomberg. "That’s the longest streak of monthly declines in government data going back to 2007."

The biggest declines "are in oil-rich deposits such as the Eagle Ford shale formation in Texas, where drillers are idling rigs in response to a collapse in crude prices," Malik writes. "Pipeline constraints in Appalachia aren’t helping either. Yield from the Marcellus shale of the eastern U.S., the nation’s biggest gas field, will fall 0.5 percent." (Bloomberg graphic)
Bank of America analysts are "forecasting that total output in the lower 48 states will shrink by 0.3 billion cubic feet a day next year," Malik writes. "More than 1 billion cubic feet of gas production went offline in the second quarter because of limited pipeline capacity and system outages, particularly in the northeastern Marcellus region, Adam Longson, an analyst with Morgan Stanley, said in a note to clients Monday." He said "the number of drilled but uncompleted wells jumped almost 50 percent in January through June from the same period a year earlier." (Read more)

High beef prices leading cattle ranchers to shy away from phasing out antibiotic use

High beef prices are making cattle ranchers reluctant to abandon antibiotic use in livestock, David Kesmodel reports for The Wall Street Journal. "Cattle prices reached all-time highs last year, while U.S. consumers paid a record $6.16 a pound on average for fresh beef in July, up 11 percent from a year earlier, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture." Oregon cattle rancher Tim Knuths told Kesmodel, “With a real strong market like that, there’s just no advantage to going to a natural program."

While major poultry producers have been phasing out antibiotics, the need to phase out antibiotics in beef is greater, Kesmodel writes. "Beef cattle typically live one to two years before slaughter, providing more time for disease exposure than for chickens, which often live only six weeks. Beef processors also generally have less control over how animals are raised. They typically buy cattle from a wide range of producers and middlemen, while major chicken processors sign growers to contracts to supply them alone." (Journal graphic)

There is more money in going natural, with organic or grass-fed beef varieties—all of which are antibiotic-free—"retailing for 30 percent to 80 percent more per pound than conventional meat," Kesmodel writes. "But ranchers also typically face greater costs and paperwork and must undergo audits to demonstrate they adhere to animal-welfare, sustainability and other standards required by beef buyers or federal labeling rules."

"Recruiting ranchers to produce organic, grass-fed beef—typically the highest-priced variety in stores—is often tough, too," Kesmodel writes. "Raising animals on organically grown grass and hay costs more than conventional U.S. production partly because they take longer to reach slaughter weight. In the U.S. last year, average slaughter weight was 1,330 pounds, according to USDA. Grass-fed cattle generally need 20 to 24 months, while conventional cattle—typically fed a heavy corn diet their final four or five months—need about 16 to 18, said Mack Graves, senior adviser at Panorama Meats, a California-based producer of grass-fed, organic beef."

Limited supplies of antibiotic-free meat—antibiotic-free varieties account for less than 5 percent of the U.S. retail fresh beef market—has led some buyers, like Chipotle Mexican Grill and CKE Restaurants Inc.—which includes Carl’s Jr. and Hardees—to export antibiotic meat from Australia, Kesmodel writes.

USDA, Department of Defense to offer agriculture training to transitioning military service members

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Defense on Monday announced a partnership that will "add agriculture to the career training and counseling provided to the 200,000 service members leaving the military and returning to civilian life every year," reports Agri-Pulse.

Krysta Harden, deputy secretary of USDA, said in a statement: “Rural America disproportionately sends its sons and daughters to serve in the military.When service members return home, we want them to know that rural America has a place for them, no matter where they're from. This expanded collaboration between USDA and DOD will help to ensure that returning service members know that there are a wide variety of loans, grants, training and technical assistance for veterans who are passionate about a career in agriculture, no matter their experience level.”

Since 2009, USDA has given nearly 6,500 veterans $438 million in farm loans to purchase farmland and improve their operations, states USDA. "Since it was launched in January 2013, USDA's microloan program has provided more than $22.6 million in support to help 1,083 veterans grow their farming businesses."

Rural landowners fighting town that says it needs to annex land for projected population growth

Rural landowners in a central Indiana township along I-65 are in a battle with the rural town of Whitestown that wants to expand its southern boundary "by annexing about 621 acres of undeveloped Perry Township land," Kristine Guerrara reports for The Indianapolis Star. "Within that area are several single-family homes, an old cemetery, a restored red-brick building that was a school in the 1800s and acres of farmland."

