Friday, April 22, 2016

Small daily papers in Massachusetts and Vermont are returning to local ownership

The Berkshire Eagle, a daily newspaper in western Massachusetts, is returning to local ownership for the first time in 21 years and will refocus its attention on increasing community engagement, Clarence Fanto reports for the Eagle. One of the new owners, retired District Court Judge Fredric D. Rutberg, said at a public meeting to announce the purchase of the paper, "We're buying the paper to keep it here, manage it and hopefully restore some of its former glory. It is a daunting task, and we're very proud and excited." (Eagle photo by Stephanie Zollshan: New owners speaking Thursday in Pittsfield)

The new ownership group, Birdland Acquisition LLC, will take ownership of New England Newspapers Inc. from Digital First Media May 2, Tony Dorbrowolski reports for The Eagle. In addition to The Eagle, NENI includes two Massaschusetts papers, the Bennington Banner and Brattleboro Reformer and the Manchester Journal in Vermont.

Community leaders were encouraged by the words of the new owners, Dorbrowolski writes. Berkshire United Way president and CEO Kristine Hazzard told him, "We just heard from everybody who spoke that this is going to be local from ownership to focus to engagement and that's thrilling because people have been really hungering for it... There's a lot of bad stuff on the front page, and there is as much if not more good stuff happening. When you're local you're engaged in that community and know what the community wants and needs. You're going to reflect it more I would think."

Jonathan Butler, COO of 1Berkshire, the county's leading economic-development agency, told Dorbrowolski, "We're very excited about the paper getting back into local hands. The Eagle is a significant source for getting the word out there, and the fact that it will be under local ownership is very exciting."

Rural Mainstreet Index in the nation's heartland shows decline for eighth straight month

The Rural Mainstreet Index in April remained below 50 for the eighth straight month, Steve Jordon reports for the Omaha World-Herald. "On a 100-point scale—with numbers above 50 showing growth and below 50 showing decline—the Rural Mainstreet Index was 38.0, down from 40.2 in March, Creighton University economist Ernie Goss said Thursday. The index is based on a recent survey of 178 bankers in Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming."

Prices for farm and energy commodities "have increased recently but remain well below a year ago—16 percent lower for farm products and 8 percent for energy products—which means less overall income in the region," Jordon writes, "Average farmland prices declined for the 29th straight month, registering 26.7 on the survey scale. That’s a slight improvement from a month ago but still shows prices dropping.The bankers reported average cash rents of $211 per acre, down 7 percent from a year ago, although farmland rents vary widely across the states."

"Farm equipment manufacturers and dealers are suffering from 'frail' sales, Goss said, traced again to the lower prices for farm goods," Jordon write.s "Goss said rural employment in the states is in neutral, slightly below a year ago. That’s not as positive as the 1.7 percent gain in employment in the states’ urban areas. The bankers also expect continued economic decline, with a Confidence Index of 34.8 based on their view of local economies six months from now. A year ago, that index stood at 47.0. Home sales in rural areas remained strong, with an index of 58.9, about the same as a year ago."

Agricultural lobbies say feds take too long processing visas for guest farm workers

The American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture say federal agencies are taking too long processing visas in the H-2A program "for guest workers who help plant and harvest fields," Chris Clayton reports for DTN The Progressive Farmer. Farm Bureau "said the situation is approaching a crisis and guaranteed that crops would rot in fields this year due to the bureaucratic problems. Farm Bureau leaders were aware of problems in at least 20 states."

The Department of Labor said that in fiscal 2015, 139,832 H-2A workers filled positions around the country, a 16.5 percent increase over 2014, Clayton reports. "The number of H-2A requests and positions filled has been steadily increasing in recent years, particularly as states and the federal government have more frequently targeted illegal ag labor."

Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall told Clayton, “Many farmer members have called us and state Farm Bureaus asking for help. They face serious hurdles in getting visas for workers in time to tend and harvest this year’s crops. Paperwork delays have created a backlog of 30 days or more in processing H-2A applications at both the Department of Labor and United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.”

Michigan Director of Agriculture Jamie Clover Adams told Clayton, “The H-2A program has seen an 85 percent increase in requests over the last five years with little additional resources allocated. The department needs to prioritize their resources to address this backlog. The Departments of Labor, State and Homeland Security need to better coordinate resources and communication to alleviate these delays and inform growers when their labor is coming. Further, USDA needs to be consulted and help these agencies understand the seasonal nature of American agriculture.” (Read more)

Hunters searching burned-out Pacific forests for high-end mushrooms create a safety risk

Mushroom hunters are on the prowl for in fire-ravaged Northern California and Alaska, "in search of the black morel mushrooms that grow in the springtime after a forest fire," Lisa Morehouse reports for The Salt. While the mushrooms can fetch a pretty penny from upscale restaurants where they have become a fine-dining staple, fire officials fear that morel hunters are entering potentially dangerous terrain, putting their lives at risk.

Mushroom enthusiast Kevin Sadlier has been exploring Lake County, Calif., a couple of hours northeast of San Francisco, Morehouse writes. "Last September's Valley Fire—one of the most destructive in California history—changed the face of these hills, once thick with pine and fir trees. Sadlier told Morehouse, "It's as if fire is taking a gigantic eraser, and wiped life out. Where cleansing fire has made this rather sad, with black sticks in their landscape, morels love this." But Green "knows that finding the right conditions doesn't guarantee success. It's easy to mistake tiny burnt stumps or rocks for morels. Their textured caps are long and cone-shaped, like dark honeycomb."

