Friday, November 13, 2015

Ruralites less likely to be screened for cancers of private parts, thus more likely to die from them

Poor, minority and rural residents are less likely to be screened for breast, colorectal and cervical cancers and more likely to have high mortality rates from the diseases because they are detected too late, says a state-by-state study by USA Today and the North American Association of Central Cancer Registries, Laura Ungar reports for USA Today. (USA Today maps)

The South, especially the Mississippi Delta, has some of the highest rates of deaths, given evidence, from screenable cancers by incident-to-mortality rate, Ungar writes. Using data from 2008 to 2012, the study found that Alabama has the highest level of deaths for cervical cancer, Mississippi has the highest levels for breast cancer and Arkansas, which has the highest rates for colorectal cancer, is third in cervical and breast cancer.

"While the Affordable Care Act has brought insurance coverage to millions, it hasn’t solved the myriad other problems impeding access to care, such as transportation difficulties, lack of education, inability to take time off from low-wage jobs for medical appointments and shortages of doctors, hospitals and cancer-screening facilities," Ungar writes. "It hasn’t made all doctors 'culturally competent' to effectively care for minority patients."

And it isn't expected to get better any time soon, she writes. "Federal funding for cancer screening is in flux. A nationwide program that has provided more than 12 million mammograms and Pap tests for low-income women since 1991 lost $8 million in federal funds in the last five years. And President Obama’s proposed budget for next year cuts $42 million from breast, cervical and colorectal cancer-screening programs on the assumption the ACA will improve access to screening. A bipartisan spending deal hasn't yet determined specific allocations for particular programs, but previous House and Senate bills restored at least some of the money."

States with large poor, minority and rural populations need more local programs like one in Kentucky where "a local gastroenterologist with a passion for preventing colon cancer started the nationally renowned Colon Cancer Prevention Project, which raised money and awareness of the disease and pushed for programs such as free screening for low-income, uninsured residents," Ungar writes. "Since the group started 11 years ago, the screening rate has more than doubled to 69.6 percent—and deaths are down more than 25 percent." (Read more)

Farmland prices, farm incomes in Midwest continue to fall, Federal Reserve Banks report

Farmland prices in parts of the Midwest continue to tumble. The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis reported Thursday that the average price of quality farmland in its district—parts of Illinois, Indiana and Missouri—dropped 2.6 percent from a year earlier, Jesse Newman reports for The Wall Street Journal.

"In the Kansas City Fed’s district, which includes Kansas and Nebraska, irrigated-cropland values declined 1 percent, while the average price of non-irrigated land rose 0.4 percent, the bank said. Irrigated farmland depends on man-made water systems rather than rainfall," Newman writes. "In the Chicago Fed’s district, which includes Illinois and Iowa, prices for farmland remained largely the same in the third quarter compared with a year ago and rose 1 percent versus the second quarter of this year, the bank said."

The reports showed "that farm households were continuing to cut back on both household expenses and capital spending for their operations—and were expected to keep trimming costs in the coming months," P.J. Huffstutter reports for Reuters. "The rural economy has been hit by recent bumper harvests that have pushed grain prices to five-year lows and by a strong dollar that has hurt exports. As a result, farmers have curtailed spending on their businesses, which has sent ripple effects across the agricultural sector and affected everyone from tractor makers to seed companies."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture "projected farm incomes this year would drop by 36 percent from 2014 to $58.3 billion because of declining crop and livestock prices," Huffstutter writes. "The forecast is down 20 percent from the USDA's February estimate of $73.6 billion."

Nepotism alive and well when it comes to hiring by elected officials in many Kentucky counties

When it comes nepotism in local government, it's mostly a free-for-all in Kentucky, with most counties having few laws preventing government officials from hiring relatives, often without advertising for the position, James McNair reports for the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting. "When the state last set out to curtail the practice—in 1994—it wound up letting cities and counties decide for themselves how to address it. The end result was a patchwork of policies, many legalizing nepotism, many with rules so infused with loopholes that officials readily bring their kinfolk aboard." (KCIR map: Kentucky counties where officials can hire family members under certain conditions)
Parts of westernmost counties not shown
Rep. Jim Wayne (D-Louisville), one of 18 co-sponsors of the 1994 measure, told McNair, “It’s basically a state government-supported jobs program for some of these poor counties—and they don’t want any interference."

While nepotism statistics don't exist in Kentucky, the reporting center "confirmed 50 instances of full-time family hiring in various county offices across the state," including in Butler County, where Sheriff Scottie Ward hired his wife, Jamie, to be his secretary. Butler County is the state's only county that excludes spouses from its definition of family, so Ward was legally able to give his wife the job.

Many county officials say they hired family members because they trusted them to do the job or there was little public interest in the position, McNair writes. But the hiring of family members has led to a myriad of arrests across the state, mostly for stealing money. Still, nepotism is rarely frowned upon in Kentucky, said Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies, based in Eastern Kentucky. Davis, who called it an “accepted, forgivable form of corruption,” told McNair, “If somebody says, ‘such-and-such hired his nephew,’ do you have time to take that message to the village and to organize against it or to write a letter to the editor when your own economic future might be dangling by a thread? It takes a bit of courage to speak out.”

"As a model for dealing with nepotism, Kentucky’s state government sends mixed signals to local jurisdictions," McNair writes. "The executive branch forbids its workers from having anything to do with the hiring of family members into jobs they supervise. All other means of entry are fine. Moreover, the ban is in the state Executive Branch Ethics Code, not state law, so offenders face no more than a maximum $5,000 fine and a recommendation that they be removed from office or transferred. At the very least, a public scolding." (Read more)

Older rural residents have more chronic diseases, earlier deaths than urban counterparts, study says

Rural residents 85 and older "have significantly higher levels of chronic disease, take more medications and die several years earlier than their urban counterparts," says a study by researchers at Oregon State University and the Oregon Health & Science University published in The Journal of Rural Health, reports OSU.