"The dispute between rural landowners and Whitestown reflects a long-standing debate in which finding the balance between a municipality's need for growth, both in area and tax base, and property owners' desire to choose the government to which they pay taxes is nearly impossible," Guerrara writes. "Indiana municipalities can adopt ordinances to annex adjacent territories. In the past, annexations turned into court battles if 65 percent of landowners opposed the annexation. But under a new law that took effect in July, an annexation is automatically void if the same portion of landowners oppose it. That law, however, does not apply to Perry Township landowners, all of whom oppose the annexation, because the litigation began long before the law took effect."

In March 2014, a trial court judge "ruled in favor of the landowners and blocked Whitestown's annexation plan," Guerrara writes. "The landowners, however, lost in the Indiana Court of Appeals, which ruled that Whitestown could move on with its plan to expand its territory for future development. The landowners are now asking for a rehearing before the appeals court." (Star graphic)
Perry Township has a population of about 1,000, many of them retirees, and most have lived in the area their whole lives, Guerrara writes. Sam Baldwin, who has lived in Perry Township for 48 years, told Guerrara, "It's just that we would like to be the way we are. We moved out in the country to stay country, and we all know that you have to have progress, but when it's forced on you, I don't call that progress."

Whitestown officials say they need to annex more territory because of growth, Guerrara writes. The town's population has increased from 450 in 2000 to nearly 5,000 in 2014, with projections calling for the population to reach 14,000 in 2022 and 23,000 in 2032.

"According to the appellate court ruling in favor of Whitestown, the town's rapid growth creates possibilities for future developments. The vast majority of the land within Whitestown's boundaries is either already developed, under development or planned for development, court records say," Guerrara writes. "Whitestown also argues that the law doesn't require municipalities to identify a specific project for the undeveloped land it seeks to annex. They're required to show only that they can develop the land in the reasonably foreseeable future." (Read more)

Too many people trying to take selfies with bears forces Colorado tourist destination to close

So many tourists have attempted to take selfies with bears in Waterton Canyon, about 50 miles southwest of Denver, that officials have closed the park because of safety concerns, Kelly Sommariva reports for KUSA 9NEWS in Denver. The park, which attracts more than 100,000 visitors each year, has been closed to the public since Aug. 28. (A selfie posted on Instragram)

Brandon Ransom, manager of recreation at Denver Water, which owns Waterton Canyon, told Sommariva, "We’ve actually seen people using selfie sticks to try and get as close to the bears as possible, sometimes within 10 feet of wild bears. The current situation is not conducive for the safety of our visitors or the well-being of the wildlife.” (Read more)

Monday, September 14, 2015

County-level data estimates the living wage needed for individuals and families to survive

Amy K. Glasmeier, professor of economic geography and regional planning at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has created a Living Wage Calculator that uses county-level data to estimate the minimum level of income required for individuals and families to pay for basic living expenses. Glasmeier used that information to create a map "which shows the difference between the minimum wage and the amount of money needed to meet a minimum standard of living around the U.S.," Ana Swanson reports for The Washington Post.

"The interactive map lets you look at how the gap between the minimum wage and a 'living wage' differs for a single adult, a single parent with one child and a parent with a spouse and two children, for different regions around the U.S.," Swanson writes. "Glasmeier defines the living wage as the amount needed to cover basic family expenses, including food, child care, insurance, health care, housing, transportation and taxes." (MIT map: "The redder the map, the larger the gap between what someone makes earning the minimum wage and what they need to survive)

Ky. clerk says office will issue marriage licenses, but they will be invalid without her approval

The Kentucky county clerk who was jailed earlier this month for refusing to issue marriage licenses—based on religious grounds—returned to work this week with a promise not to interfere with deputy clerks issuing marriage licenses that she suggests will be invalid because they do not include her name, John Cheves reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader. Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis said Monday that "the 'unauthorized' documents will say they are issued 'pursuant to a federal court order' instead of including her name and title." (Associated Press photo by Timothy Easley: Kim Davis at a press conference today)

Davis said she "altered the wording of the licenses so that they no longer bear her name or the title of 'Rowan County Clerk,' which she says wrongly suggests her approval," Cheves writes. She told reporters, "Any unauthorized licenses they issue will not have my name, my title or my authority on it. Instead, the licenses will say that they were issued pursuant to a federal court order."