Jim Wright, of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, fears for the safety of the mushroom hunters, Morehouse writes. "He's co-managing Boggs Mountain State Forest, where he says 80 percent of the forest's trees burned. His top priority is removal. On an active logging site, equipment with mechanized arms and saws fells dead trees, strips off burnt bark and moves as much as 100 truckloads a day out to mills. Even where logging isn't happening, Wright says, the forest is dangerous." He said the tops of trees will start breaking off and limbs will fall with just the slighest breeze, leading to burned-out stumps and roots create holes in the ground. He told Morehouse, "We can't interview each person to find out if they're qualified, see if they have a hardhat, if they're familiar with hazards of forest. It's just not practical." (Read more)

Proposed New England gas pipeline is shelved

Kinder Morgan has pulled the plug on a pipeline that would ship natural gas through parts of Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Connecticut, Jon Chesto reports for The Boston Globe. "Kinder Morgan said on Wednesday that its Northeast Energy Direct project didn’t receive the commitments from big customers that it needed to proceed with the $3.3 billion plan, which would involve building a 188-mile pipeline from a point west of Albany, N.Y., to Dracut, Mass." (Globe map)
"In a statement, Kinder Morgan suggested it did not have enough business to justify moving ahead with the project, saying 'there are currently neither sufficient volumes, nor a reasonable expectation of securing them, to proceed with the project as it is currently configured,'" Chesto writes. "One of the main risks the company cited: It’s far from certain that New England states will succeed in establishing rules that would allow electricity customers to be charged for gas pipelines."

Kinder Morgan's "withdrawal represents a huge victory for its array of opponents, ranging from grass-roots organizations to established environmental groups to powerful politicians," Chesto writes. "They also included residents of the many towns that would be affected by pipeline construction and activists who worried it could make New England overly dependent on natural gas. And the decision could provide a big boost to the other large pipeline construction project proposed for New England, Spectra Energy Partners’ Access Northeast, which has the financial backing of utilities Eversource Energy and National Grid." (Read more)

Arkansas governor saves Medicaid in state with biggest percentage-point drop in uninsured

Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson "Thursday effectively saved Arkansas' first-in-the-nation hybrid Medicaid expansion by voiding part of a budget bill that would have ended the subsidized insurance for more than 250,000 poor people," reports The Associated Press. Hutchinson "vetoed a provision in the Medicaid budget that ordered a Dec. 31 end to the program, which uses federal funds to purchase private insurance for the poor." In 2013, Arkansas was ranked 49th in uninsured at 22.5 percent, but since has had the nation's biggest decline in the number of uninsured, to 9.1 percent in 2015, good for 21st overall. Hospitals "have also said the program has cut the amount they're paying for treating patients without insurance."

Arkansas, where Republicans control both legislative chambers, "was the first state to win approval for its hybrid Medicaid program, created three years ago as an alternative to expanding Medicaid" under federal health reform, AP reports. "A handful of Republicans had earlier tried to block the program by refusing to approve a Medicaid budget bill that funded it. To get around opposition by some conservative Republicans, Hutchinson and legislative leaders devised an unusual parliamentary move that required supporters of the program to back a provision ending it. Democrats, who unanimously support the Medicaid expansion, reluctantly agreed to the maneuver."

"It also had the backing of some Republicans who opposed the program and had advocated its defunding," reports AP. "Hutchinson and legislative leaders warned that ending the expanded coverage would've created a $100 million budget deficit and meant significant cuts for schools, prisons and a host of other state services. The reductions would have been needed to increase funding for the state's traditional Medicaid program and for hospital care for those without insurance." (Read more)

Thursday, April 21, 2016

As dairy cows become fewer, they are being over-milked and genetically altered

A dramatic decline in dairy-cow numbers is leading producers to milk cows for all they are worth, and some experts say that is damaging the animals, Roberto Ferdman reports for The Washington Post: "There are almost 2 million fewer milk cows today than there were in 1980, but production has remained fairly stable." That has taken its toll on cows.

Famed animal welfare activist Temple Grandin said if she could change one thing about the milk business, it would be the way the industry has messed with its cows, Ferdman writes. She told him, "What they've done is basically the equivalent of taking a car, putting it in neutral, and then dropping a brick on the accelerator until it blows up. These cows are constantly in the red zone." (Post graphic)
"The industry has long pushed to get more out of its four-legged employees," Ferdman writes. "For many years, that meant operational tweaks, like changing barn design, altering what cows were fed, and being fussy about things like milking schedules. But more recently, it has meant screwing with the actually anatomy of the animals. Holsteins, the majestic black and white cows that make up the vast majority of milk cows in the U.S., don't look like they used to. In fact, we have altered their genetic makeup by 22 percent since the 1970s, as Modern Farmer noted in 2014. Today's cows are taller, heavier, have higher and larger udders, and tend to stand on different shaped legs. And there's a growing sense we have gone too far."

For example, a Holstein named Gigi "produced more milk in one year than any cow in recorded history, a mind-boggling 75,000 pounds, or nearly three times the industry average," Ferdman writes. To some the cow has become a hero. To others, like Grandin, Gigi "is a sign of everything that's wrong with the milk business." Grandin told Ferdman, "You can push cows to the point where they start to fall apart, and that's what we're doing. Cows are getting so big today, they don’t fit in anything, they don't fit in the 13 foot, six inch trucks the industry has used forever And you know what? If you want fix a problem, you treat the root cause, not the size of the truck."

Former community journalist added to Pulitzer Prize after paper is reminded he wrote editorials

Brian Gleason
A honest mistake has netted a former journalist part of a Pulitzer Prize. When the Charlotte Sun, a 30,000-circulation daily newspaper in Southwest Florida, won the award Monday for eight unsigned editorials about the death of a prison inmate, Editor John Hackworth was named the sole winner, Michael Grynbaum reports for The New York Times. It turns out former editorial-page editor Brian Gleason actually wrote three of the eight, and the newspaper apparently forgot about Gleason's contributions.

"On Wednesday, after a polite if somewhat awkward exchange between the newspaper and prize administrators at Columbia University, Gleason was officially added as a co-winner in the category," Grynbaum writes. "It is apparently only the second time in the 100-year history of the Pulitzers that such a change has been made." Gleason, who left the newspaper in August, was quick to rule out foul play. "Asked if he believed the oversight could have been intentional, he replied, 'Absolutely not. I wasn’t forced out, I didn’t quit in a huff, I didn’t send a nastygram to everybody in the paper." He said Hackworth was “beside himself” over the mistake.

"The prizewinning editorials, which topped entries from two other finalists, The Baltimore Sun and The New York Times, concerned the beating death of an inmate by corrections officers at a state prison in southern Florida," Grynbaum writes. "The coverage led to the dismissals or resignations of several officers involved and to a change in the prison’s administration." (Read more)

Sanders keeps winning rural, most recently in N.Y.

If rural New York voters had their way, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders would have easily taken the Empire State's Democratic presidential primary on Tuesday. Instead, New York's large urban population carried Hillary Clinton to an easy victory. It was another example of the rural-urban divide that has been evident in the race.

Sanders won 49 counties, earning 60.9 percent of the rural vote, to 39.1 percent for Clinton, and he won 59.3 percent of the vote in small cities, to 40.7 percent for Clinton, Bill Bishop and Tim Marema report for the Daily Yonder. Clinton only won 13 counties, but they were all urban and consisted of a much larger population than the counties Sanders won. Overall, Clinton earned 1,054,083 votes to 763,469 for Sanders, winning by a margin of 58 percent to 42 percent. Only 4.6 percent of the state's Democratic voters live in rural areas or small cities. (Yonder graphic)

Britain warns LGBT tourists to be wary in Miss. and N.C., especially in rural areas

Britain is warning its lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents to be wary of visiting Mississippi and North Carolina, especially the states' rural areas, in response to controversial new laws, Peter Holley reports for The Washington Post. The British Foreign Office released an advisory that states: “The U.S. is an extremely diverse society and attitudes towards LGBT people differ hugely across the country. LGBT travelers may be affected by legislation passed recently in the states of North Carolina and Mississippi. Before traveling please read our general travel advice for the LGBT community.”

Advice for LGBT Brits includes "'exercise discretion' in rural areas and avoid 'excessive physical shows of affection' in public," Holley writes. "'Some hotels,' the government also warns, 'especially in rural areas, won’t accept bookings from same sex couples—check before you go.'"

In North Carolina, House Bill 2—the controversial law passed last month—limits LGBT protections and forces transgender people to use bathrooms corresponding only with the gender on their birth certificate," Holley writes. "Mississippi's law, passed earlier this month, allows businesses to refuse services to gay couples based on religious objections."  (Read more)

Study of mountaintop removal's impact on Central Appalachian salamanders wins research prize

Eastern Kentucky stream affected by mountaintop
(Univ. of Kentucky photo by Matt Barton)
A 2014 study that found mountaintop-removal coal mining is endangering salamanders in Central Appalachia has netted lead researcher Steven Price the Senior Research Award for outstanding research by the Association of Southeastern Biologists, Carol Lea Spence reports for the University of Kentucky, where Price is a professor.

The study, published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, was co-authored by BreneƩ Muncy, Simon Bonner, Andrea Drayer and Christopher Barton.

Researchers studied 23 streams in Eastern Kentucky, Spence reports in a separate story. Mountaintop removal "results in a great deal of overburden material—rocks and soil—which is often poured into adjacent valleys, covering all or portions of headwater streams found there. In addition, valley filling can change water chemistry through leaching and surface runoff. Salamanders are the main vertebrates in these low-order streams—shallow streams that occasionally can go dry—where their populations are vital to a balanced ecosystem."

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Large commercial food producers trying to pass off farmers' markets items as locally grown

The growth of farmers' markets has led to widespread allegations of fraud, with mass-produced items being marketed as locally grown, Amy Mathews Amos reports for Civil Eats. "Collectively, farmers’ markets are now big business, growing from 1,744 markets in 1994 to 8,268 in 2014 according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And with that growth has come incentive for fraud; in particular, vendors passing off produce as locally grown, when in fact those tomatoes, heads of lettuce, or peaches grew far from the vendors’ fields."

"It’s unclear how widespread vendor misrepresentation is nationally, but anecdotal information from market managers and farmers around the country, suggest that it’s common—and often goes undetected," Amos writes. "Usually, misrepresentation involves supplementing farmer-grown crops while slipping in others grown elsewhere and hoping no one will notice, such as selling mass-produced cucumbers among local heirloom tomatoes. Mass-produced goods from a wholesaler generally are cheaper than those just-picked by a small, local producer. Yet produce at farmers’ markets can fetch a premium price from customers who value freshness and want to support local agriculture. Supplementation allows vendors to increase their profit margins by passing off cheaper goods they didn’t produce as their own, and pocketing the premium."

Catching offenders is difficult, Amos writes. "State laws vary and many states leave producer requirements up to individual markets. But farmers and markets across the country that want to participate in the federal Farmer’s Market Nutrition Program, do have to meet certain basic requirements for locally produced food. FMNP is designed to provide low-income consumers, such as those receiving federal aid under the Women, Infants, and Children supplemental nutrition program or low-income seniors, access to fresh local produce."

"State agencies administer the program, but federal rules define 'locally grown' to mean produce grown in-state (or in some cases, adjacent states), and require states to conduct annual on-site monitoring of at least 10 percent of participating farmers and markets," Amos writes. "The rules provide little guidance on what that monitoring should entail."

U.S. coal production falling faster than expected, says Energy Information Administration

"Coal production in the U.S. is falling, faster than expected and long before the U.S. Clean Power Plan, which was stayed by the Supreme Court, has come into effect," Chris Mooney reports for The Washington Post. A report from the Energy Information Administration found that coal production in March was down 4 percent from February and 36 percent lower than the previous March. Production is expected to decrease 16 percent in 2016, the largest annual decline since 1958. It is expected to decline by 14 percent in Appalachia and 20 percent in the West. (Post graphic)

The U.S. produced 1 billion tons of coal in 2014, "the large majority of which was consumed to generate electricity right here at home," Mooney reports. "In 2015 that dipped to 895.4 million short tons, a drop of more than 100 million tons in just one year. The drop, incidentally, was considerably more than EIA itself had forecast around this time a year ago, when the agency had expected a decline to 926 million tons."

Timothy Hess, an analyst with the EIA’s Short Term Energy Outlook, told the Post: "The major contributor of lower coal production in the most recent STEO compared with a year ago is the increase in natural gas used in the electric-power sector, mainly because of lower natural-gas prices. In the April 2015 STEO, EIA forecast natural gas price at Henry Hub [the standard measuring point for U.S. gas] to average $3.45/million British thermal units in 2016. In the April 2016 STEO, EIA forecast the natural gas price at Henry Hub to average $2.18/mBtu in 2016. This drop in forecast price makes it more economic to run gas-fired generating units and reduced generation at some coal-fired units. The reduction in coal used for electric generation contributes to lower coal production." (Read more)

High court rules against Md. gas-for-electric subsidy

"The Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled that Maryland overstepped its authority when it implemented a program to subsidize construction of natural-gas-fired power plants," Timothy Cama reports for The Hill. "The court unanimously ruled that by requiring companies building such subsidized plants to set rates for certain electricity sales, Maryland improperly interfered in markets that are the sole responsibility of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission."

Allison Clements, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Sustainable FERC Project, told Cama, “The Supreme Court’s decision is good news for clean energy because it rejected Maryland’s program on extremely narrow grounds. The decision leaves states free to encourage clean energy through a wide variety of means, including by requiring long-term power purchase agreements.”

The ruling is seen as "a setback for Maryland and other states that want to ensure a reliable supply of electricity for customers at reasonable rates," reports The Associated Press. "The case involves a 2012 decision by state regulators to order construction of a $775 million natural gas power plant in Charles County. Officials offered the winning bidder—Silver Spring-based Competitive Power Ventures—a financial incentive by requiring utilities to buy electricity from the plant for 20 years at a fixed price. Lower courts sided with rival power suppliers who said the incentive interfered with pricing in wholesale markets, which are subject to federal regulation."

Rural kids create food pantries to help classmates

The food shelf at Brainerd High School in Brainerd, Minn.
(Brainerd Dispatch photo by Steve Kohls)
Students at some rural schools are getting into the fight against hunger by establishing food pantries at their schools. The Department of Agriculture reported that 25.2 percent of rural children in 2014 were poor, while 50 percent of all students were eligible for free or reduced lunches in the 2012-13 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

At Live Oak Middle School in Watson, La., seventh-grade student Jerry Pierson established a food pantry to help his classmates, reports The Livingston Parish News. Pierson, who created a flier and a Facebook page to organize a food drive, collected 3,000 items in only four days. Pierson told the News, “I decided to create the food pantry because my dad and I sometimes struggle to afford food. Our experiences made me think about all the other kids at our school who are just like me."

Lats fall, students at Brainerd High School in central Minnesota created a food shelf that "provides free food, hygiene products and clothing to students who need them, no questions asked," Spenser Bickett reports for the Brainerd Dispatch. Inspired by the food pantry at Chaska High School, about 40 miles southwest of Minneapolis, Brainerd students started a hunger drive in October that raised 1,740 pounds of food, "which got a variety of student leaders and organizations excited about making an impact in the school and in the community," sparking discussions that led to the formation of the food pantry.

High schools in West Virginia have started food pantries as a way to "discreetly provide food and other supplies to students in need," Laura Haight reports for the Charleston Gazette-Mail. At Cabell Midland High School, "Students are called out of class and taken down to the pantry while the hallways are empty. Students can pick out what they need and put the items in a backpack and then leave the backpack in an administrator’s office until the end of the school day, when they can retrieve it and take it home. The pantry also provides toiletries, clothing and even formal dresses for students."

Interior secretary says stronger conservation needed to protect parks and wildlife refuges

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said Tuesday that major changes need to be made to protect public land threatened by natural, man-made and political threats, Timothy Cama reports for The Hill. Jewell said in a speech, “If we stay on this trajectory, 100 years from now, national parks and wildlife refuges will be like postage stamps of nature on a map, isolated islands of conservation with run-down facilities that crowds of Americans visit like zoos to catch a glimpse of our nation’s remaining wildlife and undeveloped patches of land. That can’t and won’t happen. But as a country, we need to make a major course correction in how we approach conservation to ensure a bright future for our public lands and waters.”

Jewell said that there is an “emergence of an extreme movement to seize public lands, from Oregon to Puerto Rico, putting lands that belong to all Americans at risk of being sold off for a short-term gain to the highest bidder. This movement has propped up dangerous voices that reject the rule of law, put communities and hard-working public servants at risk and fail to appreciate how deeply democratic and American our national parks and public lands are.”

As part of her plan to increase attendance at parks and refuges, she said focus needs to be directed at diverse new audiences, such as minorities and millennials, Cama writes. "She also wants better holistic planning around the wildlife and ecological needs of wild lands. Jewell called for new funding from Congress for public lands and parks, including fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund to $900 million every year." (Read more)

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

FDA launches first campaign at rural teens on dangers of smokeless tobacco

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration today launched a campaign on the dangers of smokeless tobacco among rural teens. FDA is expanding its “The Real Cost” campaign "to educate rural, white male teenagers about the negative health consequences associated with smokeless tobacco use," it says. "For the first time, messages on the dangers of smokeless tobacco use—including nicotine addiction, gum disease, tooth loss, and multiple kinds of cancer—are being highlighted through the placement of advertisements in 35 U.S. markets specifically selected to reach the campaign’s target audience."
FDA’s Population Assessment of Tobacco and Health study found that 31.84 percent of rural, white males ages 12 to 17—629,000 total youths—either experiment with smokeless tobacco or are at-risk, says FDA. "According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, each day in the U.S. nearly 1,000 males under the age of 18 use smokeless tobacco for the first time—almost as many male teenagers who smoke their first cigarette—making early intervention critical and highlighting a need for targeted youth smokeless tobacco prevention."

The campaign will be conducted through advertisements on television, radio, print, public signs, billboards, the internet and social media, says FDA. The agency is also partnering with Minor League Baseball teams, with stadiums promoting tobacco-free lifestyles "by displaying campaign advertising and providing opportunities for fans to meet and interact with players who support the campaign’s public health messages." (Read more)

Here's a link to the campaign’s bites and B-roll package; the ads are also available on YouTube:

Community editor in southwest Florida wins Pulitzer Prize for 'fierce, indignant editorials'

John Hackworth
UPDATE: The newspaper's former editorial-page editor was named a co-recipent after the paper was reminded that he had written three of the eight editorials.

John Hackworth, editor of the Charlotte Sun, a 30,000-circulation daily newspaper in Southwest Florida won a Pulitzer Prize Monday for editorial writing "for fierce, indignant editorials that demanded truth and change after the deadly assault of an inmate by corrections officers," says the Pulitzer Prize website. Hackworth, who gets $10,000 with the award, submitted eight editorials about the death of inmate Matthew Walker at Charlotte Correctional Institute.

"Hackworth said work by the Miami Herald's Julie Brown inspired his paper to look into their own prison deaths," Kristen Hare reports for the Poynter Institute. For the Sun, "Adam Kreger reported the story  . . . and cartoonist Ron Bates offered art throughout the series. As a result of their work, the warden of the prison was moved and 10 of the guards involved no longer work there, Hackworth said." He told Hare, "So we feel like we had an impact."

In his first editorial, published Jan. 15, 2015, Hackworth wrote: "Today, almost two years later, we don’t know the exact cause of his death or any real details of that fateful confrontation between Walker and the prison guards who were later dismissed or put on suspension because of their role in the incident. ... Attempts by family members and the news media to get a clear picture of what happened have met with a stone wall of silence. Public records are heavily redacted (blacked out) and no one has ever said exactly how Walker died or revealed actions that led to his demise. ... Two years seems a ridiculously long time for an 'open' investigation to continue."

The win was bittersweet for the Sun Coast Media Group paper, whose founding publisher, Derek Dunn-Rankin, died at age 88 on Sunday, Earle Kimel reports for the Sarasota Herald Tribune. Dunn-Rankin, who bought the Sun in 1979, "built a company that grew into one of the last independent media groups in the state of Florida. Awards were far less important to Dunn-Rankin than was serving the community. He was a hard-working visionary who worked his way up through the delivery department and became respected in every aspect of the business, including his early recognition of the power of the internet."

Pennsylvania officials fear a rural HIV outbreak, fueled by a rise in intravenous drug use

Last year's outbreak of HIV in rural Indiana—blamed on a rise in intravenous drug use—has officials in Pennsylvania worried about a similar outbreak in rural areas in the Keystone State. The number of HIV cases in southeastern Indiana, mostly around Austin in Scott County, stands at 190, according to state data. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study released in December said that rural areas lack prevention services for opiate addiction and HIV infections.

"Since 1980, IV drug use accounted for 15,000 HIV cases or roughly 26 percent of Pennsylvania's overall total, the second most prevalent cause in the state," Colin Deppen reports for Penn Live. "In 2014, the most recent year for which data is available, IV drug use accounted for 5 percent of Pennsylvania's 1,210 new HIV cases, the third biggest cause that year." The Center for Rural Pennsylvania found that In rural Pennsylvania counties, home to about 3.5 million people, there were 108 new cases of HIV in 2011, 128 in 2012, 113 in 2013 and 112 in 2014. Rural HIV deaths fell from a peak of 140 in 1994 to 15 in 2013.

Officials say a needle exchange program would help reduce HIV cases, Deppen writes. "But under Pennsylvania law, distributing needles is still technically a crime," said Loren Robinson, deputy secretary for health promotion and disease prevention with the Pennsylvania Department of Health." (Read more) (Penn Live map: HIV diagnoses from 2011-14)

Rural areas lack examiners for victims of sexual assault, says government watchdog report

Rural areas have a severe lack of medical examiners to collect DNA evidence from victims of sexual assault, says a report from the Government Accountability Office, Danielle Paquette reports for The Washington Post. "The study, which looked at six states—Florida, Massachusetts, Colorado, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Oregon—found that the supply of examiners in each was too small to cover the need for sexual assault exams, especially in rural areas."

Study authors said "more attention must be paid to rural communities, where rape investigations are more likely to end before they can begin," Paquette writes. Officials in Wisconsin and Nebraska said nearly half of counties lacked a single examiner for patients requesting a rape kit, while just one Colorado hospital has staff examiners available 24 hours a day. One problem is a high turnover rate. Of the 540 examiners trained in Wisconsin, only 42 were still on the job within two years.

U.S. Department of Justice statistics show that nearly one in five women in the U.S. has been sexually assaulted and only 32 percent of rapes lead to a police report, with only 2 percent of those leading to a conviction, Paquette writes. Katherine Iritani, who led the study, said most states keep no data on their sexual assault examiners and  many examiners receive inconsistent training. "Though the actual number of examiners in the U.S. is unclear, 227 programs in 49 states received government grants to train about 6,000 examiners in 2013, the most recent data show. (The Justice Department set aside more than $100 million to strengthen community responses to sexual assault.)" (GAO map: Sexual assault examiners who received training through federal grants in 2013)

EPA says oil and gas methane emissions are higher than had been estimated; industry disputes

Oil and gas industry methane emissions are higher than previously estimated, the Environmental Protection Agency said in its annual inventory report released Friday. "The agency revised upward total methane emissions in the U.S. for the year 2013 from 636.3 million metric tons to 721.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents, driven in significant part by increased estimates of emissions from oil and gas operations," Chris Mooney reports for The Washington Post. "And the overall methane emissions number is still higher for 2014, the most recent year in the inventory, at 730.8 million metric tons."

"Some of the most substantial upward revisions involved emissions from natural-gas and petroleum systems across the country—an emissions source that has increasingly been targeted by environmentalists, who say that the boom in domestic oil and gas production has driven greater methane emissions," Mooney writes. "According to the agency, the average increase per year due to its revisions was 12.9 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents for natural gas systems (now the largest category of methane emissions), and 20.7 million metric tons for petroleum systems."

The American Petroleum Institute, a major industry group, disputed the numbers, Mooney writes. Kyle Isakower, the group’s vice president of regulatory and economic policy, told Mooney, “They’ve made a significant modification to the inventory estimates, and we believe that it is seriously flawed." (Read more)

Despite political differences Trump, Sanders are both scoring well in white rural areas

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders seem like polar opposites, but both are doing particularly well in rural areas, especially ones where white residents feel they have been ignored by politicians focused on urban centers, Rick Montgomery reports for The Kansas City Star.

“One is a New York City billionaire famous for skyscrapers and exotic resorts bearing his name. The other is a Brooklyn-born New Englander who calls himself a democratic socialist,” Montgomery writes. “Worlds apart politically, Trump and Sanders tend to draw higher percentages of voter support in small towns and rural counties than they do in cities, primary results in some states show.”

One such place where both candidates have done well is in rural Bates County in western Missouri (Wikipedia map), Montgomery writes. The county has a population of 16,500 spread out over “850 square miles of rolling countryside, creeks, cows,” and many of the residents are living in poverty. In the county Trump won 1,306 votes to 1,080 for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, while Sanders beat Hillary Clinton 632 to 518 even though Clinton narrowly won the state. Princeton University sociologist Robert Wunthrow told Montgomery, “That’s very much what’s going on with the appeal of Trump and Sanders” in rural America. "Voters are looking for that anti-establishment person. “

Montgomery reports, “The curious Trump/Sanders hold on rural communities hasn’t proven to be true everywhere this primary season. But it’s revealed itself often enough to make analysts wonder. Both candidates have generally been scoring ‘from four, five, six percentage points higher in small towns and rural areas,’ said Bill Bishop, a contributor to the rural-interest website the Daily Yonder.” He told Montgomery, “It’s not a huge difference, but it appears to be consistent around the country.”

Montgomery writes, "Sanders himself represents a white, rural New England state where gun laws are among the most permissive in the nation. But his rural magic doesn’t seem to carry over to Southern states where many African-Americans, who poll well for Clinton, reside in rural areas. With either candidate’s small-town attraction."

"Trump’s core support comes from the white, male working class, said Karlyn Bowman, who studies polls for the conservative American Enterprise Institute," Montgomery writes. "And those people are plentiful in Bates County. No college exists here. Only 1 percent of the population is black. Although employment rates are good, the share of county residents on welfare is among the highest in Missouri, county officials said." (Read more)

Monday, April 18, 2016

Rising rural death rates blamed on substance use; writer invites readers to offer their own reasons

The recent drop in life expectancy for rural Americans, especially women, is blamed mainly on a host of factors, such as drug abuse, smoking, alcoholism, poor nutrition, bad housing, underemployment, air quality and education. The Washington Post's report on the phenomenon was excerpted on The Rural Blog last week.

Trudy Lieberman
“Some researchers have speculated that such destructive health behaviors may stem from people’s struggles to find jobs in small communities and the 'dashed expectations' hypothesis,” Trudy Lieberman writes for Rural Health News Service. “White people today are more pessimistic about their opportunities to advance in life than their parents and grandparents were. They are also more pessimistic than their black and Hispanic contemporaries.”

Lieberman reports that she recently heard U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy talk about his upcoming report on substance abuse. “About 2.2 million people need help, he said, but only about one million are actually getting it,” she writes. “Murthy wants his report to have consequences as far reaching as the 1964 surgeon general’s report linking tobacco use to lung cancer. In 1964, Murthy noted, 42 percent of Americans smoked; today fewer than 17 percent do. . . . The surgeon general has taken on an enormous task, but his efforts just might help the nation move its life expectancy trends back in the right direction.”

At the end of her column, "Thinking About Health," Lieberman asks readers, "What do you think is causing poor health in your community?" and invites them to tell her at

Anti-Muslim immigration speakers are spreading hate and fear in rural areas

Anti-Muslim immigration speakers are active in rural areas, led by anti-immigration activists such as Ron Branstner, who tells crowds of several hundred enthusiastic supporters that Muslim refugees are coming to the U.S. "to divide and conquer, get rid of our Constitution, get rid of our way of life and implement it with another way of life called," Matt McKinney reports for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "Branstner’s radical message, made up of broad anti-Muslim themes mixed with fears about immigration and the cost of helping refugees, is increasingly finding a receptive audience, especially in places where new immigrants are changing the face of the community." (Star Tribune photo by Jeff Wheeler: Ron Branstner speaking in Avon. Minn.)

Branstner isn't alone in spreading his message in Minnesota, McKinney writes. "From Mankato to Mountain Iron, speakers such as Usama Dakdok, A.J. Kern, Brigitte Gabriel, Cynthia Khan, Jeffrey Baumann and Clare Lopez are showing up in churches, restaurants, VFWs and community centers to address crowds and air concerns about immigrants, the Qur’an and what they see as a threat to the U.S. Constitution. Some portray Muslims as practicing a hateful religion, some say Muslims are practically duty-bound to destroy Christians. Others maintain that Muslims are working to someday take control of the U.S."

"To some, such as a Grand Forks, N.D., City Council member who invited Dakdok to speak there last fall, the talks are viewed as an exercise in free speech," McKinney writes. "But the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and other groups see the message as dangerous hate speech that riles up audiences with depictions of a Christian America under threat." Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of CAIR, told McKinney, “A lot of these fears are coming from that type of general fear of the ‘other,’ and not real knowledge of Islam."

McKinney writes, "Anti-Muslim sentiment has risen dramatically nationwide in the past year, sparking protests and anti-refugee legislation in Idaho, Tennessee, Alabama, Texas and elsewhere, said Stephen Piggott of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a nonprofit focused on civil rights." Natalie Ringsmuth, co-founder of a Facebook page called #UniteCloud, which uses social media and conversation to bring people together regardless of their religious beliefs, told McKinney, “The people we are concerned with are people who have never met a Muslim and are nervous, and they don’t know how to separate fact from fiction at this point." (Read more)

Shrinking rural populations lead to bank closures

The migration from rural to urban areas is decreasing rural populations and forcing the closure of banks that have been linchpins of small communities for more than a century. In Iowa between 2010 and 2015, the number of bank charters dropped from 360 to 311 and the number of branches dropped from 1,621 to 1,577. The state hasn't seen a new bank start since 2006, Matthew Patane reports for The Des Moines Register. One reason is technology, which allows customers, especially younger, more technological savvy ones, to conduct most of their banking business off-site. (Register photo by Zach Boyden-Holmes: The Community Bank in Lucas, Iowa, opened in 1883. It closed in 2014)

"Iowa bankers have often said regulations imposed by the federal government after the financial crisis impose a harsh burden," Patane writes. "While the regulations were targeted at bigger banks, community banks face the same requirements, imposing more costs, they've said." Jeffrey Young, CEO of Iowa Trust & Savings Bank in Centerville, told Patane, "The regulation is just horrendous for small banks. The efforts I put into compliance now used to go out into helping the community."

With fewer customers, rural banks are cutting employees and hours, Patane writes. Despite the conveniences of technology and being able to bank from anywhere, small banks offer a familiarity that larger banks and technology can't compete with. Peggy Williams, branch manager of Peoples Bank in Lacona, Iowa, said she knows all her customers in the town of 350 by name. She told Patane, "Down here, I know them. I know who their mom is and who their brothers and sisters are and their family situation. I know the people down here appreciate us having an office here." (Read more)

Rise of 'Big Maple' is striking fear into small maple-syrup producers in Vermont

The rise of Big Maple has small producers worried that this could be the beginning of the end of the mom-and-pop maple-syrup businesses. "Sweet Tree Holdings—distant subsidiary of a huge Massachusetts-based insurance company—has turned an abandoned furniture factory" on the outskirts of Island Port, Vt. (Best Places map), "into the nation’s largest maple syrup production facility," Colin Nickerson reports for The Boston Globe. The company has invested tens of millions of dollars in the operation, said chief executive Michael Argyelan, "and is still researching possible products and potential markets—even as its boilers steam full-tilt."

Argyelan says small producers should not be worried. He told Nickerson, "We’re not threatening anyone. We should be good for everyone. We’re expanding maple production, turning timberland into sustainable sugarbush (the term for semi-wild, groomed maple woods). We’ve created jobs. We’re looking to devise new products. We’re natural, we’re organic; we’re non-GMO; we’re kosher and halal.’’

Small producers are not buying that logic, Nickerson writes. Adam Parke, a Christmas-tree grower who also makes syrup from 1,800 trees in Barton, Vt., told Nickerson, “This is a big corporation intruding on a traditional way of life. The Vermont maple syrup business has always been about individual producers—you can put a name and face to most operations. Growth is great. What’s not great is watching a beloved local industry hijacked by suits sitting in a boardroom somewhere." (Globe graphic)
"The transformation in Vermont’s maple sugar industry since the start of the new century has been seismic," Nickerson writes. "What once was an essentially rural sideline—strictly a part-time affair carried out by dairy farmers looking to make extra cash in the slow spring season—is now a fast-expanding, well-financed industry in which the heaviest volumes of syrup are harvested by a fairly small number of full-time operations with tens of thousands of taps. And loan lines to the banks."

Sweet Tree "workers have already tapped 200,000 maples on 26,000 acres of forest purchased or leased in the backlands of Essex Country," Nickerson writes. "More than 6,000 miles of vacuum tubing—enough to stretch from frigid Island Pond to sunny San Diego and back—siphon the sap from tree taps to a reverse osmosis plant, where water content is reduced with high-tech equipment. Next it is transported to the gleaming, state-of-the-art sugar factory for boiling in four mammoth, steam-fired evaporators capable of turning out 2,400 gallons of Grade A per hour. By comparison, the average producer in Vermont has 3,451 taps and makes 1,221 gallons per year—and even the state’s mega-producers run to only about 100,000 taps."

Deadline Tuesday to apply for journalism workshop on aging and retirement June 12-15 in D.C.

Tuesday is the deadline to apply for a fellowship to "Aging and Retirement: Understanding Generational Changes," a journalism workshop to be held June 12-15 at the National Press Foundation’s Media Training Center in Washington, D.C. The fellowship will focus on areas such as an aging population of baby boomers moving into retirement without the cash to last a lifetime, Social Security and Medicare systems heading towards a crisis and younger generations who aren’t faring much better.

The all-expenses-paid fellowship covers airfare, ground transportation, hotel costs and most meals. Applicants will need to submit: two samples of their work from the last year; resume or complete Linkedin profile; and a letter of support from an editor or supervisor (freelancers can submit a letter from someone who has edited or published their work). Applicants should also be able to explain why they are interested in this program, how they will use the program to benefit readers and a brief, narrative autobiography. For more information or to apply for the fellowship, click here.

Mobile unit brings services to abused children in parts of Oklahoma that are short on such help

An Oklahoma nonprofit is helping abused children in the state's under-served areas get the help they need, Alex Strohm reports for The Oklahoman. Maria Rosales-Lambert, director of Oklahoma Interviewing Services, said the agency provides "culturally sensitive forensic interviews in English and Spanish, community outreach, and training, supervision and mentoring to other interviewers, and consultation to appropriate agencies throughout the state of Oklahoma. The interviewers and child/family advocates provide direct services to victims of sexual abuse, physical abuse and neglect and to witnesses to homicide, domestic violence, drug use/production and other crimes." (OIS photo: The mobile unit family room is place where child can do activities and have snacks while they wait to be interviewed)

The agency recently received funding for a mobile unit, Strohm writes. Rosales-Lambert told him that "it provides the state of Oklahoma with the unique ability to have a fully operational forensic interviewing team on site in less than 24 hours anywhere in the state. The intent is to assist local investigators by providing a team of specially trained forensic interviewers with the ability to respond to locations reporting alleged crimes against children. This is especially important when the potential for multiple victims exists."