"The research confirms some of the special challenges facing older populations in rural or remote areas, who often have less access to physicians, long distances to travel for care, sometimes a lower socioeconomic and educational level and other issues," reports OSU. "It also reflects health problems that might have been reduced if they were treated earlier or more aggressively, researchers say." Lead researcher Leah Goeres said while an urban resident might seek immediate care for a condition, a rural resident is more likely to choose to wait for care or to be forced to wait for care, which could lead the condition to worsen or lead to more illnesses.

Researchers, who studied 296 people, found that rural residents 85 and older took an average of 5.5 medications, and urban residents took an average of 3.7. Use of medication can be risky for older people, especially those who take more than five per day, researchers said. Also, rural residents were more likely to use pain-killing opioids, as opposed to valuable medications to aid bone mineralization, and "medication use for high blood pressure went up significantly over time for rural populations, but not urban ones, in which their use had already been higher." Researchers also found that "the median survival time of the rural cohort was 3.5 years, compared to 7.1 years for the urban older adults," and "the rate of disease accumulation was significant in the rural cohort and negligible in their urban counterparts."

Hillary Clinton unveils $30B plan to revitalize coal communities hurt by shift to cleaner energy

Hillary Clinton
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton on Thursday released a $30 billion plan to revitalize the local economies of coal dependent communities that will be hit hard by the the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan rules. Clinton, who said in a statement that most federal revitalization projects are underfunded, plans to establish a Coal Communities Challenge Fund that awards new competitive grants for: entrepreneurship and small business development; education and training; health and wellness; arts and culture; and housing.

Clinton also said she will partner with local entrepreneurs, community leaders, foundations and labor groups to make federal investments to help people find good jobs locally that don't require them to move. Her plan is to: build infrastructure for the 21st century; repurpose mine lands and power plant sites; expand broadband access; expand clean energy on federal lands and from existing dams; increase public investment in research and development; and attract private investment through an improved New Markets Tax Credit and zero capital gains taxes.

"In the 2008 Democratic primary race, Clinton had strong support among working-class white voters and overwhelmingly won coal-dependent states such as West Virginia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania," Laura Meckler and Amy Harder report for The Wall Street Journal. "But backing for her in Appalachia could be tested this year by her strong push for clean energy."

As part of her plan, Clinton said she "would fight coal companies that she says use bankruptcy proceedings to shirk health-care and pension commitments to retirees and overhaul the troubled black-lung benefit program so it properly awards benefits due," Meckler and Harder write. She "said she would use certain federal lands for clean-energy projects such as wind generation, to make up for the loss of coal mining there" and said "she would increase the amount of federal research and development money going toward technology the industry dubs 'clean coal,' which captures and stores carbon dioxide from coal instead of emitting it into the atmosphere."

UPDATE, Nov. 17: The Lexington Herald-Leader wasn't excited about Clinton's plan to spend $11 billion to complete the Appalachian Development Highway System, but the Kentucky paper said, "Just having a leading presidential contender talking about the need for investing in the coalfields is a welcome addition to the national debate."

Monarch butterflies expected to rebound this winter, Mexican environment secretary says

Monarch butterflies, which migrate to Mexico each winter, are expected to make a big recovery following coordinated efforts by Canada, Mexico and the U.S., Noe Torres reports for Reuters. Mexican Environment Secretary Rafael Pacchiano told reporters on Thursday, "We are calculating that three to four times more butterflies will arrive compared to last year." The butterflies numbered 56.6 million last year. The current season started earlier this month when butterflies arrived to central Mexico from eastern and central U.S. and Canada.

Insecticides and illegal logging in designated habitats are largely blamed for destroying milkweed plants, which are the main source of food for the butterflies, and Monarch numbers fell 90 percent in recent years after reaching 1 billion in 1996. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in February started a conservation fund for the butterfly and in September announced the first round of grants totaling $3.3 million from the fund.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Nine most at-risk rural Mississippi hospitals employ 2,600, have $289M economic impact, study says

Of the 283 rural hospitals that are in danger of closing in an October report by iVantage Health Analytics, 22 are in Mississippi. That's the highest proportion of rural hospitals classified as "vulnerable" in any one state, says a report from the Social Science Research Center (SSRC) at Mississippi State University. The report, commissioned by the Center for Mississippi Health Policy, identified nine of those hospitals as being most at risk. Those nine hospitals' closing would lead to an estimated loss of 2,600 jobs, approximately $8.6 million in state and local tax revenue and a total economic impact of $289.2 million. (MSU graphic: Mississippi's nine rural hospitals most in danger of closing)

"To arrive at their findings, researchers focused on three financial indicators: profitability, uncompensated care and Medicaid shortfalls," Clay Chandler reports for The Clarion Ledger. "The nine hospitals the study identified as having the highest risk got to that point for several reasons, it said. Among them: the national recession that hit in 2008, population loss in rural areas, a reduction in disproportionate share payments under the Affordable Care Act that were not replaced when the (Republican Gov. Phil Bryant) did not expand Medicaid, rising cost of providing care, small size and lack of capital."

"To improve, the study offers a list of recommendations that include creation of freestanding emergency departments, integration of existing services, using hybrid delivery models that focus on preventive outpatient care and bolster primary care networks and the expansion of telehealth opportunities," Chandler writes. Researchers wrote: “The findings suggest that although rural hospitals in Mississippi face a host of challenges, there is also ample opportunity for hospitals to leverage a broad base of federal and state initiatives and self-help actions that ensure rural communities can meet the health needs of their local populations."

Torture allegations put rural Ohio town's drug epidemic back in the spotlight

Allegations of torture have once again cast a negative light on the drug epidemic in rural Chillicothe, Ohio (Best Places map). In the town of only 21,000 residents, drug overdoses more than doubled from 2013 to 2014, and increased prostitution has led to six cases of women disappearing in the past 18 months, all of them addicts. Now, a man has told police that this summer he was terrorized for several hours "in retaliation for stealing thousands of dollars in drugs," John Caniglia reports for The Plain Dealer.

Arthur Hamlin said convicted drug dealer Earnest Moore III and others "seared him with red-hot kitchen utensils, poured boiling water on him and pummeled him, according to a police report," Caniglia writes. Moore, who some have suggested is involved in the disappearances of the six women, denied the torture allegations. A resident who declined to give her name told Caniglia, "It was vicious and terrible and something that you hear about in a Third World country, not in Chillicothe, Ohio. I'm scared, and I'm ready to move.''

Moore, who has a long history of drug infractions, is largely believed to be behind the town's drug woes, Caniglia writes. He was incarcerated from 1995 to 2000 for drug abuse and attempted abduction and from 2007 to 2011 for cocaine trafficking. His current business "appeared to take root in 2014 in Gallia County, one of Ohio's smallest and poorest." Located 60 miles southeast of Chillicothe, Gallia County county is part of a region that has battled a heroin plague for years. Charges against Moore in 2014 in Gallia County were dismissed so that a federal case could be made. Investigators have called Moore "a 'person of interest,' in a general way, in the peddling of drugs and the sex trafficking of women in Chillicothe." Moore is being held on the torture charges in lieu of a $750,000 bond. (Read more)

Rural-urban exchange program teaches Montana students about local businesses, diversity

Students in Montana are participating in One Montana's Rural-Urban Student and Entrepreneur Exchange that "connects some of Montana’s largest schools with some of the smallest to help them learn about the state’s business and cultural diversity," Matt Hoffman reports for the Billings Gazette. As part of the program, this week students from St. Labre Indian School in the rural town of Ashland (Best Places map) visited students from urban Billings West High School to stop by "several local establishments to learn about the nuts and bolts—and struggles—of running a business."

At a later date, students from Billings West will visit Ashland, which has a population of 406, Hoffman writes. As part of that trip, students will "learn about local businesses and act as marketing consultants to a new school store operated by St. Labre students. They’ll also participate in an event to learn more about Native American culture." About a dozen schools have either participated in the program or are scheduled to participate. (Read more)

Rural churches struggling to compete with 'megachurches' for young pastors, resources

Urban migration has had a major impact on small rural churches, which often struggle to find young pastors willing to locate to rural areas, Brian Kaylor reports for Word&Way. Dennis Bickers, southeast area resource minister for the American Baptist Churches of Indiana and Kentucky, told Kaylor, “Many seminary graduates will not even consider taking a smaller church. So finding pastoral leadership is becoming increasingly challenging.” (Creative Commons photo by Tim Wilson)

Another problem is that "denominations sometimes focus more resources on bigger, urban congregations." Kaylor writes. Most of America's churches are small, with about 50 percent averaging less than 75 in attendance and 90 percent averaging less than 350. "Many of the smaller churches are found in more rural settings than the flashy megachurches that steal attention away from the typical congregations." Part of the problem is that rural churches tend to be more traditional, while societal trends have become geared more toward modern churches that offer such amenities as live bands playing contemporary music.

Melody Pryor, pastor of First Baptist Church of Stanton, Mo., said rural churches offer a more personal touch that larger churches are less likely to provide, Kaylor writes. For instance, many church members know each other on a personal level, there are more opportunities to participate in rural church groups such as the choir and rural churches are often more involved in community events. (Read more)

First in a series by The Guardian visits America's 'poorest white town' in E. Kentucky coal country

In the first of a series "about the lives of those trying to do more than survive in places that seem the most remote from the aspirations and possibilities of the American Dream," The Guardian visits the Eastern Kentucky Appalachian coal mining town of Beattyville (Best Places map) hailed as the poorest white town in America and one of the poorest overall, Chris McGreal reports for The Guardian. The town of 1,700 has a median household income of $12,361—well below the national average of $53,046—making it the third lowest income town in the U.S. Half of families live below the poverty line. Overall, Lee County has a 33.1 percent high school dropout rate, and only 3.8 percent of residents have a bachelor's degree.

"Five of the 10 poorest counties in the U.S. run in a line through Eastern Kentucky, and they include Lee County," McGreal writes. "Life expectancy in the county is among the worst in the U.S., which is not unconnected to the fact that more than half the population is obese. Men lived an average of just 68.3 years in 2013, a little more than eight years short of the national average. Women lived 76.4 years on average, about five years short of national life expectancy."

With many coal jobs long gone, "the largest employer in the county is now the school system," McGreal writes. "There are five times as many healthcare workers in Eastern Kentucky as miners. Coal country is today little more than a cultural identity." The few remaining mines of Ed Courier’s Sturgeon Mining Company involve people digging coal out of hillsides. He told McGreal, “I’ve been in the coal business since ’78, and the last five years I’ve been trying to get out of the coal business. There’s no future for it here . . . Things were really good when I came here in ’72, and I ended up staying. When I came here there were three new car dealerships. There hasn’t been a new car dealership here since ’89. There’s no future here. I have a sense of sadness. I wish people had a better life.”

Lee County was part of President Lyndon B. Johnson's poverty tours during his War on Poverty 50 years ago, McGreal writes. Local resident Vivian Lunsford told McGreal, “Our homeless situation is really different to a big city. It’s couch surfing. You’ve got lower income people, grandparents with their children and spouses living there with the grandchildren. They’re all crammed into this one house. There’s a lot of them.” (Guardian photo by Sean Smith: Trailers in Beattyville)

Dee Davis, whose family was from Lee County, and now heads the Center for Rural Strategies, told  McGreal, “There’s this feeling here like people are looking down on you. Feeling like it’s OK to laugh at you, to pity you. You’re not on the same common ground for comparison as someone who’s better off or living in a better place. That doesn’t mean it’s always true; it just means we feel that burden quickly. We’re primed to react to people we think are looking down on us. That they judge us for our clothes, judge us for our car, judge us for our income, the way we talk."

Since the 1960s stereotypes of the area have shifted away from "The Beverly Hillbillies" attitude to one of rampant prescription drug abuse, McGreal writes. "In 2013, drug overdoses accounted for 56 percent of all accidental deaths in Kentucky" with numbers even higher in Eastern Kentucky. Steve Mays, Lee County’s judge executive, told McGreal, “When I worked as a police officer and chief there were drugs here, and we made a lot of busts, but things are getting worse."

"We don’t have a lot of jobs here. Some people look for a way out," he said. "They haven’t accomplished what they wanted to, and they’re just looking for that escape, I guess. They get that high, and once it gets a hold of you they have a hard time getting away from it. They don’t think the future looks good for them, or they don’t feel there’s any hope, so they continue to stay on that drugs. It’s people of all ages. You feel sorry for them. Good people. It takes their lives over. They do things you wouldn’t normally think they’d do. Stealing, writing bad cheques, younger girls prostitute themselves out for drugs.” (Read more)

Kentucky election shows 'rural America is Republican,' former congressman says

The results of last week's election for governor of Kentucky show that "Urban America is Democratic, and rural America is Republican," former U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, left, a 2012 victim of the state's increasing Republicanism, told The Woodford Sun for a post-election analysis. (Chandler's family owns the weekly newspaper in Versailles.)

The rural-urban split is clear when the state's counties are sorted by metropolitan and rural classifications. Republican Matt Bevin got 61.5 percent of the vote in the counties that are most rural in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's nine-point scale or urbanity and rurality. Democrat Jack Conway got 35.2 percent of the vote in those counties.

Conway carried the most urban counties, but barely: 49.3 percent to 47.2 percent. Overall, in the face that included a minor independent candidate, Bevin won by 8.7 percentage points.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

County Health Rankings and Roadmaps released; data a great resource for community health stories

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation on Tuesday released its "County Health Rankings and Roadmaps," which compares the health of residents by county and "explores how wide gaps are throughout each state and what is driving those differences," states the organization. The report looks at health behaviors, clinical care, social and economic factors and physical environment. (Robert Wood Johnson Foundation graphic)

Health behaviors are: adult smoking; adult obesity, access to healthy food and food insecurity; physical inactivity; access to exercise opportunities; excessive drinking; alcohol-impaired deaths; sexually transmitted infections; and teen births. Clinical care consists of: uninsured population; access to primary care physicians, dentists and mental health providers; preventable hospital stays; diabetic monitoring; and mammography screening.

Social and economic factors are: high school graduation rates; college; unemployment; children in poverty; income equality; children in single-parent households; social associations; violent crime; and injury deaths. Physical environment includes: air pollution, drinking water violations; severe housing problems; driving alone to work; and long commutes.

For example, in Tennessee, nearly 2,900 residents—mostly in Appalachia—needlessly die each year "due primarily to income gaps, lack of access to care and such preventable causes as smoking and air pollution," Kristi Nelson reports for the Knoxville News-Sentinel. The report says those "deaths could be avoided each year in Tennessee if residents of all counties had the same opportunities for health as residents of the healthiest Tennessee counties." Eliminating health differences in West Virginia could prevent 1,900 premature deaths each year, reports the Williamson Daily News. In Mississippi, 2,300 premature deaths could be prevented each year, Evelina Burnett reports for Mississippi Public Broadcasting.

Gates Foundation focused on teacher education in low-income schools; Gates visits E. Ky. school

Microsoft founder Bill Gates said during a recent speech that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is working toward solving the problem of teachers who are "unprepared, unsupported and ineffective—especially in low-income schools," reports Meredith Kolodner for The Hechinger Report, which is funded in part by the Gates Foundation. The foundation's goal is to prepare 80 percent of high school graduates for college. In the Class of 2015, 59 percent of students who took the ACT were college ready, Caralee Adams reports for Education Week. Numbers are typically lower in rural areas.

Gates said he believes improving the quality of teachers, especially in smaller schools, "could dramatically improve learning and argued that top-quality teachers 'would completely close the income inequity of learning in the entire country' if they were in place for three years nationwide," Kolodner writes. Gates, whose foundation has spent $980 million on improving teacher effectiveness since 1999, singled out Denver, Washington, D.C. and Kentucky as places where focusing on teacher quality was bringing in big results.

The focus on small schools was evident during a recent visit by Bill and Melinda Gates to Betsy Layne High School, a school with about 400 students in Eastern Kentucky. Floyd County Schools Superintendent Dr. Henry Webb told the Floyd County Times, “Basically, the Gates Foundation contacted us about visiting Betsy Layne High School, and that visit occurred (Nov. 5). They called this a 'learning visit,' and their purpose was to see how Floyd County Schools and Betsy Layne High School does what they do for KIDS, from the roll out of the Common Core and other initiatives to every day instruction." The visit was kept confidential until afterward at the request of the Gates Foundation. (Wikipedia map: Floyd County, Kentucky)

The visitors met with faculty and students and "interviewed the Young Professional Forum that consisted of college students and former graduates outside the field of education who left the region to attend college and returned here to work," reports the Times. Webb told the Times, “Betsy Layne High School has made outstanding progress for kids, and that’s what attracted the Gates Foundation to come here for the learning visit. From the Professional Growth and Evaluation System (PGES) to graduation and college and career readiness rates, they asked questions. And simply the answer is that you have the greatest team members doing whatever it takes for the best kids in the nation, and you have Betsy Layne High School.”

Algae bloom in Lake Erie this summer was worst in recorded history

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Tuesday rated the algae bloom that covered Lake Erie this summer as the worst in recorded history, Tom Tory reports for the Toledo Blade. "The harmful algae bloom that spread a carpet of 'dense scum'—the scientific term—over 300 square miles of western Lake Erie this summer was the largest since scientists started measuring the blooms in 2002 . . . NOAA rated the 'severity index' level for this year’s harmful algal bloom at 10.5. That compared with a 10 in 2011, the previous highest year, NOAA’s bulletin said. The index is based on the total biomass in the algae bloom." (NOAA map: Algae on Lake Erie)

"NOAA had predicted an intense, harmful algal bloom in the lake this year because of high rainfall that would lead to heavy discharge from the Maumee River, a major source of nutrients from fertilizer and manure on farm fields and livestock operations," Tory writes. "But the amount of harmful algal bloom biomass was greater than it predicted."

Despite higher levels of algal bloom, toxin levels were lower, Tory writes. Justin Chaffin, research coordinator for Ohio State University’s Stone Laboratory at Put-in-Bay, "said two major cold fronts in September weakened the bloom and caused it to decline much faster than in other major blooms." He told Tory, “The bloom just wasn’t producing a lot of toxin, and the water-treatment plant operators had a better idea of what’s coming into their plant.”

For years scientists "have recommended cutting the amount of phosphorus that gets into the lake to curb the annual algae problem," Laura Arenschield reports for The Columbus Dispatch. In June,
"Ohio signed a compact with Michigan and Ontario, pledging to reduce the amount of phosphorus in Lake Erie by 40 percent by 2025." Ohio Environmental Protection Agency director Craig Butler said the agency is preparing a voluntary plan to reduce the amount of phosphorus coming from Ohio into Lake Erie, to meet the 2025 target.

"NOAA’s announcement on Tuesday renewed calls that Ohio pursue a federal impairment designation for the lake," Arenschield writes. "The designation is credited with helping the Chesapeake Bay fight its own algae problems by reducing the amount of algae-feeding nutrients that flow into the bay. The designation would almost certainly mean tougher regulations over how large livestock farms deal with manure and over how much manure crop farmers put down on their fields as fertilizer. The designation also could free additional federal money to help Lake Erie combat algae." Republican Gov. John Kasich has so far refused to ask for the designation.

Missouri Press Assn. backs student photographer who stood his ground against protesters

Screenshot via YouTube shows the confrontation.
The Missouri Press Association has declared its support for the student photographer who was pushed by a crowd of protesters on the University of Missouri campus Monday, and denounced "the role students and staff played in attempting to prevent news media from covering events at the university," MPA said in a news release.

"The actions and words captured on video of MU students and staff are disappointing to advocates of free speech and the First Amendment," said MPA President Jim Robertson, managing editor of the Columbia Daily Tribune, one of two daily papers in the town, along with the Missouri student paper. MPA has 275 member newspapers.

"Public areas on the university campus are public for all individuals and the attempts by some to keep media from documenting the protests show a disturbing misunderstanding of how the First Amendment protects all individuals' rights and freedoms," Robertson said. "The university is a taxpayer-funded institution representing not only the students who currently attend, but alumni everywhere and residents of the state at large. Student photographer Tim Tai should be commended for not only defending his First Amendment rights to document the student and faculty protests on the MU campus, but doing so in such a manner as to avoid escalating tension."

Tai, 20, was on a freelance assignment for ESPN. When he took photos of the protesters' tent city on campus, surrounded by a ring of protesters attempting to create a "media-free zone," some of them restricting his access and pushed him away. He "reminded protesters of his First Amendment right to be present and to document the events taking place," MPA notes. "The Missouri Press Association fully supports Tai’s First Amendment stance and reminds people that access to public space, such as the grounds of a university funded by taxpayers, is available to all citizens, without prejudice."

A six-and-a-half-minute video of the confrontation, shot by Mark Schierbecker can be viewed on YouTube at

Rural N.C. residents make voices heard at polls, vote in commissioners who pass ban on fracking

For those who think people no longer have a say in their local government, the rural town of Walnut Cove, N.C., (Best Places map) can serve as a reminder of the power of voting. Unhappy with the Walnut Cove Board of Commissioners' plan to allow hydraulic fracturing in the mostly black neighborhood of Walnut Tree, residents of the town of 1,400 went to the polls last week and replaced two pro-fracking commissioners with anti-fracking ones. On Tuesday the board "unanimously passed a three-year fracking moratorium," Nicholas Elmes reports for The Stokes News in Walnut Cove.

The moratorium "goes into extensive detail about the dangers fracking may cause in the area, highlighting potential water, air and noise pollution," Elmes writes. "After comparing the depth at which potential gas producing shale has been found at, between 98 feet and 423.7 feet, to the depths at which the town’s wells supply water, from 130 feet to 1,230 feet, the moratorium warns that any fracking operations would be located at the same depths as potential future water supplies for the town. It also notes that the town is currently having trouble meeting its water demands during peak seasons. The moratorium also touches on the potential for chemicals used in fracking operations and emissions from equipment to produce hazardous air pollutants and that the noise and invasiveness of the industry could cause problems in the community."

In April the board unanimously voted "to allow the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources to probe for shale gas or oil on a sliver of town property," Bertrand M. Gutiérrez reports for the Winston-Salem Journal. "Once DENR officials got permission from the commissioners to use the land, they moved ahead with plans to hire Patterson Exploration Services to drill a core hole more than 1,000 feet deep. The local chapter of the NAACP "asked the commissioners in a letter to rescind that permission. The commissioners discussed the letter June 9 during a public meeting. Lewis said that the notion of rescinding permission was moot because the drilling team had already started the project."

"That night, Walnut Cove residents, supported by fracking opponents from other areas of Stokes County and other counties, packed the meeting room—and walked out," Gutiérrez writes. "They stood up about halfway through the meeting to sing a protest song—'We shall not be moved'—for more than five minutes before peacefully leaving."

"Last month, the commissioners voted unanimously to establish a three-year halt on any possible oil-and-gas development—time the commissioners say they need to study whether state and federal regulations adequately protect residents from effects of fracking, the drilling method used to extract shale gas or oil," Gutiérrez writes. "Fracking opponents applauded the vote, but it apparently was not enough. A community coalition involving residents from Walnut Cove residents and surrounding areas had formed," and two commissioners were defeated at the polls.

Georgia man restoring rural houses from the 1800s and 1900s

A Georgia man is restoring centuries old rural houses, having "brought more than fifty structures in and around Thomasville, Ga., back to life," Hasekll Harris reports for Garden & Gun. Charlie Whitney, who began restoring houses in 1985, told Harris, “If I was a young man and could start over again, I would be an archaeologist. In some ways, that is what I do now. I enjoy discovering how structures were constructed some 100 to 200 years ago, their methods, materials and craftsmanship. Restoration isn’t a quick fix. It is about preserving our past and saving it for future generations.” (Read more) To see more of Whitney's projects, click here. (The John C. McMullen House or "Hickory Head” Plantation (circa 1840) from the 1930s (left) and today)

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

U.S. organic crop acreage remains low, despite high profit potentials

From 2002—when the National Organic Program (NOP) was implemented—to 2011, organic crops increased from about 1.3 million acres to almost 3.1 million acres, William McBride and Catherine Greene report for Amber Waves. From 2011 to 2014, corn acreage was up 24 percent, soybean acreage up 3 percent and wheat acreage down 3 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"Despite the strong interest in organic food in the U.S., overall adoption of organic corn, soybeans, and wheat remains low, standing at less than 1 percent of the total acreage of each crop," McBride and Greene write. While data suggests "that organic crop production can bring significant returns," organic crop yields remain significantly lower than conventional production. Data shows that organic corn yields are 41 bushels per acre less than conventional yields, organic wheat yields are 9 bushels per acre less and organic soybean yields are 12 bushels per acre less. (USDA graphic)

"Total operating costs and operating plus capital costs per acre for organic corn were about $80 and $50 per acre lower, respectively, than for conventional corn," McBride and Greene write. "Conventional corn growers had significantly higher seed, fertilizer and chemical costs than organic growers but lower costs for fuel, repairs, capital and labor, as organic systems substituted manure and field operations for fertilizers and chemicals. Organic producers had higher fuel and capital costs because they used more field operations, particularly for tillage. Labor costs for organic production were also significantly higher."

Organic crops cost more to produce but bring in more money, McBride and Greene write. Organic crops have "an average additional economic costs of $83 to $98 per acre for corn, $55 to $62 per acre for wheat and $106 to $125 per acre for soybeans are incurred from organic production. Estimates of the average difference in net returns per acre for organic versus conventional production were positive and highest for corn ($51 to $66 per acre), followed by soybeans ($22 to $41 per acre), but negative for wheat (-$9 to -$2 per acre)." (USDA graphic)

Consumer prices are also different between conventional and organic crops, McBride and Greene write. "Organic corn prices ranged between about $5 to $10 per bushel higher than conventional corn prices during 2011-14, while the economic cost difference was $1.92 to $2.27 higher, indicating significant profit potential from organic corn. Likewise, organic soybean prices averaged about $10 to $15 per bushel higher than conventional soybeans during the same period, creating price premiums high enough to easily cover the additional economic costs of $6.62 to $7.81 per bushel of organic soybean production."

USDA recently awarded a $1.8 million grant to the University of Tennessee—the University of Kentucky will subcontract about $500,000—"to conduct research that may fill the gap and help organic dairies strengthen their profitability," Aimee Nelson reports for UK College of Agriculture News. Research is "specifically targeted to identify forage combinations in pastures to benefit Southern organic dairy farmers."

USDA to invest $8M in projects to conserve water in rapidly depleting Ogallala Aquifer

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced plans to invest $8 million in fiscal year 2016 in projects to help farmers and ranchers conserve water in the Ogallala Aquifer (Wikipedia map), Daniel Enoch reports for Agri-Pulse. The Ogallala, which covers 174,000 square miles in parts of South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Texas, "supports the production of nearly one-fifth of the wheat, corn, cotton and cattle produced in the U.S. and supplies 30 percent of all water used for irrigation in the U.S." But farmers and ranchers are using water faster than it can replenish, and the Ogallala has been labeled unsustainable and is in danger of drying up, having dropped 36 million acre feet from 2011-2013.

"The plan involves USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) adding two new focus areas to the Ogallala Aquifer Initiative while continuing support for seven ongoing focus areas," Enoch writes. "These targeted local efforts include improving the efficiency of irrigation systems; building soil health by using cover crops and no-till practices that allow the soil to hold water longer and buffer roots from higher temperatures; and implementing prescribed grazing to relieve pressure on stressed vegetation."

"An NRCS analysis of Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) conservation projects in the region, including those implemented through OAI, estimated reduced water withdrawals of at least 1.5 million acre-feet, or 489 billion gallons of water, from 2009 through 2013 and an energy savings equivalent of almost 33 million gallons of diesel fuel due to reduced irrigation," Enoch writes. For a list of USDA focus areas, click here.

Community newspapers should start planning now for National Rural Health Day on Nov. 19

Community newspapers can start planning ahead for National Rural Health Day on Nov. 19. The fifth annual event is "an opportunity to 'Celebrate the Power of Rural' by honoring the selfless, community-minded, 'can do' spirit that prevails in rural America," says the organization's website. "But it also gives us a chance to bring to light the unique healthcare challenges that rural citizens face—and showcase the efforts of rural healthcare providers, State Offices of Rural Health and other rural stakeholders to address those challenges."

The National Rural Health Day website offers a variety of resources, including a tracking sheet "to help better track the activities of the State Offices," a Wikispace page to start or join a discussion about National Rural Health Day and letters, releases, presentations, proclamation templates and community success stories. Webinars will also take place on Nov. 19. More resources will be made available in the days leading up to National Rural Health Day.

Flawed agricultural practices partly to blame for tainted Wisconsin drinking water, watchdog says

Hundreds of thousands of Wisconsin residents, including nearly 17,000 rural residents with private wells, lack safe, clean drinking water, says a study by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, Ron Seely reports for the organization. The study found residents were "at risk of consuming drinking water tainted with substances including lead, nitrate, disease-causing bacteria and viruses, naturally occurring heavy metals and other contaminants."

"The problem persists, and in some areas is worsening, because of flawed agricultural practices, development patterns that damage water quality, geologic deposits of harmful chemicals, porous karst and sand landscapes, lack of regulation of the private wells serving an estimated 1.7 million people, and breakdowns in state and federal systems intended to safeguard water quality," Seely writes. (Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism map)

Last month 16 Wisconsin residents petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency "to revoke Wisconsin’s authority to issue pollution discharge permits under the Clean Water Act if the Department of Natural Resources does not correct deficiencies," Seely writes. "The discharge permits are a key mechanism by which Wisconsin limits pollutants, including manure from large farms, that reach the sources of Wisconsin’s drinking water."

"Kimberlee Wright, executive director of Midwest Environmental Advocates, the Madison law firm representing the residents, said Wisconsin lacks an adequate regulatory program to protect water, including what flows from residents’ taps," Seely writes. DNR spokesman Jim Dick told Seely that the DNR "takes its responsibility to protect Wisconsin’s waters seriously and does enforce the Clean Water Act. We are working within the confines of current state and federal laws and rules to do just that.” (Read more)

Party buses dropping minors off at rural bars a growing concern in states like North Dakota

Rural areas in North Dakota are dealing with a growing concern—party buses carrying large numbers of often underage people who enter bars and try to purchase drinks, Becky Jacobs reports for The Bismark Tribune. On Friday 26 minors, all students at the University of North Dakota, were arrested for minor in possession at a bar in Emerado (Best Places map) 17 miles west of Grand Forks. The 26 students were part of a group of 28 students on a party bus.

Grand Forks County Sheriff Bob Rost, who said his department has been called to the bar before for similar complains of minor in possession, said the minors typically would have been cited and released, but the students on Friday became belligerent and refused to produce identification, Jacobs writes.

Rost said a lack of ID scanners and bouncers "can lead to underage drinking problems at other bars," Jacobs writes. Rost said "in addition to the rural bars being on alert, 'bus drivers need to be more aware of whom they’re letting on their bus.' Rost told Jacobs, "If a bus driver is hauling people on a bus, and they have alcohol, they need to ensure these guys are of age." (Read more)

Webinar on Nov. 20 to focus on rural development and land use and its global significance

Richard Wakeford
The University of Nebraska-Lincoln will host a free webinar from 9:30-10:30 a.m. (CST) on Nov. 20 entitled "Rural Futures—What More Do We Need To Know?" The webinar, which will center on rural development and land use and its global significance, will be conducted by Prof. Richard Wakeford, visiting Professor of Environment, Land Use and Rural Strategy from  Birmingham City University in the United Kingdom. His presentation will be delivered as a free seminar from 2:30-3:30 (CST) on Nov. 19 and again as a webinar on Nov. 20. For more information or to register for the seminar or webinar, click here.

Monday, November 09, 2015

State Integrity Investigation ranks each state for transparency and accountability in 13 categories

The Center for Public Integrity has released its 2015 State Integrity Investigation that ranks each state for transparency and accountability. States were given a letter grade in each of 13 categories, and an overall grade. No state scored higher than a C overall, with Delaware, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Dakota and Wyoming getting Fs. (USA Today map)

It's important to note that in some cases, the ratings may be based too much on exceptions to the rules. For example, Kentucky got an F on public access to information, though it has a strong open-records law. The report cites exceptions such as legislative communications, the governor’s schedule, the court system and a state agency’s recalcitrance on fatal child-abuse cases. But the court system voluntarily obeys the law, and a judge has fined the agency for its recalcitrance; it has appealed. "Such examples illustrate why the report should only be the beginning of local reporting about these issues," said Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and publisher of The Rural Blog.

"When first conducted in 2011-2012, the State Integrity Investigation was an unprecedented look at the systems that state governments use to prevent corruption and expose it when it does occur," Nicholas Kusnetz reports for The Center for Public Integrity. "Unlike many other examinations of the issue, the project does not attempt to measure corruption itself. The 2015 grades are based on 245 questions that ask about key indicators of transparency and accountability, looking not only at what the laws say but also how well they’re enforced or implemented."

"The 'indicators' are divided into 13 categories: public access to information, political financing, electoral oversight, executive accountability, legislative accountability, judicial accountability, state budget processes, state civil service management, procurement, internal auditing, lobbying disclosure, state pension fund management and ethics enforcement agencies."

Changing attitudes in China leading global coal use to historic declines

Global coal use is on a historic decline mainly because of changing attitudes in China, which is responsible for about half of global coal demand, Ewa Krukowska reports for Bloomberg. China’s battle against pollution, its economic reforms and its efforts to promote renewable energy are largely responsible for global use of coal falling "2.3 percent to 4.6 percent in the first nine months of 2015 from the same period last year, according to a report released Monday by the environmental group Greenpeace. That’s a decline of as much as 180 million tons of standard coal, 40 million tons more than Japan used in the same period."

"The report confirms that worldwide efforts to fight global warming are having a significant impact on the coal industry, the biggest source of carbon emissions," Krukowska writes. "The decline in coal use will help reduce greenhouse-gas emissions that are blamed for heating up the planet. To limit the rise in global temperatures to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit)—the level scientists say cannot be exceeded if the world is to avoid catastrophic climate change—emissions from coal must fall 4 percent annually through 2040, according to Greenpeace."

In China coal "use in the power sector fell more than 4 percent in the first three quarters, and imports declined 31 percent, according to the report," Krukowska writes. "Since the end of 2013, the country’s electricity consumption growth has largely been covered by new renewable energy plants."

In the U.S., the "share of coal used to generate electricity in the U.S. will fall to 36 percent this year from 50 percent a decade ago," Krukowska writes. "More than 200 coal-fired power plants, with total capacity of 83 gigawatts, have been scheduled for retirement, including 13 gigawatts expected to retire this year." (Read more)

Train derailment dumps 18,000 gallons of ethanol into Mississippi River in rural town

More than 18,000 gallons of ethanol were spilled into the Mississippi River on Saturday when a BNSF Railway train derailed in rural Alma, Wisc. (Best Places map), Pat Pheifer reports for the Star Tribune. Of the 32 cars that crashed, five broke open, and four damaged tanker cars leaked "an estimated five to 500 gallons of ethanol each, and a fifth one released about 18,000 gallons, BNSF said in a statement. A full tank car holds about 30,000 gallons."

"The effect of the spill on river habitat below Lake Pepin remains unknown, but reports after previous spills indicate that ethanol alone is less toxic than ethanol mixed with gasoline," Pheifer writes. The crash "temporarily closed two state highways and prompted about a 2½-hour voluntary evacuation of nearby residents, the Buffalo County Sheriff’s Office said. Crews from BNSF stopped the leaks from all five cars, placed a containment boom along the shoreline and began removing ethanol from the cars, said railway spokeswoman Amy McBeth. Working with cranes and winches, crews hoped to clear the tracks and reopen service along that stretch of rail line by (today), she added. On average, 45 to 50 trains travel that route in a 24-hour period." (Read more)

Hunger and Homeless Summit hopes to shed light on rural poverty in Wisconsin

Rural leaders are meeting today in Wisconsin for the third annual Hunger and Homeless Summit, Jonathan Anderson reports for the News-Herald Media. The summit was started by Rep. Sean Duffy, a Republican whose hometown of Wausau (Town Maps USA map) has 39,000 residents, 681 of whom stayed in homeless shelters last year, up from 539 in 2013, according to the United Way. Overall, Wisconsin, with a population of 5.75 million, had more than 6,000 homeless people last year, according to a federal report.

"U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro is expected to attend, and Duffy said he hopes to show Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio, that poverty is just as much of a problem in rural areas as it is in urban centers," Anderson writes. Duffy told Anderson, “Hunger is not partisan. Homelessness is not partisan. It’s a human issue. It’s a community issue that we have to address.” (Read more)

Fellowships available for journalists to attend John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim conference in NYC

As many as 15 journalism fellowships are available to working journalists to attend the 11th annual John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim two-day conference on Feb. 25-26, 2016 at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, states John Jay. The Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice is also "sponsoring four fellowships for qualified and experienced journalists who are interested in developing projects (or have projects underway) in the area of reforms of court procedures."

The conferences "are designed to bring together journalists, policymakers and practitioners for candid briefings and dialogue on emerging criminal justice issues," states John Jay. "Applicants’ projects should be related to work in progress or proposed work slated for publication. The project should be supported by a senior editor, with a letter attesting to their commitment to publish the final work. Freelancers are encouraged to apply. Their work will be also be published on The Crime Report, a national criminal justice news service published by Center on Media, Crime and Justice and Criminal Justice Journalists."

Fellows are required to attend both days of the conference, states John Jay. Those from outside the New York area "will be awarded an all-expense-paid trip to NYC, including travel and transportation. New York-region journalists will be awarded a $300 stipend to be used toward their proposed news project in lieu of travel expenses." Applications should include a 150-word biography, a 300-word project pitch and a supporting letter from editor. The deadline to apply is Dec. 18. For more information or to apply for one of the fellowships, click here.

Northwest Georgia rural hospital that filed for bankruptcy to close

Hutcheson Medical Center in Fort Oglethorpe, Ga., (Best Places map) will become the state's fifth rural hospital to shutter since 2013 when it closes its doors on Dec. 4, Andy Miller reports for Georgia Health News. The hospital, which filed for bankruptcy, has about 500 employees and 179 beds. "In March 2014, the hospital said it employed about 900 employees and had an economic impact amounting to over $29 million in annual payroll." Georgia's failure to expand Medicaid under federal health reform is being blamed for the hospital's struggles.

The hospital laid off 58 employees in September and another 70 in October, Tyler Jett reports for the Chattanooga Times Free Press." The shut down comes because the hospital does not have enough cash flow to support itself as the patient count has dwindled in recent months. At the most recent count, the hospital's emergency room had between 40 and 50 patients, while the main hospital saw about five people in beds."

Already 50 rural hospitals have closed this decade, and another 283 are in danger of closing, says an October report from iVantage Health Analytics.

Rural towns in Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico work together to save Amtrak's Southwest Chief

"A group of small, sleepy towns in Kansas, Colorado and New Mexico banded together in the past three years" to save Amtrak's Southwest Chief that the railroad company threatened to shut down if aging tracks weren't replaced, Jesse Paul reports for The Denver Post. "Needing roughly $200 million for miles of track repairs on Burlington Northern Santa Fe's line, officials were plotting to reroute the beloved Chicago-to-Los Angeles train into Oklahoma and Texas. With BNSF reluctant to pay for the rail fixes since their freighters lumber along at lower speeds and don't use some of the track, the prospects for saving the Chief—described by one official as 'pushing a rock up a hill'—seemed insurmountable." (Kansas Department of Transportation map)

"But towns that never before interacted, such as Trinidad, Colo.; Dodge City, Kan.; and Lamy, N.M., began pressing their state governments, digging into their pockets and applying for millions of federal grant dollars to prevent the line from leaving for better track," Paul writes. "After several failed fundraising tries, their efforts miraculously worked. A $15 million federal grant was awarded to the initiative in late October, the second such grant in two years, meaning the train will keep rumbling through the foreseeable future. More than $50 million has been gathered to date thanks also to state and local matching efforts, and BNSF has agreed to cover much of the maintenance costs. Millions are still needed to complete the repairs, and work on the line will continue for the next several years. But officials feel confident they will be able to secure the rest of the money."

The Southwest Chief had a record 367,267 passengers in 2014, Paul writes. "Experts say Amtrak's influence in rural communities is mammoth, acting as an advertising tool, a commercial hub and an economic stimulus that reaches over a 70-mile radius at every stop." Simon Cordery, a history professor at Western Illinois University who studies railroads, told Paul, "Many of the smaller communities, this is their only means of public transportation. There's no air service, [and] Greyhound bus service is a skeleton of what it used to be." He said "people who don't use the railroad don't understand the service's importance because it's outside their scope of experience."