While Davis said she "has 'grave doubts' about the validity of marriage licenses containing the altered wording," Kentucky family law experts "say that two qualified adults who marry in good faith typically are considered legally wed regardless of the precise wording on paperwork filed to record their marriage at the courthouse," Cheves writes.

Davis also said she holds no ill will towards her deputies, especially Brian Mason, the deputy clerk who issued marriage licenses in Davis' absence, Cheves writes. Davis told reproters, "I love my deputy clerks, and I hate that they have been caught in the middle. If any of them feels that they must issue an unauthorized license to avoid being thrown in jail, I understand their tough choice, and I will take no action against them." (Read more)

Rural man annoying neighbors, piling up citations for bright lights used to ward off aliens

A rural Pennsylvania man who has adorned his house with spotlights to prevent aliens from abducting him is drawing the ire of neighbors, who say the excessive lights are annoying and are hurting property values, Joe Pinchot reports for The Herald, a Community Newspaper Holdings paper in Sharon, Pa. Hermitage homeowner Arthur Brown, 78, "who some refer to to as 'the alien light guy on Virginia Road,' has posted spotlights around his house for years. Brown also has wrapped part of his house in foil." (Herald photo by Cory Byknish: Arthur Brown's house)

Neighbor Nancy Raich, who said she hasn't had to turn on an outside light in years, said she has to keep her shutters closed at night to keep out the lights, Pinchot writes. Raich, who has been trying to sell her home, told Pinchot, "I’ve had a lot of nice couples come and look at my house. You can’t get a second look until that’s cleaned up.”

Brown, whose lights have caused him to the be a frequent victim of vandals, has ignored citations from local enforcement and skipped court dates, Pinchot writes. "In its latest effort, the city has used zoning regulations to prosecute Brown. An enforcement notice in February said Brown 'has several spotlights located throughout his property which are directing objectionable direct and reflected glare on adjoining properties.' When Brown didn't respond to the letter, the city cited him." When he failed to appear at a hearing he was found guilty and fined $500 plus court costs. A district judge said that if he "did not 'extinguish' the lights, he would be fined $500 a day. He now owes more than $20,000, the city said." (Best Places map: Hermitage, Pa.)

USDA report touts success of Farm to School Grant Program; helped 12,300 schools from 2013-15

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm to School Grant Program, funded through the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, helped 6.9 million students in 12,300 schools during fiscal years 2013 to 2015, states a USDA report released on Friday. A total of $15.1 million in grants was given to schools in 49 states and Washington, D.C., and 78 percent of awards went to support schools of districts with free or reduced meals eligibility rates above 50 percent. Grants are used to buy local foods, train staff, purchase equipment, provide hands-on education for students, develop community partnerships and complete project evaluations.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement: "Farm to school partnerships have a proven track record of encouraging kids to eat more healthy foods and creating new market opportunities for the farmers that grow them. Congress should act quickly to reauthorize the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act to build on the success of farm to school and the healthier school meals and continue our momentum towards a healthier next generation of Americans."

Overall, "more than 40,300 schools have farm to school programs that impact 23.5 million children," states a USDA press release. "According to USDA's first-ever Farm to School Census, released in 2014, school districts participating in farm to school programs purchased and served over $385 million in local food in school year 2011-2012, with more than half of participating schools planning to increase their purchases of local food in the future." (Read more) (USDA map)

Ag Safety Pledge runs through end of September

In conjunction with National Farm Safety & Health Week, scheduled from Sept. 20-26, the Upper Midwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center (UMASH) is asking people to take an Ag Safety Pledge that includes 11 safety reminders. Safety reminders are: wash my hands after handling animals or leaving animal facilities; apply sunscreen when going outside, even on cloudy days; be PALS (calm and patient) when moving animals; use proper technique to avoid accidental needlesticks; wear proper ear protection when working around loud equipment or machinery; adopt a “no riders” policy; keep floors and walkways clear of obstacles and hazards; encourage friends, family and employees to follow safe and healthy farm practices; speak up if I see someone doing something unsafe. The pledge runs through September. To take the pledge, click